Lulu Hurst performs her “electric” wonders against a team of strong men. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 26, 1884. (Digital Public Library of America)
For almost a whole week in December 1884, one of the most famous traveling entertainers of her time — fifteen-year-old Lulu Hurst, the “Georgia Wonder” — wowed Indianapolis crowds with feats of “magnetism” that had already left audiences all over America howling in hysterics and gasping in amazement.
Hurst, who was born in 1869 and grew up in rural Polk County, Georgia, was once a national sensation. While scientists eventually — but only slowly — explained away her “strong-man” powers, when she began her 1884 tour of the East and Midwest, the tiny teenager was mystifying some of the brightest minds around.
On December 11, Lulu and her stage manager, Sanford H. Cohen, took the train down from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for six days of performances at George A. Dickson’s Grand Opera House, 115 North Pennsylvania Street, in Indianapolis. After a celebrated appearance in the parlors of the Bates House on December 13, Lulu capped off her stay on the 17th with a final performance at Dickson’s theater. Dickson’s older brother, James B. Dickson, ran the Park Theater (originally called Metropolitan Hall), the normal venue for vaudeville and “dime show” acts. That the “Georgia Wonder” got booked for the Grand Opera House attests to her knack for drawing in big crowds.
In her 1897 autobiography, a minor bestseller, Lulu explained the alleged origin of her “mysterious powah.” On “a night of storm, terror and mystery” in the Deep South in the autumn of 1883, she wrote, the girl and her cousin lit on an inexplicable vein of electricity popping around in bed with them:
We jumped up in bed, and she gasped out to me, “What was that?” I told her I did not know. We got up and made a thorough search for big, horny bugs, snakes, etc., but found nothing. We then lay down again. But no sooner were we quiet than the same peculiar, harrowing, muffled, popping noise began again. We now located the sounds more directly under our pillows. We became much alarmed, and the older members of the household were aroused. They came in and helped to search for the cause of these mysterious sounds. The bedding was removed, including the mattress. Everything was turned inside out, but all to no purpose. The mystery grew greater and greater. Every one in the house now became alarmed. A conference was held and it was decided, on the suggestion of my mother, that the sounds were caused by electricity. . .
The night following was a beautiful, Southern, autumnal night. [The noises continued.] Some one suggested that it might be an intelligent force. So, some of the crowd began to ask “it” questions. [One man] asked “it” to tell him the time by his watch. The bed began to “pop,” and popped ten times. He then asked it to rap his age, and, as he counted, it rapped twenty-five times, which, he said, was correct. Hundreds of questions were asked and answered in this way. The old bed seemed to be educated.
Lulu Hurst, so the “official” story for the theaters ran, managed to tap this strange, rapping electricity or magnetism. Before long, backed by Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady — the man who popularized the term “The New South” — and Sanford H. Cohen, a Jewish stage manager and “promoter” from Augusta, Georgia, Lulu was on the road.
Among her acts were a variety of feats whereby she completely overpowered large, strong men — and occasionally women. Incidentally, the world-famous English singer Lily Langtry rather sheepishly challenged Lulu in New York in July and ended up falling through a balustrade, tearing her dress when the Georgia Wonder’s “magnetism” hurled her backwards. You might remember Langtry from John Huston’s darkly comic Western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). Played by Ava Gardner, Lily was the singer worshiped by the colorful Texas frontier judge and upholder of law and order “west of the Pecos,” a role performed by the inimitable Paul Newman.
Lulu Hurst’s ability to lift hefty men out of their chairs, force canes from their hands with only her open palms, and even throw random volunteers from the audience down to the floor was especially impressive, since journalists described her as “pale and thin” and weighing only about 100 pounds.
At the Grand Opera House in Indianapolis, Lulu proved stronger than four men, including Police Superintendent John A. Lang and the eminent Indiana State Geologist, John Collett. A bearded Santa Claus-like giant and a familiar, beloved figure around the capitol city, Collett was one of the foremost scientists in the Hoosier State, yet Lulu’s powers baffled even him. For the record, though, Indiana’s resident geological expert wasn’t the only man of science magnetized by the Georgia girl. The Smithsonian’s own Simon Newcomb traveled down South to observe Lulu’s mysterious prowess first-hand. Geologist and Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell saw her at a show in New York, possibly the same performance allegedly witnessed by a young Winston Churchill.
The Indianapolis Journal ran the story on December 14:
At a packed theater in New York that summer, Lulu even overpowered the imposing Sorakichi Matsuda, a famous 19th-century Japanese sumo wrestler, driving the audience into wild hysterics.
Lulu Hurst’s “magnetism” captivated many Americans during Spiritualism’s heyday, when the transfixed public imagined that she had gotten hold of occult powers. It turns out her strength was an early foreshadowing of a martial arts practice that came to be called bartitsu.
Bartitsu was a new variation on the ancient Japanese art of jujutsu, revived in Britain in 1898 by the self-defense pioneer and physical therapist E.W. Barton-Wright. Though Barton-Wright tore the veil of mystery from the many “Magnetic Girls” (Lulu had imitators), he actually championed similar techniques himself, relying on subtle manipulation of physics and a good knowledge of human anatomy. The English martial artist also added elements of British boxing to the mix. Baritsu (a mis-spelling of bartitsu) had, in fact, already been somewhat popularized by the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When Sherlock Holmes survived his near-mortal combat with the villain Dr. Moriarty in 1893 at the edge of Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, it was by means of the clever muscular maneuvers involved in “baritsu” — and in a perhaps less sophisticated way, in Lulu Hurst’s stage acts! In a further twist, Conan Doyle was a famous investigator into Spiritualism and psychic realms.
By the end of 1885, facing competition on the stage and with her techniques increasingly “found out” by sharp observers, Hurst cancelled a tour of Europe and went back to small-town Georgia. She remained silent for twelve years, until her 1897 autobiography came out. She had also earned $100,000 — a fortune for the 1880’s. Yet before long, the craze for “Magnetic Girls” disappeared — largely due to Hurst’s own repudiation of her “magnetism.” In her memoir, she wrote freely of her teenage pranks and the gullibility of crowds. Lulu called her book “a commentary on Human Nature… a bulwark to human reason.”
Although Lulu Hurst’s fame withered, she lived a long, quiet, happy life in the South. In 1887, she married one of her former onstage managers, Paul Atkinson, and moved to his hometown of Madison, Georgia, where she “earned a community reputation for kindness and charity” (Augusta Chronicle). Aged 81, Lulu Hurst Atkinson died on May 13, 1950.