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The Art of the Impossible
In the Beginning, there was magic in the world. There was the magic of day and night, of wind and clouds and of the tides, which were alive and moved at the thunderbidding of unknown gods.
And there was the magic of birth and of life and the disturbing, impenetrable magic of death.
And to the first people, who had come down out of primeval trees to crouch in caves against long nights of fear, everything was magic. Some of it was white magic and good, but mostly it was black magic and bad.
And so they called upon their priests and wizards, who wrought magic charms and incantations against the terrors of death and darkness, thunder and lightning, blood and destruction, and fabricated rude talismans and amulets to placate the unknown gods.... That was in the Beginning.
—JOHN NORTHERN HILLIARD
Magic probably began in the time of primitive cave dwellers. Magicians claimed the power of the supernatural — power to control the darkness and the unseen spirits that inhabited the night. Magicians stood between cave dwellers and primitive man's fear of the unknown, and because of this, praises were sung to the early magicians, and privileges granted to them.
The earliest written record of a magical performance is found in the Westcar papyrus and tells of the feats of the magician Dedi before the Egyptian king Cheops. The performance was probably given about five thousand years ago. In the intervening centuries, soothsayers and prophets abounded, mystics plied their trade, miracle workers continued to claim their control over the forces of good and evil. There was little knowledge in the world in those times, and hence much superstition and fear. Witches and demons flourished, to be confronted only by those who held the secrets of proper spells, amulets, charms, and mumbo jumbo.
There were priests in ancient times who exorcised demons, told fortunes, worked miracles, consulted oracles. There were magicians who caused the crops to grow and the rain to fall; magicians who understood the changes of the moon; magicians who delved deeply into the study of tides, the shifting patterns of stars; scryers, sorcerers, charlatans parading through the centuries to answer the needs of those who wanted a glimpse into the unknown.
The Sumero-Akkadians used the word imga for priest. The Assyrians later changed the word to maga; their high priest was Rab-mag. The Persian word, and the Latin word magus, probably came from the Chaldean, and from the Persians came the words for the priests and oracles of the Greeks and Romans.
The written history of magic now picks up with Biblical literature. We read where God sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh to vie with Egyptian magicians for superiority. Another trace is found in the story of Joseph who interpreted the Egyptian king's dreams and foretold Egypt's seven years of famine.
Magic continued to grow. The thaumaturgist of ancient times passed on his secret knowledge to the mahatmas of Tibet, the priests of Bel, the yogis of India, the Taoists of China, the druids and marabouts, the priests of fire and thunder, the mystics of Babylon and Arabia. Religion and magic were intertwined, the one seemingly inseparable from the other. In the third century A.D. a fresco depicted Christ performing the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus — the scriptures in one hand, a magic wand in the other.
The procession moved into the Dark Ages with the appearance of astrologers and alchemists, cabalists and Rosicrucians, but the nature of magic was changing. In the beginning it was assumed that celestial powers and supernatural forces were rational in some way not completely understood. To this view was applied the term animism, a prescientific concept that imputed to nature a spiritual life somewhat analogous to human behavior; hence the human form of gods and the human characteristics assigned to constellations, to the forces of nature, to the shape and motivation of demons, ghosts, ogres, and gnomes.
The old magic hoped to transcend human ignorance by the brute application of supernatural force. The miracle worker thus stood as the vanguard against Satan and evil powers. By means of charms and talismans, incantations and prayers, the magician sought to turn back evil and at the same time control the forces of nature for the benefit of humankind. But science was growing, bringing new knowledge to dispel the darkness, and in time science became the rival of Black Magic for the attention of the masses. Science and the supernatural peered uneasily at one another across the gulf that spanned the Dark Ages. It was the time of Simon Magnus and Agrippa, Nostradamus and Merlin, Friar Bacon, Dr. Dee, and the ultimate last vestige of the old magic — the prince of thieves, the master charlatan, the Count di Cagliostro.
As Black Magic retreated, a new kind of magic began to develop. It was a magic which pretended only a tenuous connection to the supernatural — a magic that exploited little understood discoveries of an infant science that gave it the secrets of optics, acoustics and mechanics, the early theories of physics and chemistry. In his Memoirs, Benvenuto Cellini recorded a meeting with a magician of this new school, writing of the marvels he conjured from "smoke and shadows," of the fear and wonder evoked by the necromancer's powers.
