DESERT ISLE READING
Jon Racherbaumer sent out a number of emails to magicians a few months ago asking which magic book they would take to a desert island. It wasn’t something I had ever contemplated. I presume that being marooned is something that weighs more heavily on Jon’s mind than mine. I can see him talking to a basketball called Eddie. Still, entering into the spirit of the request, I sent him my thoughts.
Assuming that someone hasn’t yet written Twenty Tricks with a Raft or The Sorcerer’s Guide to Scavenging, then I suppose I would opt for one of my favourite card books, The Encyclopaedia of Card Tricks by Jean Hugard and John J. Crimmins Jr. This is presuming that I can make myself some playing cards out of palm leaves.
The Encyclopaedia of Card Tricks began its life with one less “a” in its title and far fewer credits. A Dr Wilhelm Von Deusen and Glenn Gravatt compiled the volume in 1936 and created something of a controversy among the card cognoscenti to whom many of the tricks belonged. The book was nothing less than a reprint of every great trick the pair had in their scrapbooks, everything they had read in a magazine, bought from a dealer or purchased as an exclusive manuscript. “Over $1,000 worth of secrets,” boasted the advertising. It was true, but the secrets weren’t Deusen’s or Gravatt’s to dispose of. Annemann described it as “piracy on a grand scale,” suggesting that it should be marked on maps of the South Seas. And he laughed when the book was pirated by another publisher and Gravatt reduced to taking ads out pleading for purchasers to buy the “original” and not the copy.
Despite its dubious antecedents, The Encyclopedia of Card Tricks was not a book to be ignored. It contained hundreds of tricks in its two unwieldy mimeographed volumes. In 1937 Max Holden got permission from the contributors to put out a hardcover edition and handed over the editorial duties to Hugard and Crimmins. Their names gave the pirate tome a legitimacy that it had previously lacked. Still flying under the shadow of the Jolly Roger it was more of a Sir Francis Drake than a Blackbeard. The book became an instant classic, Tom Bowyer describing it in The Linking Ring as, “Truly the most valuable card book ever published.”
The edition I first came across was published in England, hence the extra “a” in “Encyclopaedia,” by Faber & Faber. It was a childhood Christmas present and one of a fabulous range of magic books published by Faber for the general public which included the works of Bill Severn, Bruce Elliott and Hugard and Braue. Taken together they provided a publicly available guide to magic that was unsurpassed until Dover Publications discovered the world of lapsed copyrights, which, ironically, is where the pirate book is presently anchored.
So what’s so marvellous about the Encyclopaedia? And why would I take it to a desert island rather than, say, Maskelyne & Devant’s Our Magic or Dai Vernon’s Book of Magic? The answer lies in the sheer variety of card magic contained within the book’s covers. It’s seminal stuff, from basic key card locations, to mathematical tricks and gaffed cards. On a desert island, the one thing you’ll need is mental stimulation and Gravatt’s book supplies that in abundance. He did a hell of a job in selecting his tricks, each one a different angle on a theme, an innovative spin on a well-worn principle or the very latest in card experimentation circa 1930. There is much here to think about.
A book on sleight of hand, wouldn’t provide half the enjoyment. Besides, sleight of hand is no different from athletics, if you haven’t mastered the move by the time you’re in your twenties, you’re unlikely to master it at a later date. Having made it past forty, I’m content to use the moves I know and keep the brain ticking over with the kind of problems laid out in the Encyclopaedia. Besides which, if your deck is made of palm leaves, you’re going to have trouble doing the second deal.
I can see that you may not be convinced. So let me set out the stall of wonders. First the contributors, an outstanding line up of card magic’s greatest: Vernon, Jordan, Downs, Baker, Annemann, Gray, Farelli, Hull, Daley, Christ, Larsen, Sellers and Grant to name just a few. Each has left their mark on magic and none would doubt the roles they have played in its evolution.
