13 Fascinating Items From the History of Magic at the Conjuring Arts Library

Anna Green
Anna Green

Tucked away in the middle of a drab street in Midtown Manhattan, the Conjuring Arts Research Center holds more than 15,000 books, magazines, and artifacts related to magic and its allied arts, whether that means psychic phenomena, hypnosis, ventriloquism, or men who claim to vomit wine. Inside, posters and banners for Houdini and Alexander ("The Man Who Knows") compete with row after row of centuries-old books. Mental Floss visited recently and spoke to Executive Director William Kalush, who showed us some of the most interesting items the library has to offer.

1. HANDCUFFS OWNED BY HOUDINI

Handcuffs once owned by Houdini, now at the Conjuring Arts Library

These iron handcuffs were once part of Houdini's collection. They are reputed to have held Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, when he was hanged in 1882. Kalush is skeptical about that provenance, but says Houdini thought it was at least possible. (Houdini and Guiteau had a special connection: In 1906, the magician escaped from the Washington, D.C. jail that held Guiteau while he was awaiting execution.)

2. JOSEPH PINETTI BROADSIDE

A broadside devoted to magician Joseph Pinetti

One of the most celebrated magicians of the late 18th century, Joseph Pinetti was a former professor who sometimes presented his tricks as scientific experiments. Originally from Rome, he traveled all over Europe performing in flamboyant settings (he favored chandeliers and multiple changes of clothes), becoming particularly famous in Russia and France. This German broadside is from 1781, and Kalush says it's probably the earliest known broadside on the magician.

3. OPERA-NOVA

A Venetian pamphlet known as an Opera Nova at the Conjuring Arts Library

This unique Venetian pamphlet contains simple explanations of magic tricks, and would have once been sold door-to-door by a pamphleteer. Probably from around 1530, it's just one sheet of paper printed on both sides and folded twice, making eight little pages. "It's extremely rare to find examples of these kinds of pamphlets—they're almost never found in more than one example," Kalush says.

4. HOCUS POCUS JUNIOR: THE ANATOMY OF LEGERDEMAIN

Title page for Hocus pocus junior: The anatomie of legerdemain

This is an in-depth manual for magic originally written in 1634; the Conjuring Arts copy was printed about 20 years later. The title "Hocus Pocus Junior" is a reference to a famous early 17th-century performer named William Vincent, who used the stage name Hocus Pocus. "It's really just a play on words, like saying I'm the junior to his senior. William Vincent never wrote anything," Kalush explains. "But it's a wonderful book in English that's really a manual of how to do things. As opposed to the little pamphlet from Italy, it has really solid descriptions on methods. You could become a great magician just by reading Hocus Pocus Junior."

5. DECRETALS OF POPE BONIFACE VIII

The Decretals of Pope Boniface VIII

This 13th-century book of canon law (church law) included the decretals, or papal pronouncements, of Pope Boniface VIII—including laws against magic tricks. Though it was rare for such books to have illustrations, this one, printed in Venice in 1514, includes an image of a priest or monk doing the cups and balls trick. "The penalty [for doing magic tricks] was to lose your privileges and to be treated 'no better than a buffoon,'" Kalush says. "And the only other illustrated edition we've seen is from 1525, when the priest [performing cups and balls] has been demoted to buffoon, and is wearing a court jester-type outfit."

According to Kalush, Boniface VIII was particularly concerned about magic tricks because he'd used them to help secure the papacy, whispering the "word of God" through a long tube into his predecessor's ear to convince him to retire.

6. GIROLAMO SCOTTO MEDAL

A medal of magician Girolamo Scoto at the Conjuring Arts Library

Girolamo Scotto was an Italian entertainer, magician, and alchemist active in the last half of the 16th century who is said to have performed magic for Queen Elizabeth I, among other notables. This lead medal was produced from a wax sculpture by the famed Milanese sculptor Antonio Abondio toward the end of the 16th century. "In those days there were no such things as business cards, so he had this medal made," Kalush says. It was originally cast in various other metals too, including silver, bronze, and gold.

7. IL LABERINTO

Il Laberinto from Venice, 1607

This "mind-reading" book, printed in Venice in 1607, served as a prop for a trick in which the magician was able to guess an image chosen by the viewer and held in their mind (much like the familiar card trick). Another item the library holds—A Devotione Del Signore from Naples, 1617—is similar but uses religious iconography. "We suspect they used religious iconography because Naples was under Spanish rule, and closer to the Inquisition, than was Venice at that time," Kalush explains.

