Monday, January 11, 2021


There has been a lot of debate about who created the first Sawing Through a Woman illusion. And it has now been 100 years since P T Selbit debuted his version in January of 1921.  The illusion was a sensation but this didn't stop some magicians questioning the originality of the effect. Hadn’t Robert-Houdin mentioned such an illusion in his memoirs back in 1868?  Didn’t the Hanlon Brothers do the trick at the Follies Bergere in 1878? Robert-Houdin's trick was a product of his imagination and while the Hanlon Brothers did patent a dismemberment illusion in 1890, I don't think anyone has evidence that they performed what we would categorise as a sawing illusion.

None of the discussion, much of which seems to be mischievous rather than analytical, unearthed a sawing illusion that predated Selbit’s. And even if they had, it would not detract from the fact that it was Selbit’s invention, and his clever publicity, that made the sawing illusion one of magic’s most iconic feats.

However, one piece of information that seems to have been forgotten was unearthed by Houdini. He published a very interesting article in the M.U.M. magazine for September 1921 (Vol 11 No 3). Houdini had in his collection a playbill for a Prof Hengler and a show at the Winchester Music Hall in London. It advertised an effect titled ‘Sawing a Lady in Two.’

The playbill is undated but Houdini estimated it to be from the early 1800s. No one seems to have looked into Houdini’s playbill so I decided to see what I could find out via the various newspaper databases that are now available.

Dr Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theater and Performing arts at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Austin, Texas, emailed to say that the actual poster is in their collection. With the permission of the Harry Ransom Center the poster is reproduced here. Incidentally, they have some wonderful Houdini ephemera available for viewing on the department website including some of Houdini's scrapbooks.

Image courtesy of The Harry Ransom Center
the University of Austin, Texas

The playbill displays the proprietor of Winchester Music Hall as R Preece. The first thing I learned was that Preece had given up his management of the Winchester Music Hall by March 1878. Which means the playbill is earlier than Houdini's estimate.

Searching for Hengler  showed that Professor Hengler was Alfred Hengler. I'd assumed he was from the famous Hengler circus family but this is an ongoing enquiry.

According to John Stewart's book The Acrobat (2012), Alfred Hengler was the brother of Charles Hengler, the man who founded Hengler's Grand Cirque. The London Palladium is built on the former site of Hengler’s Grand Cirque which had been there since 1871. I haven't done a deep dive but I haven't seen anything to show that the Hengler family had any interest in magic. They were equestrian acrobrats. And there are reports that one of the family named Alfred Hugh Hengler died in 1842 after a fall from a horse. Yet there is an Alfred Hengler still in the circus business in the 1880s. Maybe someone who is familiar with the Hengler dynasty can provide some clarity.

Chris Woodward referred me to the books by John Martin Turner on the history of circus. His papers are at the National Circus and Fairground Archive. Chris found what appears to be a reference to a magician called Alfred Charles Hengler in volume 2 of Turner's Victorian Era - The Performers: volume 2. Perhaps this is our guy. Chris also sent along an advertisement for the opening of Hengler's Cirque in 1871:

Alfred Hengler was a magician who had been performing since the mid 1860s. Press advertisements and reviews show that he was good at his job and noted for his sleight of hand, instantaneous growth of flowers, and the Indian Basket Trick.

But in 1873 he advertised a new routine, ‘Cutting a Lady in Two.’  The first advert I’ve found appeared in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle on 1st February 1873 for a performance on 3rd February at the South of England Music Hall, St Mary’s Street, Portsmouth

'MR ALFRED HENGLER, in his new Grand Magical Illusion Every Evening, Cutting a Lady in Two – A Feat never attempted before. All should see this wonderful illusion.'

The South of England Music Hall was no small town theatre. It was built to rival London theatres and seated 2,000 people. It was said to be Hengler’s first appearance at the venue. He had been performing there in January but the illusion is not mentioned until February after which it makes appearances in several small advertisements.

A brief note in the same newspaper on 15th February says:

'SOUTH OF ENGLAND MUSIC HALL – The principal attraction at this popular place of entertainment are the wonderful feats of Mr. Alfred Hengler, whose crowning illusion is that in which he appears to cut a lady in two.'

