Courtright’s ‘Einstein of Magicians’ honored with waterfront storyboard

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One of Courtright’s most renowned but most reclusive residents was honored on October 15 by Heritage St. Clair, whose members unveiled a three-panel storyboard depicting the magical and remarkable legacy of Stewart James.

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Known to his peers as ‘The Einstein of Magicians’, James was revered with the unveiling of an informative monument along the St. Clair River Trail in Courtright Waterfront Park.

James – who was born in Courtright in 1908 and lived there until his death in 1996 – was one of the most prolific magic trick producers in history. He was an extraordinary illusionist and the inventor of over 1,000 unique tricks, all created using mathematical and scientific principles.

James’ book on magic, published in 1989 by longtime friend Allan Slaight, is still the greatest book of magic tricks ever printed.

The youngest child of John W. James, a Welsh-born tinsmith and Sunday school superintendent of Stewart’s Presbyterian Church, and Annie L. Stewart, known as an extremely strict and humorless woman who dominated his son’s life until his death in 1972, James had an extremely isolated childhood. His parents kept him out of school for many years and the young boy spent his days on the veranda of the family home in Aberystwyth – a stone’s throw from the new storyboard – dreaming up magic tricks with three imaginary friends, known as ‘The Deepsters’, named Rigonally, Faxton and Khardova.

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Three panels detailing the life of Courtright magician Stewart James stand along the river in Courtright Waterfront Park.  Carl Hnatyshyn / Sarnia this week
Three panels detailing the life of Courtright magician Stewart James stand along the river in Courtright Waterfront Park. Carl Hnatyshyn / Sarnia this week

After his first public magic performance at the age of nine, James continued to invent new tricks, eventually getting one of his tricks – A Match for Gravity – printed in 1926.
At the start of World War II, James enlisted in the army and was placed in the Wireless Intelligence Special Branch. Once the army learned his skills, James transferred to a military theater troupe known as the Haversacks and performed magic for troops stationed in Europe.

Immediately after the war, James returned to Courtright to care for his sick mother, as doctors feared she might not live much longer. Upon her return, she made a sudden and full recovery and demanded that her son become her primary caregiver for the rest of his life. To make ends meet, James worked as a rural mail carrier for 21 years.

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Beginning in 1975, a small group of magicians made an annual trek to Courtright from across North America to meet and perform with the legendary illusionist at a motel.

James’ impact on the world of magic was profound and lasts to this day, said Dave Pattenden of Heritage St. Clair.

“Yeah, he had a remarkable impact,” Pattenden said. “Stewart James was a bit of a recluse, but when it came to magic he used to put on shows in the area, he would go to various churches and do magic shows for kids. So he was a recluse in some ways, but in others he was a very generous man. Certainly he was very creative.

“He ended up going to Europe during World War II and doing magic shows for the troops. He wasn’t shy but he enjoyed his time alone.
James was a visionary, generous soul who didn’t receive much credit for his many accomplishments during his lifetime, Pattenden said.

“A lot of magicians today, a lot of their tricks and illusions are based on the work of Stewart James, so it’s a real tribute to him,” he said. “He was a silent genius – in his lifetime I don’t think he got the recognition he deserved. All we can do is recognize him now and let his name stand.

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Brian L. Hartfield