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. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Paul Daniels

Today we are greeted with the sad news that Paul Daniels has died. There is no need to recount his accomplishments here, his contribution to magic is well known. And the media is justly filled with tributes. But I'll reprint some words from an article I wrote in the April 2014 edition of Genii magazine. And include a video of a performance that made such an impact on the world of magic. You'll see Paul Daniels at 19.29 on the above video of his acclaimed performance on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club.

I can still remember the first time I saw Paul Daniels perform. It was on a television programme called The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club. It’s embedded in my memory as one of those moments when you know that something about magic has changed. Like watching David Copperfield’s first TV special, David Blaine’s Street Magic or seeing Derren Brown’s theatre show. It was 1975 and like every other teenager interested in magic I looked out for the TV variety shows on which, occasionally, a magician might perform a guest spot. At the time I was oblivious to Ken Brooke’s predictions that Paul Daniels was one to watch. I hadn’t read Paul’s series of articles on club magic in Abracadabra magazine. And wasn’t there when he won the Zina Bennett Trophy for Micro Magic at the IBM convention. When Paul walked on I had no idea who he was. When he left I knew it was a performance I’d never forget. It was a bravura performance, which just happens to be a word very much on Paul Daniels’ mind. But more about that later.

 To appreciate how different Paul was you have to understand that the face of magic in Britain was represented by David Nixon. Nixon had been a familiar figure on television ever since his appearance on the panel game What’s My Line? in the 1950s. Nixon’s manners were forged in that era. He was polite. Respectful. A gentleman. And prefaced every request for help with the promise that he wouldn’t embarrass his volunteer.

 Paul Daniels made no such promises. He didn’t issue requests he gave orders.  He didn’t wait for approval. He commanded attention with a combination of sharp wit, cutting humour and slick conjuring. His performance on Wheeltappers went from deft card shuffles and chop cup to a torn and restored note that appeared in a packet of Polo Mints held high in the air, for an embarrassingly long time, by a spectator who was glad when it was all over. The audience loved every second of the twelve-minute spot. So did I. It all felt fresh and contemporary. 

Paul Daniels changed the face of UK magic. He took it from the working men's clubs to having pride of place as one of the BBC's highest rating entertainment shows. He will be sadly missed and forever remembered.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Engel's Quadruple Coincidence

The other day my friend Shiv Duggal mentioned he’d read a really excellent trick in Hugard’s Magic Monthly. It was a You Do As I Do trick and had a nice moment of bluff in which the performer appeared to randomly cut the same number of cards from the deck as the spectator. It reminded him of the improvised work of contemporary performers like Dani DaOrtiz.

The trick was George C. Engel’s Quadruple Coincidence and you’ll find it in the May 1949 issue of Hugard’s Magic Monthly. The moment I read it I recognised the trick as something I’d seen many years ago in Scarne on Card Tricks (1950). There the trick is also called Quadruple Coincidence and was said to be a favourite of George Starke. Starke wrote the instructions for a number of Scarne’s marketed effects and also for the Stars of Magic series of which John Scarne was the first contributor.

Scarne on Card Tricks makes no mention of George Engel who said he’d been performing the routine for more than seven years when he published it. I did a little searching around and found a reference to Engel performing a trick that sounds very much like the one published in Hugard’s Magic Monthly.  It was a local SAM report written by Harris A. Solomon and published in The Sphinx (April, 1949).

George Engel, who is a perfectionist in his close up work, has a “doozee” of a “you do as I do” effect. He will gladly teach it to you, but a nickel will get you a dime if your version looks like his.

In December 2001, in a Dai Vernon issue of Genii, Vernon’s version of the trick was published and again credit was given to the Scarne book not Engel. Vernon’s trick was titled Triple Coincidence but the effect is exactly the same. He employs the set up described in the Scarne book but his addition, keeping all the revelations to the end of the trick, is the same as Engel originally described.

The version in Scarne on Card Tricks does use a more easily managed set up involving only two key cards instead of three. And it might be that is the reason Engel’s version and credit has been overlooked.  On the other hand the Engels’ handling might be more suited to a totally impromptu performance because the key cards are memorised on the fly.

Still, we shouldn’t forget George C. Engel’s original handling which is why I’ve described the working here. You can find the complete write up in Hugard’s Magic Monthly. You need two decks of cards, one red and one blue. I’ve added a little to the original description so that everything is clear but other than that the trick is all Engel’s.

Procedure and Presentation: ‘At the card table last night, with a group just like this, I had a very strange experience. I can’t quite understand it. So I would like to set up the same circumstances and see it if happens again. Would you mind shuffling these cards?’