A final advert, on 19th February, advertises the ‘last six nights’ of appearances by Alfred Hengler.

It is possible that these performances are the provincial shows mentioned in the playbill. I can’t find any other shows. More importantly, I haven’t found any reports of Hengler appearing at The Winchester Music Hall in May 1873 though De Castro’s acrobatic troupe, also mentioned on that playbill, did.

At the moment we have no idea what the trick looked like. The title ‘Sawing a Lady in Two,’ appears on the London playbill but not during the performances in Portsmouth. More material might come to light as more newspapers are digitised. New material is being digitised all the time and some archives will even alert you when new items for keywords you have already searched for have been added to the database.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the invention of Selbit's illusion, a fact that will be celebrated by a broadcast from The Magic Circle. You can read more about that here:

Finally, in his 1921 article, Houdini wrote, 'we must hand Prof. Hengler the palm for at least inventing it before present day disputants. Perhaps Houdini was right.


Since I uploaded this post yesterday a couple of notes have come in. Richard Wiseman pointed out that the Chinese method of execution supposedly involved being sawn vertically down the body not across the midriff. Searching for reports of that in the British Newspaper Archive I found an article from 1870 of a visit to a sort of wax museum in Canton that was circulated in several newspapers (Strange Sights In Canton - The Clare Journal 14th July 1870). The method of execution, of being sawn while held between two planks, is briefly mentioned there. It's pure speculation but maybe an article of this sort inspired Hengler's illusion. Wikipedia has a page on the gruesome business of death by sawing.

Bill Mullins emailed to say that the date on the playbill is Monday 12th May. The only days on which the 12th of May falls on a Monday around that time are 1861, 1873 and 1878. Given what we know I think this confirms that the playbill is from 1873.


Talking of the lengthwise sawing, I remembered that Billy McComb had such an idea in his book McComb's Magic 25 Years Wiser. He wasn't the first but in the book he mentioned a competition that Dunninger ran in Scientific American in the 1920s. Billy had misremembered the name of the magazine, it was actually Science and Invention

Dunninger had a regular magic column in Science and Invention where, to the consternation of some, he explained many tricks. In the September 1929 issue he ran a reader competition to devise a method for a lengthwise sawing illusion. First prize was $100.

The issue has a vivid cover illustration of Dunninger performing the effect which he described in great detail saying that it was a trick he had intended to perform in vaudeville and that it had never been done before. 

The magazine reported that they received more 10,000 entries to the competition. In the March 1930 issue they announced the winner, a Mr A. G. Illich, and published his method which, I have to say, was not half as exciting as the effect. But then isn't that often the way?


Saturday, October 10, 2020



The latest issue of the Cardopolis Newsletter is now available. In 2016 Laura London debuted her show Cheat at the Edinburgh Festival. She kept a journal of the ups and downs of the production and now shares it with readers of Cardopolis.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to put on a magic show at the Edinburgh Festival then this is well worth reading. A very honest diary of one of the most important months in the showbiz calendar.

The show Cheat is now a highly successful part of Laura's repertoire. This is how it began. You can subscribe to the Cardopolis Newsletter here. And you'll find the CardopolisMagic Instagram account here.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Cardopolis Newsletter & Instagram

New Additions to Cardopolis

Cardopolis now has a Newsletter. It contains videos of various tricks, routines and ideas and you can subscribe at Cardopolis Newsletter

And you'll find the new CardopolisMagic Instagram account at CardopolisMagic

Articles on magic will also continue to appear on this blog.

Anyone interested in magic is welcome.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Invisible Men

Man Becoming Invisible. Photographs Taken As He Vanished. That was the headline in The Illustrated London News (20th January 1934). A series of photographs showed a man dressed in a protective suit and helmet standing inside an open-fronted cabinet. His hands were raised and grasping two metal globes hanging above his head. A switch on a control panel was turned and the man slowly faded away. He had become invisible. Thanks to a little editing magic by my good friend and talented designer Vanessa Viana, we can be witness to that magical moment in science.

