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art of entertaining with tricks that are in apparent violation of natural law. The principles of deception that magicians use are psychological; the methods are manipulative and mechanical. The psychological principles are misdirection, suggestion, imitation, and concealment. The spectators do not see everything that happens, and they believe they see things that do not happen. Such faulty perception leads to false assumptions, fallacious logic, and, in the end, to the conclusion that the performer has achieved an impossible result.
Sleight of hand, that is, deception by manual dexterity, consists in the performance of certain actions that are not perceived because they are concealed, or are misconstrued because they imitate some innocent, natural action. In the more difficult magical tricks, the performer employs sleight of hand without the use of special apparatus. Mechanical methods involve the use of camouflaged apparatus that the audience sees but does not comprehend and of apparatus that is not seen. The tricks employing apparatus include stage tricks in which objects appear, disappear, change, float on air, survive mutilation, or penetrate solid barriers.
The earliest written records indicate that a distinction has probably always been made between magicians who are entertainers and the tribal witch doctors and medicine men who claimed that their incantations and spells could control nature and human destiny. The first magicians of recorded history were those of ancient Egypt. The Egyptian magician Dedi (fl. about 2700 bc) gave a performance in which he decapitated two birds and an ox and then restored their heads. Other Egyptian magicians were noted for their skill with the trick of the cups and balls. In this trick small balls seem to pass invisibly from one inverted cup or bowl to another. Finally, they are converted into larger spheres or such unexpected things as oranges or live baby chicks.
Sleight of hand with coins, dice, and, later, playing cards added variety to the performances of medieval magicians. The tricks of the cut and restored string and of thrusting a dagger through the arm without injury were performed in taverns and in marketplaces.
The first magician known to have performed in North America was an anonymous member of the retinue of the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés. Jacob Meyer (1735–95), whose professional name was Philadelphia, was the first American to achieve an international reputation as a conjurer.
The Italian Giuseppe Pinetti (1750–1800) was the most imitated magician of the 18th century. His repertory included automatons, that is, machines that operated by themselves; pretended second sight; and novel tricks with apparatus.
The British magician John Henry Anderson (1814–74), called the Wizard of the North, was a master publicist. Among his promotional schemes were elaborate street parades, flamboyant posters, and advertisements stenciled on pavements. His tricks frequently related to current news topics, and he often denounced as frauds persons professing supernatural powers.
The French magician Jean Houdin (1805–71), a clockmaker who at the age of 40 became a professional magician, revolutionized the art of magic with his ingenious stage mechanisms and effective presentations. His textbooks were the first to treat magic scientifically, and he was the first to use electricity as an aid in stage mysteries.
Another French magician who developed original techniques was Joseph Buatier (1848–1903), known as Buatier De Kolta. Two of his outstanding inventions were the vanishing birdcage, a trick in which a live canary and a metal cage disappeared at his fingertips, and the expanding die, in which a 20-cm (8-in) cube suddenly increased 20 times its original size and was then lifted to disclose a seated woman.
The popular conception of a magician as a slender man with a mustache, goatee, and satanic air probably started with the Herrmann family, for the famed magicians of this family all answered to the description. Carl Herrmann (1816–87), a native of Vienna, won acclaim in Europe and America. His younger brother, the American magician Alexander Herrmann (1844–96), called Herrmann the Great, and his nephew Leon Herrmann (1868–1909) also toured extensively in America and abroad.
John Maskelyne (1839–1917) and his partner David Devant (1868–1941), the leading British magicians of their day, presented many of their acts in the form of skits or short plays. Their London theater was world famous. The American magician Harry Kellar (1849–1922) took his show, which included sleight of hand, illusions, and the duplication of feats performed by alleged spirit mediums, around the world. He was the best-known magician in America when he retired in 1908. His successor, the American magician Howard Thurston (1869–1936), performed throughout the U.S. for 28 years. His show included such spectacular features as the vanishing automobile, the Indian rope trick, and levitation. Harry August Jansen (1883–1955), who used Dante as his professional name, and Harry Blackstone (1885–1965) carried on the tradition.
Another American magician, Harry Houdini, won world renown by effecting sensational escapes from police handcuffs, straitjackets, and prison cells. He frequently jumped, in shackles, from bridges and released himself underwater. The last years of Houdini's life were devoted to a relentless campaign against fraudulent mediums. His thorough knowledge of deceptive techniques enabled him to expose their methods.
One of the greatest box-office attractions in the history of magic was the feat of appearing to saw a woman in half. In the first performance of this act in London in 1921, the British magician Percy Tibbles (1879–1938), whose professional name was P. T. Selbit, cut through a box that contained a woman assistant. She emerged unharmed. Several months later Hyman Goldstein (1867–1939), whose professional name was Horace Goldin, presented an even more puzzling variation of the act in New York City. The head, hands, and feet of his assistant were in full view throughout the operation. Later Goldin discarded the covering box, and, using a power-driven saw, performed the sawing-through and restoration in full view.
During the 1950s magicians began to reach larger audiences than ever through television. Among the leading magicians who made television appearances were the Indian illusionist P. C. Sorcar (1913–71); the British performer Richard Pitchford (1899–1973), whose pantomimic sleight of hand act was widely imitated; and the American magicians Milbourne Christopher (1914–84), whose televised acts included making an elephant disappear and levitating an assistant, and Mark Wilson (1929– ), who had his own weekly program.
During the 1970s there was a resurgence of interest in magic. The German magician Siegfried Fischbecker (1939– ) and his American assistant Roy Horn (1944– ), who specialized in making tigers and other large animals disappear, performed in acclaimed productions in Las Vegas, Nev. Doug Henning (1947–2000), a Canadian magician, and the American David Kotkin (1956– ), known as David Copperfield, developed considerable theatrical skill as they performed in films and stage musicals as well as on television. Harry Blackstone, Jr. (1934–97) carried on his father's achievements with large, lavishly produced touring shows and a Broadway show.
Noteworthy associations of magicians, with estimated membership in the late 1990s, include the International Brotherhood of Magicians (14,000); the Society of American Magicians (5900), which in 1967 established its Hall of Fame and Magic Museum in Hollywood, Calif., and maintains a substantial library of books, films, and tapes on magic; and the Academy of Magical Arts (5000), headquartered in the Magic Castle, also in Hollywood, Calif. Approximately 500 professional and 70,000 amateur magicians perform in the U.S. M.Ch., MILBOURNE CHRISTOPHER