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“Magicians are the most honest people in the world—they tell you [that] they’re gonna fool you, and then they do it.”—James Randi, magician and skeptic
Throughout history, where there has been a place for wonder, there has been a place for magic. From pulling rabbits out of top hats to cutting assistants in half and trying to escape shackles and cuffs while being submerged in a tank of water, magicians have been trying to impress us and break our brains for centuries. From masters of illusion like Harry Houdini to the real-life Gob Bluths of the magic world, some have succeeded at blowing us away; others—not so much. But what really goes on behind the scenes, and what do we know about these magicians? There’s something fascinating about the ability of a magician to combine sleight-of-hand, human psychology, physics, and stagecraft in order to amaze their audiences—it’s truly magic! Here are 42 astonishing facts about magic.
42. Shh! Keep It Secret
We’re going to make you take an oath not to reveal these facts. Oh yeah, fine, alright—go ahead and share them! If you’re learning to be a magician though, you would have to take an oath, swearing that you won’t share the ‘tricks’ of the trade. Pun completely intended! Before a trained magician shows a new magician the secrets, oath-takers agree that they won’t ever reveal the moves behind the magic to non-magicians. That way, the illusion stays alive, and magicians get a degree of job security. If a song is the property of the musician who sang it, or a book the property of the author who wrote it, then tricks are the property of the magician who came up with them—it all makes sense.
41. Keep the Rabbit in the Hat
In 1584, the first book about magic tricks, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (sic) was released by Reginald Scot. Long, long before the Internet was around, if you wanted to learn magic, you’d have a difficult time. There weren’t that many books published on the subject following Scot’s book either, as magicians liked to keep their secrets to themselves. If you do manage to find a book on magic now, you’ll have to look at specialized stores. Though many books are published annually these days, and magic books are some of the most published among the performing arts, most major carriers don’t sell them.
40. Like Father, Like Son
Harry Blackstone and Harry Bouton Blackstone Jr. are father and son magicians, with the elder being one of the greatest magicians ever known. Blackstone Sr.’s tricks were among the first of their kind, and though they were simple they still broke barriers during his time. Blackstone Jr. created magic kits to be used to teach magic at any phase in the learning process and earned himself the title of “Magician of the Year” twice—in 1979 and 1986.
39. In A (Literal) Puff of Smoke
Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos is more widely known as Criss Angel. His Criss Angel Mindfreak TV show was the first show about magic in 40 years to air weekly when it premiered in 2005. Three years later, he performed an escape stunt in front of 50,000 people, in a time span of only four minutes. A hotel was set to be demolished, and he broke in and managed to survive throughout the explosion. He picked the handcuffs that had him bound to a railing, went through a window he smashed open, broke open padlocks through the hotel and emerged on the other side of the demolition alive and well.
38. The Inspiration Behind It All
Jean-Eugène Robert Houdin is regarded as being the father of modern magic, inventing many tricks many magicians use. He moved magic from streets and circuses to stages in the 1800s. And if his name seems familiar, it’s because Houdini based his stage name off of it.
37. Magic With a Dark Twist
There have been magicians in the past who used the occult and the devil to draw attention to their acts, however, tricks are actually just based on illusions.
36. For the Fun of It
Before the 18th century, magic was a simple form of entertainment, especially at fairs. Jugglers and people swallowing swords were the main features at those events. During the beginning of the 18th century, it became acceptable to become a magician or illusionist, with the rich starting to get in on the action too.
35. Areas of Interest
There’s a wide variety of categories magicians can put their efforts into learnings and creating tricks for. Areas like vanishing, transforming, producing, restoring, transposing, moving, escaping, levitating, penetrating and prediction are among the areas magicians can go into in order to wow their audiences.
34. The Magic of Learning
In the 19th century, an Italian priest by the name of St. Jon Bosco used what is known as gospel magic to entice children to attend school and church. That’s gotta make him the most boring magician to appear on this list.
33. The Man, the Myth, the Legend
Harry Houdini is likely the first name you think of when you try to name a magician. He hailed from Hungary and was actually born Erik Weisz in 1874. During his career, Houdini was buried alive, handcuffed, wound up tight in a straight jacket, sent deep underwater and hanging for his life from a skyscraper.
32. Besting a Master
There’s a Canadian illusionist who managed to perform one of Houdini’s tricks in half the time it took Houdini himself to accomplish it. Doug Henning had his assistant go inside a padlocked chest, handcuffed and tied inside a sack. Henning was standing on top of the chest at the beginning of the trick, and when he counted to three the pair were reversed. Henning took only 10 seconds to achieve this, while Houdini took 20.
31. He’s Got the Look
We can blame Alexander Hermann for the magician “look” of a top hat, goatee, and tailcoat. The Frenchman gave people the idea that all magicians should have that same polished appearance.
