Friday, September 16, 2016

The Menetekel Mystery

In the 1932 book Houdini and Conan Doyle  (Bernard M L Erst & Hereward Carrington) an unsolved mystery is described:

Houdini produced what appeared to be an ordinary slate, some eighteen inches long by fifteen inches high. In two corners of this slate, holes had been bored, and through these holes wires had been passed. These wires were several feet in length, and hooks had been fastened to the other ends of the wires. The only other accessories were four small cork balls (about three-quarters of an inch in diameter), a large inkwell filled with white ink, and a table-spoon.

 Houdini passed the slate to Sir Arthur for examination. He was then requested to suspend the slate in the middle of the room, by means of the wires and hooks, leaving it free to swing in space, several feet distant from anything. In order to eliminate the possibility of electrical connections of any kind, Sir Arthur was asked to fasten the hooks over anything in the room which would hold them. He hooked one over the edge of a picture-frame, and the other on a large book, on a shelf in Houdini’s library. The slate thus swung free in space, in the centre of the room, being supported by the two wires passing through the holes in its upper corners. The slate was inspected and cleaned.

Houdini now invited Sir Arthur to examine the four cork balls in the saucer. He was told to select any one he liked, and, to show that they were free from preparation, to cut it in two with his knife, thus verifying the fact that they were merely solid cork balls. This was accordingly done. Another ball was then selected, and, by means of the spoon, was placed in the white ink, where it was thoroughly stirred round and round, until its surface was equally coated with the liquid. It was then left in the ink to soak up as much liquid as possible. The remaining balls Sir Arthur took away with him for examination, at Houdini’s request.

At this point, Houdini turned to Sir Arthur, and said: “Have you a piece of paper in your pocket upon which you can write something?” The latter stated that he had, also a pencil. Houdini then said to him: “Sir Arthur, I want you to go out of the house, walk anywhere you like, as far as you like in any direction; then write a question or sentence on that piece of paper; put it back in your pocket and return to the house.” Sir Arthur walked three blocks and turned a corner before he wrote upon the paper - doing so in the palm of his hand. He then folded the paper, placed it in an inside pocket, and returned to Houdini’s home. Meanwhile, Houdini had kept Mr. Ernst with him in order to see that he did not leave the house.

Upon Sir Arthur’s return, Houdini requested him to stir up the cork ball once more in the white ink, and then to lift it, by means of the spoon, and hold it up against the suspended slate. He did so, and the cork ball stuck there, seemingly of its own volition! It then proceeded to roll across the surface of the slate, leaving a white track as it did so. As the ball rolled, it was seen to be spelling words. The words written on the slate were: “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” The cork ball then dropped to the floor, and Houdini invited Sir Arthur to take it home with him, if he so desired. Sir Arthur extracted the piece of paper from his pocket, and upon it he had written, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” The message written upon the slate was therefore an exact copy of the message which Sir Arthur had written upon the paper.

Over the years several magicians have offered their solution to the mystery. These range from a person hidden behind the board using a long stick to manipulate a magnetised cork to Houdini performing Max Berol’s Menetekel illusion. The latter is in fact exactly same effect but performed on stage rather than at the close quarters desccribed in Houdini and Doyle. It’s believed that Houdini had bought this effect from Berol prior to his meeting with Doyle.

Not satisfied with any of these solutions Bob Loomis scoured the archives, gathered every piece of information he could and came up with his own solution which combines some elaborate information gathering and complex electronic equipment. You can read about it in his new book Houdini’s Final Incredible Secret which you can buy here.

I read the book. And instead of scouring the archives for years I did a search of Ask Alexander and my Kindle. So you might rightly consider my conclusions hastily drawn. However, something has always bugged me about this unsolved effect. And it’s probably that the only source of it seems to be the account given by Bernard Ernst to Hereward Carrington. Ernst was Houdini’s lawyer as well as an amateur magician. He later inherited the Houdini diaries which still remain with the Ernst family. Carrington was a magician and author of popular books on the supernatural. He had been at  odds with Houdini over the investigation of the psychic Margery Crandon. He had also been the business manager of discredited psychic Eusapia Palladino. These two men are not the unbiased witnesses we’d hope for and Bob Loomis does note this in his book. It’s easy to imagine that Ernst wanted to portray his friend Houdini a great mystifier and Carrington wanted a good tale to tell. But that’s just guesswork and so is the rest of what I’m about to write.

I can’t offer any evidence that this miraculous trick with the inky cork ball did not occur. But I am sceptical that the account is correct. And if the account isn’t correct, then trying to find a solution that exactly matches the conditions is a lost cause. Here are the questions that lead me to believe that Ernst and Carrington’s tale has a touch of fantasy about it:

Why did Houdini make no mention that the trick was performed? The event was said to have happened between April 9th and June 23rd of 1922 when Arthur Conan Doyle, accompanied by his wife Jean, made a tour of the USA. The relationship between Houdini and Doyle started well but soured after Doyle’s wife famously brought a spirit message back from Houdini’s deceased mother. It would not have been uncharacteristic of Houdini to have found an opportunity to say he had fooled the creator of Sherlock Holmes, especially when writing in A Magician Among the Spirits (1924) in which he refers to Doyle many times including their meetings in 1922.

