Here’s the thing about magic tricks: you desperately want to know how they’re done. The moment you see one, your brain is automatically trying to figure out how it happened. You’ll rewind that YouTube video to study hand movements or scan for misdirection, or you’ll try to recreate the trick in your head. But as soon as you know the secret, it’s not really fun anymore – the magic disappears, replaced by regular, boring old reality. Penn & Teller’s Fool Us gives its audience the best of both worlds, making us feel like we’ve just learned secret insider info without actually learning a damn thing.
When you come down to it, magic is just fancy lying. It’s harmless (most of the time) and usually done to entertain, but make no mistake: whether they’re using a deck of cards or sawing a woman in half, a magician is lying right to your face. Penn Jillette and his partner Teller have toyed with the relationship between the deceiver and the deceived throughout their entire career, from their live shows to their (nearly-released) compilation of rigged video games. Sometimes even the truth is a lie, like Penn’s explanation of his nail gun trick:
Obviously, Penn’s little speech on how he performs the trick isn’t true (otherwise Teller’s job would probably be a pre-existing condition for most health insurers). But it’s that explanation that sells the bit, giving us the illusion that we’re stealing a tiny glimpse into the magician’s world, a peek behind the curtain – before the duo pulls out the rug from under us.
Penn & Teller: Fool Us, airing Thursday nights on the CW, is an extension of that, pitting a variety of amateur and professional magicians against the wits of its hosts. Each contestant performs their trick, and it’s up to Penn & Teller to figure out how it was done. The requirements for “fooling” Penn & Teller are purposely vague, allowing them wiggle room in determining which part of the trick is the important bit for judging purposes. In the case of Handsome Jack, Penn & Teller knew how he reassembled a torn playbill, but they couldn’t figure out how he’d managed to hold up the ripped pieces separately.
We never learn the secrets behind each trick. Penn & Teller instead communicate in code or draw diagrams on a notepad that only the performer sees in order to confirm whether or not the jig is up, and any notes are immediately shredded or disintegrated in a puff of smoke to prevent anyone else from learning the truth. This is actually the most important trick the show pulls, and where our own satisfaction-by-proxy comes from. The name ‘Fool Us’ isn’t just a request made by the show’s hosts; it’s a request we’re making, too. Sure, we want to know the secrets, but we want to be fooled just as badly, and to learn a trick’s secrets would spoil the fun.
Take this performance by Misty Lee, whose routine put surprise guest Louie Anderson in (what appears to be) grave danger:
While the trick didn’t fool Penn & Teller, they still talked about how much they loved her twisted performance, along with some of their favorite parts of the trick. It seems like a series of innocent compliments, but it’s here that Penn & Teller reveal that they know exactly how the trick is done by repeatedly bringing up the knives in their feedback. Misty Lee knows that they know, even if we don’t.
It’s those brief moments behind the cracks that gives Fool Us its special sauce. The wonder of magic deflates instantly once you know how that performer apparently vanished, but Fool Us gives us the best of both worlds. We know that someone knows how the trick is performed (and are given enough clues that we could potentially suss out a few details if we really wanted to do some internet sleuthing), but the process isn’t completely spoiled for those of us who just want to bask in the illusion of impossibility.
Even better, the trick feels even more impressive if Penn & Teller can’t figure it out. Because it’s one thing to fool the audience – the average viewer likely won’t know what the hell a riffle pass is, let alone how to do one – but it’s another to pull a fast one on seasoned veterans. Whatever the outcome, we’re still only told or shown exactly what the magicians want us to know, which means it’s working as intended.
Check out this video where blind magician Richard Turner completely fools Penn & Teller with his expert card work:
Penn & Teller do nothing to hide the astonishment on their faces – they’re just as blown away as we are. Plus, since Penn & Teller are part of the audience, we know that there aren’t any fancy camera or editing tricks meant to unfairly deceive those of us watching from home. What Turner is doing is happening right before our eyes, and when Penn & Teller describe how impressed they are by the trick, we can take them at their word.
Because what makes Fool Us work is that the audience isn’t treated like dupes, rubes, or idiots, but willing participants of a series of fascinating cons. We are all invited every week to witness daring displays of deception, to examine them with a critical eye, and to walk away amazed whether or not the contestants win. That Penn & Teller have figured out a way to make us all in on their scheme while not actually telling us anything is perhaps the greatest trick of all.
