David Devant famously said that he performed only eight tricks in magic. It’s a story told in many magic books and the message is clear, learn to perform your tricks well. I was reminded of this recently by my friend Ian Keable who wrote about it in his May 2017 Newsletter. You can read his Newsletter here. Drop him a line if you'd like to subscribe.
Devant’s story can be read in his book Lessons in Conjuring (1922). You’ll find it in the Introduction as follows:
Some years ago, when I was performing at the old Egyptian Hall twice a day and was in the habit of receiving more offers of private engagements than I could possibly accept, a young conjurer called to see me. I asked him how many tricks he knew. He made a rapid calculation and replied: “About three hundred.” I told him that I knew eight tricks myself. He seemed to be very puzzled, but he is puzzled no longer by that reply, for he has since learned wisdom and is now a very popular performer; he now appreciates the difference between knowing how a trick is done and knowing how to do it.
When I told this young conjurer that I knew eight tricks, I meant, of course, that I performed eight tricks. That was quite true. For some years my repertoire consisted of eight tricks, but I knew them thoroughly. I was always ready to show them at any time, at any place, under any conditions. Until a man knows a trick so well that he is always ready to do it when he is called upon for a trick, he does not really know it.
To the amateur who has a superficial knowledge of many tricks and an unfortunate habit of bungling even the simplest of them, my method of teaching will seem to be painfully slow. I must ask that young man to take my word for it that my method is sound. If he will take some of the tricks in this book and practice them according to my directions he will certainly know those tricks thoroughly. That knowledge will have some value, because in any assembly the man who can respond to the request : “Show us a trick,” is usually very popular.
This story has been repeated many times over the years but I can’t recall anyone ever saying who the ‘popular performer’ was that David Devant referred to. And yet the answer has been in print for nearly a century. And that performer was Fred Culpitt.
Fred Culpitt was around eleven years younger than Devant. And if Devant said that the meeting took place at the ‘old Egyptian Hall,’ that might place Devant in his mid twenties and still a young man himself. Culpitt told the story to Max Holden, who was touring Europe with his shadowography act at the time. He saw Culpitt in London and reported the exchange in his column, English Echoes, in The Sphinx
Fred Culpitt relates an amusing story against him, a good may years ago, Culpitt was giving a private show at the Old Egyptian Hall to David Devant and Mr. Maskelyne. At the finish of his showing Mr Devant asked Culpitt how many tricks he knew. Culpitt paused a minute and answered, “Oh about 300.” David Devant answered, “Is that so; I only know eight.” Now then Sphinx readers, think this over and study how many tricks you really know perfect.
You’ll find Holden's account in the November 1920 issue of The Sphinx, two years earlier than the story in Devant's book. Culpitt did become a very accomplished performer, the inventor of many tricks and illusions, including the Doll’s House and the sucker Silk to Egg trick. Eddie Dawes, writing in his Cabinet of Magical Curiosities, credits him as being the first magician to envisage a convention of magic, something that he finally saw brought into reality on a visit to the USA.
Culpitt spent four years as the stage manager at Maskelynes in St George's Hall and became a noted comedy performer. Billed as the Whimsical Wizard, his humour might explain why Culpitt had no problem in telling the world that he was quite the young upstart when he met David Devant. Maybe now he’ll have his name alongside Devant’s whenever this story is told.