Monday, September 02, 2019

Malini's Dead Chicken

In The Vernon Touch column in Genii, Dai Vernon mentioned another trick that has become associated with the Malini name:

...Malini did these things that make reputations. It’s possible to hypnotize a chicken by putting its head under its wing and rocking it back and forth. Well, Malini was at this dinner party, and he had a live chicken plucked, and he hypnotized it and put it on a platter, and it was served like a chicken that was cooked. When the host went to carve the chicken, naturally, it jumped up and ran around the table, and everybody thought that Malini brought it back to life again.

Ricky Jay gave a more cautious account of the story in Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women.

Jay said Malini:

was fond of relating the stunt he supposedly performed for a well-known English duke. Invited to an elegant dinner party, Max managed to sneak into the kitchen with a live chicken which had had all its feathers plucked. Rocking the fowl under his arm, he hypnotized it, laid it on a platter, and covered it with a paste that made it appear roasted. He also garnished the plate with potatoes, vegetables, and fruit. He then returned to the table and waited for the bird to be served.

Just before the duke was to carve the chicken Malini said, “Meestaire Duke, I show you a leetle trick.” He gestured mysteriously at the chicken just as the duke poked the bird with his fork. The chicken woke up, jumped off the plate, and ran squawking down the table.

On YouTube, David Blaine tells a similar story about Malini, except this time the venue is The White House and the bird a duck. You can watch it here:

As Ricky Jay pointed out, this magical scenario had been described in eighteenth-century conjuring books. You’ll find it in Breslaw’s Last Legacy under the title A Droll Trick Played with a Fowl. In some editions of the book there is an illustration portraying the trick. The plate is titled A Droll Trick by a Cambridge Scholar, this time the venue for the performance was Cambridge and the trick was not an impromptu stunt but an advertised performance.

The method involved plucking the feathers from a live chicken, covering it in sauce and having it lie still on the serving plate. Breslaw explains that the chicken has been trained to lie motionless. Subsequent explanations, like that of Dai Vernon, elaborated on this by claiming the chicken has been ‘hypnotised’ by tucking its head under its wing, an action that often sends a bird into a state of tonic immobility. Plucking a live chicken sounds horrendous but, as Breslaw’s Last Legacy points out, it was common practice until the 18th century in the production of down feathers. According to reports from PETA it still goes on in certain parts of the world today.

Ricky Jay was cautious about accepting that Malini had actually performed the trick. Vernon had only heard the story from others. But, interestingly, two years before Vernon saw Malini, which might account for Vernon only hearing about the stunt, there is a report of Malini performing this trick.

The stunt took place at The Golden Gate Assembly Banquet at Hotel Bellevue in San Francisco, on December 12th 1919. 120 people attended and must have been disappointed when they were shown into a small room in which found a ‘table set with torn table cloth and paper plates.’ But not to worry, Malini said a few mystic words, waved a wand and the doors to the real banquet room opened where a feast was to be had.

At the dinner Malini, spoke on the way many great thinkers of the world had turned to magic as their hobby. And at the end of the evening Malini took to the stage and gave a performance of card tricks and his cups and balls routine. Then, he did something special:

‘…while as a climax to his act he called to the chef to bring him a roast dove which he promptly transformed into a living one.’

Not sure roast dove sounds like a meal you’d find at a banquet but this could well be the trick that gave rise to the Malini legend. So the story of the chicken resurrection precedes Malini but Malini did more than talk about it.

You’ll find the report in the MUM magazine (January 1920, Vol 9, No 82) and also The Sphinx January 1920, Vol 18, No 11).

NOTES: If you are considering resurrecting this resurrection, you’ll be please to know that you won’t need to pluck a chicken. Science has now given us the featherless chicken. I look forward to seeing it on the next Netflix magic special. You can check them out the featherless chicken here: