State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 78 Spring 2006


Lyn Gallacher
Casting the Spell: Magic in Books

In 2005 I was awarded a three-month State Library of Victoria Creative Fellowship, which allowed me to spend time in the Heritage Collection Reading Room absorbing as much as possible from Will Alma's bequest to the library. This bequest consists of over 3500 books on magic, 60 magazine titles, 1500 photographs, 250 posters, over 400 detailed research files on individual magicians, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, programs, letterheads, business cards, blueprints, letters, postcards, bookplates and other magic memorabilia. And whilst it was impossible to read through all this material during the time of my fellowship, there were moments of discovery which were delightful and which I'd like to share.
It should be noted, however, that as well as magicana, the W.G. Alma Conjuring Collection contains mountains of personal ephemera such as holiday snaps, gas bills, a pressed flower, and decades of Mother's Day cards which Alma gave to his wife, Eileen, from himself and their cat Fluffy. All of this speaks volumes about the man himself, but it is not my intention here to go into any of these details. Readers who'd like a more personal account of Will Alma's life should refer to Frances Awcock's article, ‘Will Alma, Master Magician,’ which appeared in No. 74 of this journal (pp. 15–23). The focus of my article here is the contents of the collection.
Will Alma lived from 1905 to 1993. It was a life that saw the rise and fall of the vaudeville era from a performer's point of view, and it's this point of view that shapes his collection. As a magician Alma was particularly interested in how-to magic books; books that describe in detail the equipment and patter needed for certain tricks. And these books are astonishingly repetitive. As it turns out, most magic tricks are variations on a theme, but what theme? The ruminations which follow are my attempt to find the theme and develop a theory of magic.

How did she do it?

My Own interest in magic is fairly childish. I'm not a magician but did once, at the age of seven, perform an act at a family Christmas party. It was my parents' idea — they didn't want me to sing. So, for my birthday which was three weeks earlier, they gave me a magic book and kit. The tricks were basic and yet I took them seriously, and I remember very clearly the first rule in the book: never, never, never tell anyone how the trick is done. To do so is a
violation of the magicians' secret code of practice. At the very least it ruins everyone's enjoyment of your act, and at the worst it can jeopardize livelihoods. The book told me how it was an honour to wave a small plastic bat in the air and magically make a star appear on one side. The tricks went well and my aunts and uncles were suitably aghast. But, as I bowed with confidence and aplomb, my older brother went berserk. He was simply unable to contain the unbearable tension that his curious mind aroused, and he went snooping in my magic bag after the act and told my cousins how the tricks were done. The horror. The shame. The bastard. I couldn't believe it. Centuries of tradition violated. Lives could be ruined over this and, on account of him, I was an outcast. The first rule of magic was broken and there was no going back. I would never be a magician. Thus my current exploration of the W.G. Alma Conjuring Collection is a return to a previously unvisited site of childhood trauma (joke). What I've actually discovered is how much fun it is to find out how the tricks are done and tell the secrets. There are some people who, like my brother, do not like not knowing. How did she do it? is the question any audience member who is fooled will want to ask and, as I found out, that was the question also driving me.
So, do you know how to pull a rabbit out of a hat? Well, there are several ways of doing it, but traditionally the trick involves dismembering the rabbit before concealing its separate body parts, and then abracadabra, the animal is revealed whole again. A living, breathing creature brought back from the dead before your very eyes. Magic, like religion, works best when it's ghoulish. But even in the sanitised stage magic of today, there are still residual elements of the grand death and resurrection show that was once central to all conjuring.

Glory be to gore

Modern magic is full of mutilations, dismemberings, disappearances, great escapes, and transformations. To swallow razor blades, or a sword, or to eat fire, or catch a bullet between your teeth, is to dance with death. Even taking a bunch of roses and turning it into a dove displays a level of control over the material realm which ordinary mortals cannot hope to attain. Magicians have power over their audience by demonstrating this kind of authority. The whole act has a natural symbolism which, whether we consciously recognize it or not, impacts on our senses. If magicians can show power over the material realm, over life and death, and resurrect a beautiful assistant, or themselves, then it stands to reason that they know something we don't: a secret. That is exactly what they want us to think. And by not explaining their powers, audiences can believe whatever it is they want to believe. On stage all the performer has to do is nudge this belief along by producing little miracles. Except that these days no one believes in magic anymore. Why would they?
Originally people believed in magic because they believed in healing. They wanted to know from someone who'd survived, and who could bring a rabbit back to life, how to survive themselves. In much the same way as you might turn to a spider-bite survivor for clues on how to fight the poison. Magic worked because it was an extension of a natural, and