Hand the red deck to one spectator and the blue deck to another.

‘I will spread one deck face-downwards on the table and have you do the same with the other.’

Take back the decks and in handing one to a spectator opposite to you glimpse the bottom card and remember it as your key card. Spread your deck in a long line, face-down, on the table and have the spectator do the same with his deck.

‘Watch me very closely. I am going to run my right index finger along my cards until I feel an impulse to stop. I will remove the card at that point, look at it, remember it and then place it face-down on the top of my pack. I want you to do exactly the same. You understand? Very well. Let’s go.’

Move your finger along the line of cards, stop at any card at random, pick it up and pretend to memorise it. In reality, take no notice of it. Place the card face-down on the top of your pack. The spectator does the same but, of course, notes and remembers his card. Carefully square up your cards and ask the spectator to do the same with his.

‘Now, will you cut your deck and complete the cut while I do the same with mine.’ The decks are cut and the cuts completed. This places the spectator’s card below your memorised key.

‘I shall give you my deck asking you to look through it. Take out the duplicate of the card you chose and place it face-down on the table in front of you. I will take your deck and do the same thing with my card.’

While giving the spectator these instructions casually glimpse the top and bottom cards of your deck*. Let’s say they are the Five of Diamonds and Queen of Clubs.

Exchange packs with him and immediately run through his deck, place the Five of Diamonds on the top and the Queen of Clubs on the bottom. Then find your key card. The card below will be the spectator’s card. Take it out and place it face-down on the table. The spectator, meantime, has found the duplicate of his card and placed it on the table.

Turn to the other spectator. ‘Will you cut off about two-thirds of that deck.’ Point to the spectator’s deck, ‘and place the cut on the table between the gentleman’s chosen card and the rest of the deck. I will do the same with this deck’ The cuts are made.

‘Now please count the remainder of the cards face-down on the table like this.’ Pick up the remainder of your cards (the smaller packet) and start dealing them rapidly so that you get well ahead of the spectator. Take no notice of the number of cards you deal. Listen to his count and just before he puts his last card down, announce the total of yours. ‘I have sixteen cards’ you say, actually announcing the number of cards you saw him deal. ‘How many have you?’ Sixteen.’ It seems that the strange thing is working again. But that may be only a coincidence.

‘Let’s go further. My sixteenth card is… the Queen of Clubs.’ Name it as you turn the card over. This card was originally the bottom card on both decks. Leave both cards face-up on top of their packets.

A moment ago we both cut our respective packets. I cut to… the Five of Diamonds,’ you say as you turn the top card of your other packet face-up. ‘Let’s see what card you cut to.’ Grip the sides of your chair and lean forward tensely. ’THE FIVE OF DIAMONDS TOO! I don’t quite believe it.’

‘Here is the final test. A moment ago we each chose a card at random from a face-down, thoroughly shuffled deck. I chose the Ten of Spades.’ Turn your card face-up.

‘Would you mind showing what card you chose. Don’t tell me that it was the Ten of Spades!’ Shake your head, frowning. ‘I still don’t understand it. How can such amazing things happen?’

Leave the three pairs of identical cards face-up on the table for the moment and for all to see.

*NOTE When Engel says, ‘While giving the spectator these instructions casually glimpse the top and bottom cards of your deck,’ I think he means you demonstrate what you want him to do by raising the deck and spreading it towards you as if looking for your selection. That makes it easy to note the top and bottom cards. Square the deck and then hand it to the spectator as you take his.

After having selected a card and cut it into the deck you could add two more cuts to lose it if you think it adds to the mystery, the spectator following along. I recommend an even number of additional cuts, two is fine, to maximise the chances of the selection remaining in the centre of the deck.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Zomah - The Unsolved Mystery

 Zomah was one of the most baffling telepathy acts ever to work the theatre. Madam Veda Zomah sat on ornate wooden chair on stage. She wore a headdress, jewels and a long gown that gave the impression she was some kind of Egyptian queen. Mr Zomah blindfolded his regal wife and then went down into the audience to collect personal objects handed to him at random. The moment he held an object in his hands, Madam Zomah would name it, often in great detail. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a verbal code but here is where the Zomah’s differed from many of their competitors. The act was delivered in virtual silence. Mr Zomah rarely spoke save to confirm the accuracy of Madam Zomah’s divinations. Theatre audiences had seen several similar telepathy acts. But even reviewers made the assessment that no code was used, as per this review from The Evening Telegraph and Post for March 13th, 1917.