A quick glance on the internet will provide you with a wealth of websites devoted to Harry Houdini, Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, and many of magic’s most famous performers. Up until about five months ago, there was no such page for Doug Henning, arguably one of the most influential magicians of the 20th century. Neil McNally decided it was time to fix that by creating the Doug Henning Project.
McNally is a pop culture writer from Los Angeles who has long held a fascination both for the history of magic and Doug Henning’s work. He noticed that while Henning’s legacy is revered among the magic community, other than a 2009 book called Spellbound, a Wikipedia page, and a handful of articles in newspapers or on websites, there was no single source devoted to chronicling and archiving his career.
“When I first thought of the idea I was floored that someone else hadn’t done it before. It really, really surprised me,” McNally told GeniiOnline via email. “But, I think part of it has to do with a couple factors. One being that Doug retired in 1987 to pursue more spiritual matters with Transcendental Meditation. Once he was done with magic he was done with it. There was no legacy building or archiving of his career on his part and this was all pre-internet. So, unfortunately over time what happens with that is you get sort of lost in the shuffle.”
It also doesn’t help that Henning fully embraced the psychedelic colors, flashy style, and mysticism of the 1970s and early 1980s. While star-spangled spandex jumpsuits were all the rage then, they unfortunately make Henning appear dated compared to the formalwear of the magicians who came before and after, even though his actual craft remains just as impressive today. It means that, according to McNally, “[Henning’s] not taken as seriously as he 100% deserves to be,” and it’s one of the barriers that McNally is attempting to break down with his work on the site.
Even though the drop in awareness of Henning’s legacy among the general public in recent years makes the archival process difficult, luckily there’s no shortage of information out there to find. “Google definitely has been a great resource for finding old interviews with Doug,” McNally tells us, “but it’s not the only place. Services like eBay are also a treasure trove if you want to find rare items like programs and photos. I’ve also been really fortunate to have Doug’s fans send me items from their collections to post on the site. Whether it’s newspaper articles or photos of Doug’s old outfits, fans want to help and have really, really been appreciative of what I’m trying to do.”
The Doug Henning Project features YouTube videos, reprints of articles from vintage magazines, and other important ephemera, but it also features something you can’t find anywhere else: interviews with other magicians providing an oral history of Henning’s legacy. “As I live in Los Angeles,” McNally says, “I’ve been very fortunate that legendary names in magic such as Milt Larsen, Jim Steinmeyer, and John Gaughan have all made time to share their memories of Doug with me. It’s really a measure to how much he was respected.”
McNally hopes that the site can be a place to learn more about Henning’s life and career, of course, but he also wants it to be a place where fans and other magicians can go to share their own memories and reflect on his boundless enthusiasm and positivity. “I can’t tell you how many times people have sent pictures to me of meeting him after a show and how much that still positively affects them,” McNally says. “Also, on a deeper level the world is currently facing some troubling times. While I can’t solve its problems, what I can do is try to bring back a little bit of Doug’s magic, wonder, and positive view of the world that we all share.”
The Doug Henning Project updates regularly with original features and interviews, reprints of old articles, and various discoveries from YouTube and other corners of the internet. You can visit the Project directly via the official site, or follow it on Facebook or Twitter. And if you have any stories, photos, or anything else related to Henning you’d like to share, you can contact McNally directly via email.
2017 has been… a year, so why not close it out by getting real weird? Rudy Coby, aka the Labman, has been pushing the boundaries of stage magic for decades, most famously with two television specials in the 1990s. The one embedded above, called The Coolest Magician on Planet Earth combines over-the-top physical humor with macabre body stunts in one of the strangest hours of magic ever recorded for a mainstream television network. Watch the Labman walk around on four legs, hammer a nail into his face, and try to dethrone Houdini with “The World’s Most Dangerous Card Trick” in this modern classic performance.
Seeing how we’re so close to Halloween and the 91st anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death, it’s a good time to ponder the theory that a clause in the performer’s contract with a theater put in motion the events that led to his demise.
Quick review of what exactly happened back in 1926: Houdini was suffering from abdominal pain for several days while on tour, and was advised to have surgery immediately, but refused. He arrived for his performance at the Garrick Theater in Detroit with a temperature of 104, but did the show anyway. He was later taken to Grace Hospital, where he eventually died on October 31st from peritonitis, a result of his ruptured appendix.