The accompanying story in The Illustrated London News laid out the details:

A young inventor, Herbert Winck, claims to have perfected, after seven years’ research, an apparatus which can render a man invisible; and these photographs would certainly appear to bear out his claims. His device is to be used, we are told, in a variety turn; and therefore it is not possible here to explain the mechanism of the apparatus. Dressed in garments which are described as an “electro-helmet” and “spectral mantle,” a man enters a cabinet, open at the front, placed on a brilliantly lighted stage. With both hands he touches contact globes above his head, and an electric current is switched on. Gradually he appears to become transparent, and, as the “anode” rays are strengthened, his body disappears into thin air. He is then tangible but not visible; a touch of the hand, we are assured, will verify his continued presence in the cabinet. This spectacular “act” recalls the famous H. G. Wells romance “The Invisible Man,” though in that fantasy the hero achieved invisibility by chemical and not electrical means. A film, soon to be seen at the Tivoli, has lately been based on that very story; but the remarkable effects which Universal have attained in that are due, of course, to trick photography.

The story came to my attention many years ago through the chatter on UFO forums. UFOlogists, raised on too many episodes of The X-Files, maintain that alien technology has been available on Earth ever since the remnants of crashed flying saucers were stored in Area 51. Invisibility was one of those alien technologies. They pointed to the demonstration given in 1934 as proof that invisibility was a scientific reality. Any magician reading the account of the demonstration would leap to another conclusion. This was a version of Pepper’s Ghost.

Pepper’s Ghost is the name given to a theatrical illusion invented by Henry Dircks and exhibited by 'Professoer' John Pepper at the Royal Polytechnic Institution. It was first used in 1862. As Professor Pepper read portions of Charles Dickens’ ghostly tale The Haunted Man, a translucent ghost walked across the stage. ‘This must really be seen to be appreciated though even when seen the spectator is much as ever at a loss to understand the modus operandi by which a delusion so perfect is brought about,’ said one reviewer.

Pepper and Dircks’ invention became the foundation for a whole genre of stage illusions in which people could be made to appear or disappear or transform in full view of the audience. The mechanics of the illusion, a combination of lighting control and mirror reflection, are still in use today. You can see it in action at the Haunted Mansion ride at the Walt Disney resorts where translucent ghosts dance and fly around the haunted ballroom ballroom.

Let’s get back to Herbert Winck. A few months after his London debut, his demonstration made it into the pages of Popular Mechanics magazine (April 1934). What has began as a publicity stunt for a ‘variety turn’ was gaining scientific legitimacy. Here is the account:

After years of research, a young British inventor claims to have produced an apparatus which can render a man invisible although he still stands before you in the flesh. Operation of the device, which is being used for exhibition purposes, is a closely guarded secret but the man who is to disappear is clothed in what is described as an ‘electro-helmet’ and a ‘spectral mantle.’ In this garb he looks like a deep-sea diver as he stands in a cabinet, open at the front, on a brilliantly lighted stage. With both hands he touches contact gloves above his head and an electric current is switched on. As the current becomes stronger it is claimed that the man seems to become transparent, then gradually vanishes, the feet disappearing first, followed by the rest of the body and finally the head. The subject then is said to be tangible but not visible. Spectators are invited to verify the man’s presence in the cabinet by a touch of the hand, and maintain they can feel he is still there but are unable to see him. Even the eye of the camera does not reveal the secret. 
Photographs taken during successive stages of the vanishing act, show only what the human eye perceives.

Magicians had a little more insight than the popular science magazine. In the May 1934 edition of The Magic Circle’s journal, The Magic Circular, they commented, ‘Thoughts of Pepper perforce arise, but there is nothing in the photographs to suggest this.’ What The Magic Circular didn’t recognise was the name of the inventor, Herbert Winck.

Winck was a magician from Germany, not a British inventor as reported in Popular Mechanics. I don’t know much about him other than you’ll find him mentioned in The Linking Ring magazine and the German conjuring journal Die Magie. It was in The Linking Ring that he sold an effect by Fred Milano. It was called Filmo. First advertised in May 1931 it was followed up by a more detailed an intriguing advert in June 1931. Here it is:

The story of the Invisible Man demonstration was later included in The Wonder World Encyclopedia (1936). The story is brief and begins, ‘Herbert Winck, a young inventor, claims to have discovered a method whereby man can be rendered invisible.’ As with the Popular Mechanics report it gains credibility as a scientific device by virtue of nestling neatly between the story of X-Rays and the invention of Television. Photos taken from The Illustrated London News story illustrate the text.

