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BY WAY OF BACKGROUND
"Step up, folks. I have it right here, wrapped in this ancient Egyptian temple cloth. The marvel of the Ages —the eighth, ninth, and tenth wonders of the world."
The sideshow barker, as he strutted back and forth on the platform adjoining the boardwalk, was holding up a bulky, egg-shaped object, loosely wrapped in a cloth that looked neither ancient nor Egyptian. His voice rose shrill and clear above the whirling music of the merry-go-round, the distant squeals of riders on the plunging roller coaster cars, the low pounding of the surf, the deep steady hum of a huge seaside crowd relaxing and enjoying itself on a balmy, sunny afternoon back in the late summer of 1926.
"Come in closer, folks, it's absolutely free. Yes, in just a moment or two, I'm going to reveal—right here on this platform—the most incredible sight you've ever seen. Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, when I unwrap this cloth, you are going to see something that will make you rub your eyes in astonishment. You are going to see a living, breathing head. A head that laughs, talks, sings. Yes, it even whistles."
Strollers along the boardwalk paused out of curiosity, and then lazily edged in closer. The man was going to show them a live head. Silly? Impossible? Sure it was, but what could they lose—it was free, wasn't it?
Up in front of the gathering crowd stood a young boy just tall enough for his chin to rest on the edge of the platform. The man's words no longer interested the boy. He had heard the barker's spiel again and again that summer, whenever his parents brought him and his brothers to the seashore.
No, the attraction for the youngster was not in what the man said, but in what he knew the man was about to do. The boy had long since memorized every gesture, every step, every motion the man would make as soon as he had finished telling all those lies about how good the show was, and why you should rush right up and buy a ticket.
He knew that the man would call attention to the long gleaming sword that rested across the arms of the big red thronelike chair standing at the back of the platform. He knew that the man would lightly rest the cloth-covered object on the edge of the sword—this was the part the boy watched the closest—and would suddenly yank the cloth away to reveal the head of a pretty girl—a very much alive one—neatly balanced on the edge of the sword. As promised, the head would sing and laugh and carry on a conversation.
The boy knew also that after a minute or two, the man would reverse his previous actions, would rewrap the head in the cloth, would lift it from the sword, and would leave the platform with the head tucked under his arm.
It was, the boy thought, the most wonderful thing he had seen in all of his nine years.
On this day, however, something new was added. Possibly because of the end-of-season falloff in attendance, the barker promised that anyone buying a ticket would be permitted to step up on the platform and see how the trick was done. The youngster couldn't believe that he had heard correctly. A chance to learn the answer to the wonderful puzzle that had been tantalizing him all summer! He was off like a shot, only to return quickly, half-dragging a reluctant father who dutifully bought two tickets and lifted his son onto the platform so that the boy could steal a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how a head could be made to exist without a body.
And now that the long-awaited secret was revealed, the boy found himself entranced by the sheer brilliance of it all. Why, he wondered, was there so much talk about Edison and Marconi and other so-called great men, when there were geniuses around who could invent real miracles such as this?
As it turned out, the boy would never forget that first glimpse into the world of magic. The fascination of that moment was to remain with him always, never lessening, but, in fact, deepening as his years and his knowledge of the subject increased.
Then one day there came the idea of sharing some of the things he had learned, an idea that others might also be caught up in the fascination of this most ancient of the arts—the art of magic.
And that is why he wrote this book.CHAPTER 2
THE OLD, OLD TRICKS
To begin with, what is magic?
Magic, the dictionary tells us, is an ancient art intended to control or influence nature or natural events. It is practiced by wizards, witches, and sorcerers who call upon the aid of devils and the spirits of the dead. On the other hand, conjuring, legerdemain, and prestidigitation are the accomplishment of the seemingly impossible by natural means.
This book deals with natural rather than unnatural matters. Despite the dictionary, however, people today rarely bother to make a distinction between magic as sorcery (the supernatural) and magic as performance of the light hand (legerdemain) and the quick fingers ( presto-digit action). People think of magic as tricks, and magicians as the performers of such tricks.
There was a time, however, when magic, to the majority of the earth's inhabitants, was a real and fearful thing—an evil art built around chants, rituals, and mystic spells. It promised everything, delivered nothing and, without a shred of evidence to justify its existence, continued on down through the centuries wielding an influence so profound that its effects are woven into the fabric of history.
