Spies, Magicians, and LSD: The Cold War Magic of John Mulholland

October 18, 2017

Spies are tricksters, deceivers, liars. They have to be to do their job efficiently and discreetly. At the height of the Cold War, many of them refined their techniques thanks to John Mulholland, magician, intellectual, and darling of New York’s café society set, the man who taught spies how to pour powders unseen, deceive convincingly, and create performances the best wonder-workers of his day would envy.

John Mulholland, born 1898, fell in love with magic at the grand old age of five when he saw a performance by Harry Kellar, the man who famously boasted that if he could get the audience’s attention, he could march an elephant across the stage without anyone seeing it. It was a love that was to last all Mulholland’s life, but he was far luckier than most: he got to see the Society of American Magicians as it was being born. The S.A.M. was founded in New York in 1902, when Mulholland was only four, and from childhood he attended meetings at Martinka’s magic shop, sitting in the back and watching America’s finest prestidigitators refine their art.

He began performing professionally at age fifteen, but his career really took off in the early 1920s. His tour list is an enviable itinerary: Japan, Korea, Manchuria, China, the Philippines, North Borneo, Java, Malay, Siam, Burma, India – all by the time he was 27. Before he was well into his thirties he’d go on to tour Europe, and establish himself as a lecturer, writer, and editor of The Sphinx magazine, the most prestigious periodical devoted to the magical art then in print. He wasn’t a household name, not a Harry Kellar or a Maskelyne, but among magicians he was a leading voice, and his uncanny close-up magic skill was without equal.

He wrote again and again about the thing he loved most, everything from chapbooks about magic to entertain soldiers going overseas, to a 1928 pamphlet about magic books held at the New York public library. A dedicated opponent of spiritualists and mystic bunco, he wrote Beware Familiar Spirits in 1938 and spoke out against UFO folklore in the 1950s. Ironic, then, that he’d go on to work with the CIA on its MKULTRA program, the kookiest of the spook shows, home to the worst kind of quacks, drug peddlers and official lunacy.

Mulholland was brought on board by the CIA’s Technical Services Staff, known today as the Office of Technical Service, a department of the CIA’s Science and Technology Division, founded in 1951 to supply the CIA with invisible inks, weapons and disguises. It was run by Doctor Sidney Gottlieb, a chemist initially hired to manage the team responsible for devising secret writing techniques. This was the age of the gadget, when KGB assassins went armed with cigarette packets that doubled as cyanide-tipped dart guns. The CIA worried it was falling behind its Soviet foes, so it wanted chemists and gadget makers of its own. It wasn’t just about toys, though – it was about psychics and Manchurian Candidates, and Doctor Gottlieb’s imagineers were tasked with creating a response to this new form of warfare.

The CIA thought the Soviets were developing mind control techniques far beyond anything anyone thought possible. Some American and British soldiers captured by the Communists in Korea defected to the Communists and refused to go home. American soldiers wouldn’t just abandon their country over political differences – like, say, African American Cpl Clarence Adams, who cited racial discrimination as his reason for not returning – so it had to be brainwashing, possibly with mind-altering drugs. If the Communists were doing it, the CIA had to get into the act, and so began the TSS’ MKULTRA program. This was the CIA’s attempt at mind control by any means necessary, but most often through the use of psychedelic substances like LSD.

Nobody knows the full extent of MKULTRA. In the end there were 149 subprojects, and most of MKULTRA’s records were purged after some of the more embarrassing stories came to light. There might have been some point to it if there had been some positive result, however small, but the CIA’s attempt at mind control was a waste of time and money. At the end, even Doctor Gottlieb said his work had been largely useless.

Except, he might have added, for subproject #4, John Mulholland’s contribution to the carnival.

In the early 1950s the CIA approached Mulholland with a proposition. Doctor Gottlieb’s Technical Services team could devise as many powders and pills as it liked, but unless the CIA’s field operatives knew how to spike someone’s drink without being seen the effort was pointless. Mulholland was the world’s expert in close-up magic. Would he teach the CIA’s best and brightest? Mulholland agreed, and shut down The Sphinx, alleging ill health. It was all a cover: he couldn’t afford to be distracted from his CIA work.

By April 1953 Mulholland was deeply involved in compiling a handbook of techniques for the deceivers and tricksters of the CIA. Doctor Gottlieb even had to create a new subproject, #15, to cover Mulholland’s travel and other expenses, but it was worth it. Subproject #4 would become Mulholland’s Manual of Trickery and Deception, a slim, informative study of the art.

For a long time people assumed the Manual had been destroyed in the great 1970’s purge of MKULTRA’s records, though the CIA rumor mill insisted there were copies floating around somewhere. In 2007 researchers discovered Mulholland’s grimoires hidden away in the CIA’s vast filing system, and in 2009 they were published once more by H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace, a historian of spycraft and a former intelligence operative.

Reading his Manual of Trickery and Deception is like talking with a cheerful and kind-hearted uncle. “The writer is assured that the reader is a person of unquestionable integrity, possessing more than the usual intelligence and schooling,” he says in his Introduction. “In other words, this is a person to whom the practice of deception is quite foreign. However, the reader’s admirable attributes of honesty and learning do not make his present task easier, for it takes practice to tell a convincing lie.”

