Illustrated History of Magic

Magic has captivated audiences for centuries. From the smallest child to the oldest grandparent, magic and illusions continue to dazzle everyone of all ages. And in “The Illustrated History of Magic”, Milbourne and Maurine Christopher provide for you, the reader, a tour of all things magic.

This is not a book containing how-to or step-by-step tricks and illusions. That is something that can be found anywhere else. Within the covers of this book are four-hundred and eighty four pages dedicated to the very history of magic through out the world from Egypt to China, from Britain to the United States. And names

Stories of different magicians, sorcerers, conjurers and illusionists as well as their amazing feats are here to teach you what magic is all about. Since it’s original publication in 1973, “The Illustrated History of Magic” has been updated by the Milbourne’s wife after his unfortunate passing in 1984 to include stories about Siegfried & Roy and David Copperfield, just to name a couple. Milbourne Christopher is said to have been major influence in the world of magic as a magician himself, as well as a lecturer and historian. All in which is told in the foreward from David Copperfield himself.

But what makes this book all the more entrancing is that included with all these stories are illustrations. Hence the title. With roughly three-hundred illustrations, this bibliography of magic shows examples of everything written within. Copies of playbills for popular acts can be seen, along with cartoons, advertisements, even photographs, all in which are based on these legendary events and people. This is a book to help both newcomers as well as old friends of this trade to learn what brought magic to where it is to this day. And with pictures coupled with the stories, it is difficult not to find any enjoyment in this enriched history.

Famous Acts by Magicians

Throughout the history of mankind we have been fascinated by magicians. Those individuals who perform feats that seem impossible, or are impossible according to the laws of the universe as we know it, always seem to captivate our attention. From the earliest of magic tricks achieved by a quick hand and an easy smile, to the elaborate stunts that modern day magicians pull off in front of TV audiences, we are transfixed.

The most famous of these spellbinding performers become household names. In fact some we even think of as synonymous with the term magic. They entertain and amaze us. One of the most legendary was Harry Houdini.

Houdini made famous the great escape. He is the father of handcuff stunts and was a master lock picker. Always a showman, he never revealed how he would free himself from his seemingly inescapable bonds. He traveled for years throughout the United States and Europe performing his feats, amazing crowds around the globe. A common stop would involve him asking the local police force to detain him using their handcuffs and shackles, from which he would escape right in front of the audience on the street. His tricks were all the more amazing because they appeared to be so transparent.

He also became quite famous for the contraptions he would build and then escape from. Tanks filled with water, bolted or locked shut, would be placed in front of a waiting audience where he would escape from them, even after being placed in handcuffs.

While Houdini may be a household name now, there was a contemporary of his who may have even been more famous during his day. Howard Thurston billed himself as the indisputable “King of Cards” and built his acts around sleight of hand tricks involving common playing cards. He could make cards disappear at his fingertips effortlessly. He also incorporated a popular trick into his act where he would have an audience member choose a card, then place the card back in the deck and under a glass case. To the delight of his audience, he would make their chosen card rise to the top of the deck, as if by, well you guessed it, magic.

While Houdini and Thurston were superstars of their day, and earned a good living at their craft, modern illusionists (as they sometimes like to be called), have the game figured out when it comes to financial gain. Magicians like David Copperfield perform shows that are bigger, more elaborate, and more expensive than their predecessors could have imagined.

Making an elephant disappear in a theatre, as Houdini did, is one thing, but to make the Statue of Liberty disappear for both a live audience and viewers at home? For that you need a little more technology than Harry ever had in his day. Copperfield utilized a team involving helicopters, a rotating stage, and cameras to make his viewers believe he had actually made our Lady Liberty vanish.

These stunts are not cheap to pull off, and Copperfield has cashed in on their entertainment value. In his career he has grossed more than $3 billion in ticket sales, more than any other solo entertainer.

While some of his secrets and the secrets of those who came before him have been published in books and TV shows, thankfully for the majority of the public, they remain a mystery. After all, what’s the fun of going to see a magician if you don’t get to believe in the magic?

Harry Houdini

Few magicians will ever enjoy the notoriety that the master of escape Harry Houdini did. He captured the attention of audiences around the world with his seemingly impossible stunts. Astonishing viewers with never before seen feats, his name has become almost synonymous with magic.

The man we know as Harry Houdini was born Erich Weiss, March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. He arrived in the United States with his family as a child on July 3rd, 1878 and they settled first in Wisconsin, then in New York City. A performer early on, the young Houdini took a job as a trapeze artist at age 9. According to his accounts later in life, he took the name Harry Houdini as homage to the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin and American magician Harry Kellar.