Just when magic began, no one knows for certain. It is generally believed to have started back in the misty past when our primitive ancestors first wandered the earth. To early man everything must have been magic. Thunder, lightning, the moaning of the wind, sickness, death—all were threats, all were mysteries. And because he did not understand, he was afraid. With his fellow wanderers he huddled in caves, trembling at the noises of the night, and wondering at the magic all about him. And so the stage was set for the entrance of the wizards, sorcerers, and soothsayers who concocted and brought with them chants, spells, rituals, and dire warnings of vengeful gods. As the centuries passed, these self-appointed masters of the unknown became all-powerful and were greatly feared. Even when others ruled, the royal soothsayers or tribal medicine men held positions of high authority and exercised great influence. For what mere mortal, no matter what his wealth or power, would dare oppose those who knew and practiced the black art?
And yet, if we take a long view of history we find that these same charlatans, mountebanks, and mystics who so played upon ignorance and fear actually have emerged as benefactors of mankind. For in developing new ways to impress their followers, they also fashioned the foundations of the sciences. The potion mixer and herb gatherer, as the years passed, became the pharmacist and chemist. Witch doctors eventually laid aside their masks and drums and, instead of frightening away devils, sought more practical methods of curing man's ills. Stargazing prophets began to note patterns and movements in the heavens, and the sciences of astronomy and mathematics took form. Rare indeed is the science—or the art—which does not have its root tips in some medieval ritual or older practice known as magic.
While man may have left most of his primitive mumbo jumbo behind him he has, nevertheless, retained full strength a natural curiosity concerning things he does not understand. It is this curiosity that made Franklin fly his kite, Pasteur peer into his microscope, and Edison recite "Mary had a little lamb" as he cranked away at a funny-looking little machine.
Nor is curiosity confined to the scientist. The average person, not being called upon to solve the problems of nature and the universe, searches out ways to befuddle and bewilder himself. Publishers and editors willingly and profitably oblige by producing a daily avalanche of crossword puzzles, anagrams, riddles, conundrums, picture puzzles, word games and, of course, mystery stories.
Of all attractive forms of self-torment, watching a performance of magic, as we know it today, is unmatched. The reason, of course, is that a magic trick properly performed is a puzzle without a solution, a riddle without an answer, a mystery story minus the last revealing chapter. It leaves the watcher baffled, cliff-hanging. Logically, people should rebel against such mental torture. Actually, they never have rebelled and, past evidence considered, they never will because the performance of magic does more than frustrate and exasperate. It also charms and delights. It charms the clever observer, the intellectual, the sophisticate who knows himself too wise to believe the unbelievable and yet is amused by his own inability to explain the inexplicable. It delights the young, the unsuspecting, the spectator ready to be amazed at all those bright silk pieces being whisked out of an empty paper cone.
The art of the conjurer has an ancient and impressive history stretching back more than five thousand years to the oldest of written documents in which appear descriptions of performances by Egyptian magicians. True, a strain of highly fanciful fiction runs through these early accounts, but they do, nevertheless, serve to establish conjuring as one of the most ancient forms of planned entertainment. Entertainment, that is, early Egyptian style; it would hardly classify as such by today's standards.
An ancient Egyptian magician named Tettela, for example, displayed a talent for removing and replacing the heads of livestock. After cutting off and restoring the head of a small fowl, with no loss of life in the interim, of course, he proceeded to repeat the act with an assortment of birds and beasts, each larger than the last, until, as a climax, he decapitated an ox and subsequently put matters right again.
The more squeamish of the early Egyptian onlookers may possibly have preferred a gentleman named Tchatchaemankh who commanded a bag of tricks as impressive as his name. On one occasion he ordered the water in a pond to move aside while he strolled out to retrieve a lost jewel. If one assumes that ancient Egypt was governed by the same laws of nature as exist today, this was potent, mighty potent, magic.
Historically more interesting, and certainly more reliable, is a conclusion by experts that a certain drawing on the wall of an Egyptian tomb depicts a magician performing a trick known today—as it probably was then—as "The Cups and Balls." That this trick has managed to withstand the test of fifty centuries is far more amazing than anything magicians have thus far managed to create. In that incredible span of time, whole countries and civilizations have risen, flourished, and faded away, yet this little trick has retained its appeal for generation after generation—right through the entire span of our recorded existence. It is further proof that, while all else may change, man's curiosity is constant.
