Random Research: Magic, 1400s-1950s

Magic, 1400s to 1950s – edited by Mike Caveney, Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay, Noel Daniel

Product description (from Amazon):

The scientists of showbiz. Magic has enchanted humankind for millennia, evoking terror, laughter, shock and amazement. Once persecuted as heretics and sorcerers, magicians have always been conduits to a parallel universe of limitless possibility – whether invoking spirits, reading minds, or inverting the laws of nature by sleight of hand. Long before science fiction, virtual realities, video games, and the Internet, the craft of magic was the most powerful fantasy world man had ever known. As the true pioneers of special effects in human history, magicians have never ceased to mystify by perpetually making the impossible possible. This book celebrates 500 years of the dazzling visual culture of the world’s greatest magicians. Featuring over 1,000 rarely seen vintage posters, photographs, handbills, and engravings in one 640-page volume, it traces the history of magic as a performing art from the 1470s through the post-WWII years. Through sensational images and clear and insightful accompanying text, “Magic” explores the evolution of the magician’s craft, from its early street performers to the brilliant stage magicians who gave rise to early cinematic special effects; from the 19th century’s “Golden Age of Magic” to groundbreaking daredevils like Houdini and the vaudevillians of the early 20th century.

Review and Response:

I bought Taschen’s giant circus book when revising Pantomime (see review here). I found it incredibly helpful and really wanted this book, but damn if it wasn’t expensive. When I got my book deal, my husband bought it for me as a congratulations present for my sequel. Well-played, husband, well-played.

I thought the Circus book was big. This one is even more gigantic–clocking in at 16 pounds and around 650 oversized pages. I could weight-lift with this thing. I could hit someone with it and do some serious damage.

The book is separated into subsections:

Foreword: Wizards of Wonder

Introduction: To Please and Cheat the Sight

Chapter 1: Conjuring Life and Death: The Essence of Illusion

Chapter 2: Devilish Deception: The Origins of Wonder

Chapter 3: From Black Magic to Modern Magic

Chapter 4: The Supernatural and the Spirit Worlds

Chapter 5: Masters of the Golden Age

Chapter 6: The Great Touring Shows

Chapter 7: Chains, Blades, Bullets, and Fire: Daring and Danger in Magic

Chapter 8: Magic in Vaudeville and Nightclubs

As with the Circus book, each Chapter was in English, German, and French, along with all the captions of the photos. The essays are well-written and give insight into overarching trends in the history of magic. So many magicians had different personalities and styles. This book touches on both the ones well-remembered today–Houdini, Thurston, Kellar, Carter–and some of the lesser-known ones, like Ionia. The lithographic posters are extraordinarily lovely, and some have two-page spreads. Some of them are quite rare. This book is absolutely gorgeous, and if you’re a magic afficianado, it’s a must-read to have a clearer idea of how magicians have evolved over the years to reflect the cultural zeitgeist. Through the years, we’ve grown more cynical, and the audience became increasingly aware that magicians were fooling us, but enjoying the tricks all the same.

Image from Erin Morgenstern’s blog

Want to see more magic stuff? Check out my Pinterest boards – Magic Posters and Magic Photography.

Random Research: Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible – Jim Steinmeyer

This is one of the main resources for my WIP, the sequel to Pantomime.

Back copy:

In 1918 Harry Houdini performed a single illusion that has been hotly debated ever since: he made a live elephant disappear on stage. How did he do it? The answer lies in this dazzling tale of innovation, chicanery and keen competition that is the backstage story of the golden age of magic. Hiding the Elephant chronicles the race among history’s most legendary conjurers to make things levitate and disappear. A master illusionist and captivating storyteller, Steinmeyer introduces us to the eccentric personalities behind floating ghosts, disembodied heads and vanishing ladies and takes us backstage to reveal the mechanics of their mysteries. He carries us to a time when Queen Victoria held private seances and all of England believed in magic.

‘Simply the finest, best told, most graceful history of the Golden Age of magic I’ve ever read. It belongs on that elite shelf of historical explorations, like Longitude or The Professor and the Madman, which are so entertaining, so informative, that the reader with no prior interest will feel educated and enthralled on every page… A terrific yarn.’ — Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil

I’d agree with Gold. The language and organisation of this book was perfect. I sank into it almost as I would a fiction book, which is high praise indeed. Steinmeyer obviously has such an overwhelming interest and love of magic, and that comes through the pages. It was fascinating to learn more about the greatest magicians of the age.

Magicians are sneaky. Many of them had long-standing feuds, stole each other’s tricks and names, and found ways to slight each other. Some pretended to be from other countries to give themselves a more exotic air. Many of them became hugely successful, making relatively as much as an A-list celebrity would these days. But they were not easy lives, doing 2 or 3 shows a day 7 days a week for months sometimes, or traveling from city to city around the world.

Another aspect of this book that makes it very interesting is that Steinmeyer explains some of the famous illusions shown onstage during the Golden Age of Magic. The Circle of Magic probably wasn’t very happy about that. But I find that learning the secrets behind the trick does not take enjoyment away. It makes me respect them all the more, for some of these are so complicated and require everything to be done just so. Even with the description and the diagrams, I still didn’t quite see how they could work onstage.

If you have an interest in magic, this is an excellent starting point for an overview of the greatest era of magic.

Random Research: Stuff You Missed in History Class (Part 2)

Here are some other podcasts I’ve been listening to lately:

1.Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim – Queen Victoria loved two men: Prince Albert, and after his death, her servant, John Brown. Late in life, the Queen had a third partner, a Muslim man named Abdul Karim. So why did Victoria’s children want the records of this relationship destroyed?