So what does a contract have to do with any of that? Well, according to The Houdini Correspondence File by Wayne Wissner, it’s possible that Houdini went on stage despite being sick in order to avoid paying a hefty fine. A clause in his contract stipulated that if an illness or accident rendered Houdini unable to perform, he’d have to pay $1000 (roughly the equivalent of $13,000 today) for every day the theater was dark.
Houdini was furious to discover this stipulation in his existing contracts, and wrote to his manager:
“I am amazed any sensible manager would sign a contract with such a clause in it and I am perfectly willing to leave the road before I would take such a chance. […] Am perfectly willing to continue if a new clause is inserted but under the present contract I retire gracefully.”
Assuming that his contracts covered his appearance at the Garrick, it’s possible that Houdini tried to make it through his scheduled performances in order to avoid the financial penalty, hoping to seek medical attention afterwards. There’s currently no evidence that his contract was amended, so it’s a reasonable conclusion to reach.
via Wild About Harry
If you picture a ‘magic show’ in your mind’s eye, a few common elements will surely emerge. You’ll see a witty, charismatic performer in formal attire. Simple objects will be put to use that defy the rules of the natural world. The evening will carry an air of class, elegance, and drama. All of that became commonplace in the world of magic because of one person: Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin.
This 19th century French magician has been dubbed the father of modern conjuring, a title that just scrapes the surface of his accomplishments in performance, engineering, and even international affairs. But despite his wide-reaching impact on the art form, many magic fans may have never heard of Robert-Houdin.
That’s partly due to how the man himself left his legacy. Much of what we know about him comes from an autobiography, but even in his written work, Robert-Houdin is still a master of deception. Just as he would when performing on stage, his memoir stretches reality in just the right places to create a fiction that entertains more than it educates. But thanks to some intrepid historians and researchers, Robert-Houdin’s contemporary fans can have a clearer understanding than ever of the man’s life and how he transformed the performance of magic into what we know today.
For a profession that demands such high levels of skill and carefully controlled precision, Robert-Houdin’s path to becoming a magician included some staggeringly good luck. He was born in Blois, a French town on the banks of the Loire, on December 6, 1805. His father, Prosper Robert, was a local watchmaker. This was the first stroke of luck, as young Jean-Eugene was instilled with an early fascination for mechanics and tinkering. “I am inclined to believe that I came into the world with a file or a hammer in my hand, for, from my earliest youth, those implements were my toys and delight,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Jean-Eugene attended school at the University of Orléans, graduating at 18. He aspired to pursue the family trade and become a watchmaker as well. But like so many parents, Prosper had grander visions for his son and wanted the bright young man to become a lawyer. So he took a position as a copying clerk at a Blois attorney’s office.
Then came a second, even larger stroke of good fortune, one that the he himself dubbed “the most important event of my life.” The young man went to a bookstore and asked to buy a pair of books on clockmaking to continue his own education. But though accident or maybe destiny, he found himself in possession of two volumes about magic called Scientific Amusements. We can all consider ourselves lucky that there was no equivalent of free online returns in the nineteenth century, because Jean-Eugene kept the books and his fascination with magic began.
He started teaching himself the sleight of hand tricks described in Scientific Amusements, and for years kept pursuing his twin passions of magic and mechanics. He honed his skills well enough to join an amateur theater troupe and began performing on the local circuits. Maybe stroke of luck is the wrong phrase here, but it does seem like a delightful coincidence that during his travels, the young magician became smitten with a young woman from his home town of Blois. Josèphe Cecile Houdin was the daughter of a fellow watchmaker, and the pair fell in love. They married in 1830, and he chose to hyphenate his name, becoming the Robert-Houdin that would go on to dazzle audiences around the world.
After the wedding, he joined his father-in-law’s watchmaking shop in Paris. There, Robert-Houdin was able to continue his more creative projects, developing toys and automatic figures. This work not only formed the basis for some of his later magic performances; it was his core profession. He was both artist and artisan. While he did earn a living selling some inventions to fellow performers — circus legend P.T. Barnum wound up in possession of his automaton that could write and draw, for instance — most of his sales were to collectors. His mastery of mechanics piqued the interest of many in the Parisian elite who wanted to own the curiosities he constructed. Some clients were so impressed that they became friends with the talented man, which opened the door for the next step in Robert-Houdin’s career. Thanks to his connections with those collectors, Robert-Houdin began performing magic for private parties.