The usual charge of using a code rather than depending on genuine transmission of thought which is levelled against very many exponents of so-called telepathy cannot attach to the performance of Madame Zomah who tops the bill at the King’s Theatre this week.

Last night Madame Zomah fully justified her claim to be able to “tell you anything” by correctly describing, without any aid of material kind from her assistant, articles of all descriptions submitted by members of the audience. Her crowning feat was to name the cards held in two “nap” hands dealt by a gentleman in the audience and to play the two hands.

The act was billed as Zomah, The Unsolved Mystery, not The Zomahs a telepathic duo. I’ve never seen a show photo of Mr Zomah who wisely stayed in the background when it came to publicising their ‘Silent Miracle.’ Mr Zomah was magician Alfred James Giddings and Madam Zomah was his wife Adelaide Ellen Giddings.  In Will Goldston’s The Magazine of Magic (July, 1917) there is a double-page spread photo of Madame Zomah together with the challenge: ‘A Code? You watch for it, listen for it, guess at it. You discover nothing; after a moment’s consideration you reject every guess. The assistant makes no signal to Zomah; he speaks no word to her save the simple request for information and the acknowledgement that the information is correct.’ And goes on to say, ‘Zomah is offering big cash rewards to anybody who can duplicate her performance or can prove that she employs confederates.’

It wasn’t until 1933 that the challenge was taken up. And it was by J. C. Cannell in the pages of a national magazine. Cannell was a writer and amateur magician who later became known for his books on magic authored for the public. Personally I am very grateful to John Clucas Cannell. He wrote the very first magic book I ever owned. Modern Conjuring For Amateurs, which I bought for 10 pence from a school friend. I still have it though its barely holding its pages together in its somewhat shabby yellow binding.

The answer to the Unsolved Mystery was given away in, appropriately enough, the December 23rd, 1933, issue of Answers, a weekly magazine published by Amalgamated Press. The article was headed 'Famous Music Hall Secrets Exposed.' And Cannell alleged not only that the Zomahs used a code but that it had been revealed to him by the creator. The ‘assistant’ ceased his silence and Alfred Giddings issued a writ against Cannell and Amalgamated Press. In May 1935 the case came to trial.

Giddings took a strong stance against exposure. He was President of the Institute of Magicians in London and often spoke out against any kind of public discussion of magical secrets.  Having challenged people to guess the secret you might think Giddings should not have been surprised that someone had. But in fact the situation was more complicated than that. Cannell claimed to have been told the secret by its originator. As the originator was Giddings he was in a good position to judge what had or had not occurred.  More than that Giddings was a member of The Magic Circle a society that requires an oath of secrecy that Cannell was alleging Giddings had broken. This constituted defamation of character and gave rise to a charge of libel.

The question was asked in court as to whether the Zomahs used a code but Giddings was not to be drawn on the matter. ‘I am not answering whether our act is a code or not,’ he said. Mr Norman Birkett, the Counsel for the Defence asked, ‘How can the jury know unless you tell them?’ Giddings responded, referring to performances before the Royal Family, ‘The King asked the same question, but he did not get an answer.’ Mr Justice Swift, presiding over the case, said the Defence was trying to guess the method by a process of elimination. The method wasn’t in question. The case hinged on Cannell’s claim that Giddings, a man bound to secrecy, had given it to him. William R. Minns, Hon Secretary of The Magic Circle testified to the effect that the society was satisfied that Giddings had not revealed any secrets to Cannell. Other magicians including Horace Goldin and Murray testified that once a secret was known it ceased to be a theatrical draw. And the Zomah’s agent, Bert Montague, said that the article led to a decline in bookings.

The Zomahs won their case and the judge allowed no grounds for appeal. There were damages to be decided. In summing up Justice Swift pointed out that the average annual earnings of the Zomahs in the four years between 1917 and 1921 was £3,522, adding that. ‘After 1921 the Zomahs did not do so well. We all know that ideas of what is entertaining and amusing vary from age to age, and what has done well with one generation does not go down with another. An entertainment comes as a vogue and then disappears. Whether the Zomah’s performance had had its day or not is for the jury to decide.’ The judge awarded Mrs Giddings £250. Mr Giddings £500. And another £150 for both in relation to damage to their business. A total of £900. That’s over £57,000 in today’s money according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator.

In 1948 publicist W Buchanan-Taylor wrote what appears to be the third book in a trilogy, One More Shake, a collection of stories from his career. Chapter Ten tells the story of the Zomahs and the day they came to see him at his agency in Charing Cross Road, London. At that time they called themselves The Marriotts. ‘Their speciality was second sight.’ They staged an impressive demonstration which Buchanan-Taylor details, a test involving Mr Marriott in one room and Mrs Marriott in another. ‘To say I was flabbergasted is putting it mildly.’