Priests and charlatans continued to prey on the weakness and fear of believers, but their numbers dwindled as they found themselves displaced by jugglers and hanky-panky men — strolling gypsies who exhibited their tricks at fairs and in the marketplace, at the castles of noblemen, and in the crowded city streets of commoners. They were tricksters and swindlers — fortunetellers, clairvoyants and swamis, prestidigitators who clung to the ways of the old magic while adopting the means of the new. Playing cards had already been invented, and by the middle of the fifteenth century engraved cards were popular merchandise at fairgrounds. The three-shell game and its sophisticated offspring the cups and balls were popular tricks of mountebanks and thimbleriggers. Fakers, crystal gazers, mahatmas, mentalists, and conjurers would entertain for a small fee.
It was a time of change, a time when new magical effects and methods had to be developed to keep pace with the marvels of science and invention. The seed planted by Isaac Newton and other gifted theoreticians of the new science had, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, blossomed and grown into a colossus that threatened to displace other gods. The incantations, charms, and other trappings of the supernatural were no longer suitable to the times. Natural magic was shorn of charlatanism, and in its place rose magicians and illusionists:Comus, Breslaw, Torrini, and the first eminent practitioner of the new magic — the chevalier Pinetti.
Just as earlier magicians could not entirely free themselves from the mumbo jumbo associated with primitive forms of their art, so too could Pinetti not resist claiming that he was endowed with preternatural powers. In an earlier century, intending to combat a witch-hunting mania that had swept England, Sir Reginald Scott had published a book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), to explain that the feats of witches and magicians were not the result of pacts signed with the Devil but rather feats which had ordinary, everyday explanations. In the same way, when Pinetti made claim to supernatural powers in his book Amusements Physiques (1784), he was quickly challenged by Henri Decremps, an accomplished and perceptive observer of the art of magic, in a publication entitled La Magie blanche dévoilée. Decremps followed his first book with a second, published a year later, exposing all of Pinetti's new tricks. Pinetti, gifted at the art of chicanery, countered the Decremps expose by inventing new tricks and illusions.
Pinetti's feats were later exposed by a professor of physics in Berlin named Kossman, but it appears that Pinetti was ultimately brought down by a rival magician and he moved to Russia. In the meantime he established himself as a distinguished inventor and showman — a master of publicity and an expert magician — and it was he who opened the door to those who would follow: Bosco, Comte, Herrmann, Dobler, Heller, Hartz, and the two great figures of nineteenth-century magic — Hofzinser and Robert-Houdin.
The burgeoning Industrial Revolution brought with it a vastly increased interest on the part of the public in clever machines. Magicians astounded the public with machines that no scientist could produce, machines that combined intricate mechanisms with mysterious properties. These machines could communicate directly with humans, predict the future, or commune with the spirit world. An astonishing automaton, designed by von Kempelen in 1769, was a clockwork chess player called "The Turk." This sensational device took on all challengers at chess and seldom lost a game. It was the subject of terrific publicity and controversy for more than fifty years. Among the famous names of the day who played and lost to The Turk was Benjamin Franklin.
Magic had spread to the American colonies almost from the time of their establishment. As early as 1612, a town in Virginia put forth the decree that conjurors and "other idle persons" be barred. The Salem witch-hunts were unfortunately characteristic of the atmosphere that pervaded the colonies during the early years, but by the time of the American Revolution magicians were able to practice their calling in the New World.
The ranks of the great and near-great on both sides of the Atlantic swelled. The craftsmen who now dominated the stage were Alexander Herrmann, Maskelyne, Kellar, Thurston, de Kolta, Ching Ling Foo, Valadon, Imro Fox, Carl Hertz, the incomparable Houdini, J. Warren Keane, Hardin, Devant, the Zanzigs, Trewery.
But magic was changing again. Tricks were streamlined and the pace quickened. Tons of apparatus necessary to early stage acts were discarded in favor of tricks dependent on little or no apparatus. Magicians no longer found it necessary to cloak each trick in mysterious patter. Free from the bonds of the past, able to exploit new sleights, new techniques, new approaches, magic moved from the vaudeville stage to the nightclub floor. The undoubted giants of this period, who reigned unchallenged for decades, were Cardini, Dunninger, and Scarne. Each was the master of his own specialty, and each remains unexcelled to this day.
Magic continues to grow. What used to be called "street conjuring" or "drawing-room magic" has developed into the highly sophisticated art of contemporary closeup magic. Because the spectators literally surround the magician during the closeup act, it is probably accurate to say that closeup magic has a quality of immediacy and impact that cannot be obtained by stage magic. The great master in this field is Tony Slydini, and it is his theories that have influenced the generation just coming to maturity in the closeup field. So, in a sense, magic is beginning — exciting challenges lie ahead, and the panorama of a vast new era in magic is beginning to unfold.
Magic and Its Professors
The history of magic is in a sense a history of what people are willing to believe. It seems logical to deduce from this the observation that the success or failure of a magician in a particular era tells us as much about the era as it does about the magician. A vivid example is found in the life of Joseph Balsamo, the infamous charlatan later known as Cagliostro.