Cover of The Magic Circular, June 1958, with photograph of Will Alma. Gelatin silver photograph. Alma Collection, Arts Library. Alma photo book 4-6 p. 304/no. 15.

useful, brain function. Audiences, facing death themselves, couldn't help but look for clues on how to escape this predicament. As magicians made objects, animals and people defy the laws of physics, they showed audiences that there was no need to be trapped by the body. Impossible transformation was possible. They produced evidence of another realm where the rules that apply to this one were rendered obsolete. But there are only residual elements of this grand life and death magic left in modern conjuring. The method and modus operandi was too similar to organized religion, which wanted to provide its own death and resurrection show. In order to survive, magic, as it's been practised by conjurers since 3,000 BC, has become a nice night's entertainment. Unlike the magician in ancient Egypt who decapitated a goose and restored it intact, the modern conjurer is a confessed deceiver claiming no supernatural powers. In fact, to do so would now be seen as unethical. But even as recently as 1913, Eliphas Levi, in his book The History of Magic, was explaining how magic demonstrates the facts of spirituality. This, he sermonises, is consistent with Christianity, which puts a stop to false gods, but still reveres true magic. Hence, the three Magi who came to honour the birth of the saviour, and hence the miracles that Christ performed — all of which elevate the magical arts by putting them at the service of that which is morally pure and blessed by God. ‘Magic’, he writes, combines in a single science that which is most certain in philosophy, which is eternal and infallible in religion. It reconciles … ‘faith and reason, science and belief, authority and liberty.’ One practical example he gives is the mysterious magic of magnetism — that wand of miracles which can be applied to the whole art of Transcendental Magic.
Magnetism […] demonstrates by incontestable facts the spirituality, unity and immortality of the soul; and these things once made certain, God is manifested to all intelligences and all hearts. Thereafter, from the belief in God and from the harmony which does not exist outside the miraculous and lawful hierarchy of the Catholic Church, for this alone has preserved all traditions of science and faith.
(Eliphas Levi, The History of Magic — including a clear and precise exposition of its procedure, its rites and its mysteries; translated by Arthur Edward Waite, London, William Rider & Son, 1913, p 20.)
As well as putting magic at the service of evangelism this approach contains a veiled threat. The wizard is telling his readers that, to dabble in magic without due deference to the superior magic of the Catholic Church, is risking being cast into the flames of hell. If magicians perform tricks which glorify themselves and their own power, rather than God's glory and God's power, then they are deviant, evil, and deserve to die.
By the way, Eliphas Levi's book features a photo of the author taken after his death. He's prostrate on his bed of pillows, lifeless and ghoulish, and facing the table of contents.

