7 Epic Magician Rivalries

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Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

In the 2006 film The Prestige, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale portray magicians in 19th-century London who go to great lengths to outdo one another on stage. While that was a fictional tale, it was undoubtedly inspired in part by the very real rivalries that have existed in the conjuring arts for centuries. Take a look at seven feuds where one party hoped the other could be made to just disappear.


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In August 1900, legendary escape artist Harry Houdini began a two-week run at London’s famed Alhambra Theatre. Just minutes into his first show, a magician known as Cirnoc bellowed from the audience that he, not Houdini, was the “original” king of handcuff escapes. Fearing he might lose his audience to the publicity-seeking Cirnoc, Houdini made a quick escape from a notoriously difficult pair of handcuffs that didn’t allow the wearer to reach the keyhole. He then challenged Cirnoc to do the same, offering him $500 if he succeeded.

The upstart failed, and he was sheepishly forced to acknowledge Houdini’s superiority before leaving the stage. Cirnoc, whose real name was Paul Conrich, died just three years later.


While magic tricks themselves aren’t subject to copyright—one could, for example, make a train disappear without having to pay David Copperfield royalties—the presentation, or pantomime portion of the performance, can be. That was the argument offered by Raymond Teller, the otherwise silent partner of Penn Jillette, when a Belgian magician named Gerard Dogge promised to reveal how one of Teller’s trademark illusions was done. In the piece, which Teller titled Shadows, he clips the leaves and petals of a rose seen in shadow on a screen; the real rose casting the shadow has the exact same pieces fall to the ground.

When Dogge posted a YouTube video insisting he knew how to do the trick and would reveal it to anyone with $3050 to spare, Teller began a years-long pursuit of copyright infringement. He hired private detectives to find Dogge so he could be served with court papers; when that failed, he emailed them to Dogge and convinced a judge that Dogge had seen them. In 2014, the judge ordered a permanent injunction against Dogge and fined him $545,000.


Selbit gets two assistants for the price of one. Wikimedia Commons

In 1921, P. T. Selbit made magic history by introducing his Sawing Through a Woman illusion. In it, Selbit appeared to pass sheets of glass and eventually a hand saw through the torso of his boxed-in assistant, shocking audiences before revealing no actual harm had come to her. The trick was so potent that another magician, Horace Goldin, decided to build on it by placing his assistant in a box, leaving her head and feet exposed, and then separating the two halves. The two magicians began an onstage rivalry, upping the drama quotient—Selbit had blood running from the stage, while Goldin had ambulances on standby in case the trick failed—and tried their best to sabotage one another’s booked dates in various parts of the country. Goldin eventually became more recognized for the trick, which he later updated to include a giant buzz saw and a woman appearing fully visible on a table.


Harry Kellar was no great showman—thick of fingers, he could be downright clumsy—but had exceptional taste in large-scale magic tricks. In 1884, he was concerned that a rival named Alex Herrmann could upstage him in markets where both had engagements. In addition to having a better stage presence, he feared Herrmann was trying to lure away one of his assistants, a clown and juggler named D’Alvini. By the 1890s, the two had resorted to papering over one another’s promotional posters. Both men enjoyed success, but it was Kellar whom Harry Houdini credited as being the greatest influence on his career.


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Renowned Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo had success traveling the world with his act, but was surprised to find that his arrival in England in 1904 had been preceded by an imposter: "Chung Ling Soo" was the stage name of William Robinson, an American who had audaciously pretended to be Asian. While both were performing in London, Foo challenged Soo to a magic duel where Soo would have to successfully perform at least 10 of 20 chosen tricks. Soo (a.k.a. Robinson) performed the following day for newspapermen, but Foo declined to appear, insisting Soo first provide proof of his Chinese heritage. Most of Foo’s protests went unheard: Soo had been there first, and his persona was so convincing that many believed it was Foo who was the inauthentic one.

The American upstart’s career was derailed for good in 1918, when he died while unsuccessfully performing the “bullet catch” trick on stage.


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A stage magician-turned-skeptic, James Randi has spent decades taking aim at those who present sleight-of-hand tricks as paranormal ability. One of his most famous rivalries came as a result of mentalist Uri Geller’s appearances on national television: Geller professed to be able to bend spoons and repair broken watches with his mental powers. Randi began a years-long pursuit of Geller, challenging him to reproduce his efforts in a controlled setting for a cash reward and even advising talk show host Johnny Carson not to let Geller near the silverware he planned on influencing before a Tonight Show segment. When Geller failed to bend anything with Carson supervising, Randi thought that might be the end of his popularity. Instead, some people assumed Geller's abilities must be genuine, as no magician would have failed in such a spectacular way. According to The New York Times, Geller and Randi sparred for decades via media appearances and lawsuits without ever burying the hatchet.


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Possibly the two most famous magicians of the past quarter-century, David Copperfield and Criss Angel don’t appear to be bonding over their common interest of misdirection. Angel has repeatedly taken Copperfield to task for what he alleges is Copperfield “buying” Twitter followers and failing to follow up on promises to donate to charitable causes. Angel also appeared irked that some media outlets reported Copperfield was the highest-paid illusionist in the world.

Copperfield appears to have taken the high road, doing little to respond to Angel’s accusations aside from retweeting a Forbes profile crediting him as the top-earning magician. Copperfield can probably take solace in the fact that he was once named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, an honor that has yet to be bestowed upon any other magician.