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Straight From the Devil

by CHARLES R. LARSON

In my teenage days as an amateur magician, I would have killed for a book like this.  Well, maybe not killed but died certainly—one of those fake endings that professional magicians are wont to suggest by their elaborate illusions, before they bring the person (sawed in half, buried alive, and so on) back to life. Not that this book would have provided me with the explanations of how those unbelievable illusions work—because it does not do that—but, instead, it’s a history of magic documented almost exclusively by posters, paintings and photographs.

Magic is a gorgeous tribute to the professional tricksters down through the centuries, a gigantic oversized book weighing in at more than ten pounds and running 500 pages plus.  Every magician you have ever heard of—and plenty of others during the 550 years covered by the book—is presented here by the elegant posters these fakers used to attract audiences in the days before media publicity.  The text (in English, German, and French) is intentionally limited, mostly brief captions for the illustrations and short introductions to each historical section.

Daniel’s one-page foreword provides an impressive context: “By wand or wit, a skilled magician can fling open the doors to a parallel universe of baffling possibility, piquing the far reaches of human imagination.  Magicians upend our assumptions about the way the world works, making us literally not believe our eyes.  The doubt is magic’s power.  But this doubt is also the audience’s reward, a reminder of the pleasure of uncertainty and the virtue of suspended belief.  Magic seems to tell us that the real danger is not in appearing to consort with the Devil or bend the laws of nature, but in thinking that we already know all there is to know.”  Then, Daniel adds, “The images in this book are metaphors for the mental gymnastics of illusion.”  Magicians are the “true pioneers of special effects….”

Mentioning the Devil is no minor accident because hundreds of the posters reproduced in Magic include devil images—sometimes dozens of tiny, red Devil figures.  The implication is that magic is something unworldly, naughty perhaps, forbidden, or “toasting the devil,” as one magician described it. At the turn of the twentieth century, the popular magician Chung Ling Soo (who was magicdanielnot Asian but an Englishman) pretended to be Chinese.  Double indemnity?  He wasn’t Chinese and he wasn’t doing what he appeared to be doing.  Perhaps that’s the element that unlocks so much of the diabolical mystery about magic. As the book documents, there were plenty of other magicians with pseudonyms and fake ethnicities.  Very few women entered the profession which also says something about gender and perhaps even honesty.  But I don’t want to go too far in that direction.

Early on, magicians were often associated with side-shoes and circuses.  There’s an engraving from 1651 in the book that shows Blaise Manfre, from Malta.  He’s called a water spouter because he “drank water and then spewed it out it long, graceful streams.  Sometimes, he changed the liquid to wine, beer, oil, or milk.” He’s a one-trick pony because that’s all he could do.  Then was Thauma who “appeared to be a living half woman” from the waist up.  That’s all you saw: the top half of her.  And there were dozens of other “freaks”: the headless living woman, the spider woman, the woman without a body (note that they are all women, which again tells us something).

The magician, Andress, captured an aspect of the disembodiment of these women in his own magic show.  A poster of the magician shows him sitting on a chair, holding his head in one hand, a bloody sword in the other, and a figure of the Devil wrapped around one of the legs of the chair.  The poster sums it up: “Andress’ latest mystery sensation, in which, in full view of the audience, he apparently decapitates himself and, while holding his head in his own hand, converses with the awe-stricken onlookers, and ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ is again restored to normal conditions and walks smilingly to the footlights, to the great relief of the astonished auditors.  No cabinet is used, no curtain is drawn, no one on the stage but ANDRESS himself.”  No surprise that the editors of Magic state that posters of magic shows often distorted what viewers actually saw on stage with their own eyes.

There are paintings by Bruegal, Bosch, and Caravaggio replete with grotesque figures and devils more animal-like than human in form.  Witchcraft was one obvious antecedent of magic as we think of it today.  Ditto hocus pocus, black magic, ventriloquism, spiritualism—all terms bantered about by magicians for centuries.  The filmmaker Georges Méliès had begun his career as a stage magician.  It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that fully-staged magic shows evolved into touring companies with the big names who changed the image into the super magician with commercial success: Robert-Houdin, Alexander Herrmann, Harry Keller, Carter the Great, and, of course, Houdini.  Carter’s 1926 lithograph includes images of the Sphinx and a Bedouin, the ubiquitous Devil figures and Carter himself riding a camel.  The print at the bottom of the poster reads: “Sweeps the secrets of the sphinx and marvels of the tomb of old King Tut to the modern world.”  Thus, the exotic, non-Western, Orientalism that had been present much of the time in magic shows persisted.  Even Carter’s 1933 “Temple of Mystery” at the Chicago World’s Fair continued the motif.

It was Houdini who shifted the profession to one of physical skill and exertion, introducing chains, water chambers, jail cells and locks of all kinds—becoming the world’s most famous escape artist.  A famous 1903 photograph of Houdini wrapped in chains (and thus appearing as if he is wearing no clothing) led to Walter Gibson’s observation that “Houdini was a Barnum who was also a freak, a one-of-a kind attraction who sold himself to the world. The famous image of the young escape artist casts Houdini as both victim and hero,” and, I might add, tortured.   Houdini popularized magic like no one had ever done before; there were several silent movies that he starred in; even an African-American imitator referred to as the “Black Houdini.”  Houdini’s career garners the most space in the volume with dozens of photos taken all over the world of the man escaping every imaginable container on land and in sea.

The name of one famous person in Magic is curious because it appears twice: Arthur Conan Doyle.  The author of the Sherlock Holmes stories was interested in spiritualism and a friend of Houdini.  The first reference: “When two young girls in Cottingley, England, claimed to have photographed fairies in a local garden, Doyle investigated and found the girls trustworthy.”  Much has been written about this incident, including a fascinating novel, Photographing Fairies, by Steve Szilagyi, published in 1993.  The second reference to Doyle in Magic is a statement by one of the book’s contributors that Doyle, “a believer in psychic phenomena, was convinced that Houdini was able to dematerialize his body to accomplish [his] marvels.” I mention both of these references to Doyle, who was believed to be a rational man, given to the same logic as his creation, Sherlock Holmes.

If Doyle was able to suspend rational thinking so thoroughly, what does this say for the average person in the audience of a magic show?  The answer is that human gullibility has always been with us and, therefore, magicians need not worry that their futures are insecure.  So read get a copy of Magic before all the copies disappear from bookstores.  They’re too big to be shop-lifted, so they must be disappearing by some other means.  If you send me a check for $100.00, I’ll explain how.

Noel Daniel, ed: Magic: 1400s-1950s

Taschen, 544 pp. (boxed), $75.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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