Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Charles Dickens: The Amateur Conjurer Corrected


Episode 86 of The Magic Detective Podcast was on Charles Dickens and the fact he was an amateur magician. I will admit to being a bit rushed to get that episode out. I wanted to have it out before Christmas Eve and I did, but only by an hour or so. And because of that, it looks like I made a few errors.

Ian Keeble, who I mentioned is an authority on Dickens as a Conjurer, and is the author of the book, Charles Dickens Magician: Conjuring in Life, Letters, and Literature, reached out to me in regards to my podcast on Dickens. He was kind enough to point out a few errors I had made and provided the background and reasoning behind the mistakes. Basically, I was not the first person to make these mistakes, they were mistakes magic historians and writers made before me, and I just passed them along.

I'm going to attempt to re-record the entire episode with the correct information. However, if I'm not able to do it without loosing the stats from those who already listened, then I'll have to pass on it. I'll be contacting my host company to see what can be done.

In the mean time, for historical accuracy, I'm putting the errors and corrections here.

1. The supposed connection between Ramo Samee, Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby and Hull in 1838 was first made in the magical press by Frank Staff in The Magic Circular in 1929 (the original 'spot' was made in The Dickensian, 8 years previously). It was picked up by JB Findlay in Charles Dickens and his Magic (1962) and also by Eddie Dawes in The Great Illusionists (1979). It was actually Trevor Dawson in his book Charles Dickens: Conjurer, Mesmerist and Showman, 2012, that demonstrated Dickens was in London at the time (which I have also checked out). So a relatively recent discovery that it is highly unlikely that Samee played any part in Dickens taking up magic.


2. How Clarke, in Annals of Conjuring, came up with Eugene Bosco as the name of the magician Dickens saw in France in 1854 is not known. Clarke did admit that he wasn't completely sure it was him. It was, ironically (given his error above), Frank Staff who cracked the name as being Alfred de Caston in another article in The Magic Circular in 1931. I have subsequently compared what de Caston did according to Dickens (he gives a very accurate description of his repertoire) with his tricks from other sources; and it is quite clear that it was de Caston.


3. The article which was supposedly written by Dickens about Robert-Houdin was called 'Out-Conjuring Conjurers'. It appeared in Household Words, vol. XIX, no. 472, 9 April, 1859 and was a review of Robert-Houdin's Memoirs. The review came out before the English edition was published, so the reviewer must have read it in French. I think the first assumption that the article was by Dickens was made by Will Goldston in Goldston's Magical Quarterly in 1934. The article you probably saw was from The Sphinx, November 1938: this reproduced parts of the article with the heading 'About Robert Houdin by Charles Dickens'. 


This myth has long been sustained, including by Ricky Jay (Celebrations of Curious Characters) and Jim Steinmeyer (Hiding the Elephant) - so you are in good company! The true author was actually first revealed in the magic press by Stephen Tigner in his short-lived The Journal of Magic History (1979 - the revelation was made in an undated supplement). No magic historian (Jay actually references the original Tigner article, but apparently didn't see the subsequent supplement) seems to have spotted that, including Trevor Dawson in his 2012 book Charles Dickens: Conjurer, Mesmerist and Showman. Dawson incorrectly claims that Dickens didn't only write this article on Robert-Houdin; but also many other articles which have magic references in them. In reality Dickens didn't write any article directly about magic; although he wrote two or three about spiritualism. He had a particular dislike of Daniel Dunglas Home.


'Out-Conjuring Conjurers' was actually written by the Reverend Edmund Saul Dixon. If you read the article, it's in fact pretty boring: doesn't have any of the flair of Dickens' writing so prevalent in his own articles.

And there you have it. The errors and the corrections. I am so grateful that Mr. Keeble took the time to explain all this. If I had more time when writing my article and IF I had Ian's book in hand, which I don't have, I likely wouldn't have made as many of the mistakes.  One thing I can say is that information that appears in The Sphinx magazine is often wrong. I find this time and again when researching a particular subject. And because that info is wrong, much of what is in David Price's book is wrong. This then leads to a detour in the research, just to discover the correct information.  But we are all human, and we make mistakes. And frankly, I love the research, so even though the source material was incorrect, it was still great fun to work on. And It's nice when the record is corrected for future researchers, so thank you again Ian Keeble. 

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