Herbert Winck wasn’t the only person getting press attention for an invisibility machine. Just two years later two Hungarian (Viennese according to some reports) inventors, Stefan Pribil and Adam Gosztonyi, got a considerable amount of publicity for invisible rays they had devised. Another popular science magazine, Modern Mechanix (April 1936), had a feature on both inventors and their devices. Pribil’s device was a small open fronted cabinet in which objects became invisible. If a packet of cigarettes was placed inside, and the ray activated, the box and wrapping disappeared leaving only the cigarettes visible. A volunteer could also place their hand inside the cabinet and watch it slowly dematerialise. ‘This is no illusion done by some magicians, not trick of mirrors,’ the article assured us. 

Adam Gosztonyi gave a demonstration featuring an even larger open fronted cabinet. A chair was examined and then set in front of a striped background inside the cabinet. A young man sat on the chair. And slowly disappeared leaving the chair in place. ‘If you did not think that you were just seeing things, right off you’d say some invisible wires, or anyway, a cleverly arranged set of mirrors. But you’d be wrong in your guess,’ said Mr Gosztonyi.

It’s Pribil rather than Gosztonyi who gets most of the press if you do a newspaper archive search. It’s unclear what the relationship, if any, the two Hungarians had. And in fact there are press stories that they are rivals with a Harold J. W. Raphael of Modern Traders Ltd in London speaking on behalf of Pribil and threatening legal action against Gosztonyi. 

One year later and it is Pribil who is demonstrating the Invisible Man stunt and offering it to buyers as a novelty window display or entertainment. The Daily Express for April 30th, 1937 has a story by reporter Howard Whitman. Five people, including Howard Whitman, stepped behind a ‘glass screen at a forty-five degree angle in front of us, a plain wall with four silvery lamp brackets behind us, shone light shoot up up at us like footlights. There were a half-dozen spectators in the darkness outside.’ Moments passed and nothing seemed to happen. Whitman said, “I was about to chuckle because all five of us were there just as solid as statues, when a spectator’s voice creaked, ‘They’re gone. They’re vanished completely. Only the chairs left now.’ And minutes later: ‘Look, they’re coming back.’” Whitman then watched the demonstration from the front and saw Pribil’s girlfriend, Ebba Anderson, become invisible, disappearing from the chair she was sitting on. The article concluded with an interesting clue from Whitman: ‘Scientist Pribil made a cigarette case vanish leaving only the cigarettes. “Miracle!” gasped a spectator. And if I hadn’t seen something out of the corner of my eye while I was invisible, I would have gasped “Miracle,” too.’

Pribil said that with enough funding, a thousand pounds, he could make the statue of Eros disappear from Piccadilly Circus. And for ten thousand he could make St Paul’s disappear. Pribil did get £250 from Hungarian screenwriter Akos Tolnay who was living in London. In October of 1937, Tolnay sued Pribil claiming that he was forced to part with the money by ‘fraudulent misrepresentation.’ He said he did not know how the invisibility device operated.

What Whitman saw and Tolnay invested in is clear from the 1939 patents that Pribil filed in Berlin and Canada. The Optical Illusion Apparatus was indeed a transformation illusion using a sheet of glass. The glass was not clear but was tinted. According to Pribil it was this tinted colour that avoided a ghosting effect as the reflected image took over from the real image. Multiple changes were possible by having a rotating chamber in the hidden compartment. What is also unusual is that the hidden room usually seen in this type of illusion is above the volunteers rather than to the side.

It’s surprising how many accounts of invisibility experiments you can find in magic’s literature. In his biography, It’s Fun to be Fooled, illusionist Horace Golden describes how he invented a camouflage method that would render troops and vehicles invisible. It was reported in US newspapers in September 1918, a couple of months before WW1 came to an end. The headline used by the Salt Lake City Herald was, ‘Mystic Goldin Devises Trick to Baffle Hun.’ Goldin said that he had demonstrated his invention to the military and was heading to Washington for full approval:

Brigadier A. P. Blocksom, department commander of the United States army in Honolulu; Colonel Mettler of the ordnance department, and other army officers have inspected the invention. Though they are reticent regarding its value for war uses, Mr Goldin will carry letters from military officials which will pave the way for a thorough investigation of his invention before high officers of the army.
The performer says this his invention is of the camouflage variety and that it can give advantage to allied snipers and machine gunners and completely mystify the Hun. A demonstration of the Goldin device was given in Honolulu and San Francisco and all present went away mystified.