This from the man who, from the age of five, spent his life learning to tell lies. The intellectual and historian who never obtained an academic qualification of any kind, unlike those hypothetical readers. The man who taught poisoners how to poison, developed trick devices to help them do it, taught them stage management techniques and methods of covert communication to better carry out their missions.

Much of the first Manual is devoted to the handling of pills, tablets and liquids, and the importance of careful preparation when using them or any trick device, like a false coin, intended to deliver a drug payload. “These tricks, as is true with almost anything one does well, must be practiced,” says Mulholland. “That does not mean countless repetitions such as a pianist does in learning the scales. It means slowly going through all the details of performance, physically as well as mentally, until confidence comes so there will be nothing awkward nor hesitant in word or action.” Which is as true for sawing a woman in half as it is slipping LSD into someone’s drink.

The Manual goes on to discuss teamwork, and specific means of deception that can be used by women. “Though the writer is a man, he does not have the idea that women lack any talents which men may possess. However, because much of their training, their clothes and their manners are not those of men, women must use different methods for performing tricks than those used by men.” Always Mulholland insists on practice, on learning good performance skills. Never, he promises, will the agent have to do anything that does not come naturally. The whole point of a performance is that it not look like a performance; it must seem real in every possible way, from offering a cigarette to fiddling with a handkerchief. Otherwise it’s a failure – and in this clandestine world, a bad review could be punctuated by a bullet, or cyanide-tipped dart.

After that, the second part of the Manual goes on to discuss signalling, using everything from marked buttons to methods of tying shoelaces. The size of the button, its color, the number or placement of markings, the way a package is wrapped or a lace is tied, all can convey meaning in Mulholland’s narrative. Here the reader sees his experience with mentalists coming to the fore; the least significant-seeming detail transmits vital information, all without anyone knowing.

The CIA began using magician’s tricks and techniques on a wide scale. Did the operation require moving a man, or large object, past the suspicious gaze of dozens of guards? No problem. Magicians have been using mirrors and the illusion of optical distortion for years. Stack cases of bottled water side by side on a large trolley. The outer cases are merely a shell; inside is a space large enough to move man or item. To prevent the target from being seen, use Mylar on the inner wall of the shell to reflect light back out, thus creating the illusion that the entire stack is full of water bottles. Sometimes the trick didn’t work as planned; for example, when the CIA used dead rats and roadkill to hide items for later pickup by agents on the ground, it found that hungry cats were far more dangerous to the operation than the KGB. But as any magician can attest, not every trick works as well as the trickster hoped.

Even today a silver dollar is kept at the CIA Museum which, when the word Peace on the reverse side of the coin is squeezed, opens to reveal a hidden compartment large enough to hold a pill or powder. John Mulholland charged $15 in machine fees when he made it for the CIA in 1953. He’d been working on similar props back in the old days, when he was touring the world.

After Mulholland completed the Manual the CIA moved on to other things. Mystics and psychics deeply interested the spooks at Langley, Virginia, and they wanted an expert to advise them. Mulholland was perfectly suited, and soon he was busting frauds for the CIA. No doubt the CIA would have been very happy if Mulholland found a genuine psychic; Mulholland was probably just as happy taking the CIA’s money to show there was no such thing. Then it was mind reading: could Mulholland teach them mentalists’ tricks and techniques? Of course he could. He became a general consultant, to be used as the need arose to advise on any problem or project suited to his talents.

However Mulholland’s health was deteriorating. He’d been lying in 1953 when he quit The Sphinx, but it hadn’t been a total fabrication. Arthritis, ulcers and complications from a lifetime of smoking were taking their toll. By the late 1950s Mulholland’s work was suffering. He couldn’t carry on working for the CIA, which was just as well since some of the more lurid MKULTRA stories were coming to light and the project hadn’t much longer to live. It was significantly reduced in scope in 1964, culled again in 1967 and finally shut down in 1973, three years after Mulholland’s death.

John Mulholland worked with the CIA out of a sense of duty. “John did not have a political agenda,” said his friend and The Magical Mind collaborator George Gordon. “He said yes because his government asked him to.” Mulholland knew about and admired Robert-Houdin and Jasper Maskelyne, who had also served their countries – though he may not have known the whole truth about Jasper. He believed in what he was doing, and that he was doing good work.

Mulholland is the magician author John Le Carré might have invented – charming, dedicated, and willing to do much in service of his country. An old fashioned patriot, who never told a soul about his clandestine career; most of what we now know about his work with MKULTRA comes from old CIA files. All these things are virtues – and they led him down MKULTRA’s path. If any magician ever set out with good intentions, it was he, and if he ever thought twice about what he’d done he took his misgivings, and his secrets, to the grave.

For a more in-depth look at Mulholland’s involvement with the CIA, be sure to read The Sphinx and the Spy: The Clandestine World of John Mulholland, which originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of Genii Magazine.