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. 

Sunday, December 11, 2022

News on the Magic Detective Podcast

Season 5 of the Magic Detective Podcast is will underway. I'm actually on track for once. I expect to have two more podcasts in December which will put the total at 6 episodes, which is half as many as I did in Season 4. I only got at total of 12 out in Season 4. Season 3 wasn't much better with only 13. I'm really trying to get at least 20 episodes per season.  

The next episode is going to be a very special holiday episode, #86. Then the final episode for 2022 will be another broadcasting of a Radio Interview I did on the history of magic. This one I did back in October of this year. 

I'm really behind in some of my plans for the podcast. I had expected to have my t-shirts up and available by now, but that hasn't happened, and sadly may not. I've fallen behind on the contests, which were always popular in the past. And I have yet to get another interview done. So my total stands at ONE, lol. That interview was with my friend Judge Gary Brown who wrote the book on Al Flosso. It is the second most listened to podcast of the entire run. I don't want to have a LOT of interviews, but I do want to include some.

I have been asked a number of times if I plan to continue the podcast. I guess that's because I've had trouble getting out new episodes. The answer is yes. I have a master list of 200 potential subjects to cover on the podcast. I've already done 85 of them. BUT, I'm always adding to the list. For example, Episode 85 was Milbourne Christopher, who I had never put on the list, and I'm so glad I did! I'd say the unfinished podcasts stands around a constant 120, because I get some done and then I add some, so it sorta stays around the same number yet to get done. And right now, if I only do the remaining ones, I've still got 6 years left on this. That's probably longer than most podcasts stay around.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Strange Phenomenon of Photographing Ghosts


Photography began back in the 19th Century. I'm sure to folks of that time, it was as amazing to them as computers are to us. Photography of the 19th Century was very primitive by today's standards. It was due to this primitive technique that a Boston Jewelry Engraver named William Mumler, accidentally stumbled upon the ghostly image of a cousin who had died 12 years previously. This was in 1862. Mumler showed his photos to others. He swore that his process was legitimate and that these images were of authentic spirit images. As you might imagine, he created both believers and skeptics. The skeptics felt that what he was doing was some sort of trick. The believer felt they were seeing a ghostly image. 

Keep in mind, as we look upon these images today, we can tell how fake they are. But people of the 19th and early 20th centuries had nothing to compare it to. It's kind of like when a movie comes out with new special effects and we think about how great it is. But soon many movies use the same tech and we are then able to critic CGI and other methods.

Back in the late 1860s,  a NY Supreme Court Judge, upon seeing these so called Mumler Spirit Photos, went to NY with the intention of shutting Mumler down for fraud. But as it turned out, the gentleman, after seeing the process came away a believer!

In April of 1869, Mumler was brought to trial for Fraud. A major skeptic, and one who testified in the trial against William Mumler was P.T. Barnum, the great circus showman. Barnum took offense to this type of deception and worked feverishly against it. I guess not all humbug was the same in Barnum's world. And in fact, there was innocent humbug and offensive humbug, the latter was trying fool grieving people into believing they could talk to dead relatives. As it turned out, Mumler was acquitted of the charges.

But why was he acquitted of the charges if what he did was clearly fraud? Because, his methods were not so obvious. He had actually developed a system which would later become known as The Mumler Process. And this term was used outside of the spirit world. Mumler's process allowed for what is called 'photo-electrotype' plates. The best description comes from the book, The Apparitionist by Peter Manseau, "the Mumler process, as it was known, allowed printers to forgo the usual step of having a photographic plate copied by hand by an illustrator or wood engraver, revolutionizing the ability to reproduce images by the thousands." In other words, we have Mumler to credit for newspapers and magazines being able to print photographs rather than woodcuts or drawings. 

Mumlers most famous spirit photograph was taken in 1872. A woman, dressed in black, turned up at this studio. She was the widow of Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln. This particular photograph would be the last known photo taken of Mary Todd Lincoln, and would be Mumler's most iconic. Mary Todd was known to be a true believer in Spiritualism and remained so all her days. Her photo remains one of the better and spookier images to ever be produced.

Another individual who also stumbled upon a process for making spirit photos was William Hope from Cheshire England. He developed his first spirit photo in 1905. He soon started his own Spiritualist Church. His procedure was wrapped around saying prayers, singing hymns and then eventually taking the photos. Wrapping the whole thing in a religious ceremony would certainly make him different than many of the other photographers who took such photos.  Hope was so impressive with his photos, he fooled famed investigator and scientist William Crookes. Eventually, however his methods were exposed and he was revealed to be a fraud.

Spirit Photography has gone through its phases of popularity, as has Spiritualism. A few years after the Civil War, it was on the decline. But during and after WW1, Spiritualism began to rise again due to the number of deaths during the war. Families desperately wanted one last word with loved ones, and Spiritualism and mediums apparently offered this opportunity. In comes, Harry Houdini. And actually, it was during this time that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was involved as well. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and avid believer in Spiritualism. In Doyle's eyes this was another example of proof. Sir Arthur could be relied upon to be duped by just about anything. He was no Sherlock Holmes in real life.  In 1922, Doyle published a book called, The Case For Spirit Photography, complete with a cheesy Spirit Photo on the cover of the book.

Houdini on the other hand recognized fraud. In fact, he set up shop in his own home to be able to produce his own Spirit Photos.  I'll say for not being a professional photographer, Houdini's Spirit Photos are as good as any. A few of them, even better than the average. One of his most iconic, also utilized Abraham Lincoln. There are numerous versions of this one. In one he is holding a book and looking at Lincoln. In another, he has his wrists handcuffed. In yet another he has his hands tied. Strangely, Lincoln never changes his pose, but remains the same in every picture. By today's standards we can tell it's faked, but I'm sure it was impressive in his day. 

I think my favorite of the Houdini spirit photos is the one below. There is another that I like which is a close runner up, you'll find that one below this spooky one. Both of them were taken inside Houdini's home in Harlem. Of course, Houdini, being the great debunker, and including an expose of fake spirit mediums methods in show final show, helped to squash the fad of spirit photos. In 1924, Houdini wrote his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, which he systematically exposes the various characters and methods of the Spiritualism movement. The first photo in the book, is of Houdini and Conan Doyle. After the publication of the book, Doyle and Houdini's friendship came to an end. 

from the McCord Museum Collection