In March 1870, my great-great uncle John Tannahill Robertson married Charlotte Fossett nee Smith, a widow, at St James' Parish Church, Westminster and lived with her in a Chelsea mansion in Cheyne Walk, London. John was a painter but not an artist - he was a house painter! But I now find that is only part of the story of this remarkable woman. Colin Parker, a descendant of Charlotte's sister, found me through the website and gave me lots more information, introducing a family of theatre, magic acts, levitation and circuses and, did we know that Charlotte was the "Infant Magnet"? Over the next few weeks we pieced together Charlotte's remarkable story from old newspapers.
Charlotte in Liverpool
Although Charlotte was born in Lambeth, London, she appears on the 1851 census at 127, Duke Street, Liverpool with her parents and siblings. Number 127 still stands, the lowest house of the row, all those below having been demolished for a car park. After 1851, the next time we find her in an advertisement in the Liverpool Mercury, 9 July 1856, the eleven year old Infant Magnet!
She was appearing at 33 Bold Street, "next door to Russell's French and Italian Warehouse" where "by animal magnetism" she would "lift heavy weights" from 11 in the morning until 8 at night. She would "raise from a table, large irons of the respective weights of 17lbs and 21lbs, which could not be moved by a powerful man in a similar manner" - you could see the show for 1 shilling.
We don't know how this 11 year old daughter of a tailoring family came to be a side-show and music hall act. Later newspaper articles describe the weights as tailor's gooses. Maybe the "animal magnetism" was actually electro-magnetism - the adverts are addressed to "the Scientific World" so maybe once they had paid a shilling to enter, they would be treated to an early demonstration of the power of electricity.
Her fame had obviously spread across the Irish Sea because in the same month, the Belfast News-Letter of July 23 devotes a short column to her act, describing her as "one of the wonders of our present age of wonders". The report says that "about 12 months ago her parents and others discovered some extraordinary power she possessed without being conscious of it." The article describes her raising a table as well as a 24lb weight. Actually, the whole article looks as if it's been lifted from a publicity handout - either lazy journalism or a bit of money may have changed hands!
By September of 1856, she had moved her act to 94 Bold Street, "nearly opposite the Queen's Hall" (Liverpool Mercury). Her prices were now variable and the hours longer - a shilling from 11 to 4 then 6d from 6 until 10, children half price. An article in an October copy of the Mercury comments on the show and her astonishing strength but, like the Belfast News-Letter, is completely uncritical.
By November of the same year, The Infant Magnet was appearing in several shows a day with the "Great Mesmerist, Mr Sugden" at the Lecture Hall, Oldham Street, Manchester. In London the following February, when Charlotte had just turned 12, it was announced in the theatrical publication The Era, "Professor Horman, the great American Wizard. has now added to his costly apparatus, a New Entertainment, consisting of the Spirit Rapping Table, the Fairy Crystal Bell and The Infant Magnet". Professor Horman was based at the Royal Casino, Manchester. Strangely, a few weeks later, in April, The Era carried an advertisement for the Zoological Gardens, Liverpool which "will open for the season on Monday, 4 May when Professor Horman and his son the Infant Magnet will appear".The advert could have got the story wrong or Charlotte could be appearing as a boy or possibly her young brother Sid had stepped into her shoes; maybe, the Professor had simply stolen her act!
However, The Era of two years later carries an advertisement from a London address, 2 Tottenham Court Road, (close to West End theatre-land), that a "Miss Charlotte Smith, formerly known as The Infant Magnet, having concluded her Seances in Oxford Street, is now at liberty to treat for engagements. This young lady can by the mere application of one finger of each hand raise two heavy irons weighing 50lbs".
Appearing before Royalty
By July 1857, Charlotte was appearing for royalty at Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea and Reynolds Newspaper reports how the Indian Princes of Oude were fascinated by the show and would be returning the following Thursday for a special fete. A further report in the same edition comments on her "peculiar power over substances both animate and inanimate" and her surprising powers of mesmerism.