And what is this trick with the cups that has so successfully defied the ravages of time?
To begin with, it brings into play most of the basic effects of magic. (An "effect" is a term used by magicians to indicate how a trick appears to the audience.) As the cups and balls trick is performed, objects appear, disappear, multiply, change color and form, and penetrate solids. Three "unprepared" cups, of a design and material varying according to the locale and the era, are shown empty and placed mouths down in a row. Suddenly and mysteriously a small ball appears—magically drawn from the tip of the magician's wand, or from a spectator's elbow or ear. Placed under a cup, any cup of the three, the ball disappears only to be found under one of the other cups. Next it doubles and then triples. After a series of bewildering maneuvers with the three balls during which they vanish from the end cups, congregate under the center one, and then find their way, invisibly of course, back to the end cups again—it appears that the trick is over because the magician deliberately and openly places the balls in his pocket.
Then, just as deliberately, as if they had a will of their own, the balls return under the cups, and the whole thing starts over again. As the trick increases in tempo, even stranger things happen. The balls change color and size and finally are transformed into large fruit or, on occasion, they even become baby chicks or mice. The possibilities are limited only by the degree of skill, experience, and ingenuity of the handler.
To do it as it should be done, the trick with the cups requires long hours of careful, patient practice. It is advanced sleight of hand at its best.
In the broad span of time between the days of the Egyptian pharaohs and the sixteenth century, conjuring was, at best, a questionable profession carried on by strolling mountebanks who performed their meager assortment of tricks on streets, at fairs, in barns—anywhere their exhibitions might attract a few coins. Now and again an exceptional conjurer would emerge and command a respectable amount of recognition from the public or, on occasion, from the nobles in whose castles he might perform. Still in the hazy future were the happy, more prosperous days when conjuring would achieve the status of legitimate entertainment and be brought in off the streets.
In looking back, it becomes apparent that an obstacle to advancement in the conjurer's art was the complete absence of written material on the subject. For the most part, conjurers were not educated men and few, probably, could read or write. And of those who mastered the written word, no fame or fortune awaited the conjurer who explained his tricks in print. So, unfortunately, the accumulated knowledge of a lifetime died with each individual performer unless he had taken the trouble to pass along his secrets by whispering them in the ear of some promising apprentice. Progress in any endeavor is restricted under such circumstances, and conjuring, despite the need for a high degree of secrecy, was no exception.
Highly significant, therefore, was the publication in London, in 1582, during the reign of Elizabeth I, of a book entitled The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a section of which explained most of the magic tricks of the day. Oddly, its author, Reginald Scott, was not a magician, had no particular interest in conjuring, and knew nothing of the subject until a few years prior to the publication of his book. At that time he set out to learn as much as he could of "jugglers'" secrets for inclusion in his Discoverie.
His purpose was as noble as any for which books have been written: to end the baseless belief that some human beings make pacts with devils and, accordingly, must be destroyed. Scott was appalled by the endless procession of miserable human beings in his own and in previous generations who, after being tortured into a "confession," were declared witches and condemned to the gallows or to the screaming horror of death at the stake. Unlike others who may have shared his revulsion, Scott decided to do something about it. He reasoned that if the people who made and administered laws permitting such atrocities were bodily beyond his reach—their minds were not. To reach their minds, he wrote his book. By exposing methods used by conjurers, he sought to show that the seemingly impossible can be accomplished buy, natural means, that when one is mystified, the reason is more likely to be that some of the facts are hidden than that devils are present. This courageous man may have won private applause for his efforts to dispel ignorance, but when, some four years after Scott's death, James I ascended the English throne in 1603, he immediately denounced Scott's book and ordered all copies burned. The royal denunciation recognized the dangerous nature of Scott's thinking. As it turned out, however, the king's decree only served to focus attention on the book and thus helped to circulate its message.
Thus is the story of the first book in English to explain the workings of tricks. For over two hundred years the tricks described by Scott were to appear, at times lifted word for word, in numerous European and American books and pamphlets.
Excerpted from Magician's Magic by Paul Curry, Julio Granda. Copyright © 1965 Paul Curry. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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