At the time, this was not how most people experienced a magic show. Most magic of that day was seen as low culture, where practitioners would wear gaudy robes and claim wild supernatural abilities as their source of power. It was the stuff of street fairs and cheap theaters. The setting where he worked had a profound impact on how Robert-Houdin presented himself as a performer. He would be invited into high society homes as a guest rather than as a lowly paid entertainer, and would then perform his tricks for the entire soirée. He had to translate magic into the world of high art that would please the sensibilities of the upper classes. He brought elegance to the craft to match the upscale surroundings and company. Anyone attending a soirée would be dressed to the nines, and so Robert-Houdin wore suits rather than corny costumes when he performed. He had to be a charming, well-spoken guest in order to further connections with those wealthy individuals who could help boost all aspects of his business. He was equal parts society man, performer, and hustler.
The unique look and location wasn’t all that set him apart from the pack. Since the performances took place in private homes, Robert-Houdin couldn’t rely on elaborate sets or props beyond the mechanical works he created. His friendships may have granted him advanced access to the host’s house to do a little advanced preparation before a party, but once the guests assembled, all that he would have been able to use for his tricks would be items on their persons. His use of ordinary objects made the accomplishments seem all the more spectacular for his audience. Other magic performers at the time achieved their results with schemes, trick props, or plants in the audience. Robert-Houdin had the power to take the familiar and made it truly fantastical.
Robert-Houdin’s transformation of the magic show experience took another leap forward with the launch of his own theater and his signature show, Soirées Fantastiques, in 1845. He got financial backing from one of his early clients-turned-friends, Count de l’Escalopier, and took over a space that he designed to look like the elegant living rooms where he’d made his name as a magician. Everything he had learned from his time performing in private homes carried through in the vision for his theater. Rather than a performer on display, Robert-Houdin acted like a host. He walked among his guests, chatting with them casually one moment and astonishing them with his tricks the next.
Soirées Fantastiques also furthered both the intricacy and apparent simplicity of his act. Robert-Houdin’s increasingly powerful mechanical creations could make the impossible seem real and their complexity was a huge draw for the performance. But at the same time, he could also make a boy appear to float without a single piece of machinery.
The levitation trick was called The Ethereal Suspension, and it was one of many that involved the participation of Robert-Houdin’s son Emile. Soirées Fantastiques’ popularity soared with the introduction of the pair’s take on the Second Sight trick. Robert-Houdin would ask his guests to hold up any random objects. He would touch an item, then his son, blindfolded on the stage, would describe the object in detail. He honed the act to make the feat seem all the more impressive. In one version, Emile would give his descriptions when cued by a bell ringing and Robert-Houdin would stay silent, proving there was no secret spoken code to supply answers to the boy.
Another trick in this vein was the Portfolio. With this performance, a thin portfolio for holding documents or artwork would be placed on two sawhorses. Robert-Houdin would lift the lid of the case and seem to remove ever more astonishing objects, just like Mary Poppins’ handbag. He could even make Emile appear to emerge from a portfolio less than two inches thick. These performances were all about ordinary items put to extraordinary use, the signature approach that he pioneered.
But other parts of Robert-Houdin’s act continued to pull on his first love of mechanics. One of his iconic creations was The Orange Tree. First, Robert-Houdin would take an object from the audience, most commonly a woman’s ring or handkerchief, and make it disappear. Under his command, the clockwork tree would suddenly blossom with flowers. Then oranges would appear, also all real save for one at the top. As a grand finale, two mechanical butterflies would remove the ring or handkerchief from within the last fruit.
Here you can see a tongue-in-cheek version of this act performed by Paul Daniels.
Daniels does credit Robert-Houdin for the creation of the mechanical tree. But we can see many of the other elements that the French performer pioneered in this television special, from the walking among the audience to the sharp attire. Daniels even calls his stage set-up a living room, just like those Parisian salons. This philosophy of intimacy and elegant theatricality began with Robert-Houdin.
Robert-Houdin’s performances catapulted him to international fame. He toured around Europe for several years, with shows for royalty in France and the UK. After he stopped performing, he maintained a career as a writer. He not only penned an autobiography, but also other books on how to perform magic and an exposé on mediocre illusions.
In 1856, he was called on by the French government to help with international affairs. France was trying to subjugate an Algerian tribe called the Marabouts whose leaders claimed to have magic powers. Robert-Houdin was sent to secure their loyalty by proving that French magic was stronger than the Marabouts’ mysticism. He conducted several performances in Algeria, and another of his signature tricks served as the centerpiece to seemingly prove France’s superiority.
The Light and Heavy Chest relied on a clever use of electricity. Robert-Houdin would display a small wooden box to his audience. He’d ask a child to lift it, which they could do with ease. Then, after secretly flipping an electromagnetic switch that froze the box in place, he would ask a large, strong-looking man in the audience to do the same. The man, no matter how muscular, would fail.
For his elite European audiences, the act could be played for laughs. On his Algerian mission, Robert-Houdin claimed that he was using his magic to sap the strength of the powerful man. He claimed in his memoirs that he also rigged the box to deliver a shock, further humiliating the subject. Between the chest and his other tricks, Robert-Houdin won the admiration of the Marabouts. He copied their praise in his memoir, citing a letter from the chiefs who witnessed his show. “Our century has seen no one comparable with him,” they wrote. “The splendour of his talent surpasses the most brilliant productions of past ages. Our age is the more illustrious because it has possessed him.”
The magician died on June 13, 1871. In life and after death, he left behind an incredible legacy that inspired countless others to follow in his footsteps. If you’ve noticed the similarity between his name and the stage moniker for one Erik Weisz, you’re right to draw the connection. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the people who stole and pirated his inventions must have been very big fans of his work. If you’ve seen Edward Norton in The Illusionist, you’ve seen a variant of The Orange Tree. And if you’ve seen any magician in a top hat and tails, now you know where they stole the style. From his unique blend of skills in science and mechanics to his elevated vision of magic performance, Robert-Houdin had an unmatched impact on magic as we know it today.
To learn more about Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, check out the November 2002 issue of Genii Magazine for an interview with Christian Fechner. A magician in his own right, Fechner penned a two-part biography entitled The Magic of Robert-Houdin: The Artist’s Life.
A magician has a peculiar, powerful hold over an audience. Magicians can convince people of impossible things, but while most prefer to do so for entertainment purposes there are some who practice what P.T. Barnum called “humbug,” and fleece audiences with outrageous claims of mystical power. The magical community has long fought back against these flim-flam artists, loathe to see their beloved methods used for nefarious means. Such was the case when the Davenport brothers tangled with John Nevil Maskelyne in 1865, when both the spiritualists and the magician were at the beginning of their long careers.
If you had any interest in matters spiritual and you were alive in the 1860s, you knew who the Davenport brothers were. Ira, born 1839, and his younger brother William from Buffalo, New York, were wonder workers. They communed with the Great Beyond, bringing the ghosts of the departed on stage with them to perform, but whether it was for your entertainment or education was deliberately obscure. Perhaps these Irish Americans genuinely believed in the spirit realm and all things mediumistic. Perhaps, as Ira later protested to escapologist and enemy of fakers Harry Houdini, it was all a gag.
The Davenports had their magical education early, at the hands of their father Ira, a Buffalo cop. Father Ira was a steady source of ghost stories and claimed to have invented several ingenious escapology rope tricks, which he taught his sons. They practiced their spiritualist art on neighbors, inviting them to an evening with the dead in which the brothers would be tied tightly, the lights turned off, and in the darkness things would move apparently without the help of human hands. In actuality the brothers were slipping their bonds and performing the ghost routine themselves, but audiences were very willing to believe otherwise.
The Davenports, realizing how big their act could be, went on tour in the States with father Ira as stage manager and promoter. They had two simple routines, which they called their dark and light séances. In the dark séance the brothers invited a volunteer from the audience up on stage to sit with them. The volunteer was instructed to grip both Davenports and never let go. All light would be extinguished and, in complete darkness, things moved around and strange sounds were heard. This was their Buffalo routine all over again, and since they had as many as ten helpers available for any performance, the brothers could – and did – get away with almost anything.
It was the light séance that captured everyone’s attention. In that performance the brothers were tied up by volunteers from the audience, and supervised by a committee chosen by the audience. They were placed in an ordinary cabinet with holes cut in its sides large enough for hands to fit through, which allowed viewers a peek at what might be happening inside. The box also contained musical instruments. The cabinet doors closed. All curtains were drawn and light sources dimmed, giving the performance area a ghostly look. Then the musical instruments began to play, and ghost hands poked out of the holes in the cabinet, a bit of added showmanship. The audience never saw the Davenports escape their ropes; as far as they were concerned, spirits were behind it all. Crowds went wild.
