Friday, November 19, 2004

The Invisible Man
Harry Price is one of my favourite characters from the history of magic. He made his living as a professional psychic researcher and ghost hunter, working in the 1920s and 30s, apparently shining a light on the unexplained but in reality casting quite a shadow over almost everything that he touched. His books, and he wrote many, are absolutely fascinating. Harry's investigations were always founded on some kind of strangeness; a talking mongoose, a girl plagued by the devil, a medium who was tried and found guilty under the Witchcraft Act and, of course, the most haunted house in England, Borley Rectory.

He's worth rereading again and again. You never know what you might find in his writings that has some bearing on magic. Take the following as an example. A man who came to Harry Price claiming that he could make himself invisible.

One of the most brazen spellbinders who have ever entered my office was a man who called himself ‘Sandy MacPherson’: he was a Jew from Houndsditch. He came to see me because, he said, he had some wonderful apparatus by means of which he could make himself invisible at will. I call him the ‘Invisible Man’.

He said he wanted a large fee for a test, as it meant a van-load of ‘properties’ and a great deal of trouble to arrange his ‘set-up’. We compromised by agreeing to settle the carter’s bill.

The day – and a small pantechnicon – duly arrived for the test, and as the men carried in his impedimenta, I wondered if ‘Sandy’ had ever kept a draper’s shop, as his sole apparatus consisted of about a dozen tall pier glasses or mirrors such as they are used in the dressmaking stores where ladies foregather in such large numbers.

Sandy shut himself up in my séance-room for half an hour and then called me in and said he was ready for the test. He now commenced ‘hedging’; he said he could not make himself invisible, but could make his reflection invisible. On the principle of ‘half a loaf’, etc., I had to be content with the prospect of witnessing only a semi-miracle.

When I entered the séance-room (from which the daylight had been excluded), I found that all the tall mirrors had been stood vertically on their edges at one end of the apartment in a most curious formation, and at several different angles, roughly in the form of a semi-circle. In front of the looking-glasses was placed a chair. Sandy now asked me to switch off all the lights, count ten, and then switch them on again. This I did, and found that the spellbinder was sitting on the chair in front of the mirrors.

‘Walk slowly up to the chair’, said Sandy, ‘and see if you can find my reflection.’ I did as I was directed and must admit that for a fraction of a second I was genuinely startled. Although the end of the room furthest from the set-up was visible in every detail, the reflection of my Caledonian friend from Houndsditch appeared to be missing. The chair was also invisible, whereas normally, of course, both chair and man should have been reflected.

Although for a moment I was impressed at the result of the arrangement of the mirrors, my knowledge of the law of optics came to my rescue, and I quickly realised that what I saw before me was modelled on a well-known principle in conjuring which is often used in stage illusions. And I lost no time in telling Sandy what I thought of him and his ‘psychic gift’. I went up to him, made him stand up, moved his chair six inches from the spot where he had so carefully placed it, told him to sit down again, stepped back a few paces – and I saw the very unusual spectacle of half a man and half a chair reflected in the mirrors. A move of another six inches and both man and chair were fully reflected.

Well, they loaded up the van with a little less alacrity than when they unloaded it and, an hour later, when I was going to lunch, I saw Sandy and the van driver coming out of the local hostelry where, doubtless, they had been consoling each other with the fact that we live in a hard and incredulous world.

This story has a sequel. A few months after Sandy tried to ‘put over’ his mirror ‘phenomenon’, a toy, in which the same optical principle was employed, was put on the market. I was at once reminded of the illusion I had seen demonstrated in my séance-room. The toy was in the form of a box, closed on all sides, but partly open at the top. At one end of the box were a number of strips of looking-glass and, facing them, was a peep-hole. If a person put his eye to the peep-hole, he could see it plainly reflected in the mirrors opposite. Then, if a small object such as a marble, were placed in the box and the observer again placed his eye to the peep-hole, he could still see the reflection of his own eye – but neither the marble nor the reflection of the marble were visible. So my friend had turned his magic mirrors to account, after all. It is wonderful how these ‘Scotsmen’ persevere.

This account is taken from Harry's 1936 biography Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter. I've no idea what arrangement of mirrors Sandy used nor have I seen the optical toy that Harry Price mentions. If you know of either, do let me know.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

You Have a Lucky Face

So there I was, standing outside a store in New Oxford Street, killing some time before a 3 o’clock meeting when I heard the words, “You have a lucky face.”

They came from a small Indian guy, possibly in his late teens. He’d crept up behind me and when I turned to face him, he said the words again. “You have a lucky face.”
“Pardon?” I said.
“You have a lucky face, yes very lucky. Let me see your hand.”
And I did, I let him see my hand. Instinctively I knew he wanted to read my palm so I held it palm uppermost and sure enough he started to point to the lines on my hand with a pen. As well as a pen he was carrying a small leather folder, the kind with a zipper around the edge. Clipped to the folder with his thumb were several small scraps of paper. “This is the lucky line,” he said, tracing one of the creases in my palm. “I show you.”

