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).


 

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.


 

Neues zur Taschenspielerkunst von Adrion bis YPS

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Der zweite Band ist noch gar nicht vollständig gelesen, da legt Wittus Witt schon mit der dritten Ausgabe seines A-B-C der Taschenspieler-Kunst im Buchformat nach! Auf 156 Seiten bietet diese u.a. Lesenswertes von und über Alexander Adrion sowie einen echten Leckerbissen für Sammler: einen umfassenden Überblick über die Zauber-Gimmicks und -themen des einst großen und beliebten Kindermagazins YPS! Wer da nicht gleich anfängt, in seinem Zauberkeller und seinen Kindheitserinnerungen zu kramen…

Als Beilagen enthält dieser Band Reproduktionen von zwei Adrion-Drucksachen sowie, auf der Innenseite des Buchumschlages, des “Großen YPS-Zauber-Posters”.

Nach einem Wechsel der Druckerei kostet das A-B-C  im zweiten Jahrgang und in bibliophiler Ausstattung jetzt 52,50 Euro im Jahresabo, Versand inklusive. Schriftliche Bestellungen am besten direkt an abc@wittuswitt.de.

Hier geht es zu den Meldungen über Band 1 und Band 2.


 

Houdini’s Life and Afterlife

Posnanski_Houdini

I’m neither a Harry Houdini fan nor a scholar, but I’ve read several biographies on him over the past few decades (Kellock, Christopher, Silverman and Gresham come to mind, plus parts of Kalush/Sloman). And there are quite a few things I like about the particular approach Joe Posnanski, a sports writer by profession, has taken in this latest offer on the market. Let me tell you what and why in this brief review.

First, he’s trying hard not to rehash all the lore, but to tell the many myths about Houdini from the facts. For that, he sets himself on an enthusiastic journey to talk to a lot of knowledgeable magicians, both scholars and performers, some of them huge Houdini fanboys, others not so much.

So, secondly, we get to learn interesting insights and opinions from luminaries like Jim Steinmeyer, Mike Caveney, John Cox, David Copperfield, and others.

Third, the book is also, as the title promises, about the afterlife of Houdini. What makes him stand out still today? I found this an aspect worth spending time and thoughts on. However, it may appeal more to us magicians than to “normal” readers.

Fourth, Posnanski delivers a swift read and has a knack for catchy phrases and summaries that stick (like “Houdini never surrendered. That was what made him Houdini.” or “Death, ironically, gave Houdini a second life.”). He also has a great way of foreshadowing and leading you with hooks straight into the next chapter, which made me digest the entire book in only two sessions.

In terms of structure and dramatization, Posnanski decided to let us readers accompany him step by step on his quest. That’s why his attempts to contact Houdini expert Patrick Culliton (first futile, finally successful) are a recurrent theme and supposed to build some suspense. I agree with others that the book could have been done without this dramatization. And I found that Mr Culliton (whom I don’t know anything else about) comes across as a very strange and pitiable person. If this portrayal happens to be unfair and overdramatized, as claimed in the Genii Forum here and here, Mr Posnanski should be reprehended for that.

Apart from this quibble, which I cannot judge, I recommend this book for “Non-Houdinians” as a refreshing and enlightening addition to the bulk of “regular” Houdini biographies.


 

Fundsache: Wie aus Feuer Zauber und aus Puncks Punx wurde…

Punx der Unfassliche

Ludwig Hanemann-Punx war nicht nur ein Meister der Zauberkunst, sondern auch des Wortes und der Ästhetik. Sein frühes, kleinformatiges Programmheft, “Punx der Unfassliche” betitelt, darf als wunderbarer Beleg dafür dienen und ist daher, obwohl nicht gerade selten, ein kleines Schmuckstück meiner Zaubersammlung.

In dem Heftchen schildert Hanemann auch, wie er als Schüler unter dramatischen Umständen zu seinem Künstlernamen kam:

Punx der Unfassliche_Puncks

Wenn’s denn stimmt, hat jener Dr. Kappe auf diesem Weg einem wahrlich zauberhaften Künstlernamen ins Leben verholfen, der um so viel magischer klingt als jeder dahergelaufene Scholzano oder Müllerini!

Mehr über das “Prairiefeuerzeug Punks” (hier nur mit ‘k’ geschrieben) findet sich übrigens in Karl Mays Der Scout, wie hier nachzulesen ist.


 

A Hocus Pocus Minded Comic

Wiseman Hocus Pocus

Just out: A new psychic comic magazine by Prof. Richard Wiseman and friends. On 28 pages, issue #1 of “Hocus Pocus” features stories about Washington Irving Bishop, the cataleptic mentalist, J.B. Rhine investigating a psychic horse and Alexander, The Crystal Seer spilling his beans to two Laurel and Hardy type FBI investigators.

For magicians and mystics, the magazine contains some simple, but fun interactive features. Stories and texts are enlightening and often tongue-in-cheek (“Who is ‘Alexander’?… Man, who knows!?”). The best thing for you pennypinchers: While you can order a print version for £6,99 in the UK, you can download a free PDF version here.

Issue #2 is already in the making. I enjoyed this first, quirky ride and learned some interesting bits along the way. Have fun with it, too!


 

Absage des Sammler- und Chronistentreffens 2020!