30. Hocus Pocus Isn’t Just a Movie
The term “Hocus Pocus” originates from a mythical Norse sorcerer named Ochus Bochus. And abracadabra? That comes from when the Black Plague was around. According to Daniel Defoe, an English writer, people would wear amulets with the word written inside to help protect them from getting sick. Do you think it worked?
29. There Must Have Been Some Magic in That Old Top Hat
Many people associate magicians with the stereotypical trick of pulling a live rabbit out a top hat. But where did that stereotype even come from? Well, interestingly enough, a woman who claimed she gave birth to a bunch of bunnies. A British magician decided he wanted to take that idea and run with it, and so he started pulling them out of his hat.
28. Certificate of Magic, Please
If you’re from Queensland, Australia, you can only own a rabbit if you have proof that you’re a magician. And if you aren’t one? Maybe try adopting a cat or dog instead.
27. But Did He Buy a Ticket?
There’s a British illusionist and mentalist who was able to accurately predict the winning lottery numbers in 2009. Derren Brown spent a whole year preparing for this stunt, where he was set up in a room in a secret location, with only two cameramen present. No word on if he remembered to buy a ticket during all that prep time.
26. A Royal Magician
Even royalty get in on the magic action! Prince Charles belongs to an exclusive magician’s club called the Magic Circle. He’s been a member of the club since 1975, after performing a Cups and Balls routine, which is said to be the mark of an accomplished magician, since there’s a number of techniques the magician has to master in order to successfully pull off the illusion.
Some other famous magicians include Neil Patrick Harris, Johnny Carson, Cary Grant, Jason Alexander, Jackie Gleason and Muhammad Ali. Harris is even a former President of the Academy of Magical Arts. Carson went by the name “The Great Carsoni” and even helped give other aspiring magicians a boost by having them go on his show.
24. That’s a Secret He’ll Never Tell
Penn and Teller are a magical duo with lots of tricks up their sleeves. Raymond Joseph Teller is known for not really speaking, with one of his most well-known tricks having to do with a fish tank. He brings a member of the audience on stage and hands them a fish tank. He keeps making coins appear out of nowhere while “washing” his hands in the tank the audience member is holding. Then, suddenly, the tank is full of goldfish, not coins.
23. That One Red Nail
The other half of the duo, Penn Fraser Jillette, isn’t just a magician. He’s also known for his juggling abilities, comedy, inventions, and best-selling books. You may notice that he always has a fingernail painted red. You see, his mother always told him to get a manicure before his shows, so he does it out of respect for her.
22. Powerful Priests
Let’s go way, way back for a minute. It’s believed that Persian priests were the first people who performed magic, called magosh in Persian and magoi in Greek.
21. What’s a Group of Magicians Called?
The longest running organization for magicians is aptly named the Society of American Magicians. Houdini was even its president for some time. The largest organization is the International Brotherhood of Magicians, which used to publish its own monthly journal, The Linking Ring.
20. Fooling the Foolers
Considering the creativity of the field, it should come as no surprise that there are magic championships. During the 1988 championships, one magician was so good he was disqualified. The judges, who were also magicians, just couldn’t believe what they were seeing, so they took him out of the running because they figured he was cheating. Just three years later he performed the same trick, even having the judges help out and shuffle the cards. He finally won.
19. Gotta Start Somewhere
Somewhere between 50 AD and 300 AD, a group called the Acetabularii used stones and small vinegar cups to perform the well-known ball and cups routine.
18. His Final Disappearing Act
Rumor has it that Japan’s first emperor was a magician. In fact, he was the magician for China’s Emperor Qin. You see, Qin wanted the elixir of life and instructed this magician to find it. Said magician got on a boat with a lot of wheat and 6,000 boys and girls, who were to be the sacrifice for the elixir. When he didn’t return, rumors swirled about what had happened to him on his journey, including a story about him becoming emperor of Japan.
17. At Least He Admits It
Lance Burton is the king of Las Vegas magic shows—he’s performed more than 15,000 of them. He was only five years old when the magic bug bit him, with a neighbor giving him a book called Magic Made Easy to further his interest. He was also once quoted as saying “I was stupid … I was really stupid” after performing a trick where he avoided being hit by a speeding roller coaster.
16. The Man Who Fooled Houdini
Houdini believed he could solve any card trick after just three attempts. He was proven wrong by fellow magician Dai Vernon, who challenged Houdini to solve his own trick. Seven attempts later, and Houdini still couldn’t figure it out.
15. End of an Era
Harry August Jansen is more commonly known as Dante the Magician. He trademarked the term “Sim Sala Bim,” and, when he died, many believe that the Golden Age of Magic was over.