Nothing came of Goldin’s invention, if it ever existed. Goldin died in 1939 and memories of his invention might have died with him were it not for Joseph Dunninger. When WWII came around Dunninger, America’s leading mind reader, referred to Goldin’s previous efforts to help the military and now offered his own services as an expert in invisibility.

In 1939 Dunninger said he would gift the American government a means of camouflaging not soldiers and tanks but battleships. The story got quite a bit of publicity for Dunninger and featured a photo of the apparatus which resembled a model ship in a frame. To demonstrate its effectiveness Dunninger turned on some kind of invisible ray and the ship disappeared leaving behind only a thin silver line.

He said that for a few thousand dollars the apparatus could be applied to any military vehicle; ships, planes and even troops. Dunninger explained, ‘All I can say that it is a piece of apparatus about one tenth the size of a plane which can be applied practically instantaneously and renders the plane absolutely invisible at a distance of 50 feet.’ There’s no report that the US government ever took up Dunninger’s idea. If any Dunninger experts out there have any information about the apparatus, please get in touch.

I wish I knew more about Captain ‘Shrapnel’ Smith, a characterful name if ever there was one. I know about him from a report of The Magic Circle’s Third Collectors’ Day in 1978 where Peter Warlock lectured on the use of the mirrors in magic. There he recalled another ‘Invisible Ray,’ the invention of another Hungarian, Mr. Kallay from Budapest. It was promoted by one Captain ‘Shrapnel’ Smith. This was in April of 1939 and Smith invited members of the Circle to a demonstration of the invisibility ray in action at Stationers’ Hall in London. Peter Warlock, Francis White and John Young attended and watched as a table, vase and the roses it contained disappeared from view. The line made by the angled glass on the carpeting did not escape their attention and a letter to the promoters of the event stating that the invisible ray was no more an old illusion redressed went unanswered.

An addiction to invisibility drove H G Wells’ invisible man mad and there’s a certain madness surrounding the stories of invisibility and magicians. Hungarian inventors, army captains, illusionists and mind readers. None of them people you would expect to be at the forefront of science. But all of them absolutely fascinating. My favourite story of invisibility is one that didn’t get any coverage in the newspapers or science magazines. It took place in the office of paranormal investigator Harry Price and is told in his book Confessions of Ghost Hunter (1936). 

Self-proclaimed inventor Sandy MacPherson, a Scotsman from Houndsditch, arrived at Price’s office with a truck load of mirrors and the claim that using them he could make himself invisible. However, on meeting Price he decided that today he would only make his reflection invisible. Price agreed and MacPherson shut himself in a room with his mirrors and proceeded to set them up in secret. After half an hour he called to Harry Price and said he could enter the room.

When Price walked in he was confronted by the spectacle of a semi-circle of mirrors set around a chair. Sandy was there too and asked Harry to switch off the lights for ten seconds and then switch them back on. When the lights came back on Sandy was sitting on the chair. He asked Price to walk slowly up to the chair and see if he can find his reflection in the mirrors. Price did as directed and had to admit that for a moment he was very surprised. ‘…for a fraction of a second I was genuinely startled. Although the end of the room furthest from the set-up was visible in every detail, the reflection of my Caledonian friend from Houndsditch appeared to be missing. The chair was also invisible, whereas normally, of course, both chair and man should have been reflected.’

It took a moment for Price to realise that what he was seeing was a variation of an old magic illusion. MacPherson, proud of his achievement, asked what Price thought of his ‘psychic gift.’ Price’s response was to pick up the chair, move it six inches and its reflection duly appeared in the mirror.

MacPherson had originally asked for a large fee to cover his demonstration of invisibility. After haggling with Price he settled for the cost of transporting the mirrors from Houndsditch. Harry Price described him as ‘one of the most brazen spellbinders’ he had ever met. A term that could be applied to many of magic’s Invisible Men. 