Necromancy made easy

One of the assumptions about magic that pervaded life in the Middle Ages was that if your magic didn't work it wasn't the fault of magic, but rather, the fault of its performance. Spells
were like a cake recipe. You wouldn't stop believing in the reality of a light and fluffy cream sponge just because you'd baked a flat and tasteless rubber thong. Instead, what you would do is check your oven temperature, check the ingredients, check the measurements, and if this were a book of defective spells and you were living in the Middle Ages, you would take your faulty book to a priest and have it blessed. The blessing that the priest would chant would come from his spell book on how-to-fix-spell-books. This short anonymous work was known as the Liber Consecrationum (Book of Consecrations). Without the proper blessing from this book the magician's formulas were likely to lose their efficacy. But a further complication arose when the words in the blessing book were thought to lose their power. If this happened the blessing book itself had to be blessed. How to do this is set out in great detail in Forbidden Rites — A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century by Richard Kieckhefer. It goes something like this:
The operator must refrain from every pollution of mind and body, and for nine days must be abstinent in food and drink, must keep from idle or immoderate words, must be clothed in clean garments. On each of these days he must hear mass, carrying this book with him and placing it on the altar during the mass. […] He must execute this procedure devoutly, with prayer and fasting, so as to attain knowledge of sacred mysteries, and then he must carry the book back home. He should have a secret place, sprinkled with holy water, in which he can place the book, after binding it with a priestly cincture and a stole placed in the form of a cross. Kneeling towards the east he must say seven psalms, ‘the litany’, and a further prayer before opening the book. Then he may open the book with humble devotion and with heartfelt desire ‘that God may sanctify and bless and consecrate this book, devoted to his most sacred names, so that it may fully obtain the power it should have, that it may have power for consecrating the bond of spirits and for all invocations and conjurations of (spirits) and likewise all other experiments’.
(Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites — A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century, UK, Sutton Publishing, 1997, p.9.)
This ritual performance designed to recharge the text may have something to teach contemporary reader response theory. In this context it is hard to imagine a word that wouldn't have power. Even if the magician, or the exorcist, opened up the book and read nothing in it but blah blah ibble, it would no doubt, by nine days of prayer and fasting, have assumed great significance and naturally be brimming with divine power. But even after all this pre-amble the reading of the book had to be accompanied by further prayers. The first being a prayer that God may hear your prayer, despite your unworthiness, then this was followed by a similar prayer to Christ and a chanting of His most sacred names: Alpha and O, El, Eloy, Eloyye, Sithothith, Eon, Sepmelamaton, Ezelophates, Tetragrammaton, Elyoram, Ryon, Deseryon, Erystion, Ysyornus, Onela, Baysyn, Moyn, Messias, Sother, Emanuel, Sabaoth, Adonay … Lord Jesus Christ, who is seated on high, to whom be honour and glory throughout unending ages. Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen.
The reason for going to such great lengths was to ensure that the exorcist, or the magician, was in the correct frame of mind when he read the spells. Because once he had magic at his disposal he could summon up ‘malign spirits’ as well as benign ones. The power,
in other words, could be used for good or evil, and through the ritual procedure leading up to the reading of the book, the operator was showing he understood the Church's definition of which was which. It was only by sincerely deferring to the greater authority of the Church that anybody was given access to magic at all. The cosmic significance of God's holy name could not fall into the hands of the mischievous, or the foolish. And further, it was thought anybody seeking to achieve great works, and attain their heart's desire, would accomplish nothing if they did not do it in God's name. Without the power of the name their endeavors were corrupt from the outset. Their heart was not in-the-right-place. All of this is what makes a book of magic a magical object and gives the book a persona.

What's in an enigma?

The Twentieth Book of Natural Magick is a particularly endearing read, as it includes the chapter heading: ‘The chaos wherein the experiments are set down without any classical order’. It is essentially a medieval household hints book, including such tips as: how to drink sea water, how to dye your hair, how to fly unassisted and how to create a new planet. The Twentieth Book of Natural Magick was the Spotless of its day. But it was more than that. Shannon Lush, the author of Spotless, is regarded as the ‘sensei’ of stain removal. In this way she's been given a status beyond what her book contains. It remains a best-seller even if no one reads it, because to own Spotless is enough to feel its power over household decay. It belongs to a world where that wine stain on your favourite shirt does not exist. And such knowledge is in itself a comfort. The wine shrinks in significance, if not in fact, knowing that such a universe is possible. Medieval magic books are like this, only their personalities are even more forceful and at times vocal. There are stories from the 1300s which tell of books which, when condemned to be burnt, cried out in protest. Sharp ears could hear their voice through the crackling flames as the pages turn to ash. Reginald Scot, in his book The Discoverie Of Witchcraft (which was itself commended to be burnt in 1584), tells the story of a book so inhabited by spirits that when it was opened it called out: ‘What do you want? What do you seek? What do you order? Say what you want and it shall be done forthwith.’ (Just for the record, there are no accounts of anyone answering back.) Even in the trial process, books condemned to be burnt were treated as human subjects. They were examined, found guilty and executed. But it wasn't literary criticism. The case for or against the book was much more personal. Books were powerful, so their potential for good or for evil was taken seriously, so much so that goodness and its antithesis came to characterise the book itself. Hence, the holy book and the unholy book. If sacredness can be encountered on the page, so can negative sacrality. Even before a book was opened it could be a source of inspiration or spiritual and psychological contagion. (This is why you don't have to read Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in order make a judgment about its spiritual standing, and why to do so would actually be beside the point.)
One classic formula for a fairy tale is for a wish to be granted and then for everything to go wrong. Midas, for instance, wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. It

