Wizard of the Blue Ridge
Area man left legacy of entertainment and more
This broadside is from a later part of Gus Reich's career as Prof. Gus Rich, Magician of The South.
This broadside (poster) represents a time when Gus Reich moved back to Salem from Mount Airy and is on the road performing a magic lantern show with C.F. Sussdorf, a piano tuner he toured with for a while. From amazing illusions to necromancy, this show claimed to have it all.
After Gus Reich died, his wife donated his trunk of ‘magic apparatus’ to the Wachovia Historical Society in Winston-Salem. This photo shows a few of those artifacts. From left are the floating wand gimmick, magic awl, pestle for watch, mortar and pestle, glasses and devotional that Gus carried throughout the war, fakes for passe-passe bottles, and clay pipes.
School is nearly out, and that means it's time for summer fun for families. Today's children can expect to enjoy vacations, movies, video games, playing in the pool, summer camps, and all types of entertainment, but what about the children of the 1800s?
It turns out one thing they could look forward to was a magic show, by local civil war veteran turned traveling magician, William Augustus (Gus) Reich.
Reich was born on July 16, 1833, to Ann and Jacob Reich. He grew up within a Moravian community and attended the Salem Boys School until he was 14. He would then follow the family tradition and apprentice as a third-generation tinsmith. As a child, Reich lived across the street from the old tavern (Hotel Butner, it was called at the time), and grew up watching medicine men, merchants, and traveling showmen set up their tents and wagons outside the tavern.
He later said that he got into magic when he saw a traveling magician named P. Everette from Philadelphia and became fascinated by his performance and magical feats. Gus saw his show, Everette's Pavilion of Science and Art, in September 1855 in a huge canvas tent that could seat 800 spectators. The show would have included so much more than magic; a brass band, animal performances, ballet, comedians, banjo solos, and all sorts of entertaining acts could be seen.
Six years after seeing his first magic show, Gus gave his own first performance in the Old Salem Concert Hall to benefit the Forsythe Literary Club that he had helped found. Sadly, his new career, though well received, was halted when he joined the Confederate Army in July 1862, where he served as a drummer for the 26th N.C. Regimental Band. This band consisted of men from Salem who became infamous throughout the war. Gus retained his love for magic even during wartime, and carried a trunk of ‘magic apparatuses’ to perform with him on the road, in the camps, and wherever someone could use entertainment.
Reich married a woman named Mary Lavinia Kitchell after the war ended in 1865, and in 1871 they moved to Mount Airy, where Reich set up a tin shop with his brother. His tinsmithing skills would benefit the town for the three years he lived there, but most notable was when the widows of Eng and Chang Bunker asked him to make them a tin coffin when the brothers died. They requested the coffin be built to be airtight to best preserve their bodies for doctors to examine, and when it was pried open two weeks later, the doctors were surprised to see the bodies in nearly perfect condition thanks to Reich's craftmanship. Reich wrote to his father after completing the coffin, "It was the greatest job I ever did. I send you a sheet of iron by Beech's wagon. You must go over soon. I send you a drop of solder that dropped on the coffin as I was soldering them up yesterday."
Mount Airy was special to Reich for another reason, though he went by many show names, it was in Mount Airy where he received one of his most famous, The Wizard of the Blue Ridge. Reich wasn't the type of person who lived anywhere for long or stuck with one career, so he moved back to Salem, and began yet another career, as an inventor.
He first made a "perfected butter churn" that he got a patent for and promptly hit the road, peddling his invention all throughout the South. Gus performed magic along the way, but after a few years he bought a Nissan wagon and a canvas tent and started focusing on performing magic. For the next 30 years, he performed his one-man traveling show, The Great Southern Slight-of-Hand Show, as Professor Gus Rich, and traveled all through the southeast. He traveled as far north as Cincinnati, and as far west as Indianapolis, but of course he still performed throughout the Piedmont region of North Carolina and his show made stops in Mount Airy, Dobson, Rockford, Yadkinville, Elkin, and many other towns.
What amazing acts could be seen during his shows? He proudly proclaimed the show was, "Good, Clean Family Fun… Guaranteed to Amuse the Ear, Deceive the Eye and Astonish the Mind!" In the Wizard's own words, "I generally began with card tricks. One was to distribute cards thru the audience, and then draw them out of an empty bottle placed on the stage in full view of everyone."
He was also well known for his "hen trick" where he would pull an egg and then a chicken from a seemingly empty sack, as well as coin tricks, ventriloquism, and all sorts of slight-of-hand tricks. He always encouraged families to bring their children so that they could see firsthand that not everything that glitters is gold and not everything is always as it seems.
He gave his last performance in 1914 in Piney Grove to raise money for a new schoolhouse. His health began to decline, and three years later he passed away, eight days shy of his 84th birthday. He was given a traditional Moravian burial in God's Acre in Winston-Salem. ‘Professor Gus Rich’ the ‘Wizard of the Blue Ridge’ was a musician, war veteran, inventor, philanthropist, and always an entertainer, and he truly left a special mark on the region's history.
Cassandra Johnson is the programs and education director at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and loves to encourage others to find the history in the little day to day aspects of their lives from what roads we drive to work or to shop.