2. Don’t Cross the Dragon Lady – When people think of pirates, they usually picture male, western scoundrels flouting the law throughout the Caribbean. However, piracy is not a solely western pursuit. Listen in as Deblina and Sarah recount the exploits of pirates in the South China Sea.

3. The Last Emperor of Ethiopia – Haile Selassie wasn’t just the last emperor of Ethiopia — he is also hailed as a messiah. In this episode, Deblina and Sarah explore the astonishing life of Haile Selassie.

4. The Affair of Poisons – From hemlock to cyanide, poison has unfortunately played an integral part in many of history’s great sagas, But in 17th-century France, the scandal over poisoning reached an unprecedented level. Tune in and learn more.

5. Hone Heke’s Rebellion – Also known as the Northern War, Hone Heke’s Rebellion took place between in New Zealand over the course of 1845 and 1846. In this podcast, Sarah and Deblina recount the events leading up to the war — as well as the consequences of Heke’s actions.

6. Tycho Brahe: An Astronomer’s Untimely Demise – Tycho Brahe is hailed as an influential astronomer, but why? Tune in and learn how this groundbreaking astronomer lost his nose, built the world’s first observatory and met with an untimely demise in this podcast.

7. Who Was the Real Sherlock Holmes? – Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t the first person to write a mystery novel, but his focus on scientific methods and brilliant protagonist made the stories of Sherlock Holmes world-famous. Yet is Sherlock Holmes based on a real person?

8. The Cinderella of the Harem – Roxelana has one of the strangest rags-to-riches stories in history. As a slave who entered Suleyman’s harem and rose through the ranks to become the wife of the Sultan, Roxelana became a symbol of the Ottoman empire.

9. He was Killed by Mesmerism – Today, Franz Mesmer is hailed as the father of hypnosis. His original pursuit was called mesmerism, but what exactly was it? How did it (supposedly) work?

10. Spring-Heeled Jack, Mystery Assailant! – Most people are familiar with Jack the Ripper, but Victorian England was also plagued by an odd character named Spring-Heeled Jack. Were reports of this bounding scoundrel a symptom of mass hysteria, or something factual?

Random Research: Hocus Pocus by Paul Kieve

I’m doing quite a lot of these random research posts just now…but there’s not a lot else to blog about. I’m spending my days writing and refreshing my inbox every 5 minutes. And so, onward!

When I listened to the History of Magic podcast series, one of the episodes interviewed Paul Kieve, who did some work on the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film (hence the introduction by Daniel Radcliffe). Kieve mentioned that he had a book coming out, and so I picked it up as a starting point for my research on magicians.

The book is targeted at MG kids, and is framed around Paul, as a young magician in the Egyptian theatre, interacting with the great magicians of the past, who come out of their posters that line his office. Each magician explains his past and discusses the tricks he was best known for. The book is also dotted with some simple tricks for readers to try on their own at home.

It was a quick, delightful little read. The frame narrative made the book interesting and I could see it entrancing younger kids. From my other research into the history of magic, I came across so many instances of magicians seeing a travelling show when they were around 11-14, and that sparking their lifelong obsession with magic. However, once I worked my way into adult biographies of magicians, I did notice all the salacious details that Kieve understandably left out.

Definitely recommended for the MG age group.

Random Research: Smoke & Mirrors Podcast

For my day job, I work as a document controller, which is basically a corporate librarian. I issue documents to clients and ensure they adhere to our QA procedures. Excuse you–please cover your mouth when you yawn.

For quite a lot of my time per week, I’m saving emails and documents to a database. This is very boring. It is hard to concentrate on it for long periods of time. In fact, it’s impossible. Unless I’m listening to a podcast. I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting ones, so if you know any that seem to be in the vein of what I like to research, please do pass them my way.

Smoke & Mirrors is a 10-part podcast produced by Resonance FM and features various members and non-members of the Circle of Magic, or the British society of magicians. The earlier episodes speak a bit about the history of magic and also focus on the modern application of magic and the different types, with a bit of magical-related news thrown in for good measure.

I was enchanted from the first episode, when the Executive Librarian of the Circle of Magic (aka the man with one of the Best. Jobs. Ever.) speaks for a bit about the history of magic. Each podcast features a guest, such as: Paul Kieve, the magic consultant in the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film, Marc Paul, a mentalist, Paul Daniels, who had a successful TV magic show for many years and inspired a generation of magicians, Professor Richard Wiseman, who is a psychologist as well as a magician, Jonathan Goodwin, an escapologist, John Lenahan, who was kicked out of the Circle of Magic for exposing secrets, Fay Presto, a female close-up magician who has performed for the Queen multiple times, and others.

My three favourite episodes were Epsidoe 1, which focused the most on the history of magic; Episode 3, which looked more at the theatrics of magic; and Episode 9, with Fay Presto, which examined the gender inequality in magic. Fay is the top female magician in the UK, and she is also trans. According to The Independent, she was kicked out of the Circle of Magic when she transitioned because females aren’t allowed in the group (to which I say–WTF). She makes fascinating arguments as to why there aren’t as many female magicians–using the props of magic can almost be considered a crutch, and many women perform openly without that crutch, for in dance and music the gender split is a lot more even. Fay is also a firecracker and I chuckled more than once as I saved yet another email. If you only have time to listen to one of the ten part series–listen to the one with Fay.