Blake Vogt’s Abracadabra by Design

Blake Vogt_Abracadabra_VanInc
Screenshot from Vanishing Inc. Newsletter

As you can see in this special section of my blog, I’m a sucker for magic art and art in magic. So I do get excited when a magician puts his artistry into art. Creative mastermind Blake Vogt has just designed a cool graphic poster which displays the word ABRACADABRA in a stunning, not-so-obvious way. You can order this piece from Vanishing Inc. while supply lasts.


 

Debunking the Maskelyne Myth

Maskelyne_BBC
Screenshot from BBC video

Somewhat related to my recent review of H. Wayne Capps’s disappointing book, Magicians at War, a fews days ago I was pointed towards this nifty BBC video animation by Dan John and Michael Bialozej. In less than seven minutes, they give you a crash course about the myth how Jasper Maskelyne supposedly contributed eminently to the British War effort by employing means of magic and ingenious engineering in the North African theatre. (No, he didn’t.) Some experts on magic and deception are also quoted. (Richard Stokes, the main debunker, is sadly not among them.) Recommended!


 

Well Said: Eric Jones on Racism

Eric Jones has a short, but pointed essay on racism outside and inside of magic in the latest issue of Genii magazine (July 2020). Let me quote:

We have to be able to see the racism in the history of magic for what it is. If we cannot understand the complexity of how we can and should evolve from our past, plagued by bigotry and systematic racism, we will certainly fail at building a future free from it. (…)

Let’s not ignore, encode, or erase the stains in our past or use our skills of deception to deceive ourselves about the flaws in our family and even our heroes. Let’s talk about things head on, straight up, and share our stories, learn about each other, listen to each other, and make room for mistakes. Sometimes we have to unlearn what we know to make space for growth and change. This is one of those times.

Well said, Mr. Jones!

For some blatant older examples of racial stereotypes in magic catalogues, see my posts here and here!


 

On the Fascination of Gambling for Majishuns

Blackjack2

In a discussion on the Genii Forum a while back, Mark Lewis wrote:

I am quite astonished at the interest of magicians in anything to do with poker, card sharking and gambling generally. I strongly suspect that any book with a gambling theme sells very well to magicians. (…)
As a result I strongly suspect that if a writer was to write any kind of book concerning gambling whether it had card tricks and sleights or not would sell very well if marketed to magicians. That is probably why the Steve Forte book has done so well.

Well, my personal guess is that there are (at least) two reasons for that:

First, we majishuns simply love magic lore, stories, and riddles, the more fantastic the better. Real-world deceivers like cheats and hustlers attract our attention, earn our respect and trigger our imagination.

Second, I think we love to fancy ourselves as suave card mechanics with nerves of steel at the poker table, but because of our embarrassing shortcomings in the real world we resort to the second best thing: we pretend to be experts at the card table by doing risk-free gambling tricks and demonstrations!


 

Magicians at War…with Truth

Capps

A Review of Magicians at War by H. Wayne Capps (2020)

“Great liars are also great magicians,” Adolf Hitler supposedly once said or wrote. I have yet to find a German source for this alleged quote (any help?), but hey, it’s all over the internet, so it must be true, right?! And it’s printed in this book, like many other tales, semi-truths and lies. But if you turn the quote around, you will get an undisputed truth: Great magicians are also great liars. Just like, among others, many politicians or trumping spin doctors. So I wouldn’t dream of buying juicy or heroic stories from any of them easily. You have to take them with a grain of salt, if not with a big handful of woofledust.

Yet magic lore is full of these stories, and we all love them, don’t we? Because it sounds so exciting, so great and reassuring for our magic passion or profession: “How Espionage and Deceit Changed History” (subtitle of the book); “The Card Trick That Stopped WWII” (title of chapter 5); “Magicians in history have literally changed the world” (final chapter). Yeah, right! Sadly, the backstage view of magic is less glorious, less interesting and often shabby.

The author, H. Wayne Capps, is both a professional magician (under the name of Howard Blackwell) and a U.S. Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel. With this slim booklet, which has grown out of a magic club mini lecture, he has tried to fuse his two occupations and passions. As the author states, this book was mainly written in the back of a C-17 cargo aircraft that took him around the world on military missions. That may explain why his offer is somewhat drafty and shaky. Why exactly?

Despite a fascinating and broad topic, the author has chosen the path of least resistence and has limited his work to mainly retelling the best, and already best-known, rehashed stories. Now, if you are a bit proficient in magic history, which names would you list with regard to magicians in and around the battlefields of war and espionage? Right, Robert-Houdin, Jasper Maskelyne, John Mulholland, Kalanag, maybe Houdini, “the spy” (?). And yes, all of them are covered in this book, plus a few other obvious ones (see www.magiciansatwar.com for the table of contents). Surprisingly, neither the Trojan Horse nor The Man Who Never Was nor The Death Camp Magicians are covered, not to mention Dudley Clarke, the real British master deceiver in World War II.

Capps is aware of the lore and its questionable lure, as he points out several times. At the same time, he exploits these myths carelessly, in order to tell and sell, and shows little interest in unlinking the rings of fiction and facts. I find this annoying, as uninitiated readers have no chance of making up their own mind because of the poor crediting. With a few notable exceptions, only the most basic sources are given.

The two main sources on Jasper Maskelyne, for example, are his own, largely fictitious “autobiography” and David Fisher’s subsequent super-fiction novel, The War Magician. Richard Stokes, who has done so much research to investigate and debunk the Maskelyne myths, is not even mentioned. At times, the crediting is also sloppy. Robert-Houdin’s seminal autobiography is not even listed as a primary source; and as I looked up a supposed author named Clarke Sternberg, “he” turned out be the U.K.-based Sternberg Clarke entertainment agency which once ran a blog post on Robert-Houdin on their website. Duh!

Yet the author emphasizes more than once that he has “thoroughly researched” the field, despite quoting sources like ABC News or writing sentences like this: “John Mulholland was a New York based magician and according to his widow, performed several times at Radio City Music Hall and wrote a number of books on magic.” He also claims that Robert-Houdin had toured the United States. And we learn that his in-depth research of the obscure (?) artist Paul Potassy made the author discover two important sources, Potassy’s biography & trick book by Uwe Schenk and Michael Sondermeyer and his 3-DVD set from L&L Publishing. Wow!

Sadly, and although announced in the introduction, there is no noticeable attempt of the reserve author to cast the actions and magic principles described into a bigger theoretical context on the role of deception in warfare or the parallels between the theaters of war and theater illusions. With a bit more care and effort, he could have dug into Sun Tzu or the eminent works of Barton Whaley and many other scholars.

Capps’ original contributions are limited to interviews with two fellow magicians, one an Army veteran, the other a former CIA director. While the brief chapter on military veterans “who used magic as a healing tool to fight the war within” taps into uncharted territory that I feel would have deserved a much bigger expedition, the CIA chapter falls short of its promise of top secrets revealed. As we learn, the CIA magician was merely fond of showing tricks to foreign diplomats and helped train his team on hostile deception tactics “to benefit a nation.” Abraca-poof!

Like almost any self-published book, this one could have used an editor and a spell checker to good results. Without, the “proverbial” cat becomes “preverbal”, the “ruse” a “rouse”, and Eugene Burger is misspelled as Berger. Ouch! If the chapters are in any meaningful order, I must have missed it. I also find it both amusing and irritating that the book’s cover image of my Kindle edition is still speckled with the watermark logo from fiverr, a web platform for freelance services…

I realize this review is already much longer than some of the book’s chapters, which is not a good thing. So to conclude, if you have never heard of any of the magicians mentioned above and are mildly interested in their claimed endeavors and achievements in the wars of the world, this slim book of 72 pages might serve as a quick and unambitious introduction. I would advise you, however, to consider getting the Kindle version via Amazon for less than €5 and not bother with the paperback edition for a hefty $24,95.

But if you have some background in magic history and more than a passing interest in this topic, you likely won’t find much of value here. For an in-depth, no-nonsense approach on the bigger context of military deception, let me recommend some major sources instead (out of about 30+ books on this subject in my library): Jon Latimer’s Deception in War, Thaddeus Holt’s The Deceivers, and any book by Barton Whaley, like Stratagem.

To end on a positive note, I fully agree with the author’s final assessment: “All of these stories, no matter how far-fetched, are certainly fun to tell and will no doubt outlive us all.” Amen to that, and cheers to all you great liars and master deceivers out there!


Full disclosure: I consider myself rather well-read in this particular area of magic and military deception, and I have delivered a detailed lecture about “Magicians at War” (sic!) at the recent 8th European Magic History Conference in Vienna in 2019. That’s why I’m both a bit saddened and annoyed that this book underdelivers on a truly fascinating facet of our beloved art.

MaW_EMHC


A slightly shorter version of this review has just appeared in Marco Pusterla‘s fine Ye Olde Magic Mag (Vol. 6, Issue 3).


