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.

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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