The Davenport séances were a tremendous draw for those who believed that the dead continued to evolve and grow in the afterlife, and could offer guidance to the living. The brothers satisfied that need by proving beyond question that the spirits were listening to us, and had learned to play the guitar. The brothers even had a Presbyterian minister, Dr. J.B. Ferguson, with a uniquely saturnine voice, acting as their spokesman and emcee. Dr. Ferguson would proclaim at each performance that these miracles occurred “for the glory of God and the greater enlightenment of weak humanity.” Who would doubt him?
The brothers had their detractors. In 1865, showman extraordinaire P.T. Barnum ruthlessly exposed their fakery in his book Humbugs of the World. “If the Davenports were exhibiting simply as jugglers,” wrote Barnum, “I might admire their dexterity, and have nothing to say against them; but when they presumptuously pretend to deal in ‘things spiritual’ I consider it my duty, while treating of humbugs, to do this much at least in exposing them.” English audiences keenly awaited the Davenport brothers in spite of Barnum’s accusations of fraud and the pair soon embarked on their first overseas venture.
It wasn’t a smooth tour. In their early appearances the Davenports were flummoxed by two conjurers, Hulley and Cummings, who volunteered to tie them up at a Liverpool performance. Their Tom-Fool’s Knot proved impossible to break, and an enraged audience smashed the Davenports’ cabinet. Hulley and Cummings followed the Davenports to Leeds and Huddersfield, where they again disrupted the mediums’ routine.
Then, in March of 1865, they crossed paths with a future master of magic, John Nevil Maskelyne.
Maskelyne, at that time a twenty-five year old clockmaker and repairer of mechanical devices, had dealt with spiritualists before. A group of mediums had asked him to repair a simple mechanical device, without mentioning what it was supposed to do. After investigating its workings, Maskelyne repaired it and sent it back with his bill: ‘Repairs to rapping apparatus, 1s 6d.’ He knew it was a trick, and now they knew he knew. Table rapping, also known as ghost knocking, quickly fell out of favor in Cheltenham.
Maskelyne’s role in the Davenport performance was special: he was asked to be one of the committee and as such, he wasn’t sitting with the audience. He was up on stage with the cabinet. When one of the window curtains slipped, illuminating for a split second one of the cheating Davenports, limbs clearly free, Maskelyne saw everything.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “By a slight accident, I have been able to discover this trick.”
Though Maskelyne explained the ruse, a clergyman present, probably Dr. Ferguson, scoffed at his expose, and the Davenports pretended nothing had happened. This incident inspired Maskelyne. If the Davenports wouldn’t admit to fakery even when they were caught in the act, he’d make sure everyone knew what the Davenports were doing by copying their act – and improving on it.
He joined forces with fellow musician and Volunteer Rifles Band member, George Alfred Cooke. Together they took the Davenports’ routine apart bit by bit, and then spent the next three months perfecting their own version.
In addition to faithfully copying everything the Davenports did, Maskelyne and Cooke added one special variant. They created a completely new illusion in which Maskelyne would be put inside a small, plain box, three foot by two foot by one and a half feet deep. This box was tied shut with ropes and chain, and then the box, with Maskelyne in it, was put inside the cabinet. Minutes later when the Cabinet was opened, Maskelyne sat atop the small box, which was still chained and tied shut.
“This is a trick which the Davenport Brothers never attempted,” wrote the Birmingham Gazette in its review, “And, (as Barnum has it somewhere), ‘it must be seen to be believed.’”
Maskelyne began by wanting to show people exactly how the Davenports were defrauding them, but in doing so he discovered a whole new career. Maskelyne and Cooke performed the trick again and again locally, adding comic routines to draw crowds, all the while debunking spiritualist fraud with their fake séances. They took the act on tour for two years, ending with performances at the Crystal Palace, London, one of the premier performance spaces in the country. Then they took a rental at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, where they established a semi-permanent magical home for over thirty years. They invented trick after trick, developing new routines each more elaborate than the last, becoming true artists, unlike the Davenports who were satisfied with one simple ruse. From this base John Nevil would found the Maskelyne dynasty, three generations of stage magicians.
Exposure didn’t worry the Davenports, any more than crowds breaking up their spirit cabinet delayed their progress across Europe. Whenever another enraged mob destroyed their equipment – which, after all, was just a wooden cabinet with some holes cut in the side – they rebuilt, and held another show. After the Maskelyne business they went to Paris, where once more their cabinet was smashed. All this publicity only built up their reputation, and by the time they returned to England in 1868 they counted Queen Victoria as a patron.
