In 1932, a sideshow magician known only as Mr. Electrico disappeared into the American heartland.
The only evidence of the performer’s existence was a memory shared by the acclaimed science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who credited a strange, seemingly mystical encounter with Mr. Electrico with changing his life.
Bradbury was 12 years old when his uncle, Lester Moberg, was murdered during a robbery gone wrong in October 1932. As the young Bradbury grappled with his own mortality, he was drawn to a Chicago-area performance by Mr. Electrico, who was traveling the country with a visiting circus.
According to a 1980 essay by Bradbury, the magician sat with a sword in hand on an electric chair. Zapped with somewhere between 50,000 and 10 billion volts of electricity (the number changes depending on the retelling), his hair stood on end, and sparks leapt between his teeth. Then, Bradbury wrote, he stood and “brushed an Excalibur sword over the heads of the children, knighting them with fire. When he came to me, he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose. The lightning jumped into me. Mr. Electrico cried, ‘Live forever!’”
The next day, Bradbury attended his uncle’s funeral. Afterward, he returned to the circus, where he met with Mr. Electrico. The magician revealed that he was a former minister and introduced Bradbury to some of the other sideshow performers. Several would later inspire characters in the author’s work, including the Illustrated Man.
“We’ve met before,” Mr. Electrico told Bradbury. “You were my best friend in France in 1918, and you died in my arms in the Battle of the Ardennes Forest that year. And here you are, born again, in a new body, with a new name. Welcome back!”
A few weeks after his encounter with Mr. Electrico, the young Bradbury wrote his first short stories, a series of compositions about the planet Mars. “From that time to this, I have never stopped,” Bradbury later recalled. “God bless Mr. Electrico, the catalyst, wherever he is.”
The meeting “really started him on his quest to become a writer, which was essentially a quest to become immortal,” says Jason Aukerman, director of the Ray Bradbury Center in Indianapolis.
I had heard of Mr. Electrico before, but it was only in spring 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, that the tale of a boy commanded to “live forever” by a sideshow “prophet” took on a new resonance. As a part-time magician myself, I was particularly intrigued. I Googled the performer, hoping a grainy clip of his show had been uploaded to YouTube. Instead, I learned that in the decades since Bradbury first told this story publicly in 1952, no one, including journalists and scholars of the late author, had been able to find any concrete trace of him.
“You’re sniffing around the holy grail of Ray Bradbury scholarship,” Aukerman told me in November 2022. “So many other stories from Bradbury’s life and past are things that we can verify through letters or through affirmations of family members.” The Mr. Electrico encounter, however, has no corroborating witnesses or documents. And Bradbury, who died in 2012 at age 91, wasn’t always the most reliable narrator.
The writer claimed, for instance, to be able to remember his own birth. He wasn’t above small embellishments. When sharing anecdotes, “Bradbury’s strong sense of suggestion often [readjusted] the timelines to emphasize the wonder of it,” writes Jonathan R. Eller, co-founder of the Ray Bradbury Center, in Becoming Ray Bradbury.
Sam Weller, who researched Mr. Electrico extensively while writing the author’s 2006 authorized biography, The Bradbury Chronicles, found a hall of mirrors worth of inconsistencies and dead ends. (A former tenured professor at Columbia College, Weller was dismissed in summer 2022 for violating the school’s sexual harassment policies.)
Bradbury always said he saw Mr. Electrico perform on Labor Day weekend in 1932, after his uncle’s death. But Moberg was shot more than a month later, on October 17. He died from his wounds on October 24. When Weller confronted Bradbury with this discrepancy, the author couldn’t explain it. The Labor Day connection had passed into family lore, with other relatives similarly misremembering the date of his death.
Moberg died on a Monday, but I could find no reference to a sideshow or circus performance in Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, either the weekend before or after his death. Seven weeks earlier, in the lead-up to Labor Day weekend, the Waukegan News-Sun was full of references to the arrival of both the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and the Downie Brothers Circus. A magician named Ralph Redden performed with the Downie Brothers’ sideshow in 1932, but there is no mention of him performing an electric chair act. Bradbury always said Mr. Electrico had not performed with either circus, instead appearing in the Dill Brothers Combined Shows.
Unfortunately, no definitive proof of this enterprise exists. Bradbury insisted the similar-sounding Sam B. Dill’s Circus, which was active during the era, was not the circus he meant. Weller found reference to an American Legion Festival held in Waukegan on Labor Day weekend that included an unnamed carnival. He concluded it was likely at this carnival that Bradbury witnessed the life-changing performance. But details of the festival are scant.
After many late nights spent looking at old newspaper archives, I began to wonder if the whole story had been dreamed up by Bradbury. Then I spoke with my friend Stephen Olbrys Gencarella, a folklorist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He told me about Walford Bodie, a Scottish magician sometimes referred to as the “electric wizard.” In the early 1900s, Bodie performed an electric chair act that sounded eerily similar to what Bradbury had described. He also made controversial claims that he could use electricity to perform “cures” during his shows.
Scholars have no reason to believe Bodie, who died in 1939, performed in Waukegan around the time Bradbury remembered seeing Mr. Electrico. But the magician was tremendously popular. He was friends with Harry Houdini, and Charlie Chaplin once performed a spoof of his act.
Bodie was far from the only electric chair performer active around the turn of the 20th century. Like the sawing-in-half illusion, electric chair acts were primarily performed by scantily clad women. These “electric girls” often used stage names such as Miss Electra or Miss Electricia. In other words, the performer Bradbury had seen apparently used a masculine version of a common female stage name. The spiritual overtones that had so inspired the author were also a common part of the act.
