MONMOUTH, Ill. — Legendary Monmouth magician Will Nicol — “The Great Nicola” — has been compared to Thurston and Blackstone for his grand illusions and to Houdini for his remarkable escapes, but even he couldn’t the real-life escapes of his older brother, Charley, during World War I.
Born in 1871 to John Nicol, a Scottish immigrant who had toured as the magician “Old Nic Nicola” in both Scotland and the United States, Charley began to follow in his father’s footsteps even earlier than Will, who once remarked that no one could top his brother’s talent for doing a masterful show out of a suitcase. It is said he once performed on the steps of the White House for President Benjamin Harrison.
The Nicol brothers began touring the Midwest as a team in 1901 as “Al. and Will Nicoli” (Charley’s middle name was Albert). In 1903, Charley went to Chicago, performing for the season as a solo act. Shortly thereafter, it appears he teamed with Harry Blackstone in an act called “Bouton & Kelso.” After serving as business manager for a 14-month tour of the Orient by Will in 1910, Charley was bitten by the travel bug and decided to strike out on his own.
Not wanting to be confused with his brother, Charley assumed the radically different stage name of Professor Al. Von Arx. Exactly what inspired that name is uncertain, but a Von Arx family did reside in Monmouth at that time.
In 1912, Charley sailed to South Africa with a partner named Duncan, on the way performing in Hawaii, the Fiji Islands, New Zealand and Australia. In a letter published in the New York Clipper, he wrote: “The people here are crazy over American shows, and as there are only a few people that have the nerve to come this far away from Chicago, I will have a cinch…My shooting act is creating a sensation in these parts.”
The shooting act, which would land him in serious trouble, involved Von Arx going to the military post of a town he was visiting and asking for a squad of soldiers with loaded rifles to be sent to the theater. His trick consisted of lining the soldiers up and firing real bullets at him, which he caught in his bare hands. All went fine until war broke out in Europe.
Soon, the name Von Arx caused him to be suspected of being a German sympathizer or spy. Everywhere he performed he was placed under surveillance by the military authorities, and he was often detained, but the escape artist in him always prevailed. According to the Monmouth Atlas, he “has escaped the bullets of a firing squad by the narrowest margin on a half a dozen occasions and has just missed being imprisoned a score or more of times.”
Performing in Bangalore in 1915, Charley came under intense scrutiny and tried using the newspapers to proclaim his American citizenship — offering $1,000 to any person in India who could prove he was not an American. Things became so unbearable that he applied to the American consulate for a passport to return home.
But the consul required absolute proof that Von Arx was American, so he wrote to his brother seeking assistance. When an attempt was made to obtain his birth certificate (from Lake Geneva, Wis.), it was learned that the local county did not begin recording births until two years after he was born. He then tried changing his stage name to Chalbert (a contraction of Charles Albert), but without his colored posters printed in the United States (bearing the Von Arx name), he had difficulty drawing crowds.
His closest call with death occurred when he went from the Phillipines to Hong Kong in hopes of booking passage home. After several weeks of waiting, he managed to get a reservation on a Chinese steamer. Just before it sailed, however, the quarantine officer dragged Von Arx and his party to shore, charging that they might be carrying disease after having performed in India. As fortune would have it, the boat ran into a heavy fog, struck a sharp rock, and sank to the bottom of the sea.
In June 1916, Charley found himself in Shanghai, China, which was under revolution and a dangerous place due to rebel bombings. Still, he used the opportunity to learn new Chinese tricks (he was a close friend of Ching Ling Foo, the greatest Chinese magician), and he obtained elaborate custom Chinese scenery for his brother Will — silk panels embroidered with gold thread.
From China, Charley made his way to Japan, then to Hawaii, and finally back home to Monmouth in August 1916. During his four-year odyssey, he had traversed 100,000 miles.
During World War II, Charley came out of retirement to tour coast-to-coast with a USO unit. Declining an opportunity to go with an overseas unit, his good luck again surfaced. The magician who replaced him was killed in a plane crash on his way to join the unit.
In his later years, Charley assumed the stage name Chasan (a contraction of Chas. A. Nicol), and became a spiritualist debunker — an occupation his father had earlier pursued. He developed a popular “midnight ghost show,” and also took up ventriloquism.
Charley never married, and lived with his brother, sister-in-law and sister in the family home at 322 West First Ave. Following the death of Will in 1946 and his sister, Maude Holt, in 1958, he took up residence in the Colonial Hotel. Although he had a close friendship with Monmouth’s other well-known magician — Jack LaWain and his wife, Leola, who ran the LaWain House of Magic out of their home on South Fifth St. — he was said to be lonely and living on memories from his exciting past.
Charley’s last public appearance occurred Nov. 13, 1958, when he and the LaWains were special guests at a performance of the Monmouth High School senior class play, The Spider— the story of a magician. LaWain had consulted on a séance scene, played in pitch dark, in which illuminated skeletons danced across the stage. Charley was introduced to the audience as a great magician of the past and took his final bow. He died three weeks later at the age of 88.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.