Naturally, one would expect great things of great magicians and that is why the material in the Encyclopaedia is of such fine quality. These creators were working their magic during an extraordinary time, when the great illusion shows were coming to an end and close up card magic was coming into its own. New York in particular was a hive of creative activity and secrets jealously guarded. Vernon’s psychological forces and use of the double back card were known only to the few. Indeed only a half-dozen years earlier he had sold some of his prized secrets in his legendary Twenty Dollar Manuscript. Many of these same tricks made a more public debut in the Encyclopaedia and at half the price. As did Ben Erens’ card spelling routine, a trick that was much discussed among his peers, the mathematics behind the now familiar Clock Trick, methods for getting thought of cards at chosen numbers and finding selections under seemingly impossible conditions. It was cutting edge stuff in its day and all of it found its way into the all-consuming Encyclopaedia, a veritable Hitchhikers Guide to Card Magic.
Its value for me lies in the number of times I have been able to revisit it over the years, each time discovering fresh insights. When I first read the Encyclopaedia as a trick hungry kid, I appreciated the fact that the tricks depended largely on subtlety than sleight of hand. I could actually use routines like Al Baker’s Twin Souls straight from the book. Jordan’s The Unknown Leaper was another favourite and hardly a performance went by without The Magic Breath or the memorably titled Get Thee Behind Me, Satan being demonstrated.
And it was good to have entire chapters devoted to tricks with stripper and svengali decks, both of which were in my repertoire having been purchased at the local novelty shop. I even made up what seemed to me at the time one of the most complex of gaffed decks, Speaking of Pink Elephants, in which thought-of cards changed colour, were spelled to and finally vanished. Making your own tricks is all part of learning magic and the Encyclopaedia provided plenty of material for the amateur craftsman, including Annemann’s Mental Masterpiece, a cunning card release called Magicardo and the little used Mene-Tekel deck which I swear would catch us all off guard if introduced into a card routine. Check out J. F. Orrin’s Pocket Rising Card for a terrific convention trick.
The book doesn’t spend much time tutoring the reader in sleight of hand. The focus is on self-working effects. But when I returned to it years later, with a better understanding of what it meant by “make a double lift” the power of the magic it contained was enhanced. A little well placed sleight of hand made the subtleties even slicker.
As a source of creative inspiration it is unique. You can open the book blindly, put your finger on a page and almost guarantee that the trick you land upon will put the brain into gear and start you thinking. That’s if you are not already amazed at the sophistication of the existing method or presentation and wondering why nobody has thought about using it. Take The Adventures of Diamond Jack, for instance, a story routine with a pre-arranged deck. If you’re tired of the popular Sam the Bellhop routine, you could do worse than give this one a try with its clever word play.
In more recent years I’ve begun to understand more fully who the originators were. Many were referred to only by their surnames: Hull, Baker, Vernon, Jordan, Annemann and the rest. When I first read the book, they meant nothing to me but now I can place faces to most of those captions. I know where they lived, what they did, who their friends were. Viewed in this way the Encyclopaedia becomes a time capsule reflecting the mindset and culture of a remarkable era. It is a nostalgic reminder of the history of card craft.
The Encyclopaedia of Card Tricks is still on sale though not everyone feels the same way I do about the book. A comment from one magician on the Amazon book website bemoaned the lack of illustrations. With few pictures, it can appear to be a rather monotonous meal rather than the feast it truly is. But illustrations were largely unnecessary. The Encyclopaedia is a book of grand ideas, notions that can be endlessly twisted and manipulated for the reader’s own ends. Most readers, those who do more than riffle through the pages looking for drawings that will tell all, think highly of it. As Tom Bowyer predicted, it is a classic work, and the reality that more copies gather dust on a shelf than are actually being read doesn’t detract from that.
The last secret that the Encyclopedia had to offer was only revealed to me recently on browsing through some old copies of Genii magazine. In the February 1969 issue Glenn Gravatt confessed that his co-author was entirely fictitious. "I thought so little of the prestige of my own name that I added, with tongue in cheek, a mythical collaborator, 'Dr Wilhelm Von Deusen,' feeling that a distinguished sounding foreign name would lend glamor to the enterprise." However, he didn’t explain what possessed him to compile the best tricks of his peers together and sell them under his own name. He just complained that subsequent editors had got some of the credits wrong!
The greatest of pirate books surely deserves a trip to a desert island. It will fulfil Annemann’s expectations of it if nothing else. And anyway, with over 600 tricks on its 448 pages, you can be sure of one thing. It would make a damn good fire.