Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions (1897)

When the high priest Aaron, older brother of Moses, cast down his staff before Pharaoh in the Old Testament, it suddenly became a serpent. According to Henry Ridgely Evans, who wrote the introduction to Albert A. Hopkins’ Magic (1897) — a massive handbook for amateur magicians and their scientific skeptics — this was a stage illusion, one still performed by contemporary dervishes in Cairo. Aaron’s rod, it turns out, was a serpent all along, “hypnotized to such an extent as to become perfectly stiff and rigid”, and, when thrown to the earth, it was resuscitated with “sundry mystic passes and strokes”. In their attempts to disenchant the mystical, Evans and Hopkins make the real world all the more extraordinary.

The subtitle of this book, “stage illusions and scientific diversions”, speaks to the remarkable exchange that took place between magic and science in the nineteenth century. Many of the tricks written up here first appeared in Scientific American and its French equivalent, La Nature. As Colin Williamson describes, these periodicals “featured regular articles on the demystification of magicians’ illusions alongside reviews of technological innovations in, for example, the automobile, railroad, and aeronautics industries.” And the exchange went both ways. In Magic, Hopkins is attentive to the new kinds of illusions made possible by advances in photography, moving pictures, automata, and fireworks. Eadweard Muybridge’s cabinet cards of horses in motion and Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic gun are treated as a kind of trick photography, alike in kind to darkroom techniques for producing images of spirits and men shrunk to inhabit bottles. From the other side of things, the special effects of early motion pictures employed by Georges Méliès, Segundo Chomón, and other practitioners of “trick cinema” — superimposition, jump cuts, and such — were initially understood through the vocabulary of stage magic and frequently featured magicians on screen. Hopkins and Evans were writing in a period when film, photography, and other new technologies of representation were still conceptualized as instruments of wonder. Curiously, Magic ends on a discussion of the micromotoscope, a device for projecting subvisual scenes with magic lanterns. The final image in this illustration-rich tome is not of sword swallowing or legerdemain, but of red blood cells imaged at a scale where their miraculous feats become visible to human eyes.

Among the 550 pages of this encyclopedic history of magic, we find tricks that might be familiar to modern-day audiences: conjuring tricks (“The Disappearing Lady”, “The Appearing Lady”, “Decapitation”); optical tricks such as the infinity mirror or “mystic maze”; so-called “theater secrets” (“Siegfried’s Anvil”, “The Skirt Dance”); ventriloquism; and tips for eating fire. More unexpected are performances from the annals of illusion, such as the extended section on chapeaugraphy (the manipulation of hats). In one variation known as Tabarin — named after the “mountebank and quack-salver” who used to perform it on the quays of Paris in the early eighteenth century — a sombrero-like garment is bent rapidly into headwear of various styles. (A video of an 1898 performance is available here.)

More than a guidebook for aspiring wizards, Magic is also a veiled theory of religion. According to Henry Evans, whose introduction performs a kind of historiographical sleight of hand, spiritual miracles, paranormal experiences, and occult occurrences in ancient times point to a forgotten pre-history of modern stage magic. “Weeping and bleeding statues, temple doors that flew open with thunderous sound and apparently by supernatural means, and perpetual lamps that flamed forever in the tombs of holy men”, believes Evans, “were some of the thaumaturgic feats of the Pagan priests.” (Two hundred pages later, in Book II, Hopkins offers detailed schematics of “temple tricks” designed by the Ancient Greeks, discussing Heron of Alexander’s description of the Triumph of Bacchus, a mechanical shrine with self-moving figurines, and the dicaiometer, a jug that magically poured a perfect measure every time.) In the Middle Ages, continues Evans, the frequent reports of phantoms were a by-product of improvements in optics, for magicians with concave mirrors “were able to produce very fair ghost illusions to gull a susceptible public.” Witches burnt at the stake during the Enlightenment, he intimates, may have been magicians fully committed to their trade.

Below you can browse a selection of the extraordinary illustrations contained in this volume.