John Field’s history of the sometimes dark art of magic was delivered with humour and some impressive demonstrations, writes Pat Smith
Our December meeting started with a Christmas treat from the Dorking U3A Bells handbell ringing group – a beautiful rendering of several carols, including Silent Night.
John Field, solicitor and member of the Magic Circle, then took us on a magical mystery tour, starting with the first known magician, Dedi, in 2700BC. He was famous for cutting the head off a bird – it would fall to the ground – then attaching another one so the bird could fly away. The secret? It’s all to do with the way a bird will tuck its head under a wing. And a second, less fortunate bird. Rumour has it that he tried the same trick with a cow…
John spent some time on the famous ‘cup and ball’ trick, which is 2,500 years old. ‘Find the lady’, ‘which walnut has the pea under it’, etc – there are many variants of the same idea, but they have one thing in common: you can never win. He told, ruefully, of losing $14 in less than a minute in Times Square, New York. Gangs who do this are highly sophisticated and make a good living. Audience ‘plants’ seem to win small fortunes with ease, luring onlookers to bet large sums. You have been warned.
On a more serious note, he told us of witchcraft trials, where suspected witches were repeatedly pricked with a bodkin – a needle with a small handle. This was to test for the Devil’s mark, a numb spot where the Devil had supposedly kissed the witch. Initially the success rate was minimal, so a bright spark redesigned the bodkin, putting the needle on a spring so it would retract when it touched anything. From that point onwards, the fate of hundreds of innocents was sealed.
In early years magicians could be hanged or burnt for witchcraft but, later, magicians made their fortune. He told us of William Ellsworth Robinson, who shaved his head, grew a pigtail and called himself Chun Ling Su. His speciality was catching bullets in his teeth, and it paid very well indeed – in 1912 he was earning the equivalent of £31,500 per week – until the day when the trick went wrong and he was killed. Some say it was because special chambers in the gun had corroded; others whisper of suicide – or murder.
Another famous magician spent much of his childhood trying to do a genuine disappearing act as his family was chased around America by creditors. Inspired by a famous magician he started to learn tricks when he was 14. He became one of the most famous magicians and escape artistes ever, Houdini.
He was devoted to his mother and was devastated when she died. He tried spiritualism but discovered time after time that they were using the same magic tricks as him, so he spent many years crusading against frauds. Ironically, he didn’t die wrapped in chains hanging 100ft above a street or struggling free from a water-filled tank; he died of peritonitis on Hallowe’en, 1926.
After all this talk, it was time for some action. John demonstrated his ability to mind-read random numbers from the audience, getting four out of five right, then called on his assistant for the day, Jenny Ford. She helped to demonstrate another version of the ‘cup and ball’ trick, playing her part with skill and style – could this be the start of another career?
He also told us the perfect magic trick to perform at a Christmas party – an infallible way to discover which plate hides the coin. The secret? Ah, that would be telling…