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Magicians often talk about “outs,” a term for what to do when an effect goes awry. It can happen any time and at any place in one’s act, and the consummate performer always has an “out” in his or her back pocket. However, those who specialize in escapes know that because of the element of danger involved in their performances, an “out” might be one’s final act. When it comes to certain stunts, one can’t be too careful. Below is a sad example of a performance that went tragically wrong.

     Charles Rowan was a South African magician and escape artist who went by the name Karr, The Mysterious. He held I.B.M. number 3308 and was a charter member of Ring 54. 

     As Karr’s career developed he began traveling with a portable stage offering free open-air attractions that included “Solid Thro’ Solid,” “Wizardry with Watches,” “The Demon Soap Bubble,” “The Great Water Act,” card manipulations, and escapes. Karr also did a “Water to Wine” trick during Prohibition in South Africa, in which a supposed police officer would arrive and threaten to arrest a spectator, only to find that the magician had changed the wine back to water in the nick of time.

     It was also reported that Karr developed a paper-tearing act at which he was said to be “extraordinary adept.” But due to war injuries, he had some trouble speaking clearly. This, logically, affected his ability to deliver lines of patter, which may explain why he eventually gravitated more toward performing various stunts. 

     Toward the end of his career Karr found work performing with touring companies and circuses traveling throughout South Africa. Capetown, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Durban were among his many stops. Karr would perform stage shows at night and then do his stunts the next day. He was known for hanging straitjacket escapes, jumping eight feet onto broken glass (barefoot of course), and what he called “Inquisition,” a packing case escape.

     One of his most dangerous but effective means of gaining publicity was to perform a straitjacket escape as a car was rushing towards him at high speeds. As crazy as it sounds, he frequently put on this death defying “stunt” before crowds of people, freeing himself from the constraints of the straitjacket at the last possible second before the car raced over the exact spot where Karr had just moments before been standing. With a performance of this kind, one would think that every life threatening detail would be considered and planned for. But unfortunately for Karr, the last time he attempted this “stunt,” two factors were lethally overlooked. 

     Karr’s plan was to be placed in a straitjacket just two hundred yards down the street from the vehicle. He had told the driver to approach at forty-five miles an hour, calculating that he would have about one minute to free himself and move to safety. The police in Springfontein, South Africa had insisted that the event not take place and thought that it had been canceled. Even a local doctor told Karr it was too dangerous and begged him not to do it. Despite these warnings, and without official consent, a sizeable crowd of people including children gathered in front of Springfontein town hall to see Karr perform. Timing, or the lack thereof, was one of the deciding factors that led to Karr’s demise. The other was the proximity of the spectators. 

     According to witnesses, Karr took too long to get out of the straitjacket. And with the car approaching rapidly, there was little Karr could do to avoid contact. Also, because the crowd had been allowed to stand so close to him, the driver of the speeding car could not swerve away from Karr without killing many of the spectators. As it was, the impact injured the driver, others in the car, and several of those watching. Karr was killed instantly, and though others were hurt, he was the only fatality. 

     Charles Rowan was buried on October 11, 1930. Reuters reported that it was a well-attended and “impressive” funeral. Karr, they said, had been “heavily insured,” though the funeral expenses were paid by the “deeply distressed” driver of the car. It was also reported that a medical examination concluded that the actual cause of death was a heart attack, though it mattered little to those who witnessed this tragic and horrific final performance. 



The Linking Ring,October 1929, Vol. 9, No. 8

The Linking Ring, October 1930, Vol. 10, No. 8

The Linking Ring, November 1930, Vol. 10, No. 9

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