Houdini began his magic career in 1891 doing sideshows and performing at dime museums with little initial success. He started out performing with his brother “Dash”, but soon met and married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, who replaced his brother as his stage assistant for the rest of his career.

Originally focused on card tricks, it wasn’t until he began experimenting with escape acts that his true genius was discovered. His career took off after meeting manager Martin Beck and impressing him with his handcuffs act, in which he freed himself from locked handcuffs right before his audience’s very eyes. After joining forces with his new manager, Houdini toured cities across Europe, challenging local police to shackle him and lock him up in their jails, after which he would escape miraculously.

Throughout the early 1900s he toured the United States and had great success thrilling audiences with his escape from not only handcuffs and jails, but chains, ropes, straightjackets and locked boxes. He would often do this while in plain view of his audience, which made it all the more astounding.

Imitators began to pop up however, so Houdini decided to retire his “handcuff act” and began to escape from even more difficult situations, such as locked, water filled milk vats. Houdini became famous for the devices he built, and subsequently escaped from, in front of astonished audiences. He freed himself from packing crates nailed shut, mailbags, and riveted boilers. Sometimes, whatever container he had been placed into was lowered into water; making the feat even more exciting for audiences by adding the threat of death should he fail.

Houdini continued to up the ante with his stunts, developing for himself the Chinese Water Torture Cell. This contraption hung him upside down in a locked glass and steel cabinet, which required him to hold his breath for over three minutes. Another famous escape stunt he performed included hanging upside down suspended by a rope, bound by a straightjacket and in plain view of the audience.

After getting his start in vaudeville, Houdini attempted a movie career that would not last more than two films. He was one of the highest paid vaudeville performers of his time and reportedly found the profits to be made from appearing in motion pictures “too meager.”

His career ended with his death at age 52 from a ruptured appendix. Despite his untimely demise, Houdini’s legacy lives on to this day. Many modern magicians name Houdini as one of the greatest influences on their careers. His amazing escapes inspired generations of young daredevils and performers to continue to push the envelope and amaze audiences with ever more mind blowing stunts. Check out this awesome book to learn more about Houdini.

Howard Thurston: Last Greatest Magician?

If you’ve never heard of Howard Thurston, chances are you are not a follower of performance or stage magic. Living in a time considered to be the Golden Age of magic, Howard Thurston was regarded as the most accomplished and most respected magician of his day. At the height of his career, his act travelled the country with a total of eight train cars to accommodate all of the props, costumes and support staff for his shows. Early in his career, Thurston was regarded as the pre-eminent master of card tricks and sleight-of-hand illusions. As his reputation and skills grew, so did the size of his stage performances.

Howard Thurston was born in 1869, in Columbus Ohio. His early years were not the most reputable, and his skilled hands were said to have picked pockets as a means of making money. He was also a runaway and spent time in a detention facility. All of that came to an end however when he discovered magic after seeing a performance by Alexander Herrmann, one of the great magicians of his day. From that time on, Thurston dedicated himself to magic and for nearly thirty years, was considered the best in the world.

Though not nearly as well known today as his rival of the time, Harry Houdini, Thurston was universally regarded as the better magician. In fact, the two had an on-going rivalry and often tried to one-up each other. As for why Houdini is nearly a household name and Thurston is relegated to the history pile, there are a few explanations. First, Thurston was most adept at the subtle and quickly-performed hand tricks that he had perfected. And although he was the best, these could often be seen as “just tricks”. Houdini on the other hand, was into escaping from chains, prisons, underwater coffins and anything else that caused a gasp from his audience.

Another difference between the two is in their manner of death. Houdini died on Halloween day in 1926, shortly after performing a show. Thurston on the other hand, suffered a stroke in 1936 and died at his home, of what was diagnosed as pneumonia. The very different deaths of the men may have something to do with the publicity and public awareness of the two. Also, the era of mysticism and spiritualism that both magicians thrived under, was coming to an end by the time Thurston died. It may very well be that Houdini simply timed his death better than his rival.

Whatever the case, in an era of performers who often called themselves “The Great…”, Howard Thurston is universally considered the greatest performance magician of all time. The wand that he used throughout his career, and that had been passed to him by the prior “greatest magician”, was then ceremonially passed to his chosen successor, Harry August Jansen (known as Dante). This wand had also been used by Alexander Herrmann, the magician whose performance enticed Thurston as a young man, to become a magician. So, a dynasty had been created that still exists today. The wand that had once belonged to Howard Thurston, the “Last Greatest Magician” has been handed down by great magicians throughout the years, including the most recent holder, Lance Burton.