The Art of Magic, by Alexander Herrmann
published July 1, 1891 in The North American Review
I have been requested to lay before the readers of The North American Review such of my reflections upon the art of magic or prestidigitation as I may deem worthy of note, drawn from a continuous experience of thirty years in practising that art. My travels in connection therewith have led me into nearly every part of the habitable world.
Prestidigitation is sleight-of-hand manipulation, pure and simple, whether evolved from mechanical, chemical, or scientific devices, or produced by dexterity that baffles vision because motion is quicker than sight. The magician depends for the success of his art upon the credulity of the people. Whatever mystifies, excites curiosity ; whatever in turn baffles this curiosity, works the marvellous.
Of course human ignorance is no longer a source of profit to the magician, as it was in the days of the diviner, the oracle, and the soothsayer. Few believe nowadays that the magician claims any supernatural aid. I will scarcely be believed, therefore, when I tell my readers that in a few cities in Italy and Spain in which I have performed hundreds came to see me as a curiosity, impressed with the belief that for the power he gave me I had made a compact with the devil for the delivery of my soul. In these cities I have seen people reverently cross themselves when I was passing.
To what folly ignorance could once go on this point is best illustrated by quoting the King James statute against witchcraft. It was a supplement to the milder enactments against the same felony instituted during the reign of Elizabeth :
” If any person shall use, practise, or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evil and wicked spirit, or shall consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent and purpose, or take up any dead man, woman, or child out of their grave, or the skin, bone, or any part of any dead person, to be used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, or enchantment, whereby any person shall be killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined, or harmed in his or her body, or any part thereof, that then every such offender, their aiders, abetters, and counsellors shall suffer the pains of death.”
Upon this statute many innocent persons were condemned and executed with scarcely the formality of a trial, so great was the reaction engendered against what the very ignorance of the times had begotten and cultivated. This bloodthirsty statute was the basis of the persecution of so-called witches in New England, and its absurdity was acknowledged in the year 1736 by its abolition in England by a law enacting that no capital prosecution should for the future take place for conjuration, sorcery, and enchantment, and to protect the gullible from being swindled by card -readers professing to foretell the occurrence of future events, by providing for their punishment as common nuisances.
Asia even more than Egypt is the land of secrecy. In all other lands wisdom seeks diffusion; there it is valued for its rarity. Its very language is enigmas, figures, and ambiguity, producing perplexity rather than instruction. Time was when the student of prestidigitation aspiring to fame in his art did not consider his education complete without a visit to India. But this is no longer necessary. The very secretiveness of the East Indian juggler, and his lack of communication with others of his art elsewhere, have lost him the prestige he once commanded. Whatever was wrested from him by close observation has been wonderfully improved upon. He has gone on in the performance of the same old tricks by the same old devices, transmitted from father to son and from generation to generation. The elder magicians soon learned that the first business of the East Indian juggler was to act upon the passions by the excitement of awe and fear in the spectators. Impressionable natives were easily subject to these passions, and while filled with them by the handling of snakes or cimeters by the juggler, it was easy to distract attention and, by manipulation too rapid to be followed by the unpractised eye, to produce phenomena unanticipated and that could not be accounted for. A European magician could not count on the excitement of the same passions on the part of his audience as a preliminary step in the performance of his tricks ; and yet he has duplicated every trick of the Oriental and improved upon it.
I discovered this state of things on my first visit to India. I longed to visit this home of magicians. I was disappointed â disagreeably so. Many of the wonders of Hindoo jugglery that I had read about were but the grossly exaggerated tales of travelers. That famous trick, related by nearly every writer on Hindoo jugglery, of youths tossing balls of twine in the air and climbing up on them out of sight, I did not see, nor could I find during my visit any well-authenticated evidence that it was ever done. The tricks I saw I could have imitated with little preparation. I would not presume to introduce them upon the stage.
On my first evening at Bombay a troupe of these jugglers appeared upon the plaza in front of the hotel at which I was staying. They were fantastically dressed and painted, and drew a crowd by beating the tom-tom. After a short address by the leader, one of them produced an empty flower-pot, which he filled with earth and moistened with water, dropping a few mango seeds into the pot during the process. He covered the flower-pot with a large piece of cloth and rested it on a tripod of bamboo sticks. He addressed a few remarks to the spectators, and then walked slowly around the covered pot, dexterously allowing his robes to envelop it at each turn, while his followers sang a howling song of incantation. After three minutes of these proceedings he silenced his choristers, removed the cloth from the pot, and there was disclosed in it a mango-tree about three feet in height, which had apparently grown since planting the seed. He performed the trick by removing the pot beneath the cloth, and substituting the mango, which was concealed’ in his robe, and this he did rather clumsily while he let the robe rest for a moment, as if by accident, over the covered flower-pot previously displayed.
The basket trick was then performed, even more clumsily than the other. This trick consists in placing a boy in a covered basket and piercing it with swords which are exhibited all bloody, apparently having stabbed the boy to death, while the boy, unharmed, appears, coming from another part of the enclosure. This trick would scarcely be worth repeating anywhere to-day ; yet the Hindoo juggler is content to exhibit it. The most clever trick I srwin India was done by a native with a cobra. The native wore no clothing save a clout. The cobra he deposited on the sand and covered with a cloth. He then began a series of incantations, which invariably accompany the performance of every trick, around the covered reptile, using his hands and arms in endless gesticulation. At last he snatched away the cloth. The snake had vanished, seemingly ” into thin air,” but in reality into the clout about the native’s loins. During the gesticulations he had barely touched the cloth, â the signal for the cobra, which was trained, â and, bending for a moment so that the clout would fall into a fold, the snake leaped into it so quickly that the movement was unobserved. So little was I impressed with East Indian jugglery hat I did not deem it a paying investment to incur the expense or labor of securing the most clever of the juggler’s assistants.
