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Spring 2014

On Magic

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Ricky Jay

On June 14, 1857, Londoners, already besieged by a vast assortment of advertisements, signs, and broadside solicitations, awoke to this curious caveat:



Be advised and be careful! I have seen that (within the last few hours) which has convinced me that in these latter days strange changes are coming about, and that the advent of the COMET is affecting the destinies of our race. I wish to describe to you that which I have seen developed in a Child, and may possibly be developed in many more Children; description, however, will scarcely convey to you an idea of the reality. Words cannot express that which you may see for yourself, hitherto we have been accustomed to speak of the helplessness of Infancy, the strength of Manhood, and the childishness of Senility. Henceforth so to speak, is talking nonsense. Beware, lest you find in your own Children a contradiction to it. Last night only, I saw (and I will tell you where) that a Boy—a mere child, Seven Years Old, has the power within him to match the strength of the greatest Giant that ever existed. Last night I saw (and I will name the place) Men who have been taken for Titans, overcome and conquered by the force of a poor little Child.

What, you may prudently question, was this call to alarm?

Our perturbed citizen continues:

What are we all coming to? Where will be Parental Authority and Domestic rule?… I went last night…to the Standard Theatre, there is a Man called Professor Anderson performing there, and the Child I allude to is his Son. I was told that the child invited the Strongest Men living to test their Strength with him.

I went upon the stage… One end of a long string was given to me; the other end was hooked on the little finger of the child. I was told to pull with main force (and I can lift Five Hundred Weight with ease any day). I did so, the child merely moved its finger and I was drawn to the ground immediately. I fell flat on my face amidst the ridicule of a crowded Theatre. The child has only to touch you with his finger-nail and you become powerless. Professor Anderson told me privately that he believes many Children possess this power now-a-days. I am a Widower without any Children, or I would try mine. You that have them beware. It is the gift to the new generation, the superhuman endowment to the rising race, by which the world is to be changed. Of this I have no doubt; if you have any, go to the Standard Theatre, and the Boy yourself—then go home and reflect. This Mystery of our being seems to have been imparted to Professor Anderson for a special purpose—that of teaching us all to be cautious how we despise little things. One touch of that child has driven out of me Maladies that had beset me for years.

Your sincere Friend,
Peter S. Simpson.
13 Juniper st., Bethnal Green.

P.S.—For Public Benefit, I have paid for the Printing of these Bills out of my own Pocket.

Forgive my cynical commentary, but I can only assume that the last statement, as well as much that precedes it, is a lie. I have been unable to confirm the existence of any Peter S. Simpson in Bethnal Green in 1857, let alone one capable of lifting “five hundred weight with ease.” And it does not take a serious debunker of psychic fraud to be skeptical that a child’s touch could cure maladies of any kind. So what, we may inquire, was the purpose of this document? Was this sheet “wild-posted” in the town and slapped on the walls of the metropolis? Almost certainly it was not placed in theaters. It is un-illustrated, un-theatrical in appearance, and printed in a curiously large format (about twenty by thirty inches).

Even though the broadside does not contain a word about conjuring, it was designed, I believe, for a singular purpose: to garner a paying audience for a magic show. As such it is a unique document. I unabashedly assign the payment of the printer’s invoice, and the entire scheme, to the above cited Professor Anderson—not an academic exploring the borderlands of science, but rather John Henry Anderson, “The Caledonian Conjurer,” “The Wizard of the North,” “The Great Wonder of the Age” (whom I elsewhere refer to as “the panjandrum of publicity, pasha of the press release, caliph of conundrums, nabob of neologism, Napoleon of necromancy, and Aladdin of alliteration”).

This is a story about Magic and Marketing.

Anderson (1814–1874), the Scottish conjurer who was one of the most famous theatrical personalities of the mid-nineteenth century, was arguably the greatest personal advertiser of his day. In nourishing a long career (like Houdini, who was directly influenced by him), he constantly promoted himself and exploited techniques to reinvent himself in the public eye. To sustain the interest of the theatergoing public, he might extol new scientific principles, invoke mystical terms, or capitalize on current events in his presentations. Anderson’s originality lay not in his magical creations (indeed, he was a shameless copyist of his great contemporary, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin), but in his ability to create textually rich, humorous, and appealing scenarios that he then advertised and exhibited in the most extravagant ways. Although his career as a magician was heralded, his bombast and his eagerness to embrace various self-aggrandizing schemes often made him a target for parody and ridicule. Insights into some of his more dubious promotions are still being unearthed. (Anderson fronted for a pair of microcephalic Mexican dwarfs whom he marketed as the sole survivors of an ancient race of Aztec Lilliputians; he was the impresario for the Lancashire Bell Ringers; and he billed himself as “Professor of Magic Philosophy at the University of Terra Firma”—the supposed publisher of a dictionary of classical quotations.)

For this engagement Anderson augmented his repertoire with a new offering: “The Hercules Traction Trick…by means of which, an interesting looking Child of 7 years of Age, can pull to the Ground 1000 Strong Men.” For “Excitement Unparalleled,” Anderson would have spectators test their strength against his “Cable-nerved Child.” But Anderson outrageously, uncharacteristically, comically, or ill advisedly pronounced that the boy’s “Magic Touch Cures Rheumatism, Sciatica, Neuralgia, Gout, Spasms, and all the ills which Flesh is heir to.” “One Touch of the Child,” he boasted in an ornate poster, “is equal to 37,000 Boxes of the best puffed Pills.”

When theatergoers attended the demonstration of the “Superhuman Boy,” what did they actually witness? According to the broadside, as soon as a volunteer took hold of a thread that was wrapped around the child’s finger, he immediately writhed and collapsed to the ground, vanquished by the miraculous youngster. One can imagine volunteers comically careering about the stage in a struggle for their dignity and equanimity.

This was a battle won not by strength, but by cunningly disguised principles of stage magic.

Contemporary accounts, surprisingly, take no notice of the extravagant medical claims of the “Superhuman Child.” Perhaps the British press and public were willing to accept the idea of the boy curing rheumatism, sciatica, and gout as good-natured folderol espoused by a popular performer. Or perhaps the press simply reveled in the conflation of magic, science, medicine, marketing, and supernatural phenomena.

Ricky Jay will host a weekend of magic appreciation in New York State in the summer of 2014. He is the subject of the documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.

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