From The London Magazine, December 1904
CONJURING AT HOME.
EVERYONE HIS OWN PROFESSOR OF LEGERDEMAIN.
By PHILIP ASTOR.
ONE of the first impressions produced by a conjuring performance upon the youthful mind—and sometimes upon the middle-aged one also—is an ardent desire to be able to perform the tricks one's self. There is something infectious about the whole business of conjuring, and the average boy would rather be an accomplished exponent of sleight of hand than the most brilliant actor that ever trod the boards. Probably it is the air of mystery that hangs about the performance which is mainly accountable for this.
To assist the budding prestidigitateur numerous books and articles have been published from time to time, explaining, more or less clearly, how the feats are performed. But in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the person who tries to perform the feats discovers that his attempts only result in dismal failure. Even if he succeeds in front of a looking-glass, he comes woefully to grief when faced by an inquisitive and critical audience. The fact is that most conjuring tricks can only be acquired as the result of long and patient practice extending in some cases over several years. This is especially true of those feats which depend upon manual dexterity rather than upon apparatus; and it is the fashion nowadays to use as little and as simple apparatus as possible.
Luckily for the amateur, however, many of the feats which in their genuine form depend almost wholly upon dexterous palming and other digital manipulation, can be successfully imitated by mechanical means; and the object of the present article is to introduce the reader to sundry little "dodges" by means of which, with very little practice, he can successfully mystify his friends and gain the reputation of being a conjurer of no mean quality.
Most people have seen the feat—sometimes known by the name of "The Miser's Dream"—in which the entertainer appears to catch gold coins falling through the air, or to take them from all manner of unlikely places, and drop them into a hat, until quite a number have been accumulated. Ordinarily this is done by having several coins neatly palmed in the hand for production when required.
Some little time ago an American conjurer, performing at some of the leading variety theatres in the metropolis, introduced a novel feature when exhibiting this trick. He repeatedly showed both the front and back of his hand, and convinced everyone that he had nothing concealed, and yet at any moment a coin was somehow produced at the tips of the fingers. This feat was performed by what is now known as the back palm, the coin being transferred from the back to the front of the hand and back again, so that it was never on the side next to the audience.
This is one of the most difficult feats of sleight of hand, and can only be attained at the cost of long practice. It is quite useless for the amateur to attempt it unless he is prepared to practise daily for many months. The trick can, however, be accomplished by means of two or three simple contrivances which we proceed to describe.
The first of them is probably the most successful. A ring of fine hair-like wire is hinged to the back of the coin so that it lies flat upon it and cannot readily be seen. The performer takes up this coin between his first finger and thumb, and in doing so slips the tip of the second finger into the ring. He then passes the coin between the first and second fingers, and it lies snugly concealed on the back of the hand, so that the palm can be shown quite empty. By reversing the movement the coin falls into the palm, and the back of the hand can be shown, while at any moment the ring can be slipped off and the coin produced at the finger tips, thus successfully producing the same effect as the skilled conjurer does with an unprepared coin. The wire ring is so fine that it is quite invisible at a short distance; but if desired it can be painted flesh colour.
This feat can also be accomplished by means of a little device known in the profession as "The Spider," which has the advantage that it will palm two or three coins at a time, and can also be used for a variety of other purposes. It is not very easy to describe, but our illustrations will help to make the matter clear. It consists of a little metal holder with a clip to retain the coins. This is attached to a couple of wires ending in semi-circular clips, which are held between the first and second and the third and fourth fingers, and are quite invisible to the audience. The holder revolves freely, after the fashion of a wheel on its axle. In performing the trick the holder lies flat on the back of the hand while the palm is shown to be empty; but in the act of turning the hand over, the conjurer bends his second and third fingers and presses the knuckles backwards against the holder, which turns over as he straightens his fingers again. It is now in the palm of the hand, and the back can be exhibited to the audience. This can be repeated again and again with almost lightning rapidity, and everyone is convinced that the hand is empty, when, with a slight touch of the thumb, the conjurer can cause one of the coins to slip out of the clip and appear at the tips of the fingers, greatly to the amazement of the beholders.
By a slight modification of this trick a fine silk handkerchief can be palmed. In this case it is pressed into a tiny tube which takes the place of the clip that held the coins. By attaching a small india-rubber cup to this contrivance a billiard ball can be palmed and held in exactly the same manner as the coins were.