“Electrical wonder workers,” as they were sometimes called, first appeared in the 1840s, says Fred Nadis, author of Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic and Religion in America. In the early days of these acts, performers gave audience members shocks and created small sparks with devices that stored static electricity. They promised both thrills and, in many cases, electricity-based cures.
Over time, these presentations became more elaborate. In the 1890s, Nikola Tesla hosted a series of well-publicized demonstrations on the safety of alternating currents, letting hundreds of thousands of volts pass through his body while remaining unharmed. Around that same time, electricity received a publicity boost of a diferent kind, with convicted murderer William Kemmler becoming the first person to be executed by the electric chair.
Variations on the electric chair soon moved to vaudeville and sideshow stages, where they were utilized as a performance prop by Bodie and others. The act became more common after magic shops began selling instructions for making the necessary device out of the engine of a Model T Ford.
In 1911, a performer known by the stage name Mademoiselle Electra revealed how the effect worked in the pages of Popular Electricity magazine. “We finish our act by demonstrating the electric chair, showing the high voltage jumping to the helmet, while pieces of cloth are ignited from all parts of the body, the audiences seeing the sparks jumping fully four inches,” she said. Though the experience could be painful, the performer avoided actual electrocution, as the chair utilized high voltage (a measure of electric pressure) but low amperage (the rate at which a current flows through a circuit).
Tim Cockerill, a zoologist at Falmouth University in England, is also a magician who has performed both traditional sideshow electric chair acts and more technologically advanced high-voltage illusions.
“The old saying is that it’s the volts that give the jolts, but it’s the amps that kill you,” he explains. “Essentially, we insulate ourselves from the ground, and that allows these hundreds of thousands of volts to pass through our body. It’s so much that the electricity is just trying to escape our bodies, and that’s where we have sparks coming from the fingers sometimes.” If performers touch anything that’s grounded, however, “that would be instant death.”
The physics of why the act works remain poorly understood. “There’s a thing that some physicists talk about called the skin effect, which is where because of the frequency of the electricity, it passes over the surface of your body rather than going through the middle of your body,” Cockerill says. “But then other physicists have done calculations to say, ‘Well, no, that shouldn’t even work in theory.’”
Austin Richards, who performs a spectacular modern electricity act under the stage name Doctor MegaVolt, believes humans are fascinated by electricity on a primordial level.
“Electricity is an elemental force,” he says. “I think of it as the fifth element: air, earth, fire, water, and electricity or lightning. People have worshipped it for thousands of years.” Richards adds that humans and animals have an instinctual fear of electricity because lightning is so dangerous—a fear that, paradoxically, draws audiences to electric chair acts. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 28 people in the United States die from lightning strikes each year.)
In the early 1900s, these acts seemed even more impressive. “We’re so used to electricity in our lives that I think we forget just how much of a strange and mysterious force this was,” Cockerill says. “It was really genuinely magical.”
William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley, finds protagonist Stanton Carlisle convincing his girlfriend, who performs as Mamzelle Electra, to help launch a hoax act in which they claim to commune with the dead. Thinking about this and electric chair acts’ historic association with extraordinary claims, I reflected back on Mr. Electrico’s conversation with Bradbury. “We’ve met before,” the magician had said. “You were my best friend in France in 1918, and you died in my arms.”
I wondered if Mr. Electrico had indeed felt a genuine connection or whether this sentiment was just part of the act. Either way, his words sounded exactly like something an electric wonder worker might say, as did his command during the show for the young Bradbury to “live forever.”
Bradbury scholars Eller and Aukerman both unequivocally believe that Mr. Electrico was real.
“Knowing what I know of Bradbury, it seems very unlikely that he would make up this myth,” Aukerman says.
I agree, even if I’m unsure of when or where Bradbury’s encounter with him happened. I found many references to electric girls scattered across digital archives. One Miss Electricia who was sick of the carnival lifestyle made headlines in 1948 after fatally shooting her boyfriend, allegedly by accident. Another was billed as the “girl who tames electricity and flirts with death.”
I also found an occasional man performing the act after Bodie. But if any were billed as Mr. Electrico or performed in Waukegan in the early 1930s, they left few records of it behind.
“Mr. Electrico might have been five different people or ten different people,” Cockerill says. “These performers were [working] in an era where not everything was documented. They might have been doing it for a couple of years in this grimy, grungy world of the sideshow, and … there may be no records that exist.”
While researching this story, I reread Bradbury’s 1962 novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Among the works most directly impacted by Bradbury’s meeting with Mr. Electrico, it features a character who goes by that name, recast as a villain in an ominous traveling carnival.
The novel is set in Green Town, Illinois, Bradbury’s frequent fictional stand-in for Waukegan. Near its start, two boys find a pamphlet advertising the arrival of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, featuring Mr. Electrico. They’re surprised that a carnival is scheduled for October. “All carnivals stop after Labor Day,” one boy says.
Yet the carnival does in fact arrive after Labor Day—on October 24, the very same day Bradbury’s uncle Moberg died.
Bradbury never mentioned that date in connection with his uncle’s death, instead insisting Moberg died a month earlier. Other family members also believed this. I wondered if the date had slipped subconsciously into Bradbury’s psyche or, far less likely, if it had been an intentional reference, a final bit of sleight of hand by the master storyteller.
I’d like to believe the latter, however unlikely.