Unreal Victorian People: William Castellan

A magician so astonishing, witnesses swore he had real powers: William Castellan, 1870

The Levitationist

In April 1870, Cremorne Pleasure Gardens, located in Chelsea on the bank of the Thames, gave rise to a short-lived new celebrity.  Originally billed as The Levitationist, William Castellan was so widely embraced by his first audience, he had new posters printed up with his own true name and likeness the very next day.  For almost three weeks he regaled larger and larger crowds with his act.  First he levitated a series of small objects, then a female assistant, and finally himself.  Random members of the crowd were permitted to challenge him with their own objects, which Castellan levitated without fail.

Cremorne Pleasure Gardens


Delight Turns to Fear

William Castellan’s heyday as an entertainer was remarkably brief.  He soon expanded his act beyond what his audience could accept.  Levitating an assistant through hoops was one thing; even levitating himself gained smiles and applause.  But when William began levitating members of the audience — first volunteers, then people at random — his feats began to draw screams.  Every night at least a few people fled.  At the same time, a small, fervent cult grew, returning to each performance and whispering that William had real psychic powers.  The crowds grew louder and rowdier, especially as lower- and middle-class patrons were forced to rub shoulders with curious, slumming aristocrats.  Finally on a Saturday night when William’s posters promised a new feat “NEVER before WITNESSED on any STAGE,” the Levitationist failed to appear. William Castellan vanished without a trace.  His final disappearing act was not only mysterious, it was for real.

A Modern-Day William?

Many people still remember Uri Geller, a self-proclaimed psychic who created a minor sensation in the 1970s by bending spoons on national television.  Despite a repeated and quite thorough debunking at the hands of celebrated magician-skeptic James Randi, Geller is still a D-list celebrity in some circles.  As for the A-list, today we have Jason Stavros.  His act, which has been featured everywhere from the Tonight Show to the View, bears a striking symmetry to the Levitationist’s feats.  Will Stavros suffer the same mysterious fate as William?  Time will tell.  In the meantime, you can watch some vintage footage (1974) from the BBC about Uri Geller here.

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