Returning to the trick called "The Misers Dream," or "The Aerial Treasure," it may occur to the reader that while the device we have described will serve to produce two or three coins, it will fail to produce the perfect shower of coins that the trick demands. It will be remembered that each coin is thrown by the conjurer into a silk hat, and the accumulated wealth is presently exhibited to the audience. This can be very simply imitated by means of the coin with the ring attached to it. The coin having been produced in the manner already described, is apparently thrown into the hat, where it falls with a chink amongst the others. In reality it never leaves the conjurer's hand at all, but is simply slipped behind the fingers so that the hand is seen empty. The coin which falls into the hat comes from a little box, somewhat like the familiar sovereign purse, which is hooked just inside the edge of the hat, and is concealed by the performer's left hand. As he makes the motion of tossing the coin into the hat with his right hand, he slips a coin out of the holder with the first finger of the left, and this being heard to fall upon the others completes the illusion. The movement is repeated, until all the coins have left the holder, which remains in the conjurer's left hand as he gives the hat to one of the spectators with a request that he will kindly count the coins.
One of the most startling feats that can be performed without elaborate apparatus may be called "The Growing Billiard Ball." The performer, having shown both hands apparently empty, produces a billiard ball from one of them. Holding this between his finger and thumb, three others promptly appear between the tips of the other fingers, so that four full-sized billiard balls have apparently been evolved from empty space. The trick is, however, one of the simplest, and can be performed with very little practice.
The first ball is produced by means of "The Spider," already described. It is then handed to the audience, in order that they may convince themselves as to its genuineness, and while they are doing this, it is just as well to get rid of "The Spider," which can easily be slipped off in the pocket or behind the table. In receiving the ball back again, the performer slips over it a thin, half shell of the same colour, which is quite unnoticeable by the audience. Holding the shell with the solid ball inside between the finger and thumb, the middle finger is bent down and the solid ball clipped between it and the first finger. It is then quickly raised, and two balls are in the performer's hand! While this is being done with the left hand, upon which the eyes of the spectators are riveted, the conjurer has, with his right hand, taken a second billiard ball out of his pocket, or, better still, from under the bottom of his waistcoat, and his next proceeding is to show that the balls already held in the left hand are solid. In order to do this, he takes the genuine ball from between the first and middle fingers, and, in doing so, slips ball number two into the shell. He then knocks the two together and proves their genuineness. The ball in the right hand is now replaced in the left, but between the second and third fingers. This leaves the first and middle fingers free to repeat the movement above described, and to take ball number two out of its shell, when he appears to have three balls in the hand.
By this time, another ball has been taken out of the pocket with the right hand, and by a repetition of the previous movements, four balls are produced; or, instead of using a third solid ball, a second shell may be slipped over one of the balls and used as at first. Billiard balls with shells of this kind can be obtained for a small price of all the principal dealers in conjuring apparatus.
The supernumerary finger is a tricky little apparatus by means of which a silk handkerchief, flag, or any other object capable of being packed into a small compass, can be produced in a very mystifying manner. The performer draws back his sleeves—which, by the way, is an almost certain sign that he has something concealed in his hands—and shows both palms and backs of his hands apparently empty. He then brings his hands together without in any way approaching his body, and immediately a silk handkerchief appears between his fingers. Our illustration explains clearly enough how this is done, and it will at once be seen that the right hand has one more than the usual number of fingers. But, oddly enough, this is hardly ever detected by the audience, provided that the conjurer is careful to keep his hand in motion.
The extra finger is literally a hollow sham, and is stuffed with a silk handkerchief. When the hands are brought together, this finger is reversed, and the handkerchief slowly pulled out. Simple as this appears, it is a most valuable contrivance; and a well-known conjurer of our acquaintance has constantly used it for a great number of years, and in no single instance has it ever been detected.
Any number of effective tricks of apparent sleight of hand can be performed by means of a pack of what are known as Biseauté cards, which can be obtained from all dealers in conjuring apparatus. These cards have a slight paring taken off the sides, so as to make them a little wider at one end than at the other. Before commencing the trick, the performer arranges the pack so that the wide ends are all together. He then presents the cards, holding them fan shape, to a person and requests him to take one, at the same time calling attention to the fact that he gives him a perfectly free choice which, unlike most conjurers' statements, happens to be quite true. The person, having selected a card, is requested to note what it is, but without showing it to the conjurer, and then to replace it anywhere in the pack. The cards are now unmistakably shuffled, and yet the performer is able to instantly produce the card selected.