He came to fame in the late eighteenth century, a strange time in the annals of history — a time with a curious mix of skepticism and credulity, of romance and intrigue. In France, where Cagliostro practiced his peculiar system of magic and mysticism, the old culture was slowly giving way. The atmosphere was an uneasy one of materialism and superstition, and those who exploited French society would later find themselves consumed in its ultimate destruction by the French Revolution.
Of Cagliostro, Greeven wrote in the Calcutta Review:
It is not enough to say that Cagliostro posed as a magician, or stood forth as the apostle of a mystic religion.... Cagliostro impressed himself deeply on the history of his time. He flashed on the world like a meteor. He carried it by storm.
Princes and nobles thronged to his "magic operations." His horses and his coaches and his liveries rivaled a kings' in magnificence. He was offered, and refused, a ducal throne. No less illustrious a writer than the Empress of Russia deemed him a worthy subject of her plays. Goethe made him the hero of a famous drama. A French Cardinal and an English Lord were his bosom companions. In an age which arrogated to itself the title of the philosophic, the charm of his eloquence drew thousands to his lodges, in which he preached the mysteries of his Egyptian ritual, as revealed to him by the Grand Kophta under the shadow of the pyramids.
Cagliostro's career began with his arrival in London in 1776. It was there that he announced himself as a wonder-worker, capable of duplicating the alchemists' art of transmuting base metals to gold and of knowing the ingredients of an Egyptian wine that would prolong life. He took an interest in rituals associated with Masonic lodges, and though bitterly repudiated by British members of the fraternity, Cagliostro attracted thousands of eager followers.
The meetings of the Egyptian Lodge presided over by Cagliostro were in reality seances in which standard magical effects were demonstrated under the guise of spiritualism. In these meetings Cagliostro practiced crystal gazing, and later, in a private laboratory in 1780, he demonstrated the transmutation of mercury to silver.
When he visited Strasbourg, Cagliostro was lavished with attention. Claiming the gift of miraculous cures, the ability to conjure gold from worthless metals, and the power to see the future, he was an instant celebrity. In her Memoirs the Baroness d'Oberkirch wrote:
No one can ever form the faintest idea of the fervor with which everybody pursued Cagliostro. He was surrounded, besieged; everyone trying to win a glance or a word. A dozen ladies of rank and two actresses had followed him in order to continue their treatments. If I had not seen it, I should never have imagined that a Prince of the Roman Church, a man in other respects intelligent and honorable, could so far let himself be imposed upon as to renounce his dignity, his free will, at the bidding of a sharper.
Cagliostro's greatest fame (and the beginning of his ultimate downfall) came with his appearance in Paris in 1785. He was greeted as the latest sensation and no story of his prowess seemed too impossible to believe. The guest of royalty, he nevertheless proclaimed himself the chief of the Rosicrucians and thus a being elevated above the rest of mankind, nobles included. He gave a spirit seance at which the ghosts of six dead men were made to appear. News of this event attracted such sensational publicity that it reached the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
At the height of his fame he was arrested and thrown into the Bastille on a charge of complicity in the theft of a diamond necklace. After a long incarceration in the Bastille without trial, he was ultimately acquitted. The throngs that greeted him upon his release made it known that his imprisonment was probably due to corrupt officials surrounding the throne, and hinted that Marie Antoinette was herself probably guilty in the necklace swindle. The public's outrage at the practices of French royalty was but a hint of the revolutionary fervor that was to grow stronger and spread, culminating in the bloody thunder of the French Revolution.
After leaving prison, Cagliostro returned to London. But whereas he once reigned as a popular public figure, Cagliostro now found it difficult to gain attention or impress the public. The "ugly facts about the swindler's early career," said one newspaper of the time, were well known. The Freemasons repudiated him, and he soon became the object of continued and widespread ridicule. Deeply in debt, unable to attract an audience of the gullible, threatened with lawsuits, he fled to Rome.
It was a fatal choice. In 1789 he was arrested and jailed in the fortress of San Angelo on the charge of attempting to practice Freemasonry. Tried before the cowled inquisitors of the Holy Inquisition, he was found guilty and sentenced to a dungeon at the Castle of San Angelo. An attempted escape failed. Isolated and powerless, a pitiable figure, he was transferred to the Fortress of San Leon and locked away in a grim, underground, stone cell. He was never seen nor heard from again. It is said that Cagliostro died in August, 1795, but officially the exact date of his death is a blank — an ignoble end to a once notoriously powerful figure.
Excerpted from Big Book of Magic Tricks by Karl Fulves. Copyright © 1977 Karl Fulves. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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