Armstrong Family Papers, 1900-1930

South Caroliniana Library, South Caroliniana Library

Manuscript volume, 1901-1926 and undated, and fourteen photographs, [ca. 1900-1930], augment the South Caroliniana Library’s holdings relating to one of America’s foremost early twentieth-century African-American magic acts. J. Hartford Armstrong, his wife, Lille Belle Armstrong, and eventually their daughter, Ellen Armstrong, performed feats that included mind reading, slight of hand, and card tricks. At times they were joined by J. Hartford Armstrong’s brother and by members of the Jordan family. They were lauded by one newspaper reporter “as being the most royal colored entertainers of the century, as magicians,—artists of the highest type.”

The Armstrongs performed along the Atlantic seaboard from Key West to Philadelphia and are reputed to have toured in Cuba and Europe. According to the many newspaper accounts and handwritten endorsements included in the scrapbook, the troupe received widespread and enthusiastic audience acceptance. They performed before African-American audiences in black churches and schools. They also gave performances for white audiences and, depending upon the location, for mixed audiences, in theaters, churches, schools, and opera houses. An advance publicity news clipping advertising their forthcoming appearance at Newport News, Va., asserts—“The Armstrongs will tickle your shoe strings and make your big toe laugh. They will not pay doctor’s bills if you faint from laughter.”

South Carolina appearances documented in the scrapbook include a 1901 performance at Howard School. Principal Tho[ma]s L. Cothin furnished a statement, 11 March 1901, “testifying to the high worth and character of the performance of Messrs. Armstrong & Jordan. These gentlemen gave entire satisfaction to an audience of five hundred people at Howard School, Mar. 8, 1901.” Similar affidavits were supplied by Edward S. Willet, superintendent of Columbia’s St. Mary’s School; G.L. Noyes, vice-president of Claflin University; and others.

A handwritten endorsement, 15 October [19]03, signed by the managers of the Camden opera house and the editor of the Wateree Messenger states that “the Armstrong Brothers appeared in the Opera House to Splendid Business last night, and the Entertainment given by them was one of the best of its kind given in our City” and recommends them “to all fun loving people.”

An undated newspaper clipping publicizing an appearance by the Armstrongs at the Columbia Theatre notes–“These artists have been before the American public for the past 23 years, and have never failed to entertain their audiences with their magic, mirth, and mind reading mysteries. They have appeared in the largest cities of America and come…well recommended….The Armstrongs have invested $3,000 in new and high grade apparatus and paraphernalia.”

The accompanying photographs, among which are images by two South Carolina photographers, W.A. Reckling, Columbia, and H. Bernhardt, Spartanburg, picture the Armstrongs and include also a snapshot of J. Hartford Armstrong and wife labeled “The wizard & the witch.”

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