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NICOL—MONMOUTH’S MAGICAL PHOTOGRAPHER
Monmouth residents are familiar with the exploits of Will Nicol, the Maple City
magician who became internationally known for making an elephant disappear.
Some have heard of his brother, Charles, also a professional conjurer, who
performed under the names Nicoli, Von Arx, the Great Chalbert and Chasan. But
few remember their father, John Nicol, whose love for magic inspired both sons.
photo shows John Nicol in standing on the porch of what he called his “palace
car,” a portable photographic studio in a converted wooden railroad caboose,
which at the time (circa 1886) was located in the northeast corner of the
Monmouth Public Square. Standing at the handwheel is his young son, Will—the
in Derry, Ireland, during the potato famine in 1847, John Nicol was one of 10
siblings who emigrated with their parents to Scotland in 1860 and to the United
States about five years later. His father, Robert, the story goes, had
practiced magic in Scotland and instilled in his son a fascination for
illusions. The emerging science of photography provided John with an outlet for
his interest—particularly the camera’s ability to capture images that are too
quick for the human eye.
may have learned his trade from William Notman, an amateur photographer in
Glasgow, who emigrated to Canada in 1856. Notman opened studio in Montreal and
was commissioned to photograph the construction of the Victoria Bridge. When
the Prince of Wales visited Montreal in 1860, he was presented with a portfolio
of the photographs, which impressed Queen Victoria so much that she proclaimed
Notman “Photographer to the Queen.”
is known of Nicol’s early days in North America, but he claimed to have served
as an assistant to the queen’s photographer in Canada, and proudly styled
himself the “Ex Photographer to the Queen.” In 1869, he married Letitia
Donaldson in Lake Geneva, Wis., and by the following year he had a studio in
Polo, Ill. Previous to locating at Monmouth in 1884, he had a studio at
profile of the young photographer was published in the Monmouth Evening Gazette
in 1886. The reporter visited him in his art parlor in the northwest corner of
the square and found him “as busy as a bee, with orders for pictures amounting
to over five hundred, waiting their turn. We have seen many nice photographs in
our time, but we must confess that those seen at Mr. Nicol’s are as fine as we
ever looked at.”
he made his living producing traditional cabinet cards, Nicol’s passion was for
what was then termed the “instantaneous process” of photography. This had
nothing to do with the Polaroid process; it referred to using a wide lens, a
quick shutter and special chemicals to capture an image in a second, rather
than what had routinely been several seconds or even minutes.
spent hours by the C.B. & Q. tracks shooting images of the fast mail train
running at 60 miles per hour. One such print ended up hanging in the office of
the U.S. Mail superintendent at Chicago. He was most proud, however, of an
instantaneous photo he took at the Monmouth fairgrounds on Sept. 14, 1888, when
two “roadster” stallions headed in opposite directions collided in front of the
grandstand and were both killed, each pierced by a shaft of the sulky to which
the other was hitched. The image was widely reproduced and Nicol sold hundreds
of prints of the photo.
his fame as a photographer, Nicol never gave up his interest in sleight of
hand. As early as 1866, he had been touring Illinois as “Nicoli” and was well
known in Monmouth. In that year, he visited a Monmouth barber shop and offered
to perform a trick of mesmerism, by asking for two cups, one of which he
secretly blackened over a lamp. The barber was instructed to imitate the acts
of the mesmerizer and Nicoli lathered his face, carefully using soap only from
the center of the blackened cup. To “promote a current,” the cups were
exchanged and the barber continued to lather his face until it was black. When
he mimicked Nicoli looking into a mirror, he realized the joke was on him.
creativity knew no bounds. Later in his career, he had a photographic
background painted showing the ocean and a lighthouse. He obtained a giant
shell from Hawaii, which he placed in the foreground. Between the two halves,
each weighing 150 pounds, he would place a baby to be photographed.
1901, Nicol sold his photo gallery, then located at 201 South Main, to Fleming
T. Long. He built a new gallery in an ornate frame building on South C Street,
opposite West Park, following which he built a new home on the corner
immediately south. His son Charles, who had successfully performed on the
Lyceum circuit as Nicoli for several years, joined him in the phtography
the spring of 1903, Nicol’s health began to fail, having suffered for years
from kidney disease. He planned to visit a health resort in Michigan, but died
in August. His legacy would live on through his magician sons—Will, performing
until his death in 1946, and Charles, performing well into his 80s, until his
death in 1958.
the Nicol family’s fame did not end with magic. John’s youngest brother, Hugh,
was a star right-fielder for the Chicago White Stockings, St. Louis Browns,
Cincinnati Red Stockings and Cincinnati Reds. A base-stealing artist, he is
credited with having originated the head-first slide. He played a key role
during the Browns’ pennants years of 1885-1886 and later managed the team. He
ended his career as Purdue University’s first athletic director.
For Maple City Memories, I’m Jeff Rankin.