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!


 

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).


 

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?!

<<>>>


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!


 

 

Revealed: Magic Tricks Displayed on Playing Cards (2)

For Part 1, click here!

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 Diamonds: Palming Cards

KingofDiamonds

This image was more tricky to decipher than the others for the researchers, as it was hiding its secret in plain sight! But team member Liam Erdnus finally cracked the code: The artist’s hand is evidently shown empty, yet the body profile (necessarily turned sideways) and the familiar position of the flat hand and the fingers tightly pressing against each other can only lead to one scholarly conclusion: This artist is an early master of the back palm, and he is just about to make a playing card (or even more?) appear!

KingofDiamonds_close

According to research fellow Grennart Leen, it is not unlikely that this particular image served as the inspiration for young Harry Houdini to bill himself as the “King of Kards” in 1895. He also sharply rejects the notion recently suggested by Prof. Silke Kloeppelt from the University of Yarnmouth that the diamond pip is supposed to represent a red handkerchief which has just appeared out of the the artist’s empty hand, unfolding in flight. “This idea is really off-center! It escapes me how any serious scholar of our pasteboard art could come up with woofledust like that,” Leen says in the upcoming paper in Glibecière.

The Jack of Hearts: Color-Changing Silk

JackofHearts

This image has fooled and mislead many a scholar — until now! Traditionalists among cardboard historians have always held up the romantic belief that the Jack of Hearts represents a sensitive, woeful lover writing moanful poems to his mistress crush with a quill. Duh!

Magic researchers know better now. Just look at the tight grip of the hand: “You don’t hold a feather in an unnatural position like that when you want to write something,” explains junior researcher Reinhard Pithart-Muellinger. Thus, the closed fist likely covers an early dye tube, and what we see is the artful display of two different silks as one in order to perform the now classic color-changing silk trick!

It is wisely assumed that the lower tip of the silk was once printed in red color to emphasize the effect in action, but this detail obviously got lost over time in the declining craft of fine printing of playing cards, as it moved on into the age of less careful mass production.

JackofHearts_close

<<>>>

Check out Part 3 now with more exciting discoveries!


 

 

Revealed: Magic Tricks Displayed on Playing Cards (1)

Cardicians and card historians, take notice: Recent research conducted at the Schaffel College for Industrial Pasteboard Paraphernalia in Ryffling, Denmark has revealed astonishing facts about some of the key images of our beloved standard poker playing cards: Most of the men and women on court cards are actually portrayed performing magic tricks! And the biggest trick of all: This open display of the magical skills of some Jacks, Queens and Kings has gone wildly unnoticed in our card-crazy community for at least 100 years!

“In the light of these exciting revelations, the history of some classics of magic may need some serious reshuffling,” says Gioberto Robbi, research director and current chef artist in residence at Schaffel College. The results of his team’s research are currently under benevolent peer review and will likely be published in an upcoming issue of the renowned magic history magazine, Fibecière.

Thanks to our tightly-knit global research network, we are happy and proud to offer you an exclusive sneak preview here over the next few days. Read along and marvel with us why we all haven’t spotted these obvious performances from the past before?!

The Jack of Spades: Paddle Trick

JackofSpades

His magic prop is obviously a paddle, likely made of wood, big enough for good visibility in the spacious parlors and ballrooms at any Renaissance court. The artist displayed here is left-handed and just about to execute the paddle move.

JackofSpades_close

Robbi and his research team believe that the diamond shape in the middle of the paddle could not only be made to appear and disappear, but also to jump freely to the top and the bottom of the paddle. This is possible due to some clever flipping mechanism probably furnished by Johann Gaugann the Elder in the early 18th century! (Further proof pending.)

The Queen of Spades: Torn and Restored Paper

QueenofSpades

Once set on the magic trail, it doesn’t take an expert to realize that the female artist on display here has just torn a royally imprinted sheet of fine handcrafted paper, and she is about to magically restore it instantly.

QueenofSpades_close

Notice the flowers which are held in each hand, apparently serving, just like a magic wand, for misdirection and for the concealment of the secret paper ball in one hand!

Robbi speculates that this trick may have been a simple forerunner of the later and more elaborate illusion of cutting, burning and restoring a royal silk handkerchief.

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Check out Part 2 now with more exciting discoveries!