The following Sunday, Reynolds reported on the fete at Cremorne Gardens, describing some of the acts as well as other sensations such as a balloon ascent. A burlesque called "The Prince and the Peri" was performed, there was an intelligent "little Dog Lily" who could count and tell the time and, of course, "the extraordinary child, The Infant Magnet". The Princes seem to have been amazed by the Infant Magnet and minutely watched every move she made. At the end of the show, their "principal officer was sent to convey the pleasure of the Princes" and to present her with "a very handsome sterling compliment", which I hope means a nice fat tip!
Later in July 1859 Cremorne Gardens announced the appearances of the Infant Magnet who "raises weights of 20lbs and 25lbs. raises her brother with her hand and mesmerises him". By August, the show is so successful that the Magnet has to move to larger premises within the Gardens so "the Octagon is being fitted up for her in a tastefully appropriate manner".
The Morning Chronicle provides a more balanced view of her act. In the edition of 3 August 1857 it devotes several column inches to her, describing mesmerism, magnetism, people's chairs being lifted from the ground and some being mesmerised so that their spines become rigid enough for others to use them as benches! The journalist hints that he suspects electro-magnetism for part of the act and concludes that there may be "some collusion and deception" but forgives her because of her "unaffected simplicity and frankness as to add immensely to the pleasure of being cheated into the belief that Miss Smith is really an infant magnet".
Charlotte's Star begins to Fade?
Two more years pass and when Charlotte is 14 years old her mother places an advert in The Era announcing her daughter's availability for theatrical work, again using the Tottenham Court Road address.
It's possible that the act's attraction had begun to fade by this time or maybe it was being copied by other people. In a November edition of Trewman's Exeter Flying Post or, Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser, there is a savage criticism of a show seen by one of its reporters. This Infant Magnet "goes under the name Miss Rebecca Salamaus and has a brother Raphael" who she mesmerises into rigidity. The Infant Magnet also tips tailor's gooses but fails to impress so that the night deteriorates into farce and laughter as the audience ridicule the performance.
Charlotte was living in Victorian England where both fascination in scientific advance and a flourishing business in spiritualism vied for people's attention. These contradictory interests sometimes clashed. There was a Mr Nevra whose aim was to debunk the current craze for sťances, table rapping and the powers of levitation and, according to the Hull Packet and East Riding Times of December 1860, did just that. A long article details how a Mrs Marshall and her daughter conducted sťances accompanied by table rapping and table levitation and how Mr Nevra proved them to be fakes. He was able to replicate each of the rapping and levitation occurrences that they ascribed to spirits and demonstrated his methods to the audience. Then, a young lady in the audience "known in spiritualist circles as the infant magnet (but now turned 15), ascended the platform and raised a heavy tailor's goose from its long end by touching it with her little finger. Mr Nevra knew the trick and successfully performed it". Oh dear, was this the end for Charlotte?
Mr Nevra, according to the Preston Guardian, gave a lecture in 1861 at St James Hall, London called "Spirit Rapping Made Easy" at which he once again demonstrated spiritualist tricks and, once again showed how to lift tailor's gooses like "the performer known as the Infant Magnet".
We don't know what happened to Charlotte's show but we do know that the pregnant Charlotte aged 17 married a 55 year old London tailor, Charles Fossett in 1862 and moved to the Cheyne Walk mansion with him, only yards from Cremorne Gardens, the scene of some of her greatest triumphs. Within 5 years he had died leaving Charlotte a widow with children at the age of 21. Interestingly or sadly, a notice appeared in The Era two years later from a lady at the Cheyne Walk address seeking work as an actress. In 1870 she married my great-great uncle John Tannahill Robertson.
However, the Infant Magnet obviously made her mark on Victorian society. Many years later, The Era of November 21, 1891 announced that an Arthur Alexander "will shortly produce a burlesque on the magnetic lady called the Infant Magnet". Charlotte had died in childbirth a few years earlier but was not forgotten.