The magicians of Europe, beginning with Houdin and Cagliostro, have given a great impetus to their art. I regard the magicians of to-day as the best the world has ever produced. The perfection of mechanical contrivances and the possibilities of electricity and chemistry have been wonderful helps in the exercise of the so-called black art. It is well for the magician that such is the case, for the demands upon him for novelty were never greater. I find the spectators at this species of entertainment more numerous and more interested than those of thirty years ago. How to entertain them leads up to the other question, What are the requisites and qualifications of the magician ?
I could answer the question by a negative definition of what the magician should not be better than to state positively what his art should make him. No one regards the magician to-day as other than an ordinary man gifted with no extraordinary powers. The spectators come, not to be impressed with awe, but fully aware that his causes and effects are natural. They come rather as a guessing committee, to spy out the methods with which he mystifies. Hundreds of eyes are upon him. Men with more knowledge of the sciences than he come to trip and expose him, and to baffle their scrutiny is the study of his life. Long years of training and exercise alone will not make a magician. I could name a hundred men with these qualifications, who started out in the practice of legerdemain within the past thirty years, not one of whom is known now. There must be some natural aptitude for the art ; it must be born in a man, and can never be acquired by rule. He must be alert both in body and in mind ; cool and calculating to the movement of a muscle under all circumstances ; a close student of men and human nature. To these qualifications he must add the rather incongruous quality of a mind turning on contradictions. With a scientific cause he must produce a seemingly opposite effect to that warranted by order and system.
I know of no life requiring such a series of opposite qualities as the magician’s. And after the exercise of all these qualities I have named, resulting in the production of the most startling and novel results, the magician has not the satisfaction, like other men, of the enjoyment of his own product. He must be prepared to see it copied by others, or after a short time discovered by the public. Hence the magician must be an inventor, mechanical and scientific. Think of the time, thought, and weary labor given to the production of such tricks as the ” cabinet mystery” of the Davenports, the ” sealed tent ” of the Eddys, the reading of letters in gummed envelopes, and the ” second sight” of Houdin. All these are perplexing in their ingenuity, even after the methods of their performance are known.
Again, so great are the demands of the public upon the magician that he can no longer use the machinery and mechanical contrivances of his own invention with which he cumbered the stage formerly. For the most part he must perform his wonders with his contrivances so reduced as to be invisible. Formerly he could extract his birds from bags and covered cages, his flowers and fruits from friendly and unsuspicious-looking tables, and his live animals from confederates. Now he must produce all these things from the coats and pockets of the spectators.
I have not drawn a very rosy picture of the magician. I did not intend to do so. To the novice entering the life and promising himself ease, indolence, and wealth, I should say, ” Don’t ! ”
I have often been asked if the pursuit I follow does not become monotonous. By no means. There is an ever-recurring novelty in the life. Even if the tricks performed admitted of only one method instead of a dozen in their performance, there are the same puzzled lookers-on, wondering, tricked, and baffled through the most simple and natural causes. The magician controls them as potently as the orator controls his audience, and the enjoyment of his power is even greater. Monotonous ? Never ! The life of the magician is one of almost infinite variety.
If I were asked to designate any one particular illusion as the most brilliant I know, I should unhesitatingly mention that of the vanishing lady, invented by Buatier de Kolta. Its very success was its ruin, so transcendent was it in mystification. The effect of the trick upon the spectator, the first time he sees it, is nothing short of marvellous. The performer brings forward a lady to the front of the stage, seats her upon a chair in full view of the spectators, spreads over her a piece of filmy silk, so gauzy that the outlines of her figure may be discerned through it, and while she is in this position he whisks off the silk. The chair is there ; the lady has vanished.
The explanatory details of this wonderful trick, which are now known by every tyro in the profession, would weary rather than instruct. I have often experimented with the trick myself as a curiosity. Suffice it to say that the elaborate mechanical operations necessary for its production would almost build a locomotive, and yet they are exhausted in a hundred springs and bolts of steel working like the springs of a watch and all cooperating, with the aid of a confederate working through a trap-door under the stage.
People have repeatedly asked me which of my tricks have pleased me the most, and which I take the most delight in performing. Naturally the effort that brings the greatest success is regarded by a man his best. I consider the trick of restoring the shattered mirror as my most famous one. This I had the honor of performing before the Czar of Russia upon an invitation to give an exhibition at his court. It was done unexpectedly to the spectators, and was not down on the regular bill. While playing billiards with the attaches of the court after the performance, the Czar being present in the saloon, I shot a ball with all my strength against a plate-glass mirror extending from floor to ceiling. It was shivered into fifty pieces. Consternation was depicted on every countenance ; on none more plainly than my own.
While the Czar courteously waived my apology, considering the destruction of the mirror as trifling, and ordered the game to proceed, I could easily see that my supposed awkwardness made a disagreeable impression. With the Czar’s permission I examined the mirror to estimate the damage done and the possibility of repairing it. While so engaged one of the suite playfully challenged me to exercise my art and make the mirror whole again, never dreaming that his challenge was the very cue I wanted, and not considering the successful acceptance of it as possible. I hesitated an instant, and then ordered the mirror to be covered with a cloth entirely concealing it from view. On the removal of the cloth, after ten minutes, the mirror was found without a flaw, and as perfect as before the damage.
I will leave it to my readers’ imagination to decide how this trick was done.