Similarly, Doyle wrote about Houdini but never mentioned this encounter or the trick. Had he forgotten how much it had fooled him?

During his tour of the USA Doyle met Houdini a number of times. A list of them can be found in A Chronology of the Life of Arthur Conan Doyle written by Brian W Pugh. Pugh has tried to chart the almost daily and significant activities of Doyle during his life. And his book shows that Doyle met Houdini at least twice at his home during May and was always accompanied by his wife Jean. Jean does not appear in Ernst’s account.

All the solutions so far offered are theoretical. No one has tried to build or perform their solutions which I think would be an interesting project. I suspect it would be difficult to make it work as effectively as Ernst suggests. It’s not just the conditions under what the trick is performed that make it difficult it’s the fact that Ernst is a magician himself. He would almost certainly know of Berol’s illusion and yet doesn’t mention it in his story. As Houdini’s lawyer he might even have been involved in the purchase.

Max Berol toured extensively with his illusion including the UK. It was a highly paid and sought after act. Given its nature there was always a chance that Doyle knew of it which makes it all the more unlikely that Houdini would have tried to baffle him with a version of a trick that had toured the world and even worked the London Hippodrome.

And what are we to make of the coincidence between the title of Berol’s illusion, Menetekel and the words that Doyle chose to write down? The obvious connection is the story in the Bible (Book of Daniel) from which the phrase originates but there’s no indication in the account that Houdini said to Doyle write something down and I will produce that writing on this board. Could it be that Ernst was describing the Berol illusion and so gave those words to Doyle when telling the story?

Berol’s Menetekel illusion wrote only one word at a time on the board probably because you’d run out of ink trying to write a sentence. Even with a three-quarter inch ink-soaked cork ball in your hand you would be hard put to write ‘Mene, mene, tekel upharsin’ across an eighteen-inch slate. That’s a lot of letters in a small space.  Now trying doing the same thing with a hidden assistant writing it in reverse or using some electronic mechanical contrivance as described by Bob Loomis.

Furthermore, what happened to that apparatus? Shouldn’t it exist somewhere along with everything else that remains of Houdini’s stage gear? What happened to the Max Berol apparatus that Houdini bought?

Finally, why did Ernst wait until both Houdini and Conan Doyle were dead to share this story? He was a prominent amateur magician who published in magic journals. He had ample opportunity to tell his tale.

None of this doubt prevents Bob Loomis’ book being an interesting read. There’s much to enjoy in the detail he uncovers about the characters involved. And it would still be an interesting project to build the illusion. One magician who has created a similar illusion is Paul Kieve. You'll find it in the stage production of the Roald Dahl story Matilda.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lesley Hazlitt and The Piddingtons

Lesley Hazlitt, of The Piddingtons, passed away on the 2nd August, aged 91. She had been in failing health for some years and my condolences go out to her family in Australia. She will be dearly missed.

I met Lesley in London in 2002. Ian Keable and I had been commissioned to write a documentary on mind readers for BBC Radio 4 (Men of Mystery 2003). We could hardly believe it when we heard that Lesley Piddington was in town. A phone call was made and we were invited to meet her at her daughter Kaye’s home in Parsons Green.

Although nearly forty years had passed since the famous Piddingtons’ radio broadcasts, the little lady in front of us was as lively and charming as she was in the British Pathe newsreel we’d seen where she picked up thoughts from the BBC studio while flying high in a stratocruiser. She answered all our questions except one, telling us how she first met Sydney Piddington and went from being asked to participate in his thought experiments to being asked to be his wife.

In the late 1940s  Lesley and Sydney Piddington performed as a telepathy act in Australia, working their miracles on radio, and then set out on a nine-week crossing to England in the hope of getting a theatre tour. The couple found it tough going and were almost on the verge of returning home when the breakthrough came with the BBC. Together they created radio shows that were listened to by the entire nation, this was an era before television, and appeared to demonstrate that mind to mind communication, as researched by J B Rhine at Duke University, was real. The effects were simply impossible and people all over the country asked, ‘How did they do it?’  It was this controversy that kept the nation guessing and the Piddingtons in the headlines.

‘We were very fortunate in that we had a wonderful response from the public,’ said Lesley, ‘It became very clear, very early on that there was something about the people here; they were very generous, they always wanted you to succeed. We felt that and we got hundreds of letters. Of course we got some wonderfully made ones as well.’

