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Lost & Found: Jessica Handler on The Georgia Wonder
At thirteen, what I craved more than a boyfriend or a trim body was an aura of mystery. At a slumber party, I once captivated an audience by standing in a doorway and pressing my hands hard against the frame. When I stepped forward, my arms floated upward of their own accord. My friends had never tried this themselves, never even heard of it, and suddenly I purveyed a wonderful, weird power. Of course, what I really wanted was the power to make my father sane, my dead sister alive, my living sister healthy, and my mother happy. Floating hands were a poor defense against circumstances I couldn’t control.
More than a century before I awed my friends with simple muscle reactions, Lulu Hurst, a thirteen-year-old girl in rural Cedartown, Georgia, played a similar prank that made her cousin believe Hurst harnessed the then-mysterious power of electricity. Hurst stuck a hairpin into a mattress beside her sleeping cousin’s head, timed exactly to the spooky noises of a freak lightning storm. While Hurst was probably merely bored and craving escape from the powerlessness that comes with poverty, a small town, and being a girl in 1883, her startled cousin’s belief that Hurst’s hands conveyed electricity–and Hurst’s failure to correct that notion–changed her life.
I learned about Hurst because my mother and I share a minor obsession with vaudeville and “freak show” women who defied limitations through physics, alchemy, luck, and lies. We admire their bravado. Long after my own teen years were past, my mother e-mailed me a digital clipping from Cassier’s Magazine,an obscure engineering periodical from the turn of the nineteenth century. The article, “The Feats of the Magnetic Girl Explained,” introduced me to the stage career of Lulu Hurst, “The Magnetic Girl” and, sometimes, “The Georgia Wonder.” On stage, Hurst turned umbrellas inside out with a touch of her hand. She appeared to lift grown men straddling parlor chairs by bracing her feet, hidden by her long skirt, and tilting the chairs to a forty-five-degree angle. But her true feat lay in convincing the gullible that she harbored exceptional power. This teenage girl grabbed the Victorian man by his fear of the looming twentieth century and threw him to the ground. She was “the master of them all.” In one of the few remaining photos of her, Hurst smiles out like a possum in a dress. She’s every kid I simultaneously admired and feared: the girl who stuck her foot into the aisle when I was called to the blackboard, the girl who tossed cans of cheap beer onto the blacktop from the passenger window of her boyfriend’s speeding Camaro. The Magnetic Girl’s feats—and the profits they generated—saved her family from desolation. Lulu Hurst, would that I were you.
Lulu Hurst and the Magnetic Girl phenomenon were forgotten to all but aficionados of weird science until her 1897 book, Lulu Hurst (the Georgia Wonder) Writes Her Autobiography, and for the First Time Explains and Demonstrates the Great Secret of Her Marvelous Power, reappeared as a book-within-a-book in The Georgia Wonder: Lulu Hurst and the Secret That Shook America by Barry Wiley, published in 2004 by Hermetic Press. The delirious mayhem of Writes Her Autobiography’s cover, reproduced in Wiley’s book, portrays caricatures of nine men crawling away from, being tossed into the air by, or recoiling in fear from a woman in a bustled dress. Lightning bolts erupt from the woman’s fingertips. This cover differs slightly from the original, which promises A Death Blow to Spiritualism and Superstition of Every Kind.
But for me, a reproduction wouldn’t do. I wanted to get as close to Lulu (by now I was sure we could be on a first-name basis) as possible.
One copy of Writes Her Autobiography is in the archives at the library in Madison, Georgia, the town where Hurst and her husband raised their family. Madison is less than an hour from where I live, so I hit the freeway for my laying on of hands. In Madison, the librarian took Hurst’s book, which was in a folder, from a cabinet and gave me white gloves with which to turn the pages. Wearing white gloves while reading the secrets of a Southern lady who manipulated the world with her hands seemed innately perfect.
Hurst’s tenant-farmer father saw deliverance in his daughter. In an era when the average person didn’t differentiate between electricity and magnetic force, which many believed transited the human body as a fluid, William Hurst bet the farm on his daughter’s desire for attention. He put her on the national circuit for almost two years, predicting correctly that her pretense of weird science would attract the paying public in droves to witness the dangerous forces emanating from the hands of his Magnetic Girl.
In her autobiography, Hurst claims that she “set aside the eternal laws of gravitation, reverse[d] the order of nature, and . . . impart[ed] life to dead matter.” Her onstage “tests”–a term suggesting more science than “act”–invited audience volunteers to hold a cane or billiard cue horizontally while she pressed on the tips. Locked in Hurst’s gaze, the mark pushed down while Hurst simply held the object in place and waited for Newton’s third law of motion (the “equal and opposite reaction” one) to kick in.
Her admirers believed that the inexplicable, treacherous power of electricity generated from her hands knocked the hapless volunteers to the ground. Men–almost always her audience–left the stage red-faced, flustered, and thrilled. Anecdotes suggest she stopped a runaway train with her hands, bested a sumo wrestler, and cured a woman of fainting spells. A brand of soap, a line of saddles, and a cow were named in her honor. When Hurst quit the spotlight in 1885, she had inspired at least two copycat acts and earned a reported $250,000, a relative fortune that redeemed her subsistence-farming parents from the dire economy of the Reconstruction South. She retired, attended college, and married Paul Atkinson, her onstage interlocutor.
Writes Her Autobiography begins as a cheerful deceit. Hurst writes that her stage persona was that of “a young girl . . . in a short silk frock,” but she’s stretching the truth; she was thirteen, but as curvy and tall as a young woman. For the first half of the book, she refrains from debunking the nature of her feats, relating instead the spectacle of her gift. Maybe it’s science, she implies. Or maybe it’s mystery. Inthe second part,Hurst uses photographs, diagrams, and helpful arrows to reveal how she lifted those men, flipped those fellows, and tossed actress Lily Langtry down a flight of stairs. Claiming a need to unburden herself, she confesses discomfort with undeserved fame. But science–this time of the mind–remains useful. Believing in her was the audience’s fault. Their credulity, she writes, was a “psychological problem of vast importance.”
Handling Hurst’s book without paying her a visit was ungrateful and un-Southern, so I left the library for the old Madison cemetery. I found no Hurst, and no Atkinson. As I wandered the grounds, a train whistle blew. Startled, remembering the train that teenaged Lulu Hurst was rumored to have stopped, I jumped back from the rails that bisected the cemetery. Out of habit, I waved at the conductor as the train passed. He waved back. I felt, for a moment, hypnotized, but perhaps it was the heat.
When the air was still again, I glanced in the direction from which the train had come. In my sight line was a stone engraved “Lulu Hurst Atkinson, 1869–1950.” A name and date on an unremarkable gravestone, a marker for a wife and mother, not a magnetic girl. But Lulu Hurst’s weird science had outlived her, proving to me that imagining one’s own power can be enough to make it real.
Jessica Handler is the author of the forthcoming Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing Through Grief (St. Martins Press). Her first book, Invisible Sisters (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.