8. PICTAGORAS ARITHMETRICE INTRODUCTOR

Interior pages of Pictagoras Arithmetrice Introductor

Printed in 1491 in Florence, this work by mathematician Filippo Calandri was one of the first arithmetic books in the Italian language. As a treat, there were magic tricks in the back. "After you learned your arithmetic lessons, you were able to use those pages to do a little bit of mind-reading," Kalush says.

9. DIALOGO DI PIETRO ARETINO NEL QVALE SI PARLA DEL GIOCO CON MORALITA PIACEVOLE ("LE CARTE PARLANTI")

Le "Carte Parlanti"

This 1543 text, written by the noted satirist Pietro Aretino, is a dialogue between a deck of cards and a man who makes them. Meant simply as entertainment, "it talks about people who cheat, like a Spanish cheater who had a machine in his sleeve who would exchange good cards for bad cards, and other comments about card magic from the playing cards’ perspective," Kalush explains.

10. THE DISCOVERIE OF WITCHCRAFT

The discoverie of witchcraft

In 1584, a British justice of the peace named Reginald Scot published The discoverie of witchcraft, which argued that much of what appeared to be magic could be explained by sociological or psychological reasoning—or by simple sleight of hand. "It's not secular; he's not saying he doesn't believe it exists," Kalush says. "It's just that a lot of things that were being attributed to witchcraft are not." For example, Scot said that the guilt produced by those who denied funds to impoverished women may have led them to accuse those same women of dark, magical works. It's also the first important book of sleight of hand, according to Kalush, with substantial sections on coin magic, card magic, and other techniques that were popular at the time.

11. FALACIE OF THE GREAT WATER-DRINKER DISCOVERED

An interior illustration from the Falacie Of The Great Water-Drinker Discovered

This pamphlet from 1650 is about Floram Marchand, a man who would swallow gallons of water and then regurgitate it into a fountain, sometimes in multiple colors (he claimed it was wine, but in fact it was water dyed red with a Brazil nut solution). "It's quite interesting because it was written by Peedle and Cozbie [two English entrepreneurs], who learned the secret from the master, and as a thank-you they exposed the trick and published it," Kalush says.

12. EXPERT PLAYING CARDS

A photo of Expert Playing Cards arranged on a shelf at the Conjuring Arts Library

The Conjuring Arts Research Center, a non-profit, also runs the Expert Playing Card Company, devoted to producing high-quality playing cards. All proceeds benefit the 501(c)3. "Expert has produced hundreds of different custom-printed decks for many artists and magicians all over the world," Kalush says; recent examples include decks inspired by Greek mythology, Art Nouveau, Gothic architecture, and classical music.

13. GIBECIERE

Several copies of the magical journal Gibeciere, produced by the Conjuring Arts Research Center

The center has also been publishing their own scholarly journal, Gibeciere, since 2005. Its pages cover little-known details about famous historical magicians, tricks, devices, and manuscripts, with work from Spanish, Italian, French, German, and other languages translated in-house. "Many of the great magic historians have contributed," Kalush says. The journal is edited by Stephen Minch, who ran an "important magic publishing house for years that published some of the great books on magic."

The name Gibeciere is a reference to a type of bag medieval hunters would wear around their waists, later appropriated by magicians as a convenient place to keep their props. Minch choose the title, Kalush says, "since we hoped it would be a mixed bag of research and history."

All photos by Anna Green.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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30 Fascinating Facts About Marilyn Monroe

Keystone Features/Getty Images
Keystone Features/Getty Images

Marilyn Monroe was born on June 1, 1926. Had she not passed away in 1962 at the age of 36, what might she be doing now? Would she have continued acting? Become Mrs. Joe DiMaggio for the second time, as he claimed? Carved out an Oscar-winning career for herself? What could have been remains a mystery, much like Monroe herself. But here are some facts we do know.

1. Norma Jeane Baker's first marriage was arranged.

Portrait of a young Marilyn Monroe
Sotheby's/Getty Images

As a child, Norma Jean Baker (originally spelled as Norma Jeane) was in and out of foster homes, state care, and the guardianship of various family friends. She never knew her father, and her mother had been committed to a psychiatric facility. A 15-year-old Baker had been staying with family friend Grace Goddard, but they decided to move to West Virginia, and couldn’t take Baker. Unless she married, the teenager would have been turned back over to an orphanage. So they turned to 20-year-old James Dougherty next door and suggested a marriage. "I thought she was awful young," he later said, but "we talked and we got on pretty good." They were married just 18 days after she turned 16.