 

Faking Impossible Bottles…

I have hesitated for a while whether to share this cheap cheat bit here or not, because if you have ever dealt seriously with the subject of “impossible bottles” and its masters like Harry Eng, you will know that it’s an absolute no-go and a disgrace to temper with the bottle you are trying to stuff stuff into in any way!

Yet it is understandable that not everybody with just a passing interest in this matter has the means or know-how, not to mention the patience, to master this craft and art. (I have actually tried it, and it is both an arduous and satisfying experience. You can read a bit more about it here.)

So for those easy come, easy go folks among you, let me tell you that there’s a fake “bottle” out there (it’s not even made of glass) that you can easily fill with the biggest and most complex objects, which should make for a nice display on any shelf. This bottle I came across is produced by Peleg Design (they also produce other magic-themed paraphernalia), and its shabby secret is not actually designed to be hidden well:

ImpBottle_ch

Let’s consider this as a beginner’s ticket into the wonderful world of impossible bottles. But please do not trick yourself into believing that you have accomplished anything magical by filling and displaying this kind of bottle!


 

Magic History: Miracle Infants, Fish and Dicks

One of the fascinating aspects of studying history is the constant realization that a lot of ideas, fashions and actions come around again and again in circles over the ages, sometimes just rediscovered or copied, sometimes reinvented, and sometimes as old stuff simply dressed in new clothes. Naturally, the same goes for magic tricks and plots. Here’s an interesting example.

In recent years, you may have gotten in contact with a minor novelty called the “Fortune Teller Miracle Fish” in one form or the other. It’s a cheap piece of thin plastic foil in the shape of a fish (or else, see below), and when put on someone’s hand it starts to move, turn or curl. Depending on the movement, you can consult a little clue sheet that comes with the fish to find some meaning in this mildly amusing spiel.

The provenance of this trick was under discussion in a recent Genii Forum thread, and it seems to have many forms and “fathers” who claim to have invented it many decades ago.

Alas, there isn’t much new under the same old magic sun. I happened to come across a description of a truly magical performance of this feat (rather than as a joke or novelty), and this book was already published back in the 1780s! It’s called Testament de Jérôme Sharp by Henri Decremps, an eminent, early French magic writer. (I browsed through the German translation of this book.)

He vividly describes an eery performance by an old gypsy woman: She puts a piece of paper with the drawing of an infant in a cloth (see below)  into the hands of two women. The paper then twists and wiggles in one woman’s hand only, which “proves” that she has given birth to a child, while the other woman has not. (The secret lies in the organic material of one of the two pieces used. No chemicals here. Plus some pre-show work, I assume.)

Miracle Baby_2

Now, compare this haunting plot and its deeper meaning to today’s slum version with its shallow horoscope-like “reading”, and you will have both a good and sad example of the ongoing trivialization in many branches of magic today!

It’s almost superfluous to mention that there are other meaningfuless and “blue” variations around today, including miraculous bacon stripes and dicks . . .

Fortune Teller Miracle Dick


Postscript:

When I looked up the availability and prices of these fish on Amazon, I came across this funny screen display: People who bought the fish had also bought this fine fortune teller’s turban… Well, some things will probably never change!

FortuneTeller


 

A Word on Thurston: Loving Your Audience

Thurston2

I’m sure most of you have heard or read one time or the other that part of grand illusionist Howard Thurston’s success was his love for his audience. Until very recently, however, I had not been aware of an early source of his mantra in the context of success. Then, by chance, I came across Thurston while reading Dale Carnegie’s bestselling book How To Win Friends And Influence People, first published in the 1930s and still a best seller today.

Let me quote from Carnegie (p. 53 of my Kindle edition), who had visited Thurston backstage in NYC late in his career:

Thurston_quote

I feel there’s a great lesson to be learned here.


 

Revealed: Magic Tricks Displayed on Playing Cards (4)

Click here for Part 1, here for Part 2 and here for Part 3!

The final take on exciting research revelations from the Schaffel College for Industrial Pasteboard Paraphernalia in Ryffling, Denmark on the magic tricks which artists shown on our familiar court cards have supposedly been performing for up to hundreds of years, yet unnoticed until today!

Further Pasteboard Secrets

Despite the important breakthroughs in magic and playing card history featured in the previous three episodes, some other court card motifs remain the subject of intense scholarly debate for the time being, explains visiting postgraduate fellow, Tang Acapao, who also happens to be a passionate card magic amateur. Here they are:

Jacks of Diamonds and Clubs: Pole Levitation?

Jacks_Pole

In some cases, the diagonally mirrored images of all court cards make it difficult to identify the provenance of the originally featured magic trick, especially when both arms or hands would actually exercise the same movements. That’s why, in this case here, the pasteboard researchers are still debating whether the Jacks of Clubs and Diamonds are both performing an early version of the two-hands pole levitation, as junior researcher Les Kerfol speculates in his forthcoming B.A. thesis.

Queens of Clubs, Hearts and Diamonds: Flower Act?

It is also conceivable that the three Queens holding flowers so obviously inconspicuously in their hands were actually three sisters performing a lavish act with spring flowers or are shown here right after performing a choreographed triple silk-to-flower effect. Researcher Anna Gramm is still devoting much of her scholarship time to this particular florid question.

Joker King on a Bicycle: A Grand Illusion?

Joke_r

Another mystery yet unsolved: Why is the USPS Joker depicting another King, and why is he riding, among all vehicles in royal possession, an ordinary bicycle? “We have yet to determine when and how the first bicycle prototypes were introduced to the French and English Courts,” says the teams’ documentation officer, Sheldon Gitlip. “We are also checking some Court magicians’ papers for possibly lost information on early productions of performers using vehicles. But it really takes a maximal maven to find that needle in a haystack!”

Team leader Gioberto Robbi and his young research assistant, Farhad Fahrar, however, are on a different trail here. “The banishment of Philadelphia from Berlin and his famous exodus through the city gates got us thinking,” Robbi says. “Maybe a fun-and-riddle-loving King like Louis XIV of France rode out of his lavish ballroom at one end, while his then still unknown, but not yet incarcerated twin brother reappeared at the other end two seconds later, thus demonstrating the King’s legitimate absolute power over time and space to his astonished courtiers!” He hastens to add, “Of course this is, unlike our other findings, pure conjecture at this point.”

We hope that time will tell and that these imaginative, undisputed card experts will continue to unshuffle further secrets at Schaffel College, and you will make up your own mind about this paradox pasteboard pocus!

Be that as it may, but from now on you will certainly look at your familiar court cards from a different angle, won’t you?!

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Addendum:

Some more facts you probably didn’t know about playing cards (with a big thank you to the real Reinhard Müller!)


 

Revealed: Magic Tricks Displayed on Playing Cards (3)

Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2!

Further exciting research revelations from the Schaffel College for Industrial Pasteboard Paraphernalia in Ryffling, Denmark on the magic tricks which artists shown on our familiar court cards have supposedly been performing for up to hundreds of years, yet unnoticed until today!

King of Hearts: Jastrow Illusion (held vertically!)

KingofHearts_frame

This discovery tracked down over time by researcher Juanita Marz triggers another necessary rewrite of a chapter of magic history: Obviously, the venerable optical illusion described first by Joseph Jastrow in 1892 had already been around for one hundred years plus before that and was performed as an amusing diversion and paradox at royal courts! “Had the pieces been held horizontally and parallel to each other, we would have advanced much quicker on this magic way,” admits Marz.

KingofHearts_close

In this context, the third hand with a presumed sword in the background, behind the King’s head, has been identified as a large knife, which was probably used to cut a long strip of paper into two pieces of equal length before performing the illusion.

King of Spades: The Indian Rope Trick (under Glass!)

KingofSpades

You have to marvel at both the ingenuity of the creator one hundred or more years ago and of the scholar who finally unlocked this genius mystery! Likely 999 out of 1,000 contemplators of this card would claim that this King was simply holding his sword and looking at it somewhat quizzically, if not hypnotically. But, owing to her intimate knowledge of magic history, Fay Knjus, the youngest member of the research team, had a sudden brain wave “right after studying Dr. Samuel Hooker‘s legendary illusions,” as she recalls. “Then suddenly it dawned on me that what we had always decoded as an ordinary sword was in fact a piece of string rising under a glass dome in best Dr. Hooker fashion! Both the strange shape of the dome and the uncommon knob for holding it had been misdirecting us for a long time.”

KingofSpades_close

Further research has yet to determine whether this strange design was caused by slip of the drawing artist or an imprecise briefing, or whether these artful versions of early portable glass domes simply got lost over time.

A tiny dot way up the rising string on an early print run of these cards may indicate that a little boy figure was probably once attached to it, maybe climbing to its top before vanishing, just like in the centuries-old famous story of the Indian or Chinese Rope Trick.

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Check out the final Part 4 with more exciting discoveries!