Brazen spellbinder was also a term you could apply to Harry Price. He deftly trod the line between fact and fiction in his career as Britain's leading ghost hunter. His library, which was one of the finest collections of conjuring literature in the UK, is now housed at Senate House at the University of London. 

About five years ago Professor Richard Wiseman (he's a real professor) told me about a grant available from Google's Making & Science Team to put together some kind of science project. I told him that there was an unproduced illusion of Robert Harbin's that might make for a fascinating experiment in optics. Robert Harbin was a magician and designer of illusions though later in his career he became more known to the public via in interest in origami. In the world of magic he is famed for many inventions but chiefly in taking traditional stage illusions and making them work under cabaret conditions. One of the magical effects he had tackled was invisibility.

The illusion I had in mind was called The Transparent Man and was published in Something New in Magic under Harbin's real name of Ned Williams. This was in 1929, five years before Winck gave his exhibition. The effect is that anyone from the audience can stand inside a glass cabinet and be rendered invisible. It was a very interesting idea. The problem was that Harbin had never built a full scale model of the illusion. The model he constructed was only nine inches high. I mentioned to Richard that perhaps this was an opportunity to find out if the trick worked. In a scene that echoed that of Sandy MacPherson and his truckload of mirrors, Richard Wiseman set up a chair in the middle of his lounge, surrounded it with sheets of reflective perspex, turned on a light and, well, you can see what happened in the following video. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Red and the Black

If you’re interested in mathematical and gambling material you might find it worth it trawling through the following. It’s the history of a red/black proposition bet and a collection of various published ideas leading to what I think is an entertaining betting routine that seems to have been forgotten. I’ll describe the various aspects of the trick and interrupt along the way to let know a little more about the background and history

My minor addition to this is that you use some marked cards to give you an edge in this game that probability will not. Only two black spot cards in the deck need to be marked in a way that you can distinguish them.  If you want to use them in all the routines that follow, then I suggest you mark them at the corners. Alternatively, you can use a one-way deck, the black cards turned in the opposite direction to the red cards.

Let’s say the two black cards are the 8C and 9S.  Begin the routine by taking out four playing cards from the deck. Two are red spot cards and two are your marked black spot cards.  Explain that you are going to demonstrate a gambling hustle.

Show the cards and then let the spectator shuffle them. When the cards are mixed so that neither of you know the order, ask him to deal the four cards face down in a row across the table. I’ll give some basic patter so you can follow the plot.

‘Here is the bet. There are four cards, two reds and two blacks. And all you have to do is select two of them. If the two cards are the same colour, you win.’

‘It’s an even money proposition. Doesn’t matter whether you select black or red. You can select two red cards. Or two black cards. You only lose if you select one of each. Sound fair?’

The spectator agrees that it does sound fair.

‘It’s not fair at all,’ you say. ‘And I’ll show you why.’

Ask the spectator to turn one of the cards over. He does. Then say, ‘Now all you have to do is turn another card over and if the colour matches, you win. Which card would you like?’

Ask him to point to one of the three remaining face-down cards. Because the cards are marked you know whether he has pointed to a card of the same colour. If he hasn’t, ask him to turn the card over. It doesn’t match and he’s lost, just as you predicted.

He will lose two times out of three. This is a mathematical hustle. Using red and black cards to explain probability goes back hundreds of years but a significant date in magic history was December 1970 when Martin Gardner explained the swindle in his Scientific American column. Which is why this source is often given when trying to date the scam. For example, Gardner gets the credit in The Red-Black Swindle described in Karl Fulves’ The Big Book of Magic Tricks (1977).

If the player loses, you can offer to play again and this time you explain that athis isn’t actually a 50/50 bet. Once he has turned over a card he has nailed his colour to the mast. For example, if he turned over red, there are three cards left face-down on the table but two of them are black. The odds are against him.

But let’s assume that things don’t go your way and the spectator is pointing to a card that matches the colour of his first choice. At this point you’d prefer he changes his mind. So you now explain the swindle to him. And ask whether he would now like to change his mind. He can change his mind in one of two ways. He can point to another card. Or he can turn his original card face-down and pick another. Either way by laying out the real odds and offering additional options you are trying to psychologically force him into a losing situation. Think how Chan Canasta might handle it.

If he changes, wonderful. Turn the card over and reveal that he lost.