2. Norma Jean Baker was named after a movie star.

Norma Jean Baker's mother had fame on the brain early on for her daughter. She chose "Norma" as her first name after actress Norma Talmadge.

3. “Marilyn Monroe” wasn’t her first choice for a stage name.

If Norma Jean Baker had gone with her first choice of stage name, "Jean Adair" would be the household name today. According to Baker's sister, Baker's original stage name of choice played off of Norma Jeane, her real name.

4. "Monroe" was the maiden name of Marilyn Monroe's mother.

Baker chose Monroe as her surname because it was her mother's maiden name. In her ghost-written autobiography, Monroe said she was told that she was somehow related to President James Monroe, but no evidence has ever been found to support that. "Marilyn" came from a studio executive who thought she resembled Marilyn Miller, an actress who died at the age of 37 (Monroe was 36 when she passed away).

5. When Gladys Baker told people she was Marilyn Monroe’s mother, no one believed her.

Marilyn Monroe in June 1949.
Marilyn Monroe in June 1949.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Gladys Baker, Marilyn's mother, told people Marilyn Monroe was her daughter, no one believed her. Gladys, once a film cutter at RKO, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was in and out of psychiatric care for years. Gladys took Norma Jean to a foster family when she was just two weeks old, which resulted in a series of orphanages and foster care homes for the rest of her childhood—so she didn’t have a close relationship with her mother. When Marilyn hit it big and Gladys told friends and co-workers that her daughter was the Marilyn Monroe, they dismissed it as one of her paranoid schizophrenic delusions.

6. Marilyn Monroe often referred to "Marilyn Monroe" in the third person.

Actor Eli Wallach once recalled that Monroe seemed to flip an inner switch and turn "Marilyn" on and off. He had been walking on Broadway with her one evening, totally incognito, and the next minute, she was swarmed with attention. "'I just felt like being Marilyn for a minute,'" Wallach remembers her saying. Photographer Sam Shaw often heard her critiquing "Marilyn's" performances in movies or at photo shoots, making comments like, "She wouldn't do this. Marilyn would say that."

7. Marilyn Monroe was Truman Capote's first choice to play Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Truman Capote had Monroe in mind for the lead role in Breakfast at Tiffany's—and she even performed two scenes for him. "She was terrifically good," Capote later said. In the end, she didn't take the part because her advisor and acting coach didn't think it was the type of character she should be playing. Either way, Capote wasn't at all thrilled with the studio's choice of Audrey Hepburn, saying, "Paramount double-crossed me in every way and cast Audrey."

8. Marilyn Monroe reportedly hated being in front of the camera.

After working with Monroe on Bus Stop, Oscar-nominated actor Don Murray noted that while her talent was undeniable, she was never fully comfortable in front of the camera. “She was a very experienced film actress, but she could forget so many of the mechanical techniques. She would constantly miss her marks, so she would be out of focus or out of the light or in a shadow,” Murray said. “I think it was a lack of confidence. For somebody who the camera loved, she was still terrified of going before the camera and broke out in a rash all over her body.”

9. Marilyn Monroe's on-camera glow wasn't exactly natural.

Before her makeup was applied, Marilyn slathered on a layer of Nivea Creme or Vaseline, believing it made her look more luminous on film. And she tried to stay out of the sun. “Despite its great vogue in California, I don’t think suntanned skin is any more attractive ... or any healthier, for that matter," Monroe once said. "I’m personally opposed to a deep tan because I like to feel blond all over.”

10. Marilyn Monroe had a thing for intellectual men.

Marylin Monroe waves to the camera with husband Arthur Miller on her arm in 1958.
Marylin Monroe waves to the camera with husband Arthur Miller on her arm in 1958.
Votava/Imagno/Getty Images

Monroe's marriage to writer Arthur Miller probably tells you that, but there's more evidence. Monroe was once roommates with actress Shelley Winters, who said they made a list of men they wanted to sleep with, just for fun. "There was no one under 50 on hers," Winters later reported. "I never got to ask her before she died how much of her list she had achieved, but on her list was Albert Einstein, and after her death, I noticed that there was a silver-framed photograph of him on her white piano."

