Walford Bodie: The curious Scots magician who caused a Glasgow theatre riot

He claimed he could cure the sick and the disabled with his high-voltage brand of magic, but Walford Bodie’s promises were enough to start a riot in Glasgow when 500 students mobbed the Coliseum Theatre to pelt the showman with bombs of piecemeal, flour and rotten eggs.

Aberdeenshire magician Walford Bodie is depicted on this pub sign

Bodie, known as the Electric Wizard of the North, was a Scots magician who took the Victorian entertainment world by storm with his famous electric chair routine.

He packed out theatres the length and breadth of the country amid claims he could administer a form of ‘bloodless surgery’ by sending a shock through the body of his subjects.

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Confidently, he claimed he cured 900 ‘patients’ over his 30-year career.

Some well believed his claims, with Bodie awarded the Freedom of the City of London in 1905 for his working ‘curing’ the sick.

But the bombast and brags of Bodie led to a revolt by the medical profession. Also in 1905, he was taken to court by the Medical Defence Union over the use of the letters M.D following his name. Four years later, 500 medical students rammed the Glasgow theatre in order to attack the magician.

Bodie was reduced to hiding behind the stage left curtain as students attempted to invade the stage, some climbing over the orchestra pit to reach him. There were reports of injuries as police used truncheons to restore order with a number of students taken into custody.

“The attack was professionally organised. Notices were posted at the University calling upon the students to attend this evening’s performance at the Coliseum,” a newspaper report of the day said.

It added: “They marched to the hall, 500 strong, having booked a sufficient number of seats in the afternoon. There was ample indication that a storm was brewing.”

The students were in a ‘hilarious mood’ and broke into a chorus when Bodie’s turn was announced.

Then, they started chanting “For He is a Merry Devil” to the tune of “For He is A Jolly Good Fellow”.

This was in reference to Bodies use of the letters MD after his name with the magician claiming it stood for “Merry Devil”.

When the curtain was raised at the Coliseum, the missiles were thrown with white and bluish clouds rising across the auditorium.

Bodie was seen standing in the wings but he later appeared on stage with his assistant, La Belle Electra.

Students stormed the stage and produced knives and saws to cut huge gashes in the curtain.

Fighting broke out and injuries were reported after police used their truncheons to try and quash the students. Disturbances broke out in other parts of the city, with Bodie later claiming the riots and the objections from the medical community were merely due to professional jealousy.

This year marks the 150th year of the birth of Bodie, an Aberdonian who later based himself in Macduff, Aberdeenshire.

He also owned several properties in London, including a luxury river boat on The Thames and a “potion and pills” factory and dispensary. Here, items such as Dr Bodie’s Famous Electric Liniment, which claimed to ‘kill pain in man or beast and cure a whole range of illnesses from paralysis to coughs’, could be obtained.

For 30 years, he was considered one of the most spectacular acts on the British entertainment circuit and appeared on stage with a long line of invalids, whom he treated in front of his audience.

“Every week received hundreds of letters from people he had cured, and often cheques for largo amounts were sent in the envelopes,” a newspaper report following his death in 1939 said.

Bodie was involved in several court cases over his lifetime, including a damages claim by a Charles Irving who gave the magician £1,000 to train with him for three years.

Irving said Bodie had misrepresented claims he could teach hypnotism and mesmerism, bloodless surgery and medical electricity and went to the courts to claim back his money.

The court case ended in Bodie demonstrating his electric chair routine in a private room in the court in the presence of a qualified electrician.

He told the court his experiments were scientific but admitted telling a “showman’s lie” when claiming in one of his books that he graduated in medicine.

Bodie lost the case and repaid Irving the £1,000. On summing up, the judge quoted Bodie’s written statement that the magician’s ‘force was like the Centaur’.

“The Centaur was purely an imaginary creature,” the judge said.

To mark the 150th anniversary of Bodie’s birth, Aberdeenshire Council will exhibit a number of relics related to the magician at an exhibition in Peterhead this summer.

Magician Dean Spruce, of Macduff, has long studied the life of Bodie, who suffered a form of nervous breakdown following the controversies which led to one of his London homes being broken into and trashed.

He had already suffered a murder bid in Birmingham.

But Bodie bounced back, with a record breaking show in Tonypandy in Glamorgan in 1912 which led to fighting among those clamouring for a seat in the theatre and the manager praising the “gigantic crowd” which was converted by Bodie’s “marvellous cures”.

Nevertheless, the post-war depression was to dim the shine of the once sold-out performer.

Mr Spruce said: “I was a Bodie fan but the more I found out about him, the less I liked him .

“But he was a huge performer, he was rich, Edward VII was a huge fan and he knew the King. He really couldn’t get much bigger.

“I was curious as to why he was forgotten given how big he was. People like Houdini are remembered, Bodie was not. He was a show off and the medical profession just thought he was a quack.”

Magicians did not like Bodie either with the performer blackballed from the Magician’s Circle in 1913.

Bodie, like most in his game, started his magic young. By 10, he was a sleight of hand performer. At 16, he joined the army after getting his cousin pregnant. By 18, he married Banff woman Jean Henry and then from there he embarked on a travelling horse-drawn show with the help of his new wife’s large family.

Bodie, despite the showman’s lies and fakery, also had a kind side. In 1891, he did a week-long run in Thurso and donated all of his profits to the town following the death of two sailors from the town.

Spruce said his breakthrough act was a very traditional Spitting Image-style show where used puppets and ventriloquy to mimic the War Cabinet during the Boer War.

His Window Stunt of 1901 upped his profile even more. On arriving in a town for a show run, he stuck a coffin in a shop window and placed a person - usually a woman - in the casket. There, she lay for a week in a deep state of hypnosis with the trick a highly effective promotion tool.

Bodie died after collapsing on stage in Blackpool in 1940. He may not be remembered as much as his good friend Henry Houdini, but there is no doubt that the curious exploits of Walter Bodie are hard to forget.

‘Abracadabra – a magical exhibition’ will open at the Arbuthnott Museum in Peterhead and feature a Walford Bodie collection.

- Dean Spruce will perform his show “Bodie the Electric Wizard” at Macduff Arts Centre on 7 June.

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