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945
CONJURING


Maskelyne’s two automata, “Fanfare” (1878) playing a cornet, and “Labial” (1879) playing a euphonium, both operated by mechanism inside the figures and supplied with wind from a bellows placed separately upon the stage.

Lucian tells of the magician Alexander in the 2nd century that he received written questions enclosed in sealed envelopes, and a few days afterwards delivered written responses in the same envelopes, with the seals apparently unbroken; and both he and Hippolytus explain several methods by which this could be effected. In this deception we have the germ of “spirit-reading” and “spirit-writing,” which, introduced in 1840 by John Henry Anderson, “The Wizard of the North,” became common in the répertoire of modern conjurors,—embracing a variety of effects from an instantaneous substitution which allows the performer or his confederate to see what has been secretly written by the audience. The so-called “second-sight” trick depends upon a system of signalling between the exhibitor, who moves among the audience collecting questions to be answered and articles to be described, and the performer, who is blindfolded on the stage. As already stated, the speaking figure which Stock showed to Professor Beckmann, at Göttingen, about 1770, was instructed by a code of signals. In 1783 Pinetti had an automaton figure about 18 in. in height, named the Grand Sultan or Wise Little Turk, which answered questions as to chosen cards and many other things by striking upon a bell, intelligence being communicated to a confederate by an ingenious ordering of the words, syllables or vowels in the questions put. The teaching of Mesmer and the feats of clairvoyance suggested to Pinetti a more remarkable performance in 1785, when Signora Pinetti, sitting blindfold in a front box of a theatre, replied to questions and displayed her knowledge of articles in the possession of the audience. Half a century later this was developed with greater elaboration, and the system of telegraphing cloaked by intermixing signals on other methods, first by Robert-Houdin in 1846, then by Hermann in 1848, and by Anderson at a later period. Details of the system of indicating a very large number of answers by slight and unperceived variations in the form of question are given by F. A. Gandon, La seconde vue dévoilée (Paris, 1849).

Fire tricks, such as walking on burning coals, breathing flame and smoke from a gall-nut filled with an inflammable composition and wrapped in tow, or dipping the hands in boiling pitch, were known in early times, and are explained by Hippolytus (iv. 33). At the close of the 17th century Richardson astonished the English public by chewing ignited coals, pouring melted lead (really quicksilver) upon his tongue and swallowing melted glass. Strutt, in Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, relates how he saw Powel the fire-eater, in 1762, broil a piece of beefsteak laid upon his tongue,—a piece of lighted charcoal being placed under his tongue which a spectator blew upon with a bellows till the meat was sufficiently done. This man also drank a melted mixture of pitch, brimstone and lead out of an iron spoon, the stuff blazing furiously. These performers anointed their mouths and tongues with a protective composition.

Galen speaks of a person in the 2nd century who relighted a blown-out candle by holding it against a wall or a stone which had been rubbed with sulphur and naphtha; and the instantaneous lighting of candles became a famous feat of later times. Baptista Porta gave directions for performing a trick entitled “many candles shall be lighted presently.” Thread is boiled in oil with brimstone and orpiment, and when dry bound to the wicks of candles; and, one being lighted, the flame runs to them all. He says that on festival days they are wont to do this among the Turks. “Some call it Hermes his ointment.” In 1783 Pinetti showed two figures sketched upon a wall, one of which put out a candle, and the other relighted the hot wick, when the candle was held to their mouths. By wafers he had applied a few grains of gunpowder to the mouth of the first, and a bit of phosphorus to that of the other. A striking trick of this conjuror was to extinguish two wax candles and simultaneously light two others at a distance of 3 ft., by firing a pistol. The candles were placed in a row, and the pistol fired from the end where the lighted candles were placed; the sudden blast of hot gas from the pistol blew out the flames and lighted the more distant candles, because in the wick of each was placed a millet-grain of phosphorus. A more recent conjuror showed a pretty illusion by appearing to carry a flame invisibly between his hands from a lighted to an unlighted candle. What he did was to hold a piece of wire for a second or two in the flame of the first candle, and then touch with the heated wire a bit of phosphorus which had been inserted in the turpentine-wetted wick of the other. But in 1842 Ludwig Döbler, a German conjuror of much originality, surprised his audience by lighting two hundred candles instantaneously upon the firing of a pistol. This was the earliest application of electricity to stage illusions. The candles were so arranged that each wick, black from previous burning, stood a few inches in front of a fine nozzle gas-burner projecting horizontally from a pipe of hydrogen gas, and the two hundred jets of gas passed through the same number of gaps in a conducting-wire. An electric current leaping in a spark through each jet of gas ignited all simultaneously, and the gas flames fired the candle wicks.

J. E. Robert-Houdin (1805–1871), who opened his “Temple of Magic” at Paris in 1845, originated the application of electromagnetism for secretly working or controlling mechanical apparatus in stage illusions. His Soirées fantastiques at Paris gave him such a reputation that the French government actually sent him to Algiers in order to show his superiority to the local marabouts; and he ranks as the founder of modern conjuring. He first exhibited in 1845 his light and heavy chest, which, when placed upon the broad plank or “rake” among the spectators, and exactly over a powerful electromagnet hidden under the cloth covering of the plank, was held fast at pleasure. In order to divert suspicion, Houdin showed a second experiment with the same box, suspending it by a rope which passed over a single small pulley attached to the ceiling; but any person in the audience who took hold of the rope to feel the sudden increase in the weight of the box was unaware that the rope, while appearing to pass simply over the pulley, really passed upward over a winding-barrel worked as required by an assistant. Remarkable ingenuity was displayed in concealing a small electromagnet in the handle of his glass bell, as well as in his drum, the electric current passing through wires hidden within the cord by which these articles were suspended. In one of Houdin’s illusions—throwing eight half-crowns into a crystal cash-box previously set swinging—electricity was employed in a different manner. Top, bottom, sides and ends of an oblong casket were of transparent glass, held together at all the edges by a light metal frame. The coins were concealed under an opaque design on the lid, and supported by a false lid of glass, which was tied by cotton thread to a piece of platinum wire. Upon connecting the electric circuit, the platinum, becoming red-hot, severed the thread, letting fall the glass flap, and dropping the coins into the box.

Down to the latter part of the 18th century no means of secretly communicating ad libitum motions to apparently isolated pieces of mechanism had superseded the clumsy device of packing a confederate into a box on legs draped to look like an unsophisticated table. Pinetti placed three horizontal levers close beside each other in the top of a thin table, covered by a cloth, these levers being actuated by wires passing through the legs and feet of the table and to the confederate behind a scene or partition. In the pedestal of each piece of apparatus which was to be operated upon when set loosely upon the table were three corresponding levers hidden by cloth; and, after being examined by the audience, the piece of mechanism was placed upon a table in such a position that the two sets of levers exactly coincided, one being superimposed upon the other. In one “effect” the confederate worked a small bellows in the base of a lamp, to blow out the flame; in another he let go a trigger, causing an arrow to fly by a spring from the bow of a doll sportsman; he actuated a double-bellows inside a bottle, which caused flowers and fruit to protrude from among the foliage of an