Magicians (Illusionists)
The term magician can refer to two distinct areas of practice.
The first refers to those who claim to practice the art of change
by the use of unknown (either natural or supernatural) forces.
Such practice is covered in this encyclopedia under the headings
Ceremonial Magic and Magic. The second connotation
refers to stage illusionists. These represent those who have perfected
acts presenting the same phenomena as those presented
by mediums and psychics. It conjures up many different images
in people, some that extend into the far reaches of one’s
imagination and experience. Since the days of ancient Egypt
and the Pharoahs, magicians have practiced the art of magic.
From the prehistoric caves of Europe and North America, to
ancient Greece and Rome, to the Middle Ages, long before the
days of Vaudeville, and television, archaeological evidence and
historical records show that audiences were held captive by the
masters of trickery and illusion. In America, from the 19th century
success of the American-born illusionist Harry Kellar to
the modern-day magicians, such as Doug Henning and David
Copperfield, have captured the attention of the public.
Since the nineteenth century, when Spiritualism took root
and gained popularity among the general public, magicians
have been skeptical of Spiritualist and psychic claims. Due to
their expertise in the area of illusion, they have been at the
forefront of exposing fraud within the Spiritualist community.
The impetus to the birth of the Spiritualism movement in
America was linked to two sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, who
claimed to be receiving messages ‘‘from beyond’’ in their isolated
farmhouse in 1848. It was the Fox sisters, too, who encouraged
the beginning of what would become a long history of debate
between spiritualists and magic advocates.
The first important challenge to Spiritualism by a magician
occurred right as the movement was just beginning. In 1853 J.
H. Anderson of New York offered a thousand dollars to any
‘‘poverty-stricken medium’’ who would come to his hall and attempt
to produce raps. Spiritualists were already becoming notorious
for calling up the spirits of the dead, often in seances
where the deceased would manifest themselves through a
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knocking on the table where the participants were seated. The
Fox sisters accepted Anderson’s invitation immediately, and
were accompanied by Judge J. W. Edmonds and a Dr. Grey.
However convinced Anderson might have been, he backed out
as they were about to appear. Amid the hisses of the audience,
he refused them admission to the stage.
Magicians Confounded
A few of the most famous magicians acknowledged having
witnessed genuine phenomena. Spiritualists took such acknowledgement
as their blanket approval, and seized upon it.
The clairvoyant powers of Alexis Didier stupefied the famous
conjurer Robert-Houdin. His signed declaration, as published
by Edwin Lee in his book Animal Magnetism (1866), reads ‘‘I
cannot help stating that the facts above related are scrupulously
exact and the more I reflect upon them the more impossible
do I find it to class them among the tricks which are the objects
of my art.’’
In a letter to M. de Mirville, who introduced him to Didier,
Robert-Houdin writes ‘‘I, therefore, came away from this séance
as astonished as anyone can be, and fully convinced that
it would be quite impossible for anyone to produce such surprising
effects by mere skill.’’
The stage magician Leon Bosco used to laugh at those who
thought the phenomena of the famous medium D. D. Home
could be imitated with the resources of his art. The magician
Canti similarly declared to Prince Napoleon that he could ‘‘in
no way account for the phenomena he saw on the principles of
his profession.’’ In the Outlines of Investigation Into Spiritualism,
(1862) by T. Barkas, he also published a letter expressing the
same opinion. Robert-Houdin stated ‘‘I have come away from
that séance as astounded as I could be, and persuaded that it
is perfectly impossible by chance or adroitness to produce such
marvelous effects.’’
The stage magician Hamilton (Pierre Etienne Chocat), successor
of Robert-Houdin, in a letter to the Davenport brothers
published in the Gazette des Etrangers, September 27, 1865, declared
‘‘Yesterday I had the pleasure of being present at the séance
you gave, and came away from it convinced that jealousy alone
was the cause of the outcry raised against you. The phenomena
produced surpassed my expectations; and your experiments
were full of interest for me. I consider it my duty to add that
those phenomena are inexplicable, and the more so by such
persons as have thought themselves able to guess your supposed
secret, and who are, in fact, far indeed from having discovered
the truth.’’
This letter was accompanied by a similar statement from M.
Rhys, a manufacturer of conjuring implements, who examined
the cabinet and instruments of the Davenports. He declared
that the insinuations about them were false and malevolent.
Since the cabinet was completely isolated, all participation in
the manifestations by strangers was absolutely impossible, he
said.
