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

Daily Express - - News - by Julie Car­pen­ter

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.ex­press­book­

Pic­tures: AP

KINGS OF SPIN: Harry Hou­dini, in­set in 1899, orig­i­nated amaz­ing es­capes; David Blaine daz­zles mod­ern au­di­ences with his tricks

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