Showmen or Charlatans? The Stories of ‘Dr’ Walford Bodie and ‘Sir’ Alexander Cannon

by Roger Woods and Brian Lead
Rossendale, Lancashire 2005
ISBN 0 951283 82 0
Published by the authors

Showmen or Charlatans? The Stories of Dr Walford Bodie and Sir Alexander Cannon by Roger Woods and Brian Lead. Authors’ publication. 72 pages soft back, 29 illustrations, printed on coated paper with a specially designed cover featuring caricatures of Bodie and Cannon drawn by Donald Monk. UK price £11.50 inclusive. Overseas price £14 inclusive (international money order or sterling cheque). All remittances and orders to Roger Woods, 12, Curven Edge, Helmshore, Rossendale, Lancashire BB4 4LP.

The line drawn between showman and charlatan can often be a fine one and we need only look back to the days of Katterfelto and Dr Graham in the late 18th century to find examples of the magician turned quack doctor and the doctor turned showman as predecessors of the two 20th-century characters who are the subject of this book.

The first chapter serves as an introduction to these individuals of very different backgrounds and careers who, none the less, shared certain traits and interests that linked their spheres of activity. Thus we have magician-showman Walford Bodie, who aspired to medical fame on the music hall stage bolstered by bogus degrees, and Dr Alexander Cannon, legitimately qualified in medicine and also holding the higher degree of M.D., who adorned himself with additional spurious degrees and titles, cloaked himself in mystery, sought to purvey the occult and was not averse to employing conjuring techniques to aid his diagnoses. Both were flamboyant characters in their distinctive ways and they provide a fascinating field for this study of their lives, which originated as independent research by Roger Woods on Bodie and Brian Lead on Cannon.

Part I is devoted to the career of ‘Dr’ Walford Bodie, from his origins in Aberdeen in 1869 to his death in Blackpool in 1939. Roger’s researches in Scotland have enabled him to take us beyond the lifelines of Bodie that have previously appeared in print and the book benefits from a number of original photographs he took during his sojourn there as well as from the contents of a news cuttings scrapbook he discovered at the University of Aberdeen, assembled by local historian J.M. Bulloch and covering Bodie’s activities during 1905-08.

Part II focuses on Bodie’s ‘degrees and qualifications’, which, to embellish his image, embraced both medical and scientific qualifications from fictitious American institutions. These were subjected to close scrutiny in a court case brought against him in 1909 in proceedings that aroused much hilarity. As is well known, it was the M.D. that enraged medical students leading to the famous ‘Bodie Riot’ at the Glasgow Coliseum in 1909, the details of which are related in Part IV.

The story of James Wright, the Blackburn electrician who kitted himself out with a specially wired suit to enable him to withstand Bodie’s electric chair and claim ten shillings for every 30 seconds he endured, constitutes Part III.

The rest of the book is devoted to Cannon, Part V addressing the question of “Who was ‘Sir’ Alexander Cannon?” and presenting a résumé of his career following graduation from Leeds University. The Far East, work as a psychiatrist at Colney Hatch asylum on his return to Britain, and his prickly encounter with occultist Aleister Crowley when delivering a lecture in 1934 are all covered.

Authorship of occult books, such as The Invisible Influence, led to his dismissal by London County Council but reinstatement followed and, with the outbreak of war in 1939, his relocation to the Isle of Man brought the establishment of the I.O.M. Clinic for Nervous Diseases. There, suspected of being a German spy, in 1940 he was investigated by MI5 whose recently disclosed conclusion that he was only “a quack and compulsive liar” certainly chimed with many views that had been formulated in the intervening years. This section concludes with a series of anecdotes from magicians who visited Cannon’s Laureston Mansion House and performed at its Enchanted Hall. All attest to Cannon’s splendid hospitality.

Part VI then tackles Cannon’s degrees and awards, his outlandish claims to invention of the Lie Detector and Black Light among other extravagances, and his ‘exposure’ by David Norris, editor of the Douglas Weekly Diary, in 1952. It’s an incredible story of a man whose physical presence readily commanded attention yet who possessed a pathological desire to embroider his legitimate qualifications with fanciful accretions purchased from abroad and felt it necessary to add 27 years to his true age to fulfil his assumed role of ‘The Kushog Yogi of Northern Tibet’.

There are six Appendices that furnish excerpts from Cannon’s book The Secret Scroll, newspaper and personal descriptions of the Enchanted Hall, the auction of Cannon’s effects after his death, reports of shows by Bert Russell and Max Andrews’ Magic Magazine, and a letter from Cannon following amputation of his leg.

In 1998 the late Marcello Truzzi, commenting to me on Goodliffe’s observation that Cannon did not have a sense of humour, mused that he must have privately had a massive sense of humour since he had to know what tricks he was pulling and what nonsense he was saying, and Truzzi posed the question: “Do you think he really was a bit psychotic or just having a wonderful time lying?” You can reach your own conclusion after reading this admirable treatment of one of British magic’s amazing characters!

So Brian and Roger have brought together the stories of an Englishman and a Scotsman who, in their very different and eccentric ways, sharing a similar obsession for letters after their names, were part of the British magic scene last century. It’s a book you’ll enjoy reading and probably end up thinking that there aren’t any characters around like them today – unless, of course, you happen to be one yourself.

© Eddie Dawes, May 2005