He started to write something down on one of the pieces of paper, rolled it into a ball and then dropped it onto my palm. I closed my hand to stop the ball of paper rolling away.

“Tell me the name of a flower,” he said.
“Rose” I answered.
“And a number from 1 to 5.”
“3” I said.
“Look at the paper.

I opened my hand, unrolled the paper and saw that he had written down the words rose and the number 3.

He started to write some other things on a second slip of paper and mutter some stuff about this being true, that I was very lucky and that money was coming my way. He looked up at my lucky face. “Do not shave or cut your hair on Tuesday” he advised. “Tuesday very lucky day for business. You will get much money.”

Then he stopped writing, reached into his leather folder and rummaged around inside. I could see other pieces of paper in there and something else, a picture of some kind. But what he brought out was what appeared to be a small red-brown nut or seed. He handed it to me. “This is very lucky stone. You keep it. You will be lucky.”

Obviously my lucky face and not shaving was not going to be enough to draw in the money on Tuesday. I was going to need celestial help and the stone would do the trick. Thank heavens I met this fortune teller today!

I looked at my watch and it was starting to get close to 3 o’clock so decided it was time to leave. But he kept talking away and then reached into his wallet again and pulled out the picture. It was a drawing of a holy man. Either that or James Randi. “This is my teacher,” he said. “Everything I say is true, this is what I believe.” Then came the capper, which I had been expecting from the first moment I heard the words about my lucky face. “Make a donation please.” The leather wallet now lay open on his upturned hands like the collection platter in a church. It was universal body language for “Give generously.”

Yes, here I was being hustled for money in the West End of London by an Indian fortune teller. There was something not quite right about it. I thought for a moment, looked at him and then pretended to search in my pockets, looking first in one and then the other. I found what I was looking for and held it out. “Here,” I said, “take this. It’s very lucky.” And I gave him the small red nut. He didn’t look very happy about this.

As I walked away I turned back and reminded him, “Oh, and don’t shave on Tuesday. Tuesday very lucky day for you.” I felt very pleased to have found such a good finish to our encounter.

I made my meeting on time but it was a messy affair and we didn’t really resolve anything. The trip into London had been a bit of a waste. But the real finale came this morning when I was browsing some news sites and read that main prize in the National Lottery was won by a man who had been given a lucky stone by a psychic.

In London.

At 3.15pm.

It's true!

I will not be shaving on Tuesday!

Okay, I made that bit about the lottery up. I hope you checked the link. Here’s the real 100% unvarnished truth.

I was really pleased when I heard the words “You have a lucky face” because a couple of years ago my friend Carlo told me about some psychic swindlers working in Hong Kong. They were Indian fortune tellers and the scam went like this.

They engaged you in conversation, wrote something down on a piece of paper and then asked you to think of a flower.

It was always a rose, most people will name a rose.

And then they asked you to choose a number from 1 to 5. You won't be surprised to hear that 3 is the most popular number.

But there was a third phase to the routine. They scribbled something on a slip of paper and asked for your date of birth. And when you opened the paper that’s exactly what you found written on it. Amazing. And worth ten dollars of anyone's money, which is what the fortune teller usually asked for.

Now the reason I wanted to see this is that unlike the first two parts of the trick it doesn’t depend on population stereotypes and fast talking. It depends on the fortune teller being able to write your date of birth down after you’ve said it and then switch it for the blank pellet that you’re holding in your hand.

Carlo is a knowledgeable sleight of hand magician so was able to work out the basic method. On my behalf he’d even offered the fortune tellers a couple of hundred dollars if they’d let him film them doing the routine. They all refused. So I was left to work out a suitable handling myself.

It was featured in an expose of fake psychics on the Channel 5 series Psychic Secrets Revealed that I consulted on. We managed to work out quite a smooth routine for Alistair Cook, the magician who was posing as a psychic on that show. We filmed him performing it in China Town to great effect. People are really amazed when they see their birthday written on that slip of paper. Which is why when the fortune teller asks for a donation you readily give one.

I went along with the first two predictions, naming rose and 3, because I wanted to see the switch in action. But he was so close to me that I knew the trick would be difficult to do well. So did he, unfortunately. Or perhaps he just thought I was so gullible he wouldn’t need it.

A switch is definitely part of the fortune teller’s repertoire. The tip-off is that there is no reason for using small pieces of paper in the first place if you are not going to switch them.

So listen out when walking through the West End. You may have a luckier face than mine and get an opportunity to see your birth date on one of those papers. But if you give money, give it for a performance well done. The only faith you'll be supporting is the one that fake psychics have in the gullibility of humankind. Oh, and keep a tight grip on your wallet. He might be small but I bet he can run like the clappers!
Hiding In Full View

I was reading David Hoy’s biography the other day - Super Psychic: The Incredible Dr Hoy. David Hoy aka Dr Faust the mentalist and mindreader is known among magicians as the inventor of the Tossed Out Deck effect. It's a great trick and still very much in use, passed down by Faust himself in an earlier book, this one for magicians, called The Bold and Subtle Miracles of Dr Faust.