 

 

Card Magic: McDonald’s (Tr)Aces – Fast Food for Thought

Aces Three_FS

Every cardist knows this classic of card magic, but many have probably missed so far both the inherent discrepancy and a choice of effect that come with it when performed as everybody else does. This aspect was briefly discussed within a bigger thread on the Genii Forum recently.

The regular description of the trick goes something like this (quoted from Magicpedia here): It is “an Ace Assembly … where four Aces are shown, placed face up on the table, and covered with three other cards. One by one the Aces vanish from three piles, assembling together under the fourth pile held by the spectator.”

Now, what is the effect?

I think this describes the effect well from a spectator’s perspective. The key word is “vanish” here. What actually happens in most versions, though, as some magicians were quick to point out, is that the Aces do not actually vanish; they (are supposed to) transpose with three other cards which were (seemingly) put onto the fourth Ace in the beginning. To make it even more complicated, the way the trick is usually presented, this effect only happens in hindsight, once it is completed, that is with rediscovering the three Aces in the fourth pile. Until then, the perceived effect was much rather either a one-by-one vanish or a transformation of each Ace into a different card. So the effect changes as the trick progresses: Three individual vanishes or changes turn out to have been one third of a final transposition. Quite confusing, ey?

Two more thoughts from the discussion to make matters even worse: If the Aces actually vanished (= three cards left per pile) and then just reappeared in the fourth pile, there should be a total of seven cards then, not four, right? If not, what happened to the three indifferent cards that took their seats there in the beginning? Where did they go, and when and where will they return?

As mentioned above, this is likely nothing spectators will ever wrestle with; they may be content to take home that the three Aces somehow magically found their way from their piles to their pal in the fourth pile. No questions asked.

Structural and visual clarity

Right, so what’s the big deal? No big deal, but I feel it is our responsibility to carve out the intended effect as clearly as we can. If this is about an artful transposition, we probably need to stage it as one and make this point clearer visually. But many of us simply show a bunch of high black number cards, which are impossible to remember (for a good reason), so they cannot contribute to the concept of transposition which demands that you can clearly identify the objects involved in order to acknowledge the final effect.

Thus, a better option could be to use, for example, three Jacks, Queens and Kings for the three piles and then add the fourth Jack, Queen and King (seemingly) to the fourth Ace. If we now turn the three Aces into the missing Jack, Queen and King in their three respective piles and find the four Aces together, the transposition effect would be hard to miss, wouldn’t it?

Another option (which has even more visual merit and clarity, I think) would be to put three blank-faced cards onto the fourth Ace and then turn each of the other three Aces into a blank.

However, I do prefer the plot of vanishing the three Aces from their piles, which means that three cards instead of four are put to the table after each vanish. That’s why I like the versions of Gary Ouellet/Chris Kenner/David Copperfield and Jean-Pierre Vallarino so much. I never tire of watching the sheer beauty and artistic quality of the card changes. Both also offer fine solutions for the finale.

I believe this concept has two extra points worth mentioning: First, vanishing one of four playing cards seems more impossible (or at least more difficult) than changing it into a different one. Second, you don’t see the climax of the Ouellet routine coming, whereas the ending of the traditional version suffers slightly from its predictable outcome after the vanish (or whatever) of the third Ace.

Another easy version to climax without a discrepancy would be to find the three “lost” Aces in the card box, together with the formerly isolated “leader Ace”, as has been suggested in the Genii Forum discussion.

In short, this is an interesting example of how the planned and the perceived plot may differ significantly from the magician’s and the spectator’s point of view. Plus, we are reminded here that only minor changes in handling or presentation can actually change a trick’s effect from vanishes or transformations to reappearances or transpositions. And because of that we are also reminded to always keep the effect, the handling and the visual imagery as clear as possible to avoid any confusion, which may only diminish the perceived effect and its recall later on the spectator’s side.

A clear vertical version

As a side note, here’ another visual version that also gives the trick a nice vertical dimension of presentation for parlor or stage: Put each Ace into a wine glass with their face towards the audience. Add three cards each to the first three Aces and put a silk over the glass with the fourth Ace (which seems to be left on its own). Take one pile after the other from their glasses, make the three Aces disappear one by one and then return each pile of only three cards to their glasses. Now lift the silk briefly to display the leader Ace again in the fourth glass. Then whisk away the silk over the glass as you rotate it in familiar fashion and show another Ace up front. Take out the pile and slowly spread all four Aces. Ta-daa! (Obviously, this handling would call for another D/F with the same Ace on its front and back.)

Just some thoughts.