Magic teaches us two valuable skills in life: Others can be deceived & you can be deceived as well. While the magician relies on the use of deception – maliciousness is not the intent. Unfortunately, many use the same deceptive tactics magicians use to entertain as a way of taking advantage of others for malicious purposes.When you think magician; a scientist or a skeptic isn’t the first thing that comes to your mind. In fact, if you are new to magic history you would be floored knowing that almost all technological advancements of the 20th Century have its roots with magicians. When you learn, from studying magic history that some of the first wars against the spread of disinformation were waged FIRST by magicians.
We may never know who the first person to strike the first spark that gave early humans the power to wield and use fire to our advantage. It stands with reason to believe the invention of fire has ties with neolithic shaman, the ancestors of today’s magicians. Wielding the power to create fire, cook food, ward off enemies gave this unknown person a god-like power.The discovery of fire from friction set early humans towards civilization. The first medicine men, the first doctors were also of shamanistic origin. While they didn’t know what Germ Theory was, they understood certain herbs & even the Placebo Effect had the ability to heal. These ancient doctors also used sleight of hand to as convincers for their Placebo and this has been well studied by medical anthropologists.
During the Mid & Late 19th Century was when the art of magic diverted away from its supernatural claims and went more scientific. French clockmaker, magician & inventor Jean Eugene Robert Houdin was born in 1803 and had a lifetime fascination with magic. He modernized magic by wearing tails and relating magic to science. Understanding the laws of Newton, Robert Houdin became The Father Of Modern Magic, an inspiration to Harry Houdini in the 20th Century. Robert Houdin performed famous feats such at the Orange Tree and Ethereal, a suspension involving his son, where he claimed that the suspension was made possible through the power of a magical substance (really it was all a psychological convincer for the audience, the boy was not under hypnosis or under the influence of the substance but using the same tactics as the shaman in prehistoric days, he convinced the audience of the illusion.) Despite these elaborate claims of power he made on stage – Robert Houdin was against misinformation off the stage. In 1856, Napoleon hired the French magician to stop the threat of Civil War by the Marabout tribe in Algeria that claimed to have powers that could topple France. Robert Houdin was fully aware that the Marabouts did NOT possess any real supernatural powers and he performed the famous Bullet Catch, an illusion that Marabouts could not duplicate even if they tried. Robert Houdin’s Bullet Catch was very elaborate, when loading the rifles, the real bullet was switched for a blank and a second blank filled with faux blood was loaded. With the real bullet held secretly in his hand, Robert Houdin offered the Marabout shaman to fire the gun. Once the first “bullet” was fired, it was all acting. When it was time for the second shot, a shot made by Robert Houdin aimed at a wall, the blank would spill faux blood. Creating the illusion that the wall was bleeding when it got hit. This feat and many others forced the Marabout resistance to surrender to Napoleon.
One of the biggest proponent for the merge of magic, skepticism, scientific advancement was Harry Houdini himself. Born Erik Weiss in 1874 in Budapest. Houdini always had a skeptical point of view when it came to extraordinary claims. After the death of his mother – Houdini tried to find comfort in the Spiritualism movement, a movement that started with the Fox Sisters of Upstate New York (the youngest of the sisters admitted to fraud, faking the spirit manifestations). Spiritualism was more popular a religion in the 1920’s than Christianity. Spiritualism combined religion with sounds of science. Spiritualism was not only in Spiritualist churches & circles but also in textbooks in the science classes. Spiritualism was a way of life for 1920 America. While seeking the help of a spiritualist, Houdini came across some inconsistencies. The Spiritualist Houdini consulted made some critical errors. The “spirit message” supposedly left by Houdini’s mother was all in English. Houdini’s mother never spoke a word of English. The signature supposedly made by Mrs. Weiss ended with a Cross, the Weiss family were Jewish, not Christian. It was there that Houdini realized that he had been duped.
Up until his death in 1926, Harry Houdini would do Spiritualism Exposure demonstrations at the end of each show. He would even offer a large sum of money to anyone who could prove the existence of spirits. Houdini even teamed up with Scientific American and doubled the reward to anyone who could pass his & Scientific America’s tests. No one claimed the award.
Around 1968, fresh out of the Israeli Army Paratrooper Brigade, Uri Geller began capturing the imagination of the entire planet. First as a model & then as a paranormal one hit wonder who could bend spoons with nothing but his mind. Uri Geller’s top critic was none other than magicians James Randi, Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Banachek, Jami Ian Swiss & Johnny Carson. Uri Geller wasn’t the Spiritualists of the 1920’s. The fears and worries of the 1970’s was from a Post-World War 2 era -nuclear weapons, secret government activities, mind control and UFOs & Uri Geller exploited it all. Of course, everything Uri Geller did, magician’s could duplicate it thus giving reason to doubt Uri Geller’s claims.
After Uri Geller began toning down his claims, James Randi, Banachek & co began going after the claims made by self proclaimed “Faith Healers”- even busting a few on their teleganetlist shows! The same techniques FIRST used by neolithic shaman, the Placebo Effect and the sleight of hand from magic, are used by these “faith healers” to convince unsuspecting, and sometimes suspecting but desperate people that they are “healed.”
There are a numerous instances & examples but I think I will save those for another article. While the magician uses deception, the intent is that of good willed entertainment. It’s no different than the deceptive practices of a musician plucking a string to mimic the sound of the wind on a harp of Antiquity OR the deceptive practices of a Contact Juggler creating the illusion that a ball is floating just a few inches from their hand. Magicians have fought for more than 300 years to draw the line of ethical deception for means of entertainment & malicious deceit.