Staging Magic

Magic, or the art of appearing to perform supernatural feats, has been popular throughout the world since the 16th century. People have been and continue to be fascinated by illusions, entertained by rabbits appearing out of hats and mystified by seemingly impossible acts. This year (2019), the Senate House Library in London has staged an exhibition containing over 60 magical stories that focus on legerdemain (sleight-of-hand) and stage illusions from the past four centuries. Staging Magic: The Story Behind the Illusion, uses books, manuscripts and other items once belonging to the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature to piece together the history of one of the oldest performing arts in the world.

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Studio Portrait of Harry Price

Although not all made it into the exhibition, the Harry Price Library contains over 13,000 items dating from the 15th century until the present related to magic, witchcraft, parapsychology, the occult and other similar subjects. This huge collection was bequeathed to the University of London after the death of its owner, Harry Price (1881-1948), which has been useful for research into “rare, old and curious works on magic, witchcraft, legerdemain, charlatanism, and the occult sciences.”

Harry Price, born in London, was only a young boy when he first became fascinated with magic. At a travelling magic show, Price came across the Great Sequah, a man who he later claimed was “entirely responsible for shaping much of my life’s work”. As a young boy with a toothache, Price was fascinated when the Great Sequah “extracted” his tooth and proceeded to perform a series of other magical wonders. Naturally, Price demanded to know how the tricks were accomplished, for instance, how could an empty hat suddenly contain two doves?

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Modern Magic

Due to his obsessive need to know how the Great Sequah performed such feats, Price was eventually given a copy of Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic (1874) in an attempt to satisfy his curiosity. Instead, this book was the small spark that fueled his passion for magic, psychical phenomena and the occult, culminating in an enormous collection of books, some of which can be seen on display today.

Angelo John Lewis (1839-1919) was an English lawyer and professor who went on to become the leading writer about magic of his time under the moniker Professor Louis Hoffmann. Modern Magic, published in 1874, was the first ever encyclopedia of performance magic. The first edition of 2000 copies sold out in seven weeks due to its popularity. Eventually, 15 editions of the book were published by the end of the 19th century and, being the first in a tetralogy, was soon followed by the titles More Magic (1890), Later Magic (1903) and Latest Magic (1918).

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As well as reporting on past and present magicians, Modern Magic became a favourite amongst aspiring conjurors, including Price who became an expert in sleight-of-hand and joined the Magic Circle in 1922. The British organisation was founded in 1905 after 23 amateur magicians met at Pinoli’s Restaurant in Soho, and was dedicated to promoting and advancing the art of magic.

In order to join the Circle, applicants had to qualify through either a performance exam or a written thesis about a branch of magic. Only then could they be designated a Member of the Magic Circle (M.M.C.). Further distinctions were later formed, for instance, Member of The Inner Magic Circle (M.I.M.C), which was limited to a select 300 members.

Although the Magic Circle aimed to promote magic, members had to give their word that they would not disclose any of their magic secrets to the public. The society’s motto indocilis privata loqui, meaning “not apt to disclose secrets” (lit. “incapable [of] speaking [of] private [things]”) emphasises this rule.

Being a magician, however, was not Harry Price’s aim in life. Instead, he would become famous for investigating mediums, hauntings and other supernatural phenomena, exposing numerous fakeries. His most famous investigation took place at Borley Rectory, which was purportedly haunted, its first paranormal event taking place in 1863. Price and a team of 48 “official observers” spent long periods of time at the rectory reporting on any paranormal activity. During this time, a planchette séance took place and two spirits, one who claimed to have been murdered on the site, were supposedly contacted. Six years later, Price discovered the bones of a woman buried in the cellar of the old house. Unfortunately, after his death, Price was accused of faking the phenomena.

As well as collecting books, Harry Price was a keen cinematographer and often filmed his experiments in phenomena. In 1935, the National Film Library compiled a few of these demonstrations and investigations to create a short film. The Senate House Library plays three examples on a loop as part of the exhibition. The first, known as the Indian Rope trick, was a cause célèbre at the time, involving a boy climbing a rigid rope that had once been limp. The performer Karachi, real name Arthur Claude Darby, was filmed proving the rope’s flexibility before making it stand upright, allowing his son to climb it several feet into the air.

Another experiment involved walking on fire, which Kuda Bux (born Khudah Bukhsh, 1905-81) was filmed doing twice without burning his feet. The twelve-foot long pit of burning hot coals measured a temperature of 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius), which is hot enough to burn steel. Price thought the trick was performed by stepping on “safe spots”, however, a later suggestion claimed that because coal cools rapidly, it would be possible to walk over them quickly without being burnt. Regardless as to the veracity of this statement, when a spectator tried to walk across the coals shortly after Kuda Bux, he severely burnt his feet.

