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Curtain down on the magic of Charles Morritt

Last week's Nostalgia told of famous and sometimes notorious local characters, men like 'Bull' Pratt, 'Billy the Fish' Ingham, Johnny Abrahams and Tommy 'Cheesebits'. Today DAVID GLOVER tells the story of 'the Professor', the illusionist Charles Morritt

Eighty years ago, in January, 1928, Charles Morritt appeared before the Halifax Quarter Sessions. But his usual audience was of a very different kind, for he was a well-known magician and stage illusionist.

At the quarter sessions, Morritt – called "The Professor" – was charged on ten counts of obtaining 19 6s. 8d (19.33) by false pretences, with attempt to defraud. To each of the charges he pleaded not guilty. How had this strange case arisen?

In October, 1927, Morritt had been engaged to appear at Halifax's Victoria Hall for a week. On Monday the 17th – opening night – Morritt called a local man up on to the stage.

William Ingham was a pedlar who lived at Malt Shovel Yard and went by the nickname "Billy the Fish".

Morritt announced that he would hypnotise Billy for four days, during which time he would be placed in a casket, kept in a room under the stage. At specified times members of the public would be admitted to this room to inspect the entranced man.

Ingham having been put into a trance, Morritt then proceeded to push a needle through the skin of the prone man's cheek, to which he showed no sign of flinching.

During the next few days members of the public visited the theatre to inspect the recumbent Mr Ingham and on the Friday a huge audience of 2,600 crowded into the Victoria Hall.

The casket, with Ingham inside, was brought on stage and the audience was invited to give to a fund for the man and his family. Those present having donated generously, Morritt then brought Ingham out of his hypnotic state. On the following night a collection was again taken for Ingham.

It was soon afterwards that Morritt was arrested for fraud. It was claimed that Morritt had not really put Ingham into a trance, that he had previously met Ingham before he went on stage, that he had arranged for a collection solely for benefit of Ingham and his family, and he claimed that Ingham had five children to support.

There was a dispute as to whether Morritt had the right to part of the collection's proceeds, which he had claimed.

The case against "the Professor" was delayed, as, during the preliminary hearing he fell ill and was admitted to hospital for surgery.

Desperately short of cash, he begged money from friends and fellow magicians towards his costs. By the middle of January he was well enough to attend the Halifax quarter sessions. Many witnesses were called to state what they had heard said in public during that October week. Testimony varied considerably and the majority did not think the matter very serious.

Ingham was called to give evidence if he had been in a trance for several days. He freely admitted he had only been unconscious for the first half minute. Then, suddenly, he felt the needle going through his lip. "I had a funny pain," he reported, "but I did not say anything. I stuck it."

All through the week he had stayed in the room where the casket was stored, where he was able to eat and drink regularly, Morritt smuggling in the supplies and even allowing him to smoke.

Only one other person was in on the secret , an assistant, David Dean, of Bradford. If anyone else approached the room, Ingham quickly assumed a recumbent posture in the casket with his eyes firmly closed. Morritt had instructed him only to open his eyes when he was tapped on the ear.

By the second day of the trial the number of counts of fraud had been reduced and the amount involved was not 19 6s. 8d., but just 6d (2.5p). At that stage the prosecutor announced he did not wish to proceed further and the recorder instructed the jury to give a verdict of "not guilty". The 68-year-old Yorkshire Magician left the dock a free man. It seems incredible that the matter ever reached court.

Afterwards Morritt told friends he had been falsely accused by a former caretaker at the Victoria. He said this man had asked for a portion of the collection and when he refused had gone to the police with a fabricated complaint.

Charles Morritt was born at Saxton, near Tadcaster, in 1860, the son of a middle-aged gentleman farmer. He worked for a while at the Leeds City Varieties theatre, developing remarkable sleight-of-hand skills, and later trained under the famous English illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne.

Morritt also knew the famous American escapologist Harry Houdini well. In fact he worked with Houdini for several years and sold him the secret of several tricks. Morritt's disappearing donkey trick was adapted by Houdini to create his famous vanishing elephant stunt.

Sadly, after the Halifax court case in 1928 Morritt never worked again; his health and spirits had suffered too badly. He moved with his "wife" to Morecambe, where she set up in a booth as a fortune teller. Charles Morritt died in hospital in 1936.

 
 
 

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