If he doesn’t change his mind, congratulate him on his intuition, ‘You are really good at this. No one ever beat this hustle before. I think you are ready for the big time.’

What is that? I hear you ask.

Well, you have several options and, interestingly, for one of them we travel back in time long before Martin Gardner wrote his column. In The Conjurors’ Magazine for April 1946 Walter Gibson suggests a similar proposition bet, Check Payer, this time played with seven cards, five reds and two blacks.

Take three more red spot cards from the deck and add them to the four already in play. Lay the cards face-up on the table as you explain how the odds have increased in the spectator’s favour.  The game is to pick out three cards in a row. But look how the odds favour him.

‘On the first try you have five reds to two blacks. That’s 2.5 -1 in your favour.’

Pick up one of the red cards.

‘On the second try there are four red and two black cards. That’s 2-1 in your favour.’

Pick up another red card.

‘On the third try there are still three reds to two blacks. That’s a 3-2 edge for you. Looks fair right?

He says it does. And you tell him he’s wrong and you’ll explain why.

Shuffle the cards and then lay them out in a face-down row. The odds of him choosing three red cards in a row are 2.5 -1 against him. Walter Gibson says he ran the idea past Royal Vale Heath who wrote Mathemagic. Heath said that in two-hundred and ten tries there were only sixty possibilities of the spectator picking out three red cards. I have no idea how or why he arrived at those numbers.

Let the spectator choose cards by first pointing to them and then turning them over. The cards are marked so you know how well his choices are going and are able to use a bit of psychology and double-talk to get him to change his mind along the way.

Nick Trost described this routine as the Seven Card Wager in the September 1967 issue of The New Tops.  He doesn’t mention it but I imagine he might have read Walter Gibson’s article.

In the December 1965 issue of M.U.M magazine there is a description of a performance by Al Thatcher that took place at the U.F. Grant Assembly of the S.A.M in Columbus Ohio.

Al Thatcher began his routine of ‘Gambler’s Odds’ with two red cards and two black cards. He points out that the odds are even and presumably proceeds with a demonstration similar to that Martin Gardner later described in Scientific American magazine.

Thatcher then added three more black cards to arrive at the situation in Gibson’s Check Payer. Here the spectator shuffles the cards and then deals them into a face-down row.  The bet was that the spectator couldn’t turn up three black cards without turning a red card first.

Al won the bet and than added two more black cards and a new game. He arranged the nine cards into a 3 x 3 matrix, all cards face down. Al challenged the spectator to turn over three black cards before he hit a red card. It was a bet that Al won.

This betting matrix really piqued my interest and for a while I thought it was unpublished. But then I discovered that Nick Trost had put it in print.

You’ll find it in Gambling Tricks with Cards – Part 2 (circa 1975). Trost doesn’t credit Al Thatcher. They were acquainted. But the three stages of the bet are described, the finale with nine cards being titled the Tic Tac Toe Bet.

Let’s think about this with the cards we started with. In our version we’d add two more red cards. Now we have seven red cards and our two corner-marked black cards.

The challenge is for the spectator to turn over three red cards. However, he can only turn over cards that are in a row, column or diagonal.

I don’t know if Al Thatcher controlled the position of the black cards in his version and Trost doesn’t mention the idea. But it gives you are considerable advantage if you position the two black cards, one at a corner and one in the centre.

There are eight possible lines in the matrix but if you put the black cards at the centre and corner that leaves only two winning lines for the spectator. Add that to any psychological persuasion you might bring to bear and it’s a good bet for you.

If you have a group of spectators, then one way of overturning a correct decision is to give someone else the option of changing a card. Playing one player’s choices against another can also add to the entertainment value.

Another interesting aspect of Thatcher’s routine is that he was performing it in 1965, five years before Martin Gardner published his article in Scientific American and ten years before Nick Trost put it in print.

Trost returned to the theme of the red black bet when he published his Seven Card Wager with a Kicker in the March 1971 issue of The New Tops. This is a magical version of the hustle in which the spectator loses repeatedly and then all the cards in the packet change to black cards. This is a good idea but Trost’s solution involves duplicate cards and false counts. An easier and better solution might be to secretly swap the packet of cards entirely for one in which every card is black.