[Levitation of Aga — Mr and Mrs Alma Senior, 1906]. Gelatin silver photograph. Alma Collection, Arts Library. Alma photo book 12 no. 197

did, including his beloved daughter. Rats! Magic invokes a power that is reluctant to come forth, and when it does it behaves badly. The words, the wishes, the spells, the poetics, do not exert enough control. It seems to be no trouble for the demonic power which has been summoned to slip maliciously in between language, finding the cracks in meaning, thus deceiving the person who wished the wish by turning their own words against them. This subversion is as old as language itself and is the reason why the universe appears to laugh at misfortune. So the magician sets out to control that which is out of control, but doesn't always succeed. What we watch, when we see a magician perform, are the ancient remnants of a ritual contest between cunning and powerful spiritual adversaries: humanity versus the universe. Can the one be induced to fulfill the command of the other? Is this why stage patter is so full of puns? Is a pun a display of verbal dexterity in the face of danger? Is it an attempt to keep the enemy confused by offering and then withdrawing the opportunity for misinterpretation? Or does it have more to do with the sensuality of language? Words are sounds and as such have a physical impact on our bodies. We feel calm when we hear coo chee coo chee coo and alarmed when we hear eek. Regardless of meaning these sounds impact on our senses, and so a phrase that is almost sense like double, double, toil and stubble can cast a spell through its sense, non-sense and sensuality. Spells are a form of language which, like the joke, and the liturgy, seek to transform perception in the moment of performance.
So, words are the most important (and also in a way the least important) part of a magic show. As any stage conjurer will tell you, the tricks are nothing — the performance is everything. Hence, there are hundreds, if not thousands of books devoted to patter and stage presence. You can, if you want to, drown in such books. They include tips on how to dress, how to stand, how to move about the stage, how to sit down (without looking at your chair) and, most importantly … jokes: I have here, Ladies and Gentlemen, a pack of cards, ordinary playing cards and you can see that they are not arranged in any order because I am shuffling them. I should be pleased if someone would kindly select one of them-take any one you wish-they are all prizes and no blanks. Thank you Sir! Keep it a moment, please. I now wish to direct your attention to an ordinary egg that I have here and I want you to observe me closely in this trick as I consider it one of the most eggstraordinary eggsperiments I have ever performed in the whole course of my egg-sperience. Whenever I have eggshibited this egg-straordinary …. This patter is for the Egg and Card Trick where a member of the audience chooses a card which is burnt in a flame and upon breaking open an egg, the restored card is found inside. This routine and a lot more like it can be found in Magic Made Merry, which was penned by H.A. Palmer in 1922.
So you can see how the all important distinction between a devotional book and a demonic one can be obscure. The formulas for invoking angels, neutral spirits, demons and God are often mixed together, and the spells are very similar in size, shape and sound, because the good spirits, when summoned, can turn out to be evil and the evil ones likewise can turn out to be good. This seems to be something contemporary society may have forgotten.
Another classic story which demonstrates the uncontrollable nature of magical power is, of course, the sorcerer's apprentice. In this story the apprentice invokes spirits he has no idea how to contain. In short, he raises a tempest. The interesting part of the tale, which often gets lost, is that in order to quell the spirits the sorcerer has to recite a spell of equal length to the one the apprentice originally read, which suggests the process of reading may have magical quantifiable efficacy, distinguishable from that of the specific contents. Size does matter. The spell is the poetry that provides the link between one realm and another. By nature, its meaning has to be slippery. It is a form of language that leads us, pied-piper-like, from our dreams and nightmares into self-awareness. Or is that vice versa?

