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.
He’s one of the earliest superheroes, who uses science, gadgets and deductive reasoning to bring villains to justice – but he’s not Batman. He’s a student of mystic arts and has mastered the arcane, but he’s not Doctor Strange, or even Sargon the Sorcerer, though both borrow from him. He and his creator’s other breakout hit, the Phantom, help define what it is to be a 20th Century superhero. He’s Mandrake the Magician, who even today guards humanity, and the Galaxy, against threats both natural and supernatural, from his mountain fastness Xanadu in New York State – and thanks to a failed television pilot and constant mismanagement, there’s a good chance you’ve probably never heard of him.
Lee Falk created Mandrake in 1934 while a student at the University of Illinois. Mandrake was Falk’s tribute to the gentleman thieves and well-travelled heroes of the pulps, like Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin, and Edgar Rice Burrows’ Tarzan. He borrowed his snappy wardrobe from Lupin, though his physical appearance – mustache and all – was pure Falk. As Falk told it, of course Mandrake looked like him; Falk was looking in a mirror when he drew the Magician.
At first it was just a way to have fun, and Falk noodled onward without any real plan to sell his work. Then, almost on a whim, he sent his first two weeks’ worth off to King Features, William Randolph Hearst’s publishing arm. King loved it. King wanted more – eighteen panels a week, plus a Sunday page.
Suddenly, at the age of twenty-two, Falk found himself in business, in a very big way.
The strip took shape. Mandrake, originally a stage magician, developed hypnotic powers and acquired a magic hat, cloak and wand. His friend Lothar, Prince of Seven Nations, was the strongest man in the world. Princess Narda, from the land of Cockaigne – a mythic land of peace and plenty – was Falk’s ideal woman, and Mandrake’s companion. Together they were Three Against Evil.
However though the strip was Falk’s, the rights belonged to King, and that included the right to spin off into other media. “King Features acted as my agent through all that,” Falk said in a 1996 interview, “And they paid a little royalties, very little.”
So when King decided to make a radio show (like the one found above), or a movie serial, Falk had little say in what happened next. Neither worked out, though the radio show was more favorably received than the serial, with Falk describing the production of the serial as “badly and unimaginatively done.” The radio show lasted two years, but after the movie serial’s 1939 release there were no more plans to bring Mandrake to the big screen.
War came and went. Lee Falk worked for the Office of War Information, and later joined the Army. By the time he demobilized there was a new medium to be conquered: television. There was a voracious demand for content, and NBC was quick to notice that pulp heroes were extremely popular – and profitable. Why not Mandrake?
NBC partnered with Bermuda’s Trade Development Board to build a television studio at an abandoned seaplane aerodrome, and the Board agreed to pay half the $1.5 million set-up cost. It would have dressing rooms, a restaurant, two sound stages, a theatre for screenings, offices, prop rooms, and everything else a full-scale production unit needed. NBC could rebuild the entire aerodrome as a set if it liked, and it had a 99-year lease on the property. The weather’s perfect for shooting – even sunnier than California, NBC claimed – and if this worked, NBC would have a money-spinning TV show, of which Falk would see modest royalties.
In May 1954, NBC made the first move and incorporated Atlantic Productions (Bermuda) Ltd. to control the enterprise. It hired locals both as unskilled labor and as on-screen talent, reserving five Mandrake speaking roles for Bermudians. Seventy five hopefuls, including a baby and a professional stage magician who promised to be available “any day, any hour,” audition.
On screen, the Three Against Evil were inexperienced but hopeful. Coe Norton, Mandrake and magical technical consultant, had a short list of 1950s TV credits. Lisa Howard, only twenty-four, had a string of film and television credits, including a role in perennial soap The Guiding Light. Woody Strode, as leopard-skin clad Lothar, was probably the best known of the three leads. By 1954 he’d already had a trailblazing career as one of the first black players in the NFL, played a number of roles in jungle pictures throughout the 1940s and 50s, and was an established professional wrestler.
However things didn’t go according to anyone’s plan. Art Director Dick Sylbert complained that he couldn’t get anything done at the pace he’d like; he was used to picking up the phone and getting what he wanted almost before he’d put the phone down. That very definitely was not the Bermuda way. Meanwhile the producers were tearing their hair out over the tour boats that came to Darrell’s Island at Bermuda every week. People were keen to see what all the fuss is about, and as the aerodrome was easily accessible by water they just motored up and asked if there was any shooting going on that day. Yes, the producers responded through gritted teeth; now will you please go away and let us get on with it? The sound of your boat’s engine is ruining our shot!
Mandrake’s problems were bigger than boat engines. Coe Norton later told M-U-M Magazine, mouthpiece for the Society of American Magicians, that the producers had no idea what to do with the show. Five different directors tried their luck. Among the more unusual demands was a stage magic performance for a colony of blind people, and a complete program of magic was to be performed in a hotel swimming pool at six hours’ notice.
Only nine episodes of the planned twenty-six were filmed, and only one – the pilot – ever got made. Coe Norton blamed rights issues, and told M-U-M that the series was tied up in litigation.
This was a pattern that continued throughout Mandrake’s long career. On paper he was the kind of pulp hero that ought to make waves, but the people most interested in his career were also the least involved in projects like the TV show. Lee Falk didn’t own the rights. King did – and King didn’t know what to do with them.
When Falk wrote the book for a Mandrake musical, it got a performance up in Massachusetts, but when a money man tried to bring the show to Broadway he discovered that King had sold the movie rights, and without a movie option he couldn’t interest investors in the Broadway show. When auteur director Federico Fellini wanted to make a Mandrake film, he too discovered that King had optioned Mandrake to someone else.
Of course, as far as King was concerned, Mandrake was just one of many. At its height, King exec Sylvan Beck said the syndicate received 1,000 comic strip submissions every year, and would only choose one. If a project like the Mandrake TV show didn’t pan out, King had plenty of other properties to choose from.
It didn’t help that Mandrake is pure fantasy. Falk’s other comic creation, the Phantom, aka the Ghost Who Walks, is just as pulp, but ultimately grounded in reality. The Phantom may have a Skull Cave, but he uses fists and gun, and the enemies he faces are relatively mundane. Whereas Mandrake, with his Eastern mysticism, magic apparatus and hypnotic powers, is much more exotic, and often deals with the supernatural. That’s before you consider that his girlfriend literally comes from a fantasy kingdom, and his best friend is stronger than a thousand men.
It’s a problem that can be seen in the TV show (which you can watch via YouTube below). Mandrake’s powers almost beg for special effects wizardry. Instead what we got was a poor madman babbling about flowers. As Falk pointed out when discussing the movie serial, even at that time the directors could have tried something a little more visual – anything, really, so long as it sold the idea of a magic man doing incredible things. Instead we got a crime fighter just like all the others, except this one was in formal wear and had a knack with throwing knives.
After the 1954 TV show wrapped, Bermudians were shown Mandrake in viewings at the local cinema. A child buried her face in her father’s chest and wailed, “that bad man is beating up my daddy!” William ‘Cheese’ Ray, the unnamed villain thrashed by Lothar, could only smile. It was the start and end of his television career.
The team broke up. NBC kept its studio for a brief while, and a movie was shot there in 1956, but NBC no longer had any big plans for its Bermuda outlet, and the expensively renovated seaplane aerodrome was allowed to rot.
Coe Norton had a good life, but never really became famous. If ever you see a 1960’s era TV commercial for cigarettes or Charmin starring a debonair master of magic, you’re probably looking at his work. Woody Strode went on to become one of the most recognizable and talented character actors of the 20th Century, appearing in many westerns, especially for director John Ford, who championed Strode.
Lisa Howard gave up acting and reinvented herself as a journalist, becoming ABC’s first female correspondent. She backed liberal Republican Kenneth Keating in his 1964 Senatorial reelection contest against Robert Kennedy, and because of this ABC fired her. In 1965, at the age of thirty-five, she overdosed on barbiturates and died on the 4th of July.
Mandrake continued his career, with Falk writing his adventures until his death in 1999. Even today his continuing adventures appear in magician-centric magazine Inside Magic, with King’s permission, and there are any number of reprints of his past escapades.
Even so, it’s hard not to imagine what could have been; had the NBC show not flopped miserably, maybe we’d be talking about the Mandrake Cinematic Universe alongside Marvel and DC Comics. With Sacha Baron Cohen set to play Mandrake on the silver screen in 2019, here’s hoping he’ll finally have his shot at the spotlight.
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.