SECRETS OF THE MAGIC CIRCLE
From catching bullets and sawing a person in half, to card tricks and vanishing acts, a new book reveals the origins of illusions and how the world’s top conjurors banded together to create a code of silence
CHUNG LING SOO, the Marvellous Chinese Conjuror, strode across the stage at the Wood Green Empire on March 23, 1913, to perform his world famous trick, Condemned To Death – Defying The Bullets.
It was a version of “catching a bullet”, one of the most dangerous acts in conjuring where a marked bullet is fired at a magician who “catches” it in his teeth, in his hand or, in Chung Ling Soo’s case, on a China plate.
On this occasion, Soo’s petite wife Suee Seen asked two members of the audience, soldiers on leave, to examine two firearms which were to be used. When they were satisfied, Soo calmly faced his two marksmen and their loaded rifles. A hush descended and as anticipation mounted, Soo gave the order. Two shots rang out. The magician buckled, collapsed in a heap and, with the smell of gunpowder in the air, the curtain was rapidly lowered to nervous applause.
The guns were supposed to have been rigged so no bullets left the weapons but one of them was faulty. A bullet punctured Soo’s lung and he died in the Wood Green Cottage Hospital early the next morning.
His death was headline news but another shock was to come. Chung Ling Soo was an American called William Robinson. His “Chinese” heritage was all part of the mystique of his act and his persona was based on real-life magician Ching Ling Foo.
“He fooled everyone, even journalists. When they went to interview him, he would apparently not understand them and it would have to be translated into Chinese by his assistant,” says Michael Bailey, former president of the Magic Circle and author of a book on the history of the magicians’ club and conjurors through the ages, right up to David Blaine and Derren Brown.
BAILEY’Stome is an intriguing one, not least because he traces the history of some of the world’s bestloved tricks. For instance, Chung Ling Soo’s bullet catch (featured in the film The Prestige) was his take on a deception first used in 1631. US magicians Penn and Teller still perform their version today, with Penn catching the bullet, fired by Teller, in his teeth.
“Around the time the Magic Circle was formed in 1905, there was tremendous rivalry and tremendous stealing of ideas,” explains Bailey. “One magician would go in and watch another performing and then attempt to replicate the same trick and better it. They would even bribe the assistants backstage to tell them how the tricks were done.”
Take the Sawing A Lady In Half trick. This was the brainchild of English magician PT Selbit (real name: Percy Thomas Tibbles) who unveiled it in December, 1921. His “victim” was an assistant in a long dress who was placed in a wooden box with ropes tied around her legs, wrists and ankles. These were threaded through holes in the box, pulled taut – to prevent movement – and knotted, while her “coffin” was padlocked. Selbit pushed sheets of glass and steel through slots in the box, dissecting it – and the lady – into eight sections. A two-handed saw was brought on and Selbit cut through the middle of the box. He then pulled out the sheets of glass and steel. The lady stepped out intact and the pair took their applause.
“The basic trick was invented by Selbit but it was nicked by an American who improved it slightly and made lots of money performing it all over the world,” says Bailey.
The American was Whirlwind Wizard Horace Goldin, who used a shorter box so the woman’s feet and head were visible and simplified the act by cutting her in half. Selbit advertised his trick by having blood-coloured fluid pouring into the gutters in front of theatres; Goldin went further, with ambulances racing through the streets promoting the show before parking outside the theatre. Rivalry was so intense that when Selbit toured the States, Goldin made sure he played each venue one week ahead of Selbit.
“This was the golden age of
magic,” says Bailey. “In the early 20th century, big illusionists such as Goldin were going round the country enthralling everyone. It was so big because the entertainment on offer then was either sitting around the piano singing or going to the local variety theatre. Here, magic was huge and people were amazed by magicians performing the seemingly impossible.”
Into this climate the Magic Circle was born and magicians could finally share tricks safely.