More spoof and bluff

Early in the twentieth century, Howard Thurston (one of the most charismatic of modern stage performers) gave a new twist to his ‘floating lady’ by inviting audience members onto the stage to examine the miracle. He'd say, ‘I'm so anxious to convince you that she actually floats in space without any support, that this evening I shall ask on to the stage a number of ladies and gentlemen. Anyone may come, come right down the aisle and on the stage; come as quietly as you can.’ As they came Thurston intoned: 'Hear me, each of you. I bring to you the love blessing from India. Now is the chance to cause the one you love to love you … Surakabaja,
' But in one of the books in the W. G. Alma Conjuring Collection, called Hiding the Elephant: how magicians invented the impossible and learned to disappear, by Jim Steinmeyer, there is a sequel to this Thurston story. It's an account by an old man who recalls that as a boy he was lifted up on to the stage by Thurston for a close and personal examination of the floating princess. As he was held tight by the magician, Thurston whispered in his ear, ‘If you touch any of those blankety-blank wires … I'll kill you.' At that moment, afraid, the young lad dropped his jaw, and the audience seeing this expression felt even more convinced that the trick was real. Which goes to show that as a magic word blankety-blank is just as important as Surakabaja. Indeed, blankety-blank might even be considered to be more powerful.
In this kind of trick, magic words are a distraction. They are stage-patter used to misdirect the audience's attention, and like every other kind of professional insider-language they exert control over the listener. The only difference with so-called magic words is that, etymologically, they have a persistent residual connection to religion. Abracadabra, for instance, is a derivation of the name of the Egyptian god Abraxis. A carved version of the name was worn as a good luck amulet. Hocus Pocus, comes from the Latin mass, Hoc Est Corpus being this is my body. W. G. Alma's magic word, which he inherited from his father, was ZIM, a word that can be connected to the kabbalistic term zimzum.
By the way, in 1903, Alma's mother was, according to the headlines, ‘Australia's first floating lady’. When she hovered three feet above her couch in her evening gown it was known as the Levitation of Aga.

Sawing a woman in half

After The Floating Lady, the next big stage illusion was invented P. T. Selbit. It was 1921 and the world was ready for something more horrifying than levitation. Selbit himself wasn't able to perform his famous trick in America because another magician, Horace Goldin, copied the act and patented it. Goldin was the one who gave it the name Sawing a Woman in Half. Selbit's name was something along the lines of Dividing a Lady in Two. Prior to the invention of this trick, Selbit was famous for his Big Cheese. The Big Cheese trick involved rolling a large cheese onto the stage (and secretly bolting it to the floor) and then asking members of the audience to come up and try and move it. He would then, secretly, unbolt the cheese and make a great show of rolling it about, thus proving to his audience a supernatural ability. Memorabilia relating to Selbit's Big Cheese is now worth a fortune in magic-collecting circles, particularly if you can sell to the world's Big Cheese specialist, James B. Alfredson. All of which is a tangential way of saying, Selbit's next trick was a much better idea. Nothing in the history of modern magic ever took off quite as successfully as sawing a woman in half. Incidentally, it had to be a woman. When this illusion was tried with a small boy audiences were unimpressed. The trick worked best, not only if it was a woman being sawn in half, but if it was also a suffragette: Christabel Pankhurst, to be precise, one of the

The Great Barrie, originator, sawing a beautiful woman in halves. [1911]. Colour lithograph poster. Alma posters, Arts Library. 93.2/219

leaders of the movement. Christabel Pankhurst was paid by Selbit to be sawn in half night after night. It was a huge hit. It was as if the suffragettes had frightened society, and magic was, literally, putting them back in their box. Selbit had his audiences queuing for tickets around the block, and while they were waiting, he emptied buckets of blood onto their feet saying, ‘It's just a rehearsal’. He also had nurses lining the walls of the foyer and an ambulance parked outside. During the first performance a member of the audience did actually faint.
When Goldin performed the illusion in America, he refused to allow anybody to refer to it as an illusion, instead telling stage managers:
Sawing a Woman in Half actually transpires in full view of the audience. They are shown the two separated parts of the woman in plain view. Therefore, please, at no time in your press material billing slides or other publicity refer to it as ‘An Illusion’. By doing so, you merely take away from its sensational value.
(Jim Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant, New York, Carroll & Graf, 2003, p 285.)
In these two stories, that of Thurston's floating lady and Selbit's sawing a woman in half, we can see that magic is about control. And in a sense it always has been. Remember the biblical story of Moses turning his staff into a snake to impress Pharaoh? (By the way, I know how to do this now, but can't reveal the secret because of the magician's code of confidentiality. I can tell you, however, that there's a nerve in the back of a snake's head which, when grasped correctly, makes the snake rigid. Although, I've yet to try it.) In the biblical story Pharaoh's priests were able to perform this same trick. But, upping the ante, Moses then commanded his snake to swallow the other snakes. I have no idea how this was done, but it goes to show that magic has been about control for a very long time. It is, however, a form of control that can get you into trouble when another power wants to wrest that control away from you.