Also in the film, Price debunked a ritual found in a 15th century “High German Black Book.” The ritual claimed that by carefully following the instructions, a goat would be transformed into a man. In front of a crowd, Price performed this ritual but, of course, the goat remained a goat.

Despite the Magic Circle endeavouring to keep their secrets, magical revelations had already been shared with the world. The earliest book in Price’s collection is The Discoverie of Magic by Reginald Scot (1538-99), which was published in 1584. Scot, a member of the English Parliament, wrote the book in order to dismiss the myths about witchcraft. At the time, the majority of the population held beliefs about the supernatural, however, Scot wished to propose a more rational approach. In order to convince his readers, he included highly detailed sections on legerdemain and “the art of iuggling”, which he explained made things appear to be magic but were rather very clever illusions.

At the time, The Discoverie of Magic was a risky book to publish. England was still struggling with the effects of the Reformation, and there was a strong divide between Catholics and Protestants. Scot was a Reformed Protestant, also called Calvinism, and stated in his book that “it is neither a witch, nor devil, but glorious God that maketh the thunder…God maketh the blustering tempests and whirlwinds…”. Catholics held strong beliefs in the power of witches, and later, King James I (1566-1625) condemned the book out of fear that it would stop people from staging witch hunts – a purge that had once caused mass hysteria.

Nonetheless, Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft went on to inspire many people and countless new books were published over the coming centuries. The Whole Art of Legerdemain or Hocus Pocus in Perfection published in 1727, borrowed a lot of its content from Scot. The author, Henry Dean, described a number of different tricks, including magic lanterns, producing eggs and hens from an empty bag and turning water into wine. These were accompanied by woodcut illustrations that helped to further explain the tricks.

Broadsheet newspapers, which could be produced much more cheaply than books, began to appear as forms of mass entertainment. Topics, such as legerdemain, were suddenly available to a much wider audience. One example shown in the exhibition promised to give concise instructions on how to perform acts involving cups and balls, fire-eating and walking on hot iron bars.

Although Harry Price’s books imply that the popularity of magic and illusion began in England, the craze quickly spread across the continent. Price owned copies of books in German (Hocus Pocus: Die Taschenspielerkunst Leicht zu Lernen, 1730), Spanish (Engaños a Ojos Vistas y Diversion de Trabajos Mundanos Fundala en Lícitos Juegos de Manos, 1733), and French (Aracana Mirabilia, ou, Magie Blanche et Tours de Physique & d’Excamotage, 1824).

In the 19th century, magicians and conjurors began adopting Chinese, Japanese and Indian styles of dress and sets in order to make their performances look more mystical. Later, towards the end of the century, Western performance magic spread to Asia, was adapted slightly, and published in books such as Mo Shu Ta Kuan (The Devils Art From Top to Bottom) in 1916.

The fascination with magic tricks was still strong in the 20th century. During the First World War, Charles Folkard (1878-1963), a children’s book illustrator who had a brief career as a professional magician, published a couple of pamphlets under the pseudonym Draklof. Tricks for the Trenches and Wards (1915) was one of the titles, which Draklof wrote with the intention of providing some entertainment to British soldiers. The tricks involved objects that could be found while sitting in trenches, such as matches and coins, and could be easily mastered by those convalescing in hospitals.

As with any increasingly prevalent topic in popular culture, magic was not immune to satire. In 1722, the Anglo-Irish author who went on to write Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) mocked the illusions and language of magic by writing about impossible feats in his pamphlet The Wonder of all the Wonders that Ever the World Wonder’d at (1722). He warned his subscribers to not be taken in by the claims from magicians that would most probably end in disappointment.

By the mid-19th century, magic acts had become successful forms of theatrical entertainment. The period was considered to be magic’s golden age and one performer stood out amongst them all. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-71) was a French magician who combined sleight-of-hand with technical innovations and is now regarded as the father of the modern style of conjuring.

Robert-Houdin became a magician almost by accident. Intending on becoming a watchmaker, he had ordered a couple of books on the topic, however, they got mixed up during delivery and Robert-Houdin – then Jean-Eugène Robert – ended up with a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Rather than returning them, Robert-Houdin curiously began reading and was soon hooked, practising the rudiments of magic at all hours of the day.

