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14 Fascinating Facts About the History of Magic

Justin Dodd
There's no sleight of hand going on when it comes to these facts.
There's no sleight of hand going on when it comes to these facts. / Christopher Grigat/Moment/Getty Images
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The history of magic is filled with colorful characters, from Harry Houdini to the Little Man of Nuremberg. Find out about those magicians, plus how the word legerdemain came to be, why medieval spectators of the cups-and-balls illusion had to watch their pockets, and more in this list of fun and fantastical facts, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. The cup-and-balls illusion is at least 2000 years old.

One of the oldest confirmed accounts of stage magic dates back to at least the first century CE, and it’s most likely a trick you’ve seen before: The cup-and-balls illusion, where objects are placed under cups and appear to switch locations, vanish, and/or reappear at will, was performed by ancient Roman conjurers.

It can be a fun illusion, but it has a more nefarious history as a gambling game and con. Since practitioners of the trick can swiftly (and often seamlessly) move the balls around, it became an easy way to swindle money out of people who thought they could figure out where a ball was going to end up. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Conjurer from around 1502 depicts the trick being performed to an intrigued audience—but if you look closely, you can see that a plant is stealing a coin purse from a distracted onlooker. This dastardly reputation stuck with illusionists for centuries. 

2. The oldest known English language book on magic is from 1584.

The Discoverie of Witchcraft was written by Reginald Scot as a kind of skeptical exposé on the occult arts. It takes a firm stance that prosecuting people for witchcraft is irrational and, specifically, un-Christian. 

This ticked off a lot of people, including noted witchcraft believer-and-hater James VI of Scotland. It’s said that he ordered a majority of the first editions of the book burnt when he became James I of England. While that’s almost certainly a myth, it does point to a real disdain James had towards the book and its witchcraft-denying ways. King James actually wrote his own book on witchcraft where he condemned the “damnable opinions” of Scot.

The Discoverie of Witchcraft contains a section on illusion and stage magic. It’s meant to dispel the idea that any real magic is going on, and to help prevent people from getting swindled. It included diagrams that broke down common stage tricks, like the Decollation of John the Baptist” illusion. According to the title page of the 1651 edition of Discoverie of Witchcraft, the book aims to fully decipher “the knavery and confederacy of conjurors,” “the impious blasphemy of Inchanters,” and of course, “the horrible art of Poisoning and all the tricks and conveyances of juggling and Legerdemain.”

3. Magicians were once called jugglers.

Juggling, by the way, was basically the contemporary term for what we call magic today; the person who practiced it was a juggler. But what is legerdemain? Back in the 15th century, this phrase was used to describe fast-fingered illusionists. It comes from Middle French and literally means “light of hand.” When it was adopted by the English, they smushed together “leger de main” into one word and made it a noun. It was an alternative to a phrase that most of us are still familiar with today, sleight of hand. Sleight of hand, by the way, makes use of the word sleight, which is actually derived from an Old Norse word that means “sly.”

4. Isaac Fawkes was known as The Sleight of Hand Man. 

Isaac Fawkes, The Sleight of Hand Man, was a popular showman in the early 1700s. He was often satirized for practicing what was considered a low-brow art. Painter and critic William Hogarth frequently mocked his show and scorned local audiences’ taste for a stage “debauch’d by fool’ries.” Fawkes, undeterred, publicly trumpeted his financial success, bragging about putting “seven hundred Pounds into the Bank,” a convincing argument for artistic merit.

5. Matthias Buchinger performed as The Little Man of Nuremberg. 

A portrait of Matthias Buchinger
Matthias Buchinger. / KingofSpades, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Another memorable figure of the 17th and 18th century magic scene was Matthias Buchinger, known as the Little Man of Nuremberg. He was born without hands or feet and stood only 29 inches tall. He performed many feats and illusions, including the famous cups-and-balls routine. 

6. Adelaide Herrmann was a star of the late 1800s.

Adelaide Herrmann, known as the Queen of Magic, was one of the rising female stars of the late 19th century. Originally the assistant (and wife) of famed magician Alexander Herrmann, she continued performing as a star in her own right after his death. She was one of few magicians to ever perform the infamous bullet catch trick.

7. Georgia Wonder used physics to make magic.

In 1885, a teenage girl who went by the name Georgia Wonder performed an incredible trick in a crowded, dimly-lit theater. Three large men from the audience held down a chair, as instructed. Then, Georgia—who supposedly gained superpowers “in an electrical storm”—approached, and, as a contemporary account described it, deftly touched the chair, which “began to jump about in the most extraordinary manner, in spite of all the efforts of three or four strong men to keep it still or to hold it down.” The crowd went wild.