Tricks with a rubber dove

The first how-to magic book is considered to be The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. It was written in 1570 as an exposé. It's a book with magic spells which is also a plea for rationalist behaviour. It is a plea to stop the witch-burnings. In order to defend magicians he exposed them as frauds. So in his book he gives the formulae for charms, powerful chants and exposes conjuring tricks. He tells his readers how to cure a headache by using a rope with which one has been hung, how to unlock a door without a key by using a few magic words and a communion wafer, how to thrust a bodkin into your belly without harm, and how to remove a head from a body. By showing how these tricks are done, Scot mounts a somewhat woolly argument for sparing the lives of those who perform them. They are, after all, not great acts of supernatural power, they are just tricks; and the practitioners are not demons, wizards or witches, they are entertainers, jugglers, skilled in legerdemain.
The conundrum Scot presents in The Discoverie of Witchcraft continues down through the ages into the magic of today. Contemporary magicians are proud of their skill and want

[Selbit presenting “Sawing a woman in half”]. Gelatin silver photograph. ca. 1930. Alma Collection, Arts Library. Alma book 1-3 p. 147/no.592

it to be known that they are in control, but at the same time they enjoy the glamour of the supernatural. So, performers like Will Alma would usually include, somewhere in their stage patter, a comment saying that this magic was entertainment only and purely for fun. Indeed, if anyone connected magic to the spiritual realm, Will Alma would become very edgy. He would say that performers who did this were charlatans. But there's another reason, along with professional pride, that would make magicians insist on this secular approach; and that is they wouldn't want to upset the Church because, as we've seen, upsetting the Church could be fatal. If these conjuring tricks are a remnant form of a shamanistic death and resurrection show, organized religion would see them as a form of competition. And if magic is essentially a power game, organized religion would want to assert its authority, because the party with the most powerful magic wins. So, the theory goes that in order to survive, magicians had to call their act entertainment rather than religion, and water down their show or become the object of persecution. Even modern books like Conjurer's Psychological Secrets by Sam Sharpe, published in 1988, contain disclaimers such as: ‘… but once the curtain goes down and the audience shuffles out into the street it should realize that the magic was but an illusion — not something which really happened as they are encouraged to believe by the mind benders.’

[Virgil and Julie, American performers, performing the rope trick]. Not dated. Gelatin silver photograph. Alma Collection, Arts Library. Alma photo book 8/no. 138-139

Hocus Pocus perfection

Conjurer's Psychological Secrets is one of the more important magic books in the W.G. Alma Collection. It contains a bunch of statistics which might not sound interesting; but it is the market research of magic, and provides the key to manipulating audience perception. It contains statistics on how many red heads will choose the number seven, when asked to think of a number between one and ten. It tells you exactly when a white, middle-aged, male with nasal hair is likely to think of the two of spades when asked to pick a card. It's not just misdirection (although any good magician ought to be able sneak a goat onto the stage without the audience noticing — our perceptual fields are that narrow), it's about the illusion of choice, and auto-suggestion. Auto-suggestion is what I call once, twice, three times stop looking. The brain learns to see what it expects to see. So when a magician tells you what she is going to do, then acts it out, and then finally gets around to performing the trick, she is training the audience to see what she wants them to see. It's a handy skill, even for politicians. Imagine, for instance, if a Prime Minister said, ‘There will never be a GST,’ and ‘Oh, a GST could never work,’ and then later, oops, introduced a GST. It's quite possible that by the third time the general population would have stopped looking.
The most stunning example of auto-suggestion in the magic world has been the Indian Rope Trick. It's the most famous trick to have never existed. It involves a conjurer being out in the open and throwing a rope up into the air. The rope becomes rigid and a small boy climbs up it and disappears. The conjurer then yells at the boy to come down. He does not. Angry, the conjurer climbs the rope and also disappears. Then to the horror of the audience, body parts belonging to the small boy are tossed to the ground; first the feet, then the hands, the limbs, the torso and finally the head. When this is done the conjurer climbs down the rope and, to the astonishment of the audience, brings the boy back to life. Highly regarded eyewitnesses throughout the history of modern magic have given sworn testimony that they have seen this trick happen. Les Levant in Australia was one magician, among many worldwide, who offered a reward for the performance of this trick — a reward which went unclaimed. The trick can't be done. Yet, as a story, the Indian Rope Trick lives on.