Sammlertreffen

Gerade wollte ich eine Reminder-Meldung im Sinne von “Nur noch wenige Tage bis zur hochkarätig besetzten Konferenz für Zaubersammler und -historiker am 20. bis 22. März in Frankfurt am Main …” veröffentlichen, da kommt per Mail die offizielle Absage der Organisatoren Andreas Fleckenstein und Ulrich Rausch – das Corona-Virus lässt traurig grüßen.

Neben der Sorge um die Gesundheit der Teilnehmer hat dabei offenbar auch eine Rolle gespielt, dass es bereits eine Reihe von Absagen gegeben hat. Auch das Programm hätte dadurch deutlich gekürzt werden müssen. Sehr schade, aber natürlich nachvollziehbar!

Nun wird ein neuer Termin für 2020 gesucht, voraussichtlich im November. Wir drücken die Daumen, dass es dann im zweiten Anlauf klappt!

Und dies wäre das vollständige Programm gewesen.


 

Neues zur Kulturgeschichte der Zauberkunst

Wittus Witt hat soeben die zweite Ausgabe vom A-B-C der Taschenspieler-Kunst vorgelegt. Der 192-seitige Band enthält Beiträge von Peter Mika, Peter Rawert, Waldemar Hans Horster und Witt selbst. Highlights sind eine umfassende Biografie von Alexander Heimbürger sowie eine bisher unveröffentlichte Becherspiel-Routine von Reinhard Rohnstein. Dank Stefan Alexander Rautenberg gibt es aus dem Nachlass von Alexander Adrion eine CD-Beilage mit einem Heimbürger-Feature des Deutschlandfunks von 1982.

ABC Witt Bd2_sn

Schriftliche Bestellungen am besten direkt an abc@wittuswitt.de.

<<>>>

Ende Mai erscheint die recht spannend klingende Dissertation von Katharina Rein als Buch: Techniken der Täuschung: Eine Kultur- und Mediengeschichte der Bühnenzauberkunst im späten 19. Jahrhundert.

Rein Täuschung

In der Kurzbeschreibung des Titels heißt es:

Katharina Reins preisgekrönte kulturwissenschaftliche Dissertation widmet sich der Bühnenzauberkunst in ihrem “Goldenen Zeitalter” (ca. 1860–1900), das von wissenschaftlicher und technischer Innovation ebenso geprägt war wie von einer florierenden Medienkultur, den Umbrüchen der Industrialisierung oder den Erfahrungen von Globalisierung und Kolonialismus. Moderne Bühnenzauberei beansprucht keine übernatürliche Wirkung, vielmehr präsentiert sie technisch erzeugte Illusionen, deren Funktionsweisen sie allerdings verbirgt. Sie stellt damit eine spezifische Form des Mediengebrauchs dar, die mediale Effekte exzessiv ausstellt, während sie das dahinterstehende technische Geschehen zum Verschwinden bringt. Die Analyse von vier paradigmatischen Großillusionen (“Pepper’s Ghost”, “Vanishing Lady”-, Levitations- und Telepathie-Illusion) eröffnet nicht nur schlaglichtartige Einblicke in die bislang weitgehend ungeschriebene Zaubergeschichte des späten 19. Jahrhunderts. Sie geben zugleich die Sicht frei auf einschneidende kulturelle Veränderungen und Innovationen, die in diese moderne, hoch technisierte Form von Magie Eingang fanden.

Das Buch wird gebunden 34 Euro kosten und kann z.B. hier bei Amazon vorbestellt werden.

Die Autorin wird darüber auch bei Magica 2020 referieren.

Hier ist sie im Interview mit den Machern des Trickverrat Podcasts zu hören.


 

Historisch-Kunstvolles für Taschenspieler

ABC Witt

Rechtzeitig zu Weihnachten hat Wittus Witt seine neueste, ambitionierte Publikation auf den Markt gebracht: Das A-B-C der Taschenspieler-Kunst. Als Schriftenreihe für Liebhaber geplant, hat sich schon die Erstausgabe zu einem richtigen Buch ausgewachsen: 156 Seiten Umfang, fest gebunden, edel gedruckt, mit Schutzumschlag und diversen Beilagen (Poster-Reprint und Zauberbriefmarken) versehen. Es sollen künftig zwei Ausgaben pro Jahr erscheinen.

Hier gibt es einen flotten Video-Preview:

Da ich selbst mit einem Beitrag vertreten sein darf, fällt mein Urteil natürlich nicht ganz neutral aus, doch unabhängig davon ist dieses Werk aus meiner Sicht ein sprichwörtliches “Muss” zum Blättern, Schmökern und Genießen für jeden Zaubersammler und -historiker!


 

Tenyo würdigt Werry

1954 erfand und vermarktete Werner Geissler-Werry das “Schlangenseil” – ein Seil, das in eine Tüte voller Spielkarten gehalten wird und dort eine vorher gewählte Karte in einer Schlinge “einfängt”. Das Kunststück ist bis heute in Variationen auf dem magischen Markt erhältlich. Nun, ganze 66 Jahre später, kommt es auch in der 2020-Kollektion von Tenyo zu neuen Ehren, unter dem Titel “Miracle Fishing” (T-293) und mit einem neuen Gimmick von Kenichi Komiya.

Tenyo Werry

Schade nur, dass Richard Kaufman im aktuellen Genii Magazine (Dezember 2019) den Urheber fälschlich als “Werry Geissler” bezeichnet…

Alle neuen Tenyo-Tricks für 2020 gibt es hier zu sehen.