By Barbara Austen
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2007/2008
Albert Walker (1836 – 1902) did not achieve fame or fortune during his lifetime, but the artifacts he left behind may yet earn him a place in history. Walker was a jack-of-all-trades whose sideline was magic. He would have remained in obscurity but for the fact that his descendants put his remarkably intact magician’s kit and diaries up for auction in Pawcatuck, Connecticut in the summer of 2006. The Connecticut Historical Society bought the artifacts and has placed a sampling of them on view.
Walker was born in Glastonbury in 1836 to Nathaniel, a farmer and part-time knitting mill worker, and Polly Walker. His mother committed suicide when he was a young man, an event noted by a perfunctory entry in his diary along with several entries about her three-month stay at Hartford’s Retreat for the Insane.
As an adult, Albert made cigars, worked in a factory in the Curtisville section of Glastonbury that made spoons and forks, helped his father with farm work such as cradling oats and gathering hay, painted and repaired wagons, buggies, and sleighs, and repaired and cleaned clocks. In his free time, he performed magic tricks and ventriloquism. From 1856 to1865, while in his 20s, Walker kept a diary in which he recorded both the key and the quotidian events of his life—from fights with his father, births, marriages, and deaths in town, and comments on local politics, fires, and explosions to notes on the weather and his own daily activities—along with events of national import, such as the death of Abraham Lincoln. The entries are generally succinct—no more than one sentence each—but when read together they provide insights into a true Nutmeg character.
Following are selected diary entries from the newly acquired collection. In them, Walker notes attending performances by famous magicians and ventriloquists in Hartford and New York, building magic props, developing his own act, and trying his act out on the local factory boys. His well-stocked kit eventually included 100 objects, including Punch and Judy puppets, playing cards, a handmade sliding box that makes a doll disappear, an assistant’s costume, promotional posters, and a list of tricks. A poster in the Connecticut Historical Society collection indicates he was already performing publicly by 1855, the year before the diaries begin.
January 2, 1856. Went to Hartford & got performing apparatus.
February 6 & 9, 1856. Went to Laura Keene Theater; went to Bowery Theater [both in New York City]
May 15, 1856. Went up to Hartford with Mother to the retreat for the insane.
August 6, 1856. Went into the street to the Scottish brothers performance, ventriloquists, etc.
August 11, 1856. Sent a letter to Fakir of Siam
August 12, 1856. Mother came home.
August 18, 1856. Mother drowned herself in the Old Well water 17 ½ inches deep.
August 28, 1856. Factory boys come after segars [cigars]performed a few tricks.
October 2, 1856. Went up to Hartford with John Tryon to see about taking lessons on violin
October 17, 1856. Factory boys come up and I performed a little.
January 16, 1857. Went to phrenological lecture at night. [Phrenology was the practice, popular at that time, of determining character, personality traits, and criminality on the basis of the shape of the head (i.e., by reading “bumps” and “fissures”).]
February 3, 1857. Sanford Thompson & Lyons came up here to fix dancing rig
June 10, 1857. Had a hell of a good time with gals whisker pulling [referring to women who boarded at the nearby mill, the Connecticut Arms and Manufacturing Co.]
September 25, 1857. Went to Hartford to the firemen’s muster Saw Carlincourt Thaddeus Lowe, the great magician.
September 28, 1857. At night I worked on Punch & Judy images
December 2, 1857. Made part of performing box.
January 1, 1858. Finished my performing chest.
January 5, 1858. Went to Jason Walkers Alanson made a punch for me carried my performing box in there
January 7, 1858. Painted first coat.
April 5, 1858. I was made a Freeman [a registered voter].
June 1, 1858. At night went to Gaines’ [Hall] & see Nellis & Valentine the ventriloquist.
June 22, 1858. At night went serenading out to Eagleville
July 1, 1858. Oiled trunk and traveling bag
July 19, 1858. I went to Hartford & bought board and trimmings to chest.
August 16, 1858. Atlantic telegraph completed
August 27, 1859. Worked on my performing apparatus
August 29, 1859. Tried to get a team to go performing
February 28, 1860. Mons Potter performed at Gaines’ Hall sleight of hand after the exhibition he came here
October 29, 1862. Wyman the magician performed in Hartford
October 15, 1863. I went out to D. Weldens to a huskin & skunk supper
November 10, 1863. Prof. Miller exhibited ventriloquism and magic lantern.
Note: After 1863, Walker did not mention his magic show in his diary but did record these national events:
April 9, 1865. The Rebel General Lee surrendered his Army to Grant at 1/2 past 9 o’clock.
April 10, 1865. The Shop Hands burnt Jeff Davis’s effigy [Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy.]
April 14, 1865. President Lincoln [word written, then crossed out; illegible]to night in a Theater he was shot
April 15, 1865. Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes past 7 o’clock.
The diaries and 50 selected objects from the collection are on view at the Connecticut Historical Society, 1 Elizabeth Street, Hartford, Connecticut, through December 29, 2007. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (860) 236-5621 or visit chs.org.