Nothing up my sleeve

Now to conclude, here's a tale about a magician working on a cruise ship. It was his job to entertain the holiday-makers, and on board this particular boat there was also parrot who sat behind the magician during his act, and after every trick the parrot would narrow his eyes and say, ‘It's a fake’. Needless to say it drove the magician mad. But one day, out of the blue, the ship was hit by a stray torpedo. So severe was the strike that it blew the boat into a thousand pieces, all of which, except one, sank to the bottom of the ocean without a trace. Luckily, the magician was able to grab this one, lone piece of driftwood and cling onto it for dear life. And, surprisingly enough, the parrot also settled on this same piece of driftwood. For three days and three nights the parrot sat on the other end of this drift wood and stared unblinking at the magician. Finally, on the evening of the third night the parrot broke his silence and said, ‘I give up. How'd you make the ship disappear?’
This joke won the Australian Society of Magicians magic joke competition in February 1983. It is published on the front page of the Magic Makers Newsletter and is attributed to one Joe Lewis, who is also known as Mr Magic of Queensland. I love this joke because it reminds me of myself. I am the parrot (and so is my brother). I want to know how the trick is done and tell the secret. This journey into the W.G. Alma Conjuring Collection taught me something about myself. If the shoe had been on the other foot on that fateful Christmas day and my brother was performing, with me in the audience, I would have done what he did. I would have raided the magic bag and told the cousins how to do the tricks. Damn, I'll have to forgive him. But not-so-damn because, paradoxically, this insatiable curiosity keeps magic alive and provides the connection between belief and non-belief. If the audience doesn't want to know how the tricks are done, then the magician has no power. There has to be tension between telling and not telling the secrets. So, how do you pull a rabbit out of a hat? Use two rabbits. How do you saw a woman in half? Look it up in the W.G. Alma Conjuring Collection.

Some books on magic listed in the State Library Catalogue

  • Christopher Milbourne. The illustrated history of magic, London, Hale, 1975. [W.G. Alma Collection]

  • Dean, Henry. Whole art of legerdemain, or, Hocus pocus in perfection [A facsimile], Omaha, Neb., Walter B. Graham, 1983. Originally published: London, L. Hawes and Co., S. Crowder, and R. Ware and Co., 1763. 6th ed. [W.G. Alma Collection]

  • Devant, David. Magic made easy, London, Cassell, 1909. [W.G. Alma Collection. The first magic book Alma ever owned.]

  • Goldston, Will. A magician's swan song, London, J. Long Ltd. [1934], [W.G. Alma Collection]

  • Ingleby, Thomas. Whole art of legerdemain, London, Printed for T. Hughes and C. Chaple [1815]. [W.G. Alma Collection]

  • Kieckhefer, Richard. Forbidden rites: a necromancer's manual of the fifteenth century, London, Sutton Publishing, 1997. [W.G. Alma Collection]

  • Levi, Eliphas. The history of magic: including a clear and precise exposition of its procedure, its rites and its mysteries, translated with a preface and notes by Arthur Edward Waite, London, William Rider & Son, 1913.

  • Palmer, H.A. Magic made merry, [London, 1922]. [W.G. Alma Collection]

  • Porta, John. Natural magick … in twenty books, London, T. Young & Samuel Speed, 1658.

  • Scot, Reginald. 1538?-1599, The discoverie of witchcraft, New York, Dover Publications, 1972. [W.G. Alma Collection]

  • Sharpe, Sam. Conjurers' psychological secrets, Calgary, Hades Publications, 1988. [W.G. Alma Collection]

  • Smith, Harold Adrian. Books at Brown, Vol. 34, 1987 [Magic issue]. Providence, R.I., Friends of the Library of Brown University, 1987. [W.G. Alma Collection]

  • Steinmeyer, Jim. Hiding the elephant: how magicians invented the impossible and learned to disappear, New York, Carroll & Graf, 2003. W.G. Alma Collection.

  • Taylor, Rogan. The death and resurrection show: from shaman to superstar, London, A. Blond, 1985. [W.G. Alma Collection]