Mental Floss

14 Captivating Facts About Magic

Ellen Gutoskey
A poster for Howard Thurston's magic show in 1908.
A poster for Howard Thurston's magic show in 1908. / APIC/Getty Images

Before Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin earned his reputation as the father of modern theatrical illusion, he was a humble watchmaker in early 19th-century France. It’s Robert-Houdin who we have to thank for helping change the public perception of magic from something low-brow to an actual art form (and also for popularizing the trend of wearing a spiffy suit during performances).

These days, Robert-Houdin’s expansive contributions to the field are mainly remembered by historians, magicians, and magic enthusiasts. But a much broader audience could pretty easily identify the illusionist who borrowed his surname: Harry Houdini.

Though Houdini (birth name Erik Weisz) did choose that stage name as a tribute to Robert-Houdin, he later published a whole book lambasting everything his once-honored predecessor ever did. On this episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is sharing how it all went down—along with other riveting tidbits from the history of magic.

Find out how the word legerdemain came to be, why medieval spectators of the cups and balls illusion had to watch their pockets, and more below.

For future videos, be sure to subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel.