Alfred Silvester (1831 – 1886) was a magician who first appeared in London in the 1860s with Pepper’s Ghost, a transparent ghostly illusion created by reflecting an image onto a sheet of glass. A special effect, similar to the holograph, it’s still used today in amusement rides such as Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.
Silvester ran into some patent difficulties with Professor Pepper so he reinvented himself as ‘The Fakir of Oolu’ (wearing exotic robes, jewels, and a turban) with a levitation act, The Entranced Lady. This advertising flyer borrows this image of the Fakir’s levitation act:
Silvester also developed the Fairy Fountains, a prismatic water display, and Anatoes, a decapitated head trick. In 1874, he took his act to Australia and New Zealand and his show was reviewed in the Evening Star on 14 May 1875.
In 1876, he ran into problems with his intemperate clown:
On 24 June 1881, The Argus reported Silvester as insolvent:
Mr. Alfred Silvester, generally known in Melbourne as the Fakir of Oolu, filed his schedule in the Insolvent Court yesterday, the debts being set down at £371, and the assets at £96. The principal debts owing by the insolvent are stated in the schedule to be as follows: E. Rigby, hotelkeeper, £150 for cash lent and board and residence; J. C. Rainer, £150 for rent of St. George’s Hall; Charles Silvester, of Latrobe-street, illusionist, £75 for cash lent and wages; W. H. Smith and Co., shipowners, £30 for steamboat fares; Holdworth and Brown, solicitors, Sydney, £80 for law costs.
His two sons, Alfred (1853 – 1907) and Charles (1856 – 1896), performed a skating act as part of the show. After their father’s death, they both performed as The Fakir of Oolu with Charles touring New Zealand during 1894/5. In May 1894, Charles Silvester appeared in court for working his calling as a mesmerist on a Sunday at the Devonport Public Hall. As only four shillings and threepence were collected at the door and the defendant was very poor, he was dismissed with a caution. A SUNDAY SEANCE, Auckland Star, 16 May 1894.
On 4 September 1894, Charles Silvester, his wife and six children were reported to be in dire straits after his Masterton show was poorly attended due to the inclement weather. The community rallied around the starving family to hold a benefit concert for them. A TALE OF MISFORTUNE, Wairarapa Daily Times, 4 September 1894.
When Leila Adair met with an unfortunate accident during her balloon ascent at Christchurch in November 1894, the Fakir of Oolu was performing at the Palace of Wonders and features briefly in Chapter 26 of The Aerial Queen.
Charles Silvester continued to tour the small towns of the South Island throughout 1895, then returned to Australia. He died (aged 38) of pleurisy and inflammation of the lungs on 8 September 1896 while on tour in Bunbury, Western Australia leaving his wife and family utterly destitute. His brother, no longer using the unlucky Fakir of Oolu name, continued to perform as Professor Alfred Silvester.
My thanks to Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for this poster advertising the original Fakir of Oolu from their fascinating local history blog at The Library Time Machine.
The Ensor Scrapbooks (pages 8 – 52 of Book 9) has photos of the Silvester family, with page 42 showing the Fairy Fountain at the Crystal Palace. There is also an 1873 handbill featuring an elephant advertising the Fakir of Oolu at Lambeth Archives.