Assuming that’s done the spectator gets unlucky by picking out a black card on his first choice. Feeling generous you say, ‘Well, we’ll consider it a win if you pick out two red cards.’ He tries again and picks out another black card. At this point he has lost the wager. But you offer him a third chance saying, ‘Okay, if you pick out an even value red card we’ll consider it a win.’ To his surprise he picks out another black card. Finish by turning over the remaining cards to reveal that every card is black. End of trick.

Here is a different way of adding a kicker to the bet that makes use of the corner-marked black cards.

The deck must be set up with the red cards on top of the black cards. Go through the entire routine starting with the Red Black Proposition Bet, then the Seven Card Wager and then Tic Tac Toe Bet.

Pick up the cards from the table and replace them in the deck as follows. Insert one of the black cards into the lower portion of the deck. Let’s assume it’s the 8C. Insert the rest of the cards, including the 9S, into the upper portion of the deck. Then give the deck a false shuffle that retains the order or at least the separation between the upper half of the deck and the lower half.

Table the deck and offer the spectator one last bet. First ask him to cut off a portion of cards. You want him to cut a little less than half the deck but enough so it includes your corner-marked black card. If he cuts too few half him deal off a few more. You want the largest packet you can get. This packet will consist of all red cards except for one marked black card.

Put the rest of the deck away and, if you think the spectator can shuffle the cards, have him mix them otherwise do it yourself. Then take the packet and spread it face-down across the table.

‘Here is the bet. A challenge for both of us. All you have to do is pick out a red card. And all I have to do is pick out a black card. 50/50 odds for both of us. Let’s see how we do.’

The reality is that all the cards in the spread but one are red. Let the spectator make his choice first. If by chance he picks the black card, make the most of it. Turn the spread over and reveal that all the rest of the cards are red. ‘You just never seem to get a break. That’s my card.’

Most of the time he will take a red card. Don’t turn that card over for the moment. Instead, you choose a card from the spread, picking out the corner-marked black card.

‘Let’s see how I did.’

Turn over your card to reveal it’s a black card.

‘And now you.’

The spectator turns over his red card.

You then say, ‘I guess we’re both winners. Although to be fair, I think you had it easy.’

Turn over all the cards in the spread and show that they are all red.

I think there’s a lot of fun to be had with the red black proposition bet. I personally don’t like the idea of playing it as a gotcha against the spectator. I’d rather explain it as the mathematical game it is. But Tamariz has a wonderful presentation in which he pitches one spectator against another in a game of Three Card Monte. I think it’d be possible to do something similar with the red black proposition bet. That way you’re not the one showing off.

There’s another interesting version of the bet in the June 1984 issue of The New Tops. It is in John Sherwood’s Lost in the Forest column. He credits Nick Trost’s Seven Card Wager with the inspiration. In Sherwood’s version five men and two women are asked to stand in a circle. A blindfolded volunteer stands at the centre of the circle. The challenge is for him to point to three men in a row. If he points to a man, that man leaves the circle. If he points to a woman, that woman gives him a kiss. Since there are more men than women he is convinced by the performer that he can eliminate the men from the game and if he misses he’ll get a kiss. It’s an interesting premise. There’s no kicker but it would be very tempting to rearrange that circle of people once the spectator has his blindfold on.

Finally, I recommend you take a look at Al Thatcher’s card magic. He has many wonderful ideas and routines in print. Thoroughly practical and clever card magic. There is also a book available that contains 73 of Al Thatcher’s tricks and 13 contributed by his friends:

Al Thatcher – After Hours Card Magic. Below is an Amazon Affiliate link for the Kindle edition of the book.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

A Night at a Seance

Halloween is approaching so I thought this story might be interesting. It's an account of a dark seance. One full of mysterious phenomena including rappings, a flying spirit trumpet, a moving table and a dead dog. This came about because years ago, when doing some research for a TV show, I met Norman Knight, a psychic healer in the UK. He eventually invited me to attend one of his 'dark seances.' It was certainly an evening to remember.

I originally published my account of the event in Stan Allen's Magic magazine. But given the season I thought it deserved a rerun.

It is too large to post here so I've posted it on How appropriate?

Here's the link:

Image credit is Elaina Morgan at Pixabay

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: