She was born Etta Ion (1878-1964), but had a number of last names, including Etta Paul, from her husband, T. Vincent Paul. What we know about her is primarily due to the excellent research of Edwin Dawes (Scottish magician, magic historian, writer, and biochemist whose wife, Amy, was also a magician). He published a monograph on her in 1982, and in a Magic Circular article from 2006 he wrote additional information on her. Before his work all we really had was a 1929 Glasgow Sunday Post series of four articles she wrote about herself writing as Mrs. T. Monan Paul, which Dawes believed was quite inaccurate. His monograph of just 200 copies is now very rare.
When Vonetta first went out on tour in 1906, she was billed as “Von-Etta, La Mystere Indescriptible.” She was also billed as the “World’s Only Lady Illusionist” and the “Queen of Mystery.” Her husband Vincent traveled with the show as her assistant. She toured until 1914, when World War I began and touring Europe was not really such a good idea. She opened a dance studio instead.
Her most famous trick was a floating coffin which was described as macabre. That may have been a key element of her performances judging from the poster below. From The Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine of March 1907: “Mlle. Vonetta, who proclaims herself as the World’s Only Lady Illusionist, has made quite a hit at the London Hippodrome.The illusion most commented on by the press is one in which she enters a coffin shaped box that rests on two stools; this box then commences to float in midair, and whilst doing this feat, the young lady rushes through the audience, coming from the front of the house. She changes her dresses twelve different times in ten minutes, which is something very woman-like, and cannot help but create comment.” It was later reported that she did 24 costume changes. Beyond this, she was also known for her very elaborate costuming.
One of the things that make tracking her history more difficult is that she used a number of different names. She was Etta Thompson, and Etta Travers (also as E. W. Travers), and performed under the name Countess de Russe in 1910 and used the name Countess Wilet and Company in 1922 with a Revue of Art and Magic.
From the February 1907 Hippodrome: “Mademoiselle Von Etta, the illusionist who combines the mystery of Maskelyne with the quickness of Fregoli, is providing the current sensations at that wonderland of the west – the London Hippodrome. Von Etta’s illusions are both original and bewildering, and the box trick is as mystifying as it is ingenious. The charm of the Von Etta surprises lies not only in their unsolvable character, but the delightful manner in which they are presented, and the personal beauty of the dainty feminine wizard.” It was reportedly a two ton show with a staff of 12.
From Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine for June 1908: “Vonetta has just produced at the Paragon a new act of magic and quick changes. Having eliminated all the Black Art, her show now consists of gorgeous scenic and electrical effects.” A self-taught dancer, she introduced a dance she created called “The Passion Dance.” She did poses (tableaux vivants) as well-known paintings. In 1908 she began presenting her “Palace of Electricity,” which incorporated 150 electric lamps, quite the novelty at the time. She also did a blindfold drive.
Edwin Dawes in his 1982 monograph wrote one of the few descriptions of her act, based on a 1914 description by magic writer Will Dale: “She came on in male evening dress, smoking a cigarette, and performed the Smoke Vase. Then retiring behind a screen for a second, she reappeared as a Spanish dancing girl and went into her quick change act of twenty-four costume changes. Her next item was the Twentieth Century Silks spiced with comedy from one of her assistants. She then did the Rice Bowls; after producing the water, she poured it into a shown empty jar from which she then produced a large display of silks. The Mutilated Parasol came next and then the Rice Bowls were filled with sand from which she worked the Kellar Growth of Flowers, producing real flowers that were distributed to the audience.
“Vonetta now introduced her famous Casket and Locked Golden Trunk illusion. At the side of the stage, reposing on a stand, and in full view of the audience from the rise of the curtain, was a large golden trunk. A lady assistant went down into the stalls and a gentleman was requested to tie his handkerchief around the girl’s wrist for identification purposes. The girl entered an oblong casket; after shutting the door three swords were thrust through the top. They were withdrawn, the door opened, and the girl seen to be unharmed. The door was closed and immediately reopened to reveal the casket empty. A rope was lowered from the flies and the gold trunk lifted across. Within was a second trunk containing yet a smaller trunk from which, before the trunk had touched the stage, an arm bearing a handkerchief was pushed through the lid, which when opened, disgorged the girl. Vonetta concluded with Flags of All Nations that ended with the production of two enormous sprays of flags from which she produced three girls. The act ran thirty-five minutes.”
She did not disappear entirely from magic after the war. She appeared in a 1918 silent movie for the Ace Films Company playing dual roles. She was a film renter in the 1920s. The new Scottish Conjurer’s Association made her a member in 1924. I found a record of her performing in 1931 for their “Night of Magic.” The article in the 1931 Sphinx: “Enter Vonetta, lady illusionist, and assistants. Again a full stage setting. Our only lady member entertained the crowded audience to a sequence of charming effects presented in a charming manner,proving once again the old adage,”Women are deceivers ever.” (Belle- talk about a back-handed compliment!) Vonetta was the recipient of a large bouquet from some of the members of the Association who were seeing her for the first time. Madame Vonetta very kindly came out of her retirement to perform at our concert and there is no doubt her appetite has been whetted for, within a month she has had four other engagements. Here’s to the ladies.” There are no records of her performing after the early 30s though.