As the young American showman walked by Government House in Halifax, he suddenly halted in his tracks. The building was majestic, but that wasn’t what stopped him. There, sweeping the steps on that balmy July day, was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Blanche Stoutley was a month shy of her eighteenth birthday. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, she was working as a maid to help support her mother and five younger siblings.
Normally she didn’t talk to strangers, but there was something about this handsome, well-dressed young man who stood there beaming at her.
He introduced himself and gave her a ticket to his show.
At age twenty-five, Isaac Willis – The Great Boomsky – was already a renowned magician. That night he was playing a block away at the Academy of Music with Richards & Pringles Famous Georgia Minstrels.
By 1905, Isaac had already been touring for nearly half of his life. He had started as a teen apprentice with the legendary magician Herrmann the Great, playing the assistant character “Boomsky.” Now he was a star in his own right.
With ads foretelling “A Gleeful Comingling of Joviality” and “A Coalition of Mirth, Vivacity and Gaity,” America’s premiere Black minstrel company packed theaters everywhere they went. The group’s fifty men lived and traveled on a private Pullman railcar. Their 1905 summer tour would play eighteen Nova Scotia towns in three weeks, including a three-day stand in Halifax.
That evening Blanche jostled her way to her seat at the Academy of Music. The capacity crowd howled at the opening comedy skits then tapped their feet and clapped along to the band’s rousing ragtime tunes.
Next came the olio – the show’s variety section. An acrobatic troupe led off. Then ventriloquist John W. Cooper kept the audience in stitches with his wooden-headed characters who argued and sang trios in a barbershop.
Finally, the Great Boomsky took the stage. He began by pouring water into a clear glass. Instantly the water turned to wine! Six solid metal rings mysteriously melted through each other, impossibly linking and unlinking. Billiard balls magically appeared and multiplied at Boomsky’s fingertips then suddenly vanished!
For his finale, the Great Boomsky tossed five eggs into a small wooden tub filled with water. When he waved his wand, five ducks instantly appeared, swimming around in the tub! The crowd roared.
Blanche was smitten. So was Isaac. But their romance was breathlessly brief. Two days later the magician was back on the road. The company plowed its way across North America, playing a new town every night. But Isaac couldn’t stop thinking about Blanche.
A few months later, when his tour contract ended, Isaac caught the first train back to Halifax. He boarded at 74 Albemarle Street and worked as a waiter while courting his sweetheart. In July 1907, Isaac Willis and Blanche Stoutley were married in Halifax by Rev. Arthur Challenger of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Over his years of touring, Isaac had amassed a large nest egg. He bought a beautiful tract of land in Truro on Foundry Hill, where he built a house for Blanche. The Great Boomsky still toured occasionally, but after their first baby arrived in 1912, Isaac Willis never left home again. The Truro property, with its orchards and farm animals, was a paradise for the couple’s eight children, then later for their grandchildren. Isaac ran a shoeshine business and a restaurant where Blanche did the cooking.
Isaac Willis eventually became a Red Cap for the Canadian National Railway at the Truro train station. Everyone still called him Boomsky, but Isaac never regretted giving up his magic career for his beloved Blanche.
Today Isaac and Blanche have over 300 descendants, many living in Nova Scotia, all because of that summer day in 1905, when a magician spotted a pretty girl sweeping some steps in Halifax.
Margaret B. Steele wears many hats as a magician, musician, magic historian, and author. A Juilliard graduate, she has performed in twelve Broadway shows and has toured on five continents. She was recently featured on the HISTORY channel and was guest lecturer at the New-York Historical Society as part of 'David Copperfield’s Summer of Magic'. Her new book, 'The Great Boomsky' – the story of the teen apprentices of magician Herrmann the Great – will be published later this year.