"Georgia Wonder" Phenomenon
Beginning in 1883, several young women from Georgia astonished the nation by demonstrating strange powers in their vaudeville acts. For years afterward, they were among the most popular and controversial variety performers in America and Europe. Two of these women, Lula Hurst and Annie Abbott, were particularly successful.
Lulu Hurst, the first Georgia Wonder, was born in 1869 in Polk County. In September 1883 she gained local attention by demonstrating mysterious abilities: chairs, canes, and umbrellas, held by others, seemed gripped by an invisible power when Hurst touched them lightly.
In one of her
Hurst and her parents toured the South and Northeast in 1884,
Hurst refused to discuss her career or her powers until 1897, when she published a best-selling autobiography that gave a selective account of her tours and an explanation of her methods.
Hurst's fame and substantial earnings inspired many imitators, including Mattie Lee Price of Bartow County and Mamie Simpson of Marietta, but the most successful was known as "Annie Abbott, the Little Georgia Magnet."
This performer, born Dixie Annie Jarratt in 1861, married Charles N. Haygood when she was seventeen. The couple apparently witnessed Hurst's performances in Milledgeville in 1884 and February 1885, and Dixie Haygood first performed her version of Hurst's act publicly in early March 1885. She soon adopted the stage name Annie Abbott.
After her husband's death in 1886, Abbott supported herself and her children by gradually expanding her tours to include northern cities. In 1891 a successful run in New York City led to performances in London, England. She was enormously successful there, performing at the Alhambra Theatre before packed houses for six weeks. She then toured Europe and Russia for nearly two years, literally performing, in the old theatrical phrase, "before all the crowned heads of Europe."
Her success was in part due to her creation of new and remarkable effects, including the apparent ability to resist being lifted from the floor by male strength and thereby to defy physics (hence her nickname, the "Georgia Magnet"). Abbott's performances were also more impressive than Hurst's because Abbott was a smaller woman, a petite 100 pounds, and clearly unable to achieve her effects by weight or physical strength.
Like Hurst, Abbott was frequently examined by physicians and others, who were usually baffled by her feats. Newspapers often revealed her methods (which, like Hurst's, employed the clever and practiced use of leverage and center of gravity, along with the power of suggestion), but Abbott continued performing. Her popularity was undiminished, perhaps because the controversy generated by the exposés drew larger audiences.
She was imitated by many; some even used her stage name, both during her lifetime and afterward, thus clouding the history of the real Abbott. She died on November 21, 1915, and is buried in Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville.
Controversy followed these Georgia Wonders for decades, in part because their demonstrations raised questions about both the paranormal and women's abilities and roles, two prominent cultural debates of the late nineteenth century.
Hugh T. Harrington and Susan J. Harrington, "Georgia's Dixie Haygood: The Original Annie Abbott and 'Little Georgia Magnet,'" Georgia Historical Quarterly (fall 2002): 423-48.
Lulu Hurst, Lulu Hurst (The Georgia Wonder) Writes Her Autobiography and for the First Time Explains and Demonstrates the Great Secret of Her Marvelous Power (Rome, Ga.: L. Hurst, 1897).
Gordon D. Sargent, "The Unusual Story of Cedartown's Lulu Hurst," North Georgia Journal (spring 1997): 46-50.
Barry H. Wiley, comp., The Georgia Wonder: Lulu Hurst and the Secret That Shook America (Seattle, Wash.: Hermetic, 2004).
S. K. Brehe, North Georgia College and State University
Hugh T. Harrington, Georgia College and State University
Susan J. Harrington, Macon State College
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