“There were lots of amateur and professional magicians around who had nowhere to meet or talk privately about magic so in 1905 they decided to form a club,” says Bailey. The first meeting was held on August 1 and attended by some 40 magicians who had been carefully selected. “The objectives were to promote the art of magic but not to give away secrets to anyone else, so they produced a Latin motto, Indocilis Privata Loqui, which very freely translated means keep mum,” says Bailey.
Even now, the Magic Circle tricks are fiercely guarded secrets and woe betide any member who gives them away. The walls of the Magic Circle’s HQ – at Stephenson’s Way in London’s Camden – are embellished with captivating posters of the likes of Goldin and Soo, each promising fantastical feats to draw punters into the theatres. One shows the world’s best-known escapologist, Harry Houdini. It says: “Houdini’s Death Defying Mystery: Escape from a galvanised iron can filled with water and secured by massive locks: Failure means a drowning death.”
Bailey is adamant that Houdini can take credit for originating the escape tricks that many have tried to emulate. “He became famous for challenging police, saying: I can get out of your prison. You can lock me up, you can handcuff me, you can put me in any secure cell and I can escape,” says Bailey.
Hungarian-born Houdini (who was called Ehrich Weiss but stole his stage name from French magician Robert-Houdin) publicised himself as “the ONLY recognised and undisputed King of Handcuffs and Monarch of Leg Shackles”. He was also the archetypal showman.
One of his legendary jail escapes occurred on January 6, 1906, at a high-security jail in Washington DC. Only after Houdini accepted the challenge was he informed that he would be locked up in a cell naked. Not only did he escape starkers but he also managed to open up other cells in the same row and move the prisoners around before locking up the hard-bitten convicts again – and the whole stunt took him just 27 minutes.
“His most famous magic trick was being tied up in a sack then locked up in a box,” says Bailey. “His wife stood on the top of it and they were covered by a cloth. In a flash, Houdini was standing on the top of the box and his wife Bess was inside, wrapped in the sack where Houdini had been seconds before. He originated the trick and gave it the title Metamorphosis and it’s still being performed today, 80 years after his death.”
Other classic tricks can be traced far further back, including the wellknown Cups And Balls trick. “Over the centuries, fairground entertainers, street performers and stage conjurors have been fooling audiences using three cups and some cork balls that infuriatingly appear, vanish, multiply, transpose from cup to cup rapidly and end up by changing into fruit or even little chicks,” says Bailey.
But the trick originates from the Third century BC when it was performed with pebbles and even described by Seneca The Younger as a “pleasing deception”.
OTHERtricks have stranger origins. When the first magician (whose name has now fallen into obscurity) had the ingenious idea of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, it had been inspired by a bizarre incident which took place at Godalming, Surrey, in 1729. A woman called Mary Toffs claimed she had been attacked by a large furry creature in the woods. Her husband didn’t believe her but changed his mind when she seemingly gave birth to a rabbit. It became a celebrated case, backed up by doctors and even King George I became so curious that he asked for a second medical opinion. Mary Toffs was exposed as a fraud but not before her story had inspired the famous magic act which survives to this day.
Despite the longevity of some of these most celebrated tricks, however, Bailey admits that the face of magic has changed remarkably over the years.
“The stage magic – the big, glorious magic that was wonderful in the 1900s – petered out after the Second World War when variety theatre closed and television came in, bringing in names such as David Nixon and, later, Paul Daniels. But it’s much, much better to see magic live. In Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world, there are something like 10 magic shows every night.
“It’s popular for the same reason it has been popular over the years: people want to be baffled, entertained and mystified. Magic is part fairytale and part detective story. The fairytale is the romantic idea of seeing impossible things happen but then the detective side comes in and asks: how is it done?”
And as soon as you know, of course, the magic is gone.
To order a copy of Magic Circle by Michael Bailey £18.99 (Tempus Publishing) with free delivery to UK addresses, please phone The Express Bookshop on 0871 521 1301 with your card details, send a cheque/PO made payable to Express Newspapers to Michael Bailey Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or order online at ww.expressbookshop.com