As the Marriotts the act had worked at Maskelyne and Devant’s St Georges Hall. In 1908 they appeared there as a new act calling themselves, ‘The Technopathists.’ The act was pretty much the same involving the describing of borrowed objects and the game of Nap. W Buchanan-Taylor signed them not long after with the intention of turning them into stars. He claims he thought up the name of Zomah, made Mrs Zomah the centre of the act and designed the Egyptian aesthetic. ‘At last a scheme took the form of an Egyptian setting and a throne on which Cleopatra might have sat.’ This does contrast with the story that the Adelaide Giddings later told Peter Warlock. She said the name came about partly because of the Zancigs but also because of an advertisement she saw on the London Tube for an ointment known as Zambuk. She combined Zancig and Zambuk to arrive at Zomah. Curiously Buchanan-Taylor says he had no idea how the Zomahs accomplished their act but then goes on to describe a feasible and detailed method. The method is a simultaneous counting code in which the silences tell as much as the words. Enough to construct a Silent Miracle you might think.

Alfred Giddings died in 1948. His wife said of the secret to the act, ‘It will die with us. We have no children.’ She did, however, have a sister, Ethelbertine and in searching for that uncommon name I found a clue in Peter Warlock’s Talkback column in The New Pentagram for November 1979. Warlock says of the Zomahs:

It was an act that started rather humbly at the time of the Zancigs, but so superior was it in technique that from an early tryout as the Marriotts, they with a non spoken code became a star music hall (Variety) attraction having top billing. A very clever code system, and interesting to note the high back throne on which Madam Zomah is seated. In the larger halls like the Palladium and Colisseum where the act so often appeared, and where the Zomah would work in every part of the house, stalls, dress circle, upper circle and gallery running quickly from one to the other it was said that Mrs Giddings’ (Madam Zomah) sister Ethelbertine knowing the code was behind the throne watching Zomah through binoculars noting and then whispering the name of the object to Madam Zomah. Until I saw “Mercedes” it was the first time that I had seen a nonspeaking two person mental act.

Ethelbertine, who was never mentioned in conjunction with the act, was no stranger to magic judging by several write ups I’ve seen of her performances at magic clubs. Her repertoire included a blindfold effect, here described in Goldston’s The Magician Monthly (April, 1936) by Francis White watching a show at the Institute of Magicians:

The final effect was undoubtedly the strongest item on the evening’s programme when cards chosen by the audience were located by Ethelbertine when reading through the pack although blindfolded by cotton wool and black bandage. A pack of cards borrowed from the audience was read through under similar conditions.

Interestingly it was during the interval of this show that Alfred Giddings, the President of the Institute of Magicians, took to the stage and complained about the exposures carried out by David Devant in The People newspaper. Giddings raised a petition to be despatched to The People the next working day. It had two hundred and forty-six signatures. Giddings also wrote to The Magic Circle to draw their attention to The People articles. Devant, long since retired and in failing health, argued that he was exposing his own tricks, a wish to make them public before his death. Nevertheless he had broken the magician’s code of silence once before and he was expelled for a second and final time from the magic society he helped found.

Later that evening, Madam Zomah concluded the Institute of Magicians show with The Unsolved Mystery to much applause. The secret has never been published. The newspaper exposures were serialisations of Devant’s book Secrets of My Magic. They contained descriptions of two of Devants’ popular effects Mental Magnetism and Translucidation. Devant introduced both items to the programme in 1909 just after The Marriotts finished their successful nine-month run. Mental Magnetism, was an item that Devant had been performing since 1905 and made use of a silent code and fake blindfold.

Publicly Alfred Giddings never had anything but praise for Devant. And of the Q&A act with Dora, called Translucidation, he said in The Sphinx’s tribute issue to Devant (March,1938) ‘I don’t think this method has been worked by any other performer.’ He’s probably right about that because it involved Dora secretly pushing sealed envelopes through a slit in her dress and into the hands of an assistant below stage who would open them and whisper their contents back to her through a hidden speaking tube. Still, he can’t have been happy at seeing explanations of secret codes and dodgy blindfolds revealed in a national newspaper.

If you want to read David Devants' Secrets of My Magic you can buy a digital copy here. In it the illusionist and inventor Charles Morritt, a popular performer at St George’s Hall, says that he was the first to bring the silent code to the theatre in London. It was a mystery he had solved and performed by 1886.