Georgia Wonder, a.k.a. Lulu Hurst, was just one of many stage illusionists from history who entertained the masses by seemingly defying the laws of nature. In Hurst’s case, it was actually a combination of showmanship, storytelling, and, as Popular Mechanics described it, an advanced understanding of the “pivot-and-fulcrum theorem of physics.” This photo breaks down the pivot points that Lulu uses to manipulate the men’s own weight against them. But if using real-life science to convince thousands of people that you have superpowers isn’t a form of magic, we don’t know what is.  

8. Hocus Pocus Junior offered tips for aspiring magicians.

If you’re looking for old-timey stage magic advice, don’t worry—there’s plenty of material. Take, for instance, 1634’s Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain, or the art of jugling set forth in his proper colours, fully, plainely, and exactly, so that an ignorant person may thereby learne the full perfection of the same, after a little practise. Some the book’s suggestions included:

“First, he must be one of a bold and audacious spirit …
Secondly, he must have a nimble and cleanly conveyance.
Thirdly, he must have strange terms and emphatical words …
Fourthly … such gesture of body as may lead away the spectators eyes from a strict and diligent beholding his manner of conveyance.”

9. Harry Kellar emphasized the cerebral aspects of illusionism.

Poster of Harry Kellar's body sitting in chair with head floating in mid-air
A theater poster showcasing magician Harry Kellar's latest trick—self-decapitation / Library of Congress/GettyImages

If you asked Harry Kellar, a famous 19th-century illusionist, his advice includes a “perfectly ordered and practically automatic memory, and a knowledge of a number of languages, the more the better.”

10. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin focused on dexterity.

Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin offered some focused counsel: “To succeed as a conjurer, three things are essential—first, dexterity; second, dexterity; and third, dexterity.”

If the name Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin is ringing any magical bells, that’s because the influential French illusionist was the inspiration for the stage name of one Erik Vise, otherwise known as Harry Houdini.  

11. Robert-Houdin helped legitimize stage magic as an art form. 

Robert-Houdin, born Jean-Eugène Robert in Blois, France, in 1805, is often credited as the father of modern theatrical illusion. He began pursuing a career as a watchmaker, which was the family business, until he caught the magic bug. He married Josèphe Cecile Houdin, hyphenated his name, and eventually opened his own space in the Palais Royale. The venue was much classier than most people were used to for stage magic, which was more often associated with carnivals than legitimate theaters. Robert-Houdin is also noted for performing in a normal evening suit, rather than the exuberant robes or elaborate costumes that many magicians of the time would wear on stage. 

Robert-Houdin’s magic act made an immediate impression on audiences. It incorporated meticulously rehearsed illusions, mentalism, and notably, the use of electricity and robotic automatons that Robert-Houdin had built. One of his automatons even caught the eye of circus legend P.T. Barnum, who purchased it in 1844. 

Robert-Houdin’s magic was so well respected that he was even asked by the government of France to go on a magical mission to Algeria. In the colonized area, local religious leaders called Marabouts were using magic of their own to impress and influence tribes. Robert-Houdin’s job was to go show that French magic was superior, and apparently, he succeeded. 

12. Harry Houdini’s stage name was an homage to his predecessor.

Harry Houdini
Harry Houdini / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Then one day a young man by the name of Erik decided to pay homage to the great magician by naming himself Houdini. Houdini wrote that the extra I was used because he thought that it would give his stage name the meaning “like Houdin” in French. Some historians think it was a tribute to other magicians whose names ended in I. Whatever the exact origin, over the rest of his life, Harry Houdini would solidify his standing as one of the most influential illusionists in history.

13. Houdini turned on Robert-Houdin.

In 1908, Harry Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, a scathing book that dissected many of Robert-Houdin’s tricks and attacked him for his “supreme egotism.” Some of the chapters in the book include “The Narrowness of Robert-Houdin’s Memoirs” and “Robert-Houdin’s Ignorance of Magic as Betrayed by His Own Pen.” In one section, Houdini called Robert-Houdin “a mere pretender, a man who waxed great on the brainwork of others.”

Houdini’s sudden disloyalty to his own namesake might seem shocking, but some believe it’s actually a reflection of his own insecurities as a performer. “It can also be seen as … the need to elevate himself at the expense of any competitors, even those from the past,” PBS notes. “But given that the two men shared so much more than a name, perhaps it was Houdini’s way of responding—in a way his ego and psyche would allow—to the very criticisms so often leveled at him.” 

14. Important organizations for magicians arose in the early 20th century.

Howard Thurston
A poster for Howard Thurston's magic show. / Apic/GettyImages

The late 19th and early 20th century was marked by stage magicians who transformed the artform. Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, and Harry Blackstone put on big theatrical magic shows, all of which had incredible posters

The Magic Circle was formed in 1905, and the International Brotherhood of Magicians was formed in 1922, both organizations for performers across the globe. (Or, male performers rather. Women weren’t allowed in the Magic Circle until 1991.) Doug Henning appeared on Broadway in the ‘70s, reintroducing stage illusion to mainstream audiences. Stage magic hit television and conquered Las Vegas.

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