A Professor Jacobs wrote on April 10, 1881, to the editor of
Licht, Mehr Licht about the phenomena that occurred through
the Davenport brothers in Paris ‘‘As a prestidigitator of repute
and a sincere spiritualist, I affirm that the mediumimic facts,
demonstrated by the two brothers were absolutely true, and belonged
to the spiritualistic order of things in every respect.
Messrs. Robin and Robert-Houdin, when attempting to imitate
these said facts, never presented to the public anything beyond
an infantile and almost grotesque parody of the said phenomena,
and it would be only ignorant and obstinate persons who
could regard the question seriously as set forth by these gentlemen.’’
Samuel Bellachini, court conjurer at Berlin, stated in an authenticated
statement given to the medium Henry Slade (later
exposed on several occasions as a fraud) the following
‘‘I must, for the sake of truth, hereby certify that the phenomenal
occurrences with Mr. Slade have been thoroughly examined
by me with the minutest observation and investigation
of his surroundings, including the table, and that I have not in
the smallest degree found anything produced by means of prestidigitative
manifestations, or by mechanical apparatus; and
that any explanation of the experiments which took place
under the circumstances and conditions then obtaining by any
reference to prestidigitation is absolutely impossible. It must
rest with such men of science as Crookes and Wallace in London,
Perty in Berne, Butleroff in St. Petersburg to search for
the explanation of this phenomenal power, and to prove its reality.’’
In January 1882, the great illusionist Harry Kellar witnessed
a levitation of the medium William Eglinton, in Calcutta,
India. Kellar’s account of this appeared in the Proceedings of the
Society for Psychical Research (SPR) (vol. 9, p. 359)
‘‘A circle having been formed, I was placed on Mr. Eglinton’s
left and seized his left hand firmly in my right. Immediately
on the extinction of the lights I felt him rise slowly in the
air and as I retained firm hold of his hand, I was pulled to my
feet, and subsequently compelled to jump on a chair and then
on the table, in order to retain my hold of him. That his body
did ascend into the air on that occasion with an apparently
utter disregard to the law of gravity, there can be no doubt.
What most excited my wonder was the fact, for I may speak of
it as a fact without qualification, that Mr. Eglinton rose from my
side, and, by the hold he had on my right hand, pulled me up
after him, my own body appeared for the time being to have
been rendered nonsusceptible to gravity.’’
In contrast, the case of S. J. Davey is especially noteworthy.
He was a magician who attended slate-writing séances with
Eglinton and was impressed. He studied the problem thoroughly.
In agreement with Dr. Richard Hodgson, he presented
himself as a medium and produced all the characteristic
phenomena of the séance room to the complete satisfaction of
his sitters. An account of his demonstration was published in
the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 4). He revealed that he did everything
by trickery; but many committed believers did not believe
it. Even Alfred Russel Wallace suggested that Davey was
also a good physical medium and had produced phenomena
supernormally since he exhibited the characteristic physiological
symptoms of trance convulsions.
The two most tenacious magician opponents of Spiritualism,
J. N. Maskelyne and Harry Houdini, focused public attention
on themselves for many years. Both led crusades
against mediums. Houdini had sought solace in spiritualism
following the death of his beloved mother in 1913. He quickly
saw through the deception that ran through many of the
claims, and was even more adamant in his denunciation, perhaps,
since he felt personally battered from his own experiences.
In the preface to his book, Miracle Mongers and Their
Methods, Houdini said that,
‘‘Much has been written about the feats of miracle-mongers,
and not a little in the way of explaining them. Chaucer was by
no means the first to turn shrewd eyes upon wonder-workers
and show the clay feet of these popular idols. And since his time
innumerable marvels, held to be supernatural, have been exposed
for the tricks they were. Yet to-day, if a mystifier lack the
ingenuity to invent a new and startling stunt, he can safely fall
back upon a trick that has been the favorite of press agents the
world over in all ages.’’
Maskelyne, nevertheless, did not absolutely discredit the
paranormal, as revealed by a letter he wrote to the Daily Telegraph
in 1881 ‘‘It may surprise some of your readers to learn
that I am a believer in apparitions. Several similar occurrences
to those described by many of your correspondents have taken
place in my own family, and in the families of near friends and
relations.’’
In the Pall Mall Gazette of April 20, 1885, Maskelyne acknowledges
the phenomenon of table turning as genuine. He
declared that Faraday’s explanation was insufficient and some
psychic or nerve force was responsible for the result. At the
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same time he asserted that he could imitate any Spiritualistic
phenomenon provided his own apparatus, which weighed
more than a ton, was at his disposal.
