One of my jobs as a juggling historian and writer is to uncover the facts behind jugglers about whom little is known. My articles on Frank Le Dent (click here) and Ferry Mader (click here) are good examples of revealing a goldmine of information on important jugglers that the history books have simply passed by. Now I’d like to shine the light on one of the most mysterious of all jugglers. Several times in the past months, I’ve had jugglers ask me to write something about Magnus Nicholls. These jugglers have searched online and found a wide variety of facts about this performer. Let’s take a look at what such a search has to say about Mr. Nicholls.
1. Magnus Nicholls was born in 1895. He was of German, Swedish, Welsh, and Gypsy heritage.
2. He was the first juggler that Enrico Rastelli ever saw.
3. Nicholls was the first juggler to juggle five clubs and to juggle with fire.
4. He also worked with plates, cups, and candelabras.
5. He could juggle at least 11 balls. Some say it was multiplex while others said it was not.
6. He was a master of self promotion and even encouraged rumors that his great skill came from a pact he had with Satan.
7. He practiced without any props, miming his entire routine over and over again. Some say this was just an odd practice technique while others say that this was due to the fact that instead of performing amazing feats, he actually hypnotized his audiences into seeing the tricks he was miming and describing.
8. He had an affair with Enrico Rastelli’s wife, fueling an already existing feud between the two performers, caused by Magnus claiming that Rastelli stole some of Nicholls’ routines. Supposedly at one point, Magnus sneaked into Rastelli’s dressing room, took Enrico’s mouth stick, and wiped his rear end with it.
9. He was mostly erased from the juggling history books when a juggling / circus historian felt slighted by Magnus’ son Pierre when Pierre would not pay the check for a dinner the two shared. Other sources say that it was Rastelli who worked to remove Nicholls from the juggling limelight.
10. His appearance was unworldly and alarming. He dressed in black, was thin with protruding bones, and very pale.
11. To better Rastelli’s claims of flashing 8 sticks and 8 plates, Nicholls juggled 8 flaming torches and 12 hoops.
12. He experimented with performing with one ball. While audiences didn’t take to it, this routine was an inspiration for Francis Brunn’s work.
13. He lost a leg in World War I in a German minefield. He took three years to recover. When he finally returned to the stage, he incorporated his newly acquired peg leg by kicking it up while juggling four clubs into a four club and one peg leg cascade.
14. Magnus had an identical twin brother.
15. Magnus was a master of diabolo and even performed stickless diabolo and eventually a kind of stringless diabolo where he was able to roll it over his body.
You can see some of these claims reflected in the wonderful poster created by juggler and artist Jason Horst, which can be seen below.
It has also been pointed out that you can see a picture, provided below, of Magnus on page 91 of the book Juggling & Feats Of Dexterity.
Frequent readers of my articles and fans of juggling history may have noticed a few “facts” about Magnus Nicholls to be troublesome. For instance, if Magnus was indeed born in 1895, he would have had to have been an amazingly talented and physically strong 8 year old to be able to do five wooden clubs before Ben Mowatt Jr. did so at least as early as 1903. Also, it’s known that torch juggling goes back to the decades prior to 70 A.D., as historical references point to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel juggling with them. Also, since Rastelli’s parents juggled and Enrico was born into a circus family, it’s highly doubtful that the first juggler Rastelli ever saw would be a boy only a year or so older than himself. So we have to ask ourselves, what statements made about Magnus Nicholls are fact and what is hyperbole?
The truth is that Magnus Nicholls never existed. He’s a complete work of fiction. Magnus was the creation of various members of the rec.juggling forum that was popular in the 1990s. In March of 1995, Barry Bakalor came up with the idea of creating a fake historical juggler. Andrew Conway actually came up with the name and sent out emails to selected rec.juggling participants asking them to participate. Bruce Tiemann (Boppo), Barry Friedman, Jack Kalvan, Alan Morgan, and others joined in and began to post about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the birth of the amazing Magnus Nicholls. Each added to the mythology of Magnus until an extraordinary life story was developed. In the twenty years that have passed, many who were not in on the joke or who failed to see it for what it is have taken the rec.juggling accounts at face value. As a result, I get asked about him from time to time and have even seen others try to insert him into serious discussions of juggling history. While I enjoy a good prank and hoax quite a bit, I feel that twenty years is long enough to let this one go on without someone pulling back the curtain. I also feel that if the juggling community wants to be taken as seriously as other performing arts, we should do our best to do accurate and thorough research and writing about our history. Some readers may be mad that they were deceived while the creators of Magnus may be mad that I’ve spoiled their work. Nevertheless, the truth is now out there. I just hope another juggling historian doesn’t get mad at me and erase me and my work from the annals of juggling!