‘’One person wrote in and said he knew exactly how it was done. Syd had a little green man on his shoulder who would go over and tell me, fly over to my shoulder and tell me what the answer was. And he knew this was right because he had a little green man of his own.’

The Piddingtons were without doubt the most famous post-war telepathy act. Years later questions about their performance continued to be a matter of debate and even featured in The Guardian’s Notes & Queries column. It was an act conceived by amateur magician Sydney Piddington while a prisoner of war in Changi as entertainment for the troops. That it came to be one of the most famous acts in the history of mentalism is a story worth reading and you can read it in the book, The Piddingtons, authored by Sydney’s fellow prisoner, friend and ally Russell Braddon.

 Lesley was an actress, working under her own name of Lesley Pope, before she met Sydney. She was an experienced performer but confessed that the radio performances were nerve wracking.   ‘I was very nervous for all the shows,’ Lesley said,’  I used to be quite ill sometimes on the day of the broadcast.  I would walk around all day trying to get my mind off it but I was often quite sick physically.  Agonising it was.  It was different in the theatres.  I used to be nervous the first night but after that you sort of settled in.  It wasn’t like the broadcasts at all.  We did two shows a night which was pretty exhausting.  But it was only the first night you’d get uptight, the rest was all right.  But every broadcast was agony.  Because we were told there were more than 20 million listening to us.  And you couldn’t get your head around that.  It was more than we had in the whole population at that stage at home.’  

We stayed in contact for quite a while after the BBC documentary. I remember Lesley joining myself, Kevin James, Curtis and Sophie Evans on a trip to the Hayward Gallery to visit an exhibition of optical illusions. That was quite a magic gang. Later we joined Barry Murray for a drink in one of the Embankment’s well known gin bars. She visited The Magic Circle where David Berglas, who got his big break when the Piddingtons returned to Australia, welcomed her. When I suggested in 2003 that the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History would very much like to meet her, she made the trip and while there not only spoke at the conference but arranged for yet another interview on the BBC’s History of Magic series. When the Piddingtons were on air in the 1950s they had a lot of resentment and perhaps jealousy from the magic community. Many tried to expose their act. Lesley was surprised and delighted by the altogether different reception she received from the magicians of today.

Lesley and Sydney divorced and she married Jack Hazlitt, another war veteran and a man with an extraordinary story of his own which you can read about here. Jack too had since passed by the time we met Lesley and the Piddingtons’ act had more or less been consigned to a memory. I like to think that our BBC documentary did something to reawaken interest not only in the Piddingtons but also in recognising the part Lesley played in making them such a success.

As to the one question Lesley didn’t answer, it was of course the question that she had been asked so many times before. How did you do it? We didn’t expect an answer, of course. But the answer we got couldn’t have been better. 

‘We always ended the show with the word; “You are the judge.” And I have to say that it drives my grandchildren mad. They hate it - but I say it them too. “You are the judge.” And that’s the way I think it is rather nice to leave it.’

And that’s where I’ll leave it too.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016


In one of Al Koran’s publicity flyers it is claimed: ‘So great are these powers that Koran was invited to discuss and demonstrate them on Television’s famous programme, Panorama.’ He does not say how that turned out and perhaps with good reason.

But Gus Southall, writing in his A Watching Brief column (The Budget, Feb 1958) did give a very interesting account of what happened. Panorama is one of the BBC’s longest current affairs series. In 1958 it was presented by Richard Dimbleby, the father of David Dimbleby the presenter who later, in 1973, introduced Uri Geller to the world on his own BBC TV show. Richard Dimbleby became one of the BBC’s most noted presenters. He was not unacquainted with the magic world, having played host to other magic acts on TV and been a guest and speaker at The Magic Circle Banquet in 1954. This particular edition of Panorama seems to have been a serious investigation into the nature of Extra Sensory Perception. The person chosen to demonstrate this power was none other than Al Koran. I’ll let Gus Southall continue the story as he switches on his TV to join the show partway through the broadcast.

We switched on in time to witness Al undergoing an ordeal. (and we mean ordeal) which turned out to be a challenge by a Mr. X to test Al’s powers of E.S.P. We can only surmise that Al had been inveigled into this or that something went wrong. 
Both participants, seated at tables, were divided by a curtain. A pack of cards provided by the B.B.C. was introduced and it was stated that these had been in the possession of Richard Dimbleby most of the day. Under these stringent conditions Mr. X at Al’s request shuffled the pack and dealt five cards face up on the table and selected one of the cards. To put it briefly this procedure was complete three times without a definite success from Al.
Then followed a test with a blackboard divided into four parts. Again at Al’s request Mr. X filled these with four designs chosen by Al. Two of those were decided upon by Mr. X and numbered. Al then correctly named the first one but failed on the second one. Throughout the tests Al received no help whatsoever from Mr. X who ignored all of Al’s probing statements. This became clear at the finish when Mr X was revealed as  a Mr. West of the Psychical Research Society. Richard Dimbleby volunteered the fact that at a rehearsal in the afternoon Al had been correct twice in three attempts with similar tests. On being asked if he would submit to further tests in the future, Al readily agreed.
We hope not as there is so little to be gained and so much to lose.

Donald. J. West was the Research Officer of the Society for Psychical Research. He was a professional criminologist and the author of several books on parapsychology. In 1963 he became the society’s President . He had been interested in E.S.P. experiments since at least 1946 and had written papers on the telepathy and the mediumship of Helen Duncan. Incidentally in one of Koran’s pieces of publicity (Register Republic flyer 1971) he claimed to the be son of Helen Duncan.

West had also conducted experiments in Card Guessing with only chance results, something that went against the grain of his contemporaries who at that time placed a great deal of hope that card guessing experiments would lead to proof of ESP. Donald West was assisted in that work by Denys Parsons who would later, in the 1970s, join the New Scientist panel to investigate the Geller phenomena. West was a serious researcher who was sceptical of demonstrations of ESP. West's thorough attitude put him in a good position to test Al Koran. 

It is fascinating to speculate how Koran planned to achieve his effects given the conditions he would face along with the possibility of a very public failure. It’s hard to make an assessment on the card guessing test but as regards the blackboard experiment maybe a glance at Part Two of Corinda’s Thirteen Steps to Mentalism would provide a clue, especially Part Three of that volume. Interestingly, it was published the same year as the broadcast.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Monte Mystery

The line of thought here began when I heard an interview with Cy Endfield in the Patrick Page Audio Archive. He was talking, in a vague and perhaps deliberately ambiguous way, about Bob Hummer’s Mathematical 3 Card Monte which was marketed in 1951 as a manuscript. There have been many adaptations over the years perhaps the best known being Al Koran’s. Koran turned a trick with three playing cards into a trick with a note under one of three cups. It’s worth seeking out if you don’t already know it.

Cy Endfield’s interview led me to think again of what might be done with some of the ideas in the original Bob Hummer trick. For example, you could try this:

Have someone cut the deck into three packets. You turn your back. They look at the bottom card of one of the packets and then replace it on the table. They then switch the positions of the other two packets so you can’t know which packet was chosen. You are now able to turn around and point to the packet containing their card.

This is not a major mental mystery but it’d be easy to make it a little more involved by adding additional switching moves as per the original Hummer trick. The Hummer trick works by knowing the position of one of the three cards being shuffled around. When the performer turns back to face the spectator he notes the new position of the memorised card and is now able to deduce which of the three cards was chosen.

But in the version I’ve just suggested the performer doesn’t see any of the cards. However, he does see the three packets. And all you have to do is memorise the position of either the largest or smallest of the packets. Doesn’t matter which as long as that one packet is easily distinguished from the rest. It’s unlikely the spectator will cut three perfectly even packets so you have a very good chance of making one of them your key.

Let’s say the middle packet is your key. The position it finishes in after the spectator has swapped the other two packets will tell you the location of the noted card. For example. If the key is in the same position, then it means the selected card is on the bottom of that packet. If the packet is on the left, then it means the selected card is on the right. If the packet is on the right, then the selection is on the left. It’s simple logic and, as I say, you can add some extra swap moves that you either track (as per the Hummer original) or simply bring the three packets back to their original position without the spectator realising it. I’ll leave that to you.

The idea of using packets of cards as opposed to single cards made me think there were additional effects to be had. A spectator could look at a card in one of the packets, assemble the packets and then you might be able to reveal not only the name of the card but its position in the deck. That would be something worth working on. I was discussing this with Shiv Duggal when a simple solution came to mind. And you might just get away with it as a magician-fooler in your next card session. Here it is:

EFFECT: The magician shuffles the deck and places it on the table in front of the spectator. He asks the spectator to give the deck several cuts. The magician then turns away and asks the spectator to cut the deck into three packets. He does.

The spectator is asked to choose one of the packets and look at the top card. He memorises the card and then buries it in the packet. To make sure the magician can’t possibly know which packet has been moved the spectator is asked to swap the other two packets with each other.  Then he asks the spectator if he still knows which packet contains his card. He does. ‘Good. Now I want you to swap that packet with one of the others.’ The spectator does this too. ‘Do you still know which packet contains your card?’ The spectator says he does. The performer cautions the spectator to keep a poker face for the rest of the trick. And then the performer turns around.

The performer slowly moves his hand above the three packets. ‘There are three packets and I can tell you three things about your card. First, it’s in this packet. Am I right?’ The performer touches one of the packets. The spectator acknowledges that the performer is correct.

I can also tell you that your card is….the Ten of Spades. Am I right?’ Again, the performer is absolutely right.

‘And finally, I can tell you that it’s…. eight cards down in the packet. Am I right?” The spectator says he has no idea. So the performer begins counting cards from the top of the packet to the table. And sure enough the Ten of Spades is the eighth card down.

METHOD: Here’s the disappointing bit. You use a Svengali deck. I love Svengali decks. You can riffle shuffle them without spoiling the set up. You can also overhand shuffle them, faces towards the spectators, and they will be absolutely convinced that it’s an ordinary deck. This is a technique worth knowing. You simply spring packets off from the right hand thumb and fingers into the left during the shuffle. The overhand shuffle is actually a series of very convincing cuts. It’s a technique that has mostly been forgotten by magicians.

When you put the deck face-down on the table, you show the spectator how to cut it and complete the cut. Fingers and thumb at the short ends of the deck so they will always cut a short card to the top, of course. Basically you are training him to do the next cutting phase which will happen when your back is turned. Have him cut the deck several times ostensibly to mix the cards. Then turn away from him.

Ask the spectator to cut the deck into three packets. This will put your force card, Ten of Spades in our example, on top of each packet. The spectator chooses a packet, looks at the top card and then slides the card into the middle of the packet.

Have him swap the other two packets. This is just a red herring to have your brother magicians thinking about the Hummer trick. It’ll help take them away from the idea that a Svengali deck is used. Then ask him to swap his chosen packet with one of the other packets. This should convince him that you have no idea which packet he chose.

Turn back to the spectator and, as casually as you can, look at the three packets on the table. Two will have short cards on top. One will have a long card. If you have to, square the packets but it’s generally obvious which cards are long and short. Point to the packet with the long card. That’s the chosen packet.

You can also reveal the name of the chosen card because that’s your force card. Ask the question about how many cards down in the deck he placed his card. He will have no idea but it’s probably around the middle. Look at the packet and name any even number that is just above what you estimate to be the middle of the packet. The force cards in that packet are at even numbers.

Count down to the even number and you should find that it is the selection. You’ll know that before you turn it over because, once again, you can see which cards are long and which are short. However, there is the possibility that the spectator placed his card above the number you are counting to. Again, you will know this either during the deal or by the time you get to the number. At that point you repeat your claim, ‘The ten of spades is eight cards down in the deck,’ but lay a slightly different stress on the words. Count off the even number and then point to the next card purposefully before holding it away from the deck and then turning it over. That’s all there is to it. Could be a sneaky little item in the right hands. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the plot might lead to other non-Svengali manifestations of the trick.

When I told Shiv Duggal about this idea and he pointed me in the direction of a lovely trick from Joshua Jay. In the advertising it specifically says that it doesn’t use a Svengali. So not the same method at all. It is a really wonderful piece of impromptu magic. It’s called Impossible Three and is well worth noting. You watch the performance and buy the trick here.

Friday, June 10, 2016


There has been some discussion among magicians recently about the similarities in performance between the new winner of Britain’s Got Talent, Richard Jones, and previous contestants in America’s Got Talent. One of the effects in question concerns the cutting of a celebrity silhouette from a piece of paper.

The trick was marketed by Oz Pearlman, one of the AGT contestants, as 21st Century Phantom in 2008. Credit was given to Annemann and Percy Naldrett for the original effect. A review by W. S. Duncan in M-U-M magazine said, ‘While it would be easy to accuse Mr Pearlman of grave robbing in his production of this effect, I think a more honest assessment would call it resurrecting.’ The trick was a close-up version of The Phantom Artist published by Annemann in The Jinx (Summer 1937 Extra) and later in Annemann’s Practical Mental Effects  (1944). And in fact it was Annemann who was doing the resurrecting, pointing out that the trick had previously been published by Percy Naldrett as The Celebrity Trick. Which actually wasn't quite true.

The trick was the work of H C Mole, a magician from Aintree in Liverpool with several books to his name. Like Richard Jones he also had a connection to the military in that he organised hundreds of shows for troops in the Boehr War (Mole was born in the 1870s) as well as the first and second World Wars. He wrote about this aspect of his work in magic articles and pamphlets. But he also had another skill and one that might show why he came up with an effect in which a portrait was cut into a sheet of paper. He was a pioneer in the performance of rag pictures.

In this curious art the performer would create a picture from bits of cloth on an easel. Patter, rhyme and music were added to make it entertaining but perhaps what made it interesting to audiences is that the pictures were astonishingly good. You can get an glimpse of the kind of pictures H C Mole made in Abracadabra magazine (28th February 1948). In an article he wrote entitled Rag Picture Wrinkles there is a photograph of a tourist postcard set alongside a photograph of his wife putting the finishing touches to their rag rendition of the postcard. The similarity is amazing.

H C Mole didn’t read The Jinx. And it wasn’t until he read the Potter’s Bar series in The Budget, in which Jack Potter listed published tricks, that Mole realised his trick had been reprinted by Annemann. Mole wrote an article for Abracadabra magazine (24th June, 1950) entitled Piracy. He complained that Annemann had lifted his copyrighted material, saying, Is it not time, though, that such bare-faced robbery should be stopped, for I am not the only sufferer in this respect?’

H C Mole died in 1952 leaving a legacy of interesting books and articles including Those Entertaining Years (1950, a reminiscence of his magical life. The profits went to Benevolent Funds of the IBM. In one story he recalls his wife’s reaction to the Biblical tale in which Aaron cast down his rod and it became a serpent. This prompted the Egyptian magicians to do the same. ‘It’s funny,’ said Mrs Mole, that they all knew the same conjuring trick!’

There is one more thing to mention about H C Mole and The Celebrity Trick. It was published in 1919 by Percy Naldrett in a book called The Magic of To-Morrow. Meaning that the trick that helped Richard Jones win Britain’s Got Talent was almost 100 years old. How very prescient of Mr Mole.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


I don’t know much about The Great Marlo other than he worked as a mind reader with his adopted daughter Georgina. Oh, and that he was the informant for journalist Leslie Helliwell when it came to the attempted but unsuccessful exposure of The Piddingtons. But since this blog was posted I have been contacted by a member of The Great Marlo's family, Shelleigh Marlo, who has provided further details. See the Notes below. David Marlo seemed a performer of rare ambition if the following is anything to go by. It’s a piece written by Norman Rashleigh in his column In The News published in The Budget magazine.

Told with sly humour this brief but enlightening article is from the September 1953 issue. If you want to see The Great David Marlo in action you can go straight to the British Pathe website and watch the buried telepathy stunt that Norman Rashleigh refers to. You’ll find it here.

Judging by the obsession for big broadcast magic stunts the Great Marlo wasn't so much misguided as merely ahead of his time.

David Marlo has been trying to get into television. His act, with the aid of his eighteen year old daughter is, we are told, 20 per cent mindreading and 80 per cent showmanship. He has performed various spectacular stunts with the idea of catching the BBC’s eye. He buried Georgette seven feet under the ground and let her read his mind from there. The BBC took no notice, but Georgette spent fourteen weeks in hospital. He sent Georgette 2,000 feet up in an aeroplane and she picked up his thoughts. The BBC took no notice. Marlo is working on a new stunt. His daughter will go out to sea in a motor-boat which will be going at a speed over 40 miles an hour and so fast that it will be impossible to signal it. “I shall take up my stand by a pigeon loft and the local dignitary will read out to me from any book a message of between twenty and fifty words. When the boat is two miles out at sea I shall transmit this message to Georgette by mental wave and she will write it down and send it back to the shore by pigeon. If the BBC still take no notice I shall send Georgette up in a helicopter at half-time over a football match. I shall transmit any chosen message to her and she will parachute this message to the ground. If the BBC still take no notice I am teaching my daughter to swim. She will dive into a swimming bath carrying the type of ball-point pen that writes under water, between her teeth. She will stay under water long enough for me to transmit a message and she will write that message down under water.” The reporter says that he hopes the BBC will use Mr. Marlo’s act before he sends Georgette to the moon.

NOTES: Shelleigh Marlo, The Great Marlo's granddaughter, wrote with some information about Norman Rashleigh's report and the background to the perilous stunts. David Marlo's real name was David Lindsay and before he was The Great Marlo he also worked as Death Defying Duncan.

Georgette, not her real name, the assistant who featured in the Pathe video was actually a 'jobbing showgirl' hired to replace Georgina Lindsay who was The Great Marlo's daughter.

You can find out more about The Great Marlo at a website set up by Gary Markwick, The Great Marlo's grandson. Go here.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Fans and followers of David Berglas will be pleased to know there is now a website devoted to the life of this legendary performer. It is an ongoing project developed by Professor Richard Wiseman and the University of Hertfordshire. There you will find interviews with David about his early years together with many photographs from his archive. To quote the introduction for the website:

For decades 'International Man of Mystery' David Berglas amazed the world with a series of seemingly impossible stunts. Now in his 90s, David lived through some of the most dramatic and traumatic events of the twentieth century. Psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire) recently recorded David describing some of his early experiences, including living in Germany during Hitler's rise to power, attending the 1936 Berlin Olympics and working as a postwar Nazi hunter.

You'll find plenty of interest about the man who has created some of the most impossible effects in magic. Go here.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Michael Vine told me about a very interesting trick performed by Ron Wilson, ‘The Uncanny Scot.’ Ron asked Michael to take a deck of cards, hold it under the table and give it a shuffle. With the cards still under the table, Michael then looked at the top card, remembered it, and placed it anywhere in the middle of the deck. Satisfied that there was no way Ron Wilson could know anything about his selection, Michael brought the deck back into view. Ron asked him to take out one of the Queens from the deck and hand it to him. Ron put the Queen to his ear as if the card was whispering to him. He listened. And then announced the name of Michael’s card. Ron had never touched the deck. It was completely baffling.