14. His Last Trick
Master magician Harry Houdini is synonymous with illusion. His death, however, was no trick. Picture this: Houdini, giving a lecture on Halloween in 1926, was speaking to students. One student decides to punch the magician in his abdomen, testing Houdini’s theory that he could handle any blow to that area of his body. Just days later, Houdini was dead, with the official cause being peritonitis from a previously inflamed appendix. However, some say it was the repeated blows that may have contributed his untimely end.
13. The Magician Who Makes Millions
One of the most renowned magicians of our time is David Copperfield. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was the king of the magic TV special, featuring him performing feats like walking through the Wall of China and making the Statue of Liberty disappear. He’s made quite the living performing tricks and illusions for eager people all over the world, ranking at the top of the richest magicians around. His current net worth is estimated at $800 million, with Forbes magazine placing him at number 20 for their top celebrity earners list in 2015. He’s not just about the magic either. He also manages resorts in the Bahamas.
12. Now They See His Things, Now They Don’t
Speaking of Copperfield, he and two assistants were confronted by an armed robber in 2006. Clearly, this robber had no idea who he was dealing with, because when he went to take Copperfield’s possessions, they had mysteriously disappeared. The magician was able to hide them using sleight of hand, later calling it “reverse pickpocketing.”
11. Magic for the Masses
Copperfield also recognizes the need for those with disabilities to learn the art of magic. Project Magic was founded after Copperfield realized an aspiring magician was actually much older than he thought, even having handwriting that was more like a child’s, because of a disability he had. The program shows those who join how to do sleight of hand, which also helps with their motor skills.
10. They Were Bamboozled!
Apollo Robbins, a magician who specializes in pickpocketing, was once having a conversation with former US President Jimmy Carter and agents of the Secret Service. Robbins was able to get everything from their pockets, save for the guns, within minutes. No word on how brutal the punishment was for pickpocketing the President, though.
9. War and Magic
During World War II, magician Jasper Maskelyne was able to use his skills to fool the Nazis. He was able to hide things like maps and tools for the Resistance in unlikely, everyday objects, hidden from the prying eyes of the Nazis.
8. That Straight Jacket Feeling
James Randi is another famous Canadian magician, who also specializes in the art of the escape. His interests also including debunking claims of the supernatural and paranormal, even offering $1,000,000 to anyone who can prove him wrong. One of his escape tricks saw him suspended upside down over Niagara Falls while trying to get himself out of a straight jacket.
7. Masters of Illusion
Next time you run into a magician, maybe ask if he or she prefers to be called an illusionist instead. Many magicians feel the term correlates to the supernatural, whereas the tricks they perform are more of a deception instead.
6. Don’t Try This at Home, Kids
David Blaine is one of those modern-day illusionists. In 1999, he successfully completed a stunt that Houdini had been planning before his death. Blaine was buried alive for seven days in a plastic box that was under a tank filled with three tonnes of water. He endured the week, surviving off of two to three tablespoons of water a day. After he was released, he stated “I saw something very prophetic… a vision of every race, every religion, every age group banding together, and that made all this worthwhile.”
5. Nine Lives, Just Like a Cat
German magician Ralf Bialla is pretty notable for his trick of catching bullets with his teeth. It didn’t always go to plan, though, as he was seriously injured nine times while performing it, which all compiled together to cause him persistent dizziness. This dizziness ultimately led to him falling from a cliff to his death.
4. Double, Double, Toil and Trouble
A classic trick many magicians are known for? Cutting someone in half. In 1956, one magician was performing the trick on his own wife, on TV nonetheless. The host finished the show right after the magician split her in two, with audiences terrified that he had truly cut his wife in half. But have no fear—this story ends well. The show was just over! Time ran out for the rest of the performance, leaving audiences at home horrified but the magician’s wife intact.
3. Timing is Everything
How’s this for weird: magician Sigmund Neuburger was just four days away from the opening of his new show when his dog passed away. He asked the local council if they would be willing to bury her in their cemetery, which they agreed to do but only if he was to be buried there upon his death. They didn’t have to wait long. There was a fire at the theatre on opening night, and he died as a result.
2. Who Is That Really?
There’s a story of an American magician from the early 20th century, William Ellsworth Robinson, who died while on stage. For his show, this particular magician acted as a Chinese man, named Chung Ling Soo, never breaking character. Even when journalists were interviewing him, he had a translator to answer their questions. Only one thing got him to break character. Just before he died, he said, “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” A live bullet had been shot through his lung.
1. A Crushing Defeat
Magic acts don’t always go according to plan. I’d say you could ask Joseph W. “Amazing Joe” Burrus, but he actually died during one of his performances in 1990. The amateur magician decided to do an act where he would be buried six feet under, in a Plexiglas coffin that he had designed, while he was handcuffed and shackled and had seven tons of concrete on top of his coffin. Unfortunately for Burrus, the coffin couldn’t support the weight of the concrete and he was ultimately crushed to death.
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