But I bet few mentalists realise that the secret of the trick was later featured in Hoy's biography. Here is what author John Godwin has to say on page 27.

The whole mystery lay in the way David put his questions. For the entire deck consisted of eight of clubs. By naming two other cards he conveyed the impression that he was using a full deck. And since each participant had only seen one card, they assumed that the other two must have seen different cards.

Fortunately for Dr Hoy he had no further need for such trickery. By the 1970s he had become a full fledged radio psychic, helping callers find lost scissors and contact lenses as well as jobs in the construction industry. I'm not kidding.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Street Conjurer

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is a three volume account of the lives of the working class in Victorian England. Published in 1851 it contains first-hand descriptions of the day to day activities of tradesmen, rat catchers, flower girls, criminals and everyone else that ever trod a cobbled street. It's the kind of book you can open at any page and find something of interest.

The following is taken from an account of The Street Conjurer in Volume 3. Here’s how a Victorian magician went about earning a living.

It was about this time that I took to busking. I never went into tap-rooms, only into parlours; because one parlour would be as good as a dozen tap-rooms, and two good parlours a-night I was quite satisfied with.

My general method was this: If I saw a good company in the parlour, I could tell in a moment whether they were likely to suit me. If they were conversing on politics it was no good, you might as well attempt to fly. I have many a-time gone into a parlour, and called for my half-quartern of gin and little drop of cold water, and then, when I began my performances, it has been ‘No, no! we don‘t want anything of that kind,’ and there has been my half hour thrown away. The company I like best are jolly-looking men, who are sitting silently smoking, or reading the paper. I always got the privilege of performing by behaving with civility to my patrons.

Some conjurers, when the company ain‘t agreeable, will say, ‘But I will perform;’ and then comes a quarrel, and the room is in future forbid to that man. But I, if they objected, always said, ‘Very well, gentlemen, I‘m much obliged to you all the same: perhaps another time. Bad to-night, better next night.’ Then when I came again some would say, ‘I didn‘t give you anything the other night, did I? Well, here‘s a fourpenny bit,’ and so on.

When I went into a parlour I usually performed with a big dice, three inches square. I used to go and call for a small drop of gin and water, and put this dice on the seat beside me, as a bit of a draw. Directly I put it down everybody was looking at it. Then I‘d get into conversation with the party next to me, and he‘d be sure to say, ‘What the deuce is that?’ I‘d tell him it was a musical box, and he‘d be safe to say, ‘Well, I should like to hear it, very much.’ Then I‘d offer to perform, if agreeable, to the company; often the party would offer to name it to the company, and he‘d call to the other side of the room, (for they all know each other in these parlours) ‘I say, Mr. So-and-so, have you any objection to this gentleman showing us a little amusement?’ and they are all of them safe to say, ‘Not in the least. I‘m perfectly agreeable if others are so;’ and then I‘d begin.

I‘d pull out my cards and card-boxes, and the bonus genius or the wooden doll, and then I‘d spread a nice clean cloth (which I always carried with me) on the table, and then I‘d go to work. I worked the dice by placing it on the top of a hat, and with a penknife pretending to make an incision in the crown to let the solid block pass through. It is done by having a tin covering to the solid dice, and the art consists in getting the solid block into the hat without being seen. That‘s the whole of the trick. I begin by striking the block to show it is solid. Then I place two hats one on the other, brim to brim. Then I slip the solid dice into the under hat, and place the tin covering on the crown of the upper one. Then I ask for a knife, and pretend to cut the hat-crown the size of the tin-can on the top, making a noise by dragging my nail along the hat, which closely resembles cutting with a knife. I‘ve often heard people say, ‘None of that!’ thinking I was cutting their hat. Then I say, ‘Now, gentlemen, if I can pass this dice through the crown into the hat beneath, you‘ll say it‘s a very clever deception,’ because all conjurers acknowledge that they deceive; indeed, I always say when I perform in parlours, ‘If you can detect me in my deceptions I shall be very much obliged to you by naming it, for it will make me more careful; but if you can‘t, the more credit to me.’ Then I place another tin-box over the imitation dice; it fits closely. I say, ‘Presto--quick--begone!’ and clap my hands three times, and then lift up the tin cases, which are both coloured black inside, and tumble the wooden dice out of the under hat. You see, the whole art consists in passing the solid block unseen into the hat.

Mayhew’s complete text is online at Edwin C. Bolles Collection. There you’ll find more of the conjurer’s adventures and further details of the tricks he performed. The magician had no qualms about telling Mayhew how his tricks worked, saying, I have often made a good deal of money in parlours by showing how I did my little tricks, such as cutting the tape and passing the halfcrowns. Then he added, Of course it doesn‘t matter so much showing how these tricks are done, because they depend upon the quickness and dexterity of handling. You may know how an artist paints a picture, but you mayn‘t be able to paint one yourself. How true.