When they went back to America, they had $600,000 net profit in their pockets. Estimating historic currency values is notoriously tricky, but measuringworth.com estimates $600,000 in 1868 to be worth between $9.3 million and $1.3 billion in today’s money.
It didn’t matter to the Davenports that Maskelyne showed the world how their tricks were performed, any more than it mattered when Georges Méliès made a 1903 film that demonstrated exactly how their cabinet worked, or when the father of modern conjuring Robert-Houdin exposed them in his work Magie et physique amusante. They didn’t care when premier actor Sir Henry Irving burlesqued them in an Athenaeum performance, duplicating their act perfectly, with Sir Henry playing the part of somber Dr. Ferguson.
They didn’t mind because they were making bank, no matter what anyone said about them. If Paris didn’t fall for their routine, they could move on to Vienna, Berlin, St Petersburg. If Maskelyne and Cooke were performing their cabinet tricks, said the Davenports, it was because Maskelyne and Cooke were spiritualists too. Surely that was obvious?
It was a suggestion Maskelyne found remarkably difficult to shake. Though Maskelyne remained a dedicated foe of spiritual woo until the day he died, there would always be a spiritualist or two ready to claim him as one of their own. Even during his deliberately fake séances at the Egyptian Hall, intended to expose fraud, Maskelyne said there would often be some credulous soul in the audience who’d cry “in an imploring tone [to the spirits] ‘John, John! Speak to your old friend, John!’”
The Davenports went on performing, in the States and abroad. William died in Australia in 1877, while the Brothers were on tour, and his death brought their successful partnership in fraud to a close. Though Ira tried to make a go of it, nobody wanted to see just one Davenport. He went back to New York and retired, dying in 1911, six years before Maskelyne succumbed to pneumonia at age seventy-seven.
In his book about card sharps and cheats, Sharps and Flats, Maskelyne wrote:
“A goodly portion of my life has been spent in battling with superstition, credulity and chicanery in every form. It has been a labor of love with me. At times I have, so to speak, cried from the house-top truths so obvious that there hardly seemed to be any necessity for calling attention to them, and yet have found some who could not believe them … even now there are some who will prefer to rely on the word of a charlatan–an impostor–rather than accept a plain statement of palpable facts at my hands.
“It is curious, but nevertheless it is true. It is magnificent, but it is not common sense.”
The fight goes on. Until recently James Randi worked with his Educational Foundation to expose woo-woo artists of all kinds, and now enjoys a well-earned retirement from the Foundation. Others, like Penn and Teller, continue the fight. Spirit cabinets can be smashed, but not folly, and every year along comes another would-be Davenport, eager to make a buck or two from someone else’s lack of common sense.
A mentalist claims they can read minds, and calls upon an audience member to say the first word that comes to them. The mentalist pulls out a slip of paper with the same word on it—impressive, right? After the show, you catch a glimpse of the mentalist giving the supposedly random audience member a wad of cash. Turns out, the the mentalist was stooging you the whole time.
Stooging is the act of using another spectator, either temporarily or permanently in the magician’s employ, to drum up excitement for a magician’s act, or to even trick an audience into believing that the act is genuine. Stooges can also be referred to as confederates, shills, or plants—the fact that there are so many different colloquial terms to refer to the same thing shows how prevalent stooges can be, not just in magic, but in a variety of showbiz schemes and confidence tricks.
In fact, many instances of stooging are considered illegal in order to protect innocent people against fraud, especially when it comes to gambling or selling products. Hiring a person to pretend to win a game of three-card monte in order to trick passersby into parting with their money is a form of stooging that could land you in jail. However, planting confederates in an audience to applaud (thus causing the rest of the audience to react more positively) is generally considered legal, even if it’s morally gray. (Claques, as they’re known in theatre circles, have been around since antiquity and are used in everything from stage plays to tech conferences.) Casinos also use legally hired shills to keep card games going in case there aren’t enough people at the table for a full round.
Interestingly, many magicians are divided on the practice of stooging. Some see stooging as especially dangerous because reputable magicians stake their livelihood on their ability to dazzle audiences with skill that often takes years of training. When a magician who uses stooges is exposed, the general perception of the ability of all magicians can decrease: “If this person is using hired plants to make their tricks work,” the public wonders, “maybe the rest of them are, too.” It’s especially problematic now thanks to video and computer technology, where entire routines can be exposed as fake thanks to clever editing or camera work—hiring stooges on top of that just adds insult to injury, and can serve to make people think that even honest volunteers are in on the trick.
On the other hand, some magicians merely see stooges as another tool in their bag of tricks. Stooges can often act as ‘performance insurance’, used only as a last resort against hecklers or to improve a failing routine. Some magicians use stooges for comedic effect—a juggler asking for random objects from the audience can make their performance much funnier if one of them just ‘happens’ to hand them a watermelon. And some routines are basically impossible without the use of stooges. For instance, the ‘shirt trick’ masterfully performed at the end of this video by pickpocket and comedian Bob Arno requires a confederate to ‘set’ the trick backstage for it to even work (otherwise, it looks like this). In those cases, the performer must weigh the risk of discovery against the impact of the effect.
Ultimately, the burden is on the performer to stooge audiences responsibly. As long as no one is hurt and everyone is entertained, stooges can help sell tricks that otherwise wouldn’t work. However, if the con is discovered, a magician’s credibility can vanish in an instant.
There’s more to magic—and how to describe it—than just calling everything a ‘trick’. That’s why we’re highlighting and exploring important terms, concepts, and ideas every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.
Despite what you may think, magicians are really nothing like Arrested Development’s Gob Bluth. They don’t insist you use the word “illusion” instead of “trick.” They don’t really like “The Final Countdown” that much. They take their art very seriously…except for when they don’t. Hakan Berg‘s “King of Birds” act, shown here from an appearance on Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde, is great magic, but it’s also just damn funny, blending sleight of hand with just the right amount of humor. We had the pleasure of seeing Berg perform this routine live at Genii Convention, where it absolutely slayed.
Pi pi pi pi pi…
Professional magicians are often whisked away to all corners of the globe to perform to royalty and locals alike, and at Genii Convention 2017, we got a chance to chat with Jade about one time she was personally requested by the Royal Family of Monaco. She recounts her chat with Prince Albert, as well as giving some advice to young women looking to find their way forward in a career in magic.
There’s more to magic—and how to describe it—than just calling everything a ‘trick’. That’s why we’re highlighting and exploring important terms, concepts, and ideas every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.
A magician holds up a single coin between two fingers. She waves her hand over it, says a few nonsense words, and suddenly, the coin is gone—vanished from this world entirely. Or, she’s probably stuffed into a coat pocket when you weren’t looking. Until magicians figure out how to bend the physical realities of space and time, they’ll simply have to make do with practicing their sleight of hand.
The word ‘sleight’ is derived from the Middle English word ‘sleghth’, which in turn was derived from the Old Norse word ‘slœgth’, which means ‘cunning’ or ‘skill’, and the phrase has been used to describe trickery with the hands for nearly as long. Other words for sleight of hand include ‘legerdemain’, a word derived from the French phrase léger de main (literally translated as ‘light of hand’), or ‘prestidigitation’, a word derived from French (preste = ‘nimble’) and Latin (digitus = ‘finger’).
Sleight of hand can mean a lot of things. It can mean hiding an object, moving objects around, or even giving the illusion that you’ve done these things. It can be done with cards, balls, cups, coins, dice, even vegetables—anything that can be easily manipulated and moved without much notice. Magicians can palm cards from the deck, or perform a ‘pass’, which makes the audience think the object has moved from one hand to another even though it’s stayed in exactly the same place. As the magician performs sleight of hand, they’re often gesticulating and engaging the audience in playful banter—known as ‘patter’—both of which are designed to keep the viewer’s mind as distracted as possible so as not to see the secret movements behind the trick. There are many ways to perform sleight of hand, and all of them require lots and lots of practice.
The important thing to remember is not all magic is sleight of hand and not all sleight of hand is magic. A lot of stage magic for example, with its large, elaborate contraptions, isn’t built for sleight of hand, especially since the performer is dealing with a larger audience than a close-up or street magician. And less scrupulous card sharps wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves magicians, exactly, but they use many of the same skills a magician would—palming, counting cards, etc.—to pull one over a card dealer. (Because of this, many known magicians are actually banned from casinos. Poor Derren Brown.)
The incomparable Cardini shows off his skills with a variety of props in this vintage video.
Yann Frisch’s cup and ball routine has to be seen to be believed.
Here’s Steven Bridges messing with two people’s heads with a bunch of different kinds of sleight of hand card tricks.