Many later psychical researchers were amateur conjurers
(notably Hereward Carrington, Harry Price, and W. W. Baggally)
who were well acquainted with the tricks of the trade.
A conjurer’s performance may in fact afford evidence that
the phenomena produced by the medium are genuine. Admiral
Usborne Moore (Glimpses of the Next State, 1911) saw a conjurer
reproduce the phenomena of the Bangs sisters on the
stage. The effect was crude at first, although very satisfactory
afterward. But the point, Moore remarked, was that the conjurer’s
conditions were as different from the conditions of the
Bangs sisters’ séances as a locomotive boiler is different from
a teapot. Moore’s efforts finally convinced him that he had witnessed
genuine spirit manifestations with the Bangs sisters.
After the Reverend F. W. Monck was accused of fraud in
1876, Archdeacon Thomas Colley offered a thousand pounds
to J. N. Maskelyne if he could duplicate Monck’s materialization
performance. Maskelyne accepted the challenge. His performance
was declared unsatisfactory. He sued for the money
and lost his reputation when Colley won. Sir Hiram Maxim, the
great inventor, later challenged Maskelyne to produce a psychic
effect he had seen in the United States under the same
conditions, but Maskelyne refused. The challenge and its result
were described by the inventor in a pamphlet, Maxim versus
Maskelyne (1910).
The descendants of J. N. Maskelyne followed in his footsteps.
Capt. Clive Maskelyne issued a challenge in February
1925, when the visit of the medium ‘‘Margery’’ (Mina Crandon)
to England was reported, that he could produce any of the
phenomena she had produced in America. Spiritualist author
H. Dennis Bradley, in an interview for the Daily Sketch, promised
a hundred guineas to Maskelyne if he could duplicate the
Valiantine phenomena. Maskelyne at first accepted, but withdrew
when he heard what was expected from him.
In 1930 psychical researcher Harry Price offered one thousand
pounds to any conjurer who could repeat Rudi Schneider’s
phenomena under the same conditions. Nobody came
forward. A skit, under the title Olga, was produced instead, in
imitation of Schneider’s phenomena at the Coliseum Theatre
(‘‘Olga’’ was Schneider’s claimed spirit control). Harry Price
publicly challenged Noel Maskelyne from the stage of that theater
on December 10, 1929, to simulate by trickery, for £250,
one single phenomenon of Rudi Schneider’s under the identical
conditions imposed by the National Laboratory of Psychical
Research. Maskelyne refused.
Will Goldston, one of the greatest professional magicians in
Europe, author of 40 works on legerdemain, founder and former
president of the Magicians’ Club of London, declared in
the Sunday Graphic, December 2, 1929, concerning Schneider’s
phenomena ‘‘I am convinced that what I saw at the séance was
not trickery. No group of my fellow-magicians could have produced
those effects under such conditions.’’
Goldston tells the story of his conversion to Spiritualism in
Secrets of Famous Illusionists (London, 1933). Two of his great fellow
magicians—Ottokar Fischer of Vienna, and Harry Rigoletto—were
quite accepting of psychic phenomena.
In the Sunday Dispatch (August 1931), Goldston testifies
about Hazel Ridley and her direct voice phenomena as follows
‘‘Miss Ridley sat at a table in our midst, and without the use
of trumpets or any of the usual paraphernalia spoke in three
different voices. No ventriloquist could possibly produce the effect
this girl produced, and I say that after a long experience
of ventriloquists. First there was a powerful, clear, man’s voice,
ringing through the room in tones one would have thought no
woman’s throat could have produced. The next voice, a very
quiet one, like that of a child of six or seven years of age, added
to my surprise. The third guide also spoke in a woman’s or a
child’s voice, but quite unlike the normal voice of the medium.
The séance lasted an hour and three quarters.’’
A year later he also spoke up in favor of Helen Duncan and
declared that he was not aware of any system of trickery that
could achieve the astounding results he witnessed. Still, others
testified that Duncan’s phenomena were fraudulent on some
occasions.
Goldston also believed, as did many others, that Houdini
was a great psychic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle devoted about
sixty pages in The Edge of the Unknown (1930) to the claim that
Houdini was really a medium masquerading as a conjurer.
Whatever the true nature of Houdini’s inner belief, his demonstrations
during the Scientific American investigation of the
mediumship of ‘‘Margery’’ (Mina Crandon) did not greatly add
to his prestige. The exposures that he publicized throughout
the United States were not supported by substantial proof, and
privately he backed away from some of his public absolutist admissions.
