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.