Michael thought about the trick and did a little research. When he next saw Ron he said, ‘Annemann’s $1,000 Test Card Location.’ And Ron smiled. 

Annemann published the $1,000 Test Card Location in his booklet SH-H-H—It’s a Secret in early 1934. It was a good enough trick to headline the advert for the book. He said it was based on a principle he read ‘in one of Ellis Stanyon’s magazines back around 1907.’ I can’t find anything for that date but did find mention of the principle in the July 1913 issue of Stanyon’s Magic magazine. Stanyon was writing about stacked decks and how they could be given an Overhand Shuffle by the spectator and yet still be useful to the magician:

It amounts to this: As a last resource you allow the pack to be shuffled and take the chance of having a card selected from a portion of the pack where the shuffle has not separated it from its adjoining cue card.

He went on to say:

In support of all this I have shuffled the pack no less than six times, purposely dropping half the cards on one occasion, and even then failed once only (in six times) to name the card. Even after more and repeated shuffles, I find that I can, as often as not, name the drawn card. This fact in respect to the genuine shuffle of an arranged pack, is one of the prettiest things in conjuring I have ever discovered - it’s the hitherto considered impossible achieved absolutely.

Annemann used this principle in his $1,000 Test Card Location. The deck is stacked in Eight Kings or Si Stebbins order. He handed the deck to the spectator and asked him to shuffle them. He hurried the spectator along by saying, ‘Ready?’ and then asked them to cut the deck once and complete the cut. Then look at and remember the top card and then bury it in the centre of the deck. 

The shuffle doesn’t entirely mix the cards. It breaks the deck up into chunks. The final cut is likely to be in the middle of one of those chunks. Annemann took the deck back, glimpsed the face card and used it to deduce the name of the card that was once on top of the deck.

Annemannn didn’t say much about the presentation of the trick. He just took the deck back and named the card. That’s where Ron Wilson comes in. Ron had been performing The Whispering Queen routine since at least 1956 because there’s a reference in the May 1956 issue of The Linking Ring to him performing it at Ring 116 in Windsor Canada. It was a favourite trick and he explained it in full in the January 1971 issue of Genii magazine. The effect is as follows:

Spectator is asked to take a deck of cards into the next room out of sight of the performer. He is told to shuffle and cut the deck, place a card in one of his pockets without looking at it, and return to the performer who simply asks the spectator to give him one of the ‘Queens’ from the deck. Putting the queen to his ear, performer then tells the spectator the name of the card in his pocket.

Of course to take a Queen from the deck the spectator needs to turn the cards face-up. That’s when you glimpse the face card of the deck and use it to deduce the identity of the selection. Ron Wilson said the trick was ‘an adaptation of an Annemann idea.’ He also mentions that it’s a good idea to perform the trick at the table and have a spectator shuffle the deck beneath the table. The reason being that he’s unlikely to use a riffle shuffle in these circumstances. And shuffling under a table helps ensure that the shuffle won’t be a thorough one. This is the version that Michael Vine saw Ron Wilson perform. 

Annemann and Frank Lane had a bit of a spat over the principle used in the $1,000 Test Card Location mainly because Frank not only used the principle himself but because he alleged Annemann hadn't given proper credit to Stanyon. The dispute seemed to arise because after Annemann's publication Frank Lane published his own trick using the Stanyon idea. See his Three Pellet Card Trick described in A Real Magic Show (1935). Frank Lane said Stanyon had published the principle in 1901. But I haven't found that reference either.

In the Genii magazine Ron Wilson said he'd been performing The Whispering Queen for 25 years which takes it back to the middle of the 1940s. But there’s a curious addition to this story and I found it in the March 1976 issue of The Magigram. There Harry Carnegie described two Billy O’Connor effects and one of them is The Whispering Queen where he wrote, ‘This is really Annemann’s $1,000 Test Card Location, but with the Billy O’Connor touch.’

The presentation and method is similar to Ron Wilson’s.  Someone is sent into a corner of the room with a deck of cards. They shuffle it, cut it and look at the top card. This is placed in the middle of the deck as per the original Annemann trick. They return, give the performer one of the Queens and the Queen whispers into the ear of the performer and reveals the name of the selection. Billy O’Connor showed it to Harry Carnegie in 1938, which is four years after Annemann published SH-H-H—It’s a Secret.

NOTES: I wonder whether there is any advantage is glimpsing the top card of the deck rather than the bottom card. I’m envisaging a situation where the cut isn’t just made in the middle of a chunk of cards but at some natural break. If so, then maybe it’s even better to check the top card. Of course, you could check both.

The inefficiency of a short Overhand Shuffle is very useful when performing Out of this World. The deck is stacked with the two colours separated. The spectator can give the cards an Overhand Shuffle. You take the deck back and pull out two Indicator Cards, one red, one black, which you set on the table. This gives you an opportunity to check the arrangement of the deck. More often than not only the centre cards are mixed. As you pull out two Indicator Cards (which might well be the only two cards out of sequence) you’ll find it a very easy matter to get the deck back into red and black order. Give it a try. As Stanyon pointed out, you’ll be surprised how much shuffling the deck will withstand. In fact even if you, the performer, Overhand Shuffles the deck, there’s no need for a special False Shuffle, the spectators will be convinced the deck has been thoroughly mixed.

There are several papers that analyse the shuffling of playing cards. For example, this one by David Aldous and Persi Diaconis. I haven’t yet found a paper referencing Ellis Stanyon’s discovery so if you do, please let me know.

Finally, you might have noticed that there is a bit of a difference between Annemann's advert describing his $1,000 Test Card Location and the description in SH-H-H—It’s a Secret. I guess that's called dealer hyperbole.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Bartomoleo Bosco is considered one of the very best conjurors of the 19th century. Robert-Houdin and many others praised his sleight of hand skills and his stage show. In 1851 Bosco visited Britain and I found a newspaper article (The Leader, 24th May 1851) that gives an insight into his impromptu work. It’s a repertoire of tricks that would work just as well now as it did then. 

As Eddie Dawes pointed out in A Rich Cabinet of Magical Curiosities (The Magic Circular: Vol 82, No 890) Bosco’s visit to the UK did not work out as planned. 1851 was the year of The Great Exhibition, 140 days of the most magnificent entertainments and industrial spectacle housed in the specially built Crystal Palace in London. Everyone went there. And, it seems, few people went to visit Bosco’s shows. Recognising this was a battle he could not win Bosco placed an advertisement in The Times (11th June 1851) advising that all shows had been discontinued until further notice until ‘the rage for the Exhibition’ had diminished. Still, the newspaper article gives us a glimpse of the great exhibition Bosco was capable of. Note the psychological force.

I have seen some wonderful conjuring in my time, but never anything equal to that of Bosco, whom I met at a small breakfast the other day. ln the first place, the wonder was enhanced by the improvised nature of the materials he used; instead of the conjuror’s apparatus, he took the knives and forks, the cups, the eggs, the bread, and the radishes that came on the breakfast table, and while we sat opposite and beside him, he accomplished his tricks under our very noses. In the next place he had no accomplice, no mechanism. Sleight of hand enabled him to do all but the clairvoyant tricks. He was among strangers, his only friend present being the greatest living violinist. If you imagine the difficulties under which he laboured in being thus deprived of all ordinary means of deceit, you will see at once that Bosco is not of the ordinary race of conjurors. I will relate one or two of his tricks.

He gave our host a cup to hold in which the green end of a radish was placed; this cup had a cover which our host was told to place on the cup, having satisfied himself that the radish was there. Bosco, observe, stood at a distance of two or three yards, and did not touch the cup. When it was covered he asked if the radish were positively in the cup; then—still preserving his distance, he bade us remark a large ring on his finger. No sooner had we done so, than presto! the ring was invisible—the radish was in his hand, and when our host lifted the cover off the cup there was the ring! A burst of astonishment greeted this; and we begged him to repeat it, which he did—this time with a hall instead of a radish.

He then went up to our host's portrait; looked steadily at it for some time, wrote something on a piece of paper, gave the paper folded up to our host, and desired him to put it in his pocket. He then took a pack of cards, requesting our host to tell him when to cease dealing the cards on the table. At the ninth card the word "stop" arrested him. He then bade us read what was written on the paper, and we found, Monsieur will stop me at the ninth card!

Talk of clairvoyance after that. Another sample of thought-reading was given.    He told four of us to think of any number we pleased, but not to name it. 1 thought of seven; my neighbour of ten; the other two of numbers which I forget, but they were not the same as ours. Bosco then took a pack of cards, and made each of us select one, and each selected a card having the number each had chosen!

Many other wonderful tricks he showed us, for some of which we could imagine a process, but these three were completely beyond even the scope of guessing; and we were told by his friend that when he exhibits in public we shall see things still more striking. What, peculiarly delighted us wan the elegance and ease with which the adroitest sleights of hand were accomplished. In that quality he is formidable. At Vienna the waiters in the cafe refused to take his money unless he placed it on the table, for he paid them and whipped the money from their hands without their being aware of it, till they looked and found their hands empty.    I have given this hasty notice of the Chevalier Bosco to direct attention to him when he appears in public. Had he been a Robin or a Houdin. I should not have gone out of my way ; but at a time when there are so many Wizards in the field, a man to gain attention must have a peculiar talent, and such a talent Bosco has.