For example, on January 5, 1925, he wrote to Harry Price
‘‘Another strange thing happened with the aid of the spirit
slates I produced a photograph of Mrs. Crandon’s brother,
Walter, who was killed, and of all the miracles in the world, I
ran across the photograph of the boy as he was crushed between
the engine and the tender of the train, and which was
taken one minute before he died. . .I doubt very much if there
are any duplicates about’’ (Light, August 12, 1932).
Houdini was a clever magician, but considered narrowminded.
According to Doyle, he died disbelieving that the phenomena
of hypnotism were genuine. Houdini and Conan Doyle
(1933), by Bernard M. L. Ernst and Hereward Carrington, contains
many interesting letters about Houdini’s strange adventures
in psychic realms.
Modern Debates
With the death of Houdini in 1926 and the decline of physical
phenomena in the 1930s, the warfare between Spiritualism
and the world of stage conjuring faded, although it by no
means died out. It entered the next era during the occult revival
of the 1960s, with renewed claims of physical phenomena.
As public attention to the paranormal again emerged, Milbourne
Christopher, a modern illusionist skeptic and member
of the Occult Committee of the Society of American Magicians,
wrote several books attacking some of the more obvious problems
with psychics and the occult.
The continuing issues between magicians and psychics became
a public controversy, however, with the advent of Uri
Geller, an Israeli psychic who claimed extraordinary powers of
psychokinesis (starting old watches, bending metal spoons)
and telepathy. He impressed several psychical researchers, and
Andrija Puharich extolled his abilities in a 1974 book. Christopher
was possibly the first to publicly suggest that sleight-ofhand
and mentalist tricks accounted for Geller’s success.
The Geller controversy brought to the fore Canadian-born
magician James Randi (stage name ‘‘The Amazing Randi’’),
who had helped organize the Committee for the Scientific Investigation
of Claims of the Paranormal and subsequently assumed
the mantle of Houdini as the archenemy of psychic phenomena
and psychics. Randi claimed to be able to duplicate
Geller’s feats of telepathy and metal bending by trickery. He accused
Geller of deception. Their battle was in the forefront of
television talk and variety shows throughout the 1970s. Every
well-known television host from Merv Griffin to Phil Donahue
presented the issue to the American public. When Randi wrote
his book, The Magic of Uri Geller (1975), both men continued
through the 1980s and 1990s with legal battles resulting from
the accusations the two exchanged about each other. Randi
went on to challenge other psychic claims, explaining to audiences
the techniques used by fake occultists.
Master illusionist Doug Henning (d. 2000) was considered
by many to be the one responsible for the revival of magic because
of his live stage and television performances in the 1970s.
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Henning, dressed in the uniform of his generation—blue jeans
and a tie-dyed shirt—began to transform magic into a primetime
spectacle. With regular network television specials, and
three Broadway shows, he rekindled the public’s interest in the
glamour of magic. As Randi told Time in a 1974 article the newfound
interest in magic was, ‘‘a sign that our society is still
healthy. When people stop being enthralled by a magician who
can make a lady vanish, it will mean that the world has lost its
most precious possession its sense of wonder.’’
With other famous magicians and illusionists such as, Harry
Blackstone, Jr. (d. 1997), Penn and Teller, and David Copperfield,
magic moved to the grandeur of Las Vegas, and television
screens across the world by the end of the twentieth century.
Furor entered the public once again in the late-1990s when the
Fox television network presented a series of specials which set
out to reveal the secrets behind the magician’s trade. Although
many famous magicians protested the airing of these specials,
they proceeded nonetheless. Regardless of whether they revealed
any secrets, the specials did not succeed in quieting the
public’s fascination with magic. In 1999, magician David Blaine
stirred up extreme media and public attention by burying himself
alive for a week. The media kept close guard to make certain
no tricks were used, and Blaine became a cult-hero by lasting
out the week and conducting exclusive interviews with
television and newspapers.
As the battle rages between those who have come to accept
the existence of psychic phenomena and those skeptical of all
such claims, both sides have attempted to make use of the work
of the magicians. Skeptics have pointed to the exposures of
fraud as a good reason to dismiss all claims of paranormal occurrences.
Believers, on the other hand, have pointed out that
magicians have done a good job in helping them to uncover
fraud and drive fakes from the arena of the genuine. The work
of magicians and others within the Spiritualist and psychic
community in exposing fraud helps define the boundary of real
psychic occurrences. It does not speak to the body of parapsychological
research or to the experiences of hundreds of thousands
of believers.
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