11. Marilyn Monroe was loyal to Arthur Miller, even thought it put her career in jeopardy.

In 1956, Marilyn’s future husband—The Crucible playwright Arthur Miller—was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When this happened, celebrities were expected to name names of people who had allegedly been involved in Communist activities. Miller refused to do so, which could have landed him in prison. Marilyn’s steadfast commitment to Miller probably kept the playwright from being sentenced. (It probably didn’t hurt that he announced their wedding plans in the middle of his testimony.)

12. The FBI had a file on Marilyn Monroe.

The FBI's file on Monroe was probably opened due to her relationship with Miller and his “un-American” activities, coupled with a request she made to visit the Soviet Union in 1955. (She never actually made the trip.) If you’re so inclined, you can peruse the file online.

13. Marilyn Monroe's house was bugged.

The only house Monroe ever owned, a modest hacienda in Brentwood, California, was purchased by married actors Michael Irving and Veronica Hamel in the early 1970s, roughly a decade after Marilyn had died there. During a remodel, the couple discovered a sophisticated, government-grade phone tapping system that extended throughout the house.

14. According to Shelley Winters, Marilyn Monroe wasn't much of a cook.

Winters says she once asked the actress to wash lettuce so they could have salad for dinner. When she walked into the kitchen, Winters found Monroe washing each individual lettuce leaf “with a Brillo pad.”

15. But Marilyn Monroe eventually found her footing in the kitchen.

Marilyn Monroe circa 1954.
Marilyn Monroe circa 1954.
Baron/Getty Images

Several of Monroe's recipes were discovered after her death, and in 2010, The New York Times tried making her stuffing recipe for Thanksgiving. They found it surprisingly complex and theorized that “she not only cooked, but cooked confidently and with flair.”

16. Marilyn Monroe was well-read.

Monroe's bookshelf was exceedingly impressive. At the time of her death, she owned more than 400 volumes, including several first editions. Of the thousands of photographs taken of her, she was especially fond of ones that showed her reading. When a director once found her reading R.M. Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, he asked her how she chose it. "[On] nights when I've got nothing else to do I go to the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard," she told him. "And I just open books at random—or when I come to a page or a paragraph I like, I buy that book. So last night I bought this one. Is that wrong?"

17. Marilyn Monroe helped Ella Fitzgerald book the Mocambo Club.

The rumor has long circulated that Ella Fitzgerald was originally denied due to her race, but according to one biographer, race wasn't the deterrent for nightclub owner Charlie Morrison; Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge had already played there. The problem was that Morrison didn't believe Fitzgerald was glamorous enough for his patrons. A huge Fitzgerald fan, Monroe promised to be in the front row every night if Morrison would book her, guaranteeing massive amounts of press for the club. He agreed, and Monroe was true to her word. "After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again," Fitzgerald said. "She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn't know it."

18. Marilyn Monroe had a hard time memorizing lines.

"The joke was, she couldn't make two sentences meet," said Don Murray, an actor who co-starred with Monroe in the 1956 film Bus Stop. Though some chalked it up to a lack of professionalism, others—including Murray—believed it was nerves.

19. Marilyn Monroe's wardrobe is worth a fortune.

Marilyn Monroe's famous "Happy Birthday" dress.
DAN CALLISTER Online USA, Inc./Hulton Archive

At $1,267,500, the sheer, spangled dress Monroe wore to sing "Happy Birthday" to JFK in 1962 set the world record for the most expensive piece of clothing ever sold. A collectible company purchased it. The famous Seven Year Itch dress set a record, too, selling for $4.6 million in 2011. Casual attire goes for less, but still fetches more than your average pair of Levi's: Tommy Hilfiger bought her jeans from Otto Preminger's River of No Return for $37,000—and gave them to Britney Spears as a gift.

20. Frank Sinatra gifted Marilyn Monroe with a dog named Maf.

The Maltese Terrier was a gift from Frank Sinatra, and the dog's full name was “Mafia Honey,” which was apparently a nod to Sinatra’s supposed criminal ties. After Monroe's death, Maf was taken in by Sinatra’s secretary, Gloria Lovell.

21. Maf the dog “wrote” a book in 2010.

In 2010, author Andrew O’Hagan wrote The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe—a work of fiction written from Maf’s perspective.

22. Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra once attempted to catch Marilyn Monroe cheating with another man.

In 1954, Joltin’ Joe and Ol’ Blue Eyes were having dinner together when a private investigator that DiMaggio had hired tipped them off that Marilyn was with another man—right that second—in a house not far away. They assembled a crowd—yes, a crowd—and broke into the house where she was allegedly having her tryst.

It wasn’t until they broke the lock on the door and stormed inside snapping photos that they realized it was the wrong house entirely. The whole thing blew up when the homeowner sued; Sinatra had to testify before the California State Senate two years later. The homeowner, secretary Florence Kotz, was awarded $7,500 for her trauma.

23. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were only married for 8 months.

Marilyn Monroe stars in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
Marilyn Monroe stars in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Their romance is infamous, but Monroe was only married to second husband Joe DiMaggio for a mere 274 days. Though many things contributed to their divorce, the infamous "subway scene" in The Seven Year Itch—where the skirt of Marilyn's white dress billows up—was said to have been the last straw. The scene was shot in front of a large crowd of media and bystanders, and DiMaggio became irate over how much she was exposing herself. They fought over it, and according to some reports, DiMaggio got physical.

24. Marilyn Monroe divorced Joe DiMaggio over "mental cruelty."

Whether or not DiMaggio did get physical with Monroe, their marriage came to an end shortly after The Seven Year Itch incident. Monroe filed for divorce on the grounds of "mental cruelty" not long after.

The kicker? That particular fight was completely unnecessary. The crowd made enough noise that the footage shot that day was completely unusable, so Monroe had to re-shoot her scenes on a closed sound stage.

25. Joe DiMaggio remained devoted to Marilyn Monroe, even after their divorce.

DiMaggio continued to be there when Monroe needed him, including bringing her to spring training with him so that she could get away from Hollywood for a while. Shortly before her death, DiMaggio had been telling friends that they were going to get remarried. When she died, he was in charge of the funeral, and he refused to allow almost anyone from Hollywood to attend. "Tell them, if it wasn't for them, she'd still be here," he said. He had roses delivered to her grave twice a week for 20 years following her death.

26. Marilyn Monroe had been in discussions to star in a biopic about Jean Harlow, one of her heroes, for years.

Marilyn and her friend Sidney Skolsky had long been hatching plans for a biopic of Jean Harlow, which Marilyn would star in and Skolsky would produce. Harlow, another blonde bombshell and Hollywood starlet who died young, was one of Marilyn’s idols—so the self-casting would have been poetic.

27. Even in death, Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow had a lot in common.

About DiMaggio having roses delivered to Monroe’s grave several times a week for 20 years following her death? The tradition was taken from Jean Harlow’s untimely death: When she died, fiance William Powell had flowers delivered to her grave every week for years. One account says that Monroe actually asked DiMaggio to deliver on this same morbid promise on their wedding day.

28. Warren Beatty was one of the last people to see Marilyn Monroe alive.

A 25-year-old Warren Beatty was attending a party at actor (and JFK’s brother-in-law) Peter Lawford’s house when he met Monroe for the first time. She asked him to take a walk along the beach with her; he later recalled that “It was more soulful than romantic.” Her death was announced the next day.

29. Marilyn Monroe’s estate earned much more money following Monroe’s passing.

At the height of her career, Marilyn had a million-dollar contract for two films. During the same time frame, Elizabeth Taylor was paid $1 million for her role in Cleopatra alone. It’s estimated that Marilyn was worth about $20 million at the time of her death, which is nothing to sneeze at—but these days, her estate is making $30 million a year.

30. being buried near Marilyn Monroe is a big deal.

Marilyn Monroe's gravesite.
Mel Bouzad/Getty Images

After her death, Monroe was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. DiMaggio originally owned the crypt above hers, but sold it when they divorced. The buyer was Richard Poncher, a fan who requested that he be flipped over when he was buried so he could lay face down on top of Monroe for eternity. Charming. Though his wife obliged the request, she changed her mind in 2009 and put the plot up for sale on eBay. It brought in a whopping $4.6 million, but the buyer later backed out.

Hugh Hefner famously purchased the plot right next to hers. Though she graced the first cover of Playboy, the two never met. "I feel a double connection to her because she was the launching key to the beginning of Playboy," he said. When Hefner died in 2017, he was buried in the plot he'd bought for $75,000 in 1992.

This story was updated in 2020.