Most of what is known about Robert-Houdin’s life comes from his memoirs published in 1859, of which Harry Price owned a copy. Originally published in French as Confidences d’un Prestigitateur (1858), Robert-Houdin describes the many events in his life that led him to become one of the greatest magicians to date. He writes about his introduction to magic and illusion and some of his greatest achievements, for instance, convincing people in Algeria that French magic was superior to their local mystics. There is some suspicion, however, that many of his stories have been embellished or, perhaps, made up in parts.

Another of Robert-Houdin’s books that Price owned was his posthumously published Magie et Physique Amusante (1877), a sequel to Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie. Both books explain and offer explanations to some of the most famous stage illusions of the time. Not only did he include his own Magic Portfolio, but Robert-Houdin also revealed the secrets of other magicians, illusionists and spiritualists.

One of Robert-Houdin’s famous illusions was named The Ethereal Suspension in which he convinced his audience that the pungent liquid ether could cause a person to become as light as a balloon.

Robert-Houdin inspired many people, none more greatly than Erik Weisz (1874-1926), more commonly known as Harry Houdini. With a stage name inspired by his idol, the Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer quickly became known for his incredible escape acts. He first became noticed after challenging police officers to keep him locked up, yet no matter how hard they tried, he always managed to escape. Eventually, his repertoire included being tied up with heavy chains, hanging from skyscrapers, placed in a straitjacket underwater and being buried alive – from all of which he escaped.

Like Harry Price, Houdini was a keen collector of books about magic. Many titles feature and were discussed in their letters of correspondence. In 1921, Houdini sent a portrait of himself to Price signed “To my friend Harry Price, best wishes, Houdini”.

In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin after discovering that there was not enough evidence about the stories his idol had written about in his autobiography. Initially, Houdini was writing a book about the history of magic, however, it evolved into an exposé of his former hero’s potential dishonesty.

At the age of 52, Harry Houdini unexpectedly died from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix. Despite being unwell, Houdini had continued performing, thus making his condition worse. As a result of his early death, many of his secrets about magic and escapology were taken to the grave. Nevertheless, the magician and author Walter B. Gibson (1897-1985) managed to, with the help of Houdini’s wife Wilhelmina “Bess” (1876-1943), decipher some of Houdini’s notebooks in order to put together a biography: Houdini’s Magic (1932).

Amongst Harry Price’s impressive collection are a number of books aimed at teaching the art of conjuring. The subject of magic was as popular for amateurs and hobbyists as it was professionals. Manuals for beginners were in great demand, hence the number of instruction books Price owned. These types of publications began as far back as 1722 with Henry Dean’s Hocus Pocus that offered to teach “any person that is desirous to learn any part of this art.” Ever since then, books of this genre have continued to flourish.

Aimed at children, The Art of Conjuring from the late 18th century, taught simple tricks involving eggs, cards and coins, whereas, Harlan Tarbell’s (1890-1960) System of Magic provided over 60 lessons for those who were more serious about learning the elements of magic. Lessons in Conjuring (1922) by David Devant (1868-1941) emphasised the importance of knowing how to perform a trick well. Although knowing how to do the trick was, of course, necessary, the success lay in how it was presented.

Ellis Stanyon’s (1870-1951) Conjuring for Amateurs (1897) and Alexander the Magician (Claude Alexander Conlin, 1880-1954)’s The Magic Show Book were written for true beginners, the latter being aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds. With books such as these, anyone could learn a trick or two to impress their friends and family. Stanyon maintained that practising magic as a hobby was “a wholesome and moral one”, but more importantly, these books aimed to amuse the public.

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With so many books on display, it is hard to take everything in at the Senate House Library’s exhibition. Fortunately, visitors are provided with a written guide that contains all the information about Harry Price’s collection, the history of magic and each individual item.

Seeing the books and items in display cabinets does not fully explain the story behind magic and illusions, however, there is so much history hidden within them.

The art of illusion has come on a long journey and, through one man’s book collecting hobby, its development is there for all to see.

Staging Magic is free and open to the public. Tickets are available on-site at the Library membership desk on the 4th floor of Senate House.

Previous exhibitions include Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings.

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2 thoughts on “Staging Magic

  1. How fascinating! Thank you Hazel fir introducing your followers to the world of magic. Full of interesting facts I was surprised how far back in history magic and the revealing of how tricks were done, goes.
    You certainly know how to bring a subject to life. Thank you. Your mastery of the written word remains unsurpassed.

  2. Pingback: Smoke and Mirrors | Hazel Stainer

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