The trick is performed in this way. When the person has selected a card, the conjurer takes care to reverse the pack before presenting it for the card to be returned. Thus the card is placed with its wide end at the narrow end of the pack, and it will be seen that, however much the pack may be shuffled, the card in question can be instantly detected and drawn out, even though the performer be blindfolded.
The reader's ingenuity will suggest to him many ways in which a pack of Biseauté cards can be used in the performance of tricks; and we may add in passing, that packs of this description are not infrequently used by sharpers, who are thus easily able to pick out the court cards.
A very effective trick, which is more in the nature of a feat of juggling than of sleight of hand, is often exhibited by conjurers by way of introduction to the usual card tricks. Taking a pack of cards in his hands, the performer proceeds to manipulate them in such a way as to produce the most brilliant effects; opening and shutting them like a concertina, making them form a semi-circle in the air, then pouring them, from one hand into another in a continuous stream, or making them run up the arm in an even row. Some jugglers can perform this trick in bona fide fashion with a new pack of cards, but in the majority of cases the thing is a pure deception, and can be done by anyone who knows the secret. The cards are simply fastened together with fine thread!
The most effective way of performing this trick is to first exhibit other feats with an ordinary pack of cards, and then to secretly substitute the prepared ones. The spectators, not knowing that the cards have been changed, will be greatly impressed with the marvellous dexterity of the performer!
Not long ago one of our leading conjurers invented a trick known as "The Flying Birdcage," which at the time produced an enormous sensation. Holding a solid bird-cage containing a canary in his hands, he came down in the midst of the audience, and while surrounded by them the cage and bird suddenly vanished. So clever was the trick that even those who knew how it was done could not see it go. The cage was not covered or concealed in any way; it simply rested upon the performer's right hand, and under the very eyes of the spectators vanished like a flash.
Like most effective feats of conjuring, this trick is a very simple one. The framework and wires of which the cage is constructed are all hinged at both ends so that the slightest pressure with the right hand will cause it to instantly collapse and close up. At one of the bottom corners of the cage, concealed by the performer's hand, is a ring, to which is attached a strong cord. This runs up the right sleeve, across the back and down the left arm, where it is tied just above the wrist. When the cage is held in the right hand this, cord is quite taut. When ready to make the cage vanish, the conjurer suddenly closes it by the pressure of the right hand, and at, the same moment extends both his arms to their fullest extent, thus causing the cage to vanish up the right sleeve.
This is a most startling trick, but it is hard lines on the canary, which more often than not is killed by the closing of the cage. Many performers use a stuffed bird mounted on springs, while others prefer the cage empty.
While on the subject of vanishing articles, the feat known as "The Flying Glass of Water" deserves description, as it is at the same time very effective and quite within the capacity of the amateur. Taking an ordinary tumbler, the conjurer fills it with water from a jug and covers it with a pocket handkerchief. He then gives the handkerchief a shake and the glass is seen to have vanished. The performer next turns slightly round, and at once produces the glass, still full of water, from his coat-tail pocket.
Now for the explanation. After filling the glass with water, he holds it for a moment in the same hand that contains the jug, while with the other he takes up a handkerchief from the table. This latter has sewn into the centre a thin metal ring exactly the same size as the top of the glass, and when covering the glass this ring rests upon its edge. When the glass covered by the handkerchief is apparently taken in the right hand, it is really the ring that is grasped, and the glass under cover of the handkerchief drops into the jug, which is lined with an indiarubber bag to prevent sound. The jug containing the glass is now placed on the table, and the performer holding the ring still apparently has the glass under the handkerchief. A sudden shake of the latter has the effect of causing the disappearance of the glass. In the coattail pocket a duplicate glass of water is concealed, the top of which is covered with an indiarubber cap to prevent the contents spilling. When the performer puts his hand into his pocket he has only to slip the cover off before producing the glass brimming full of water.
Taking the glass of water used in the last trick, one can perform a very pretty little feat with a billiard ball. After examination by the audience, the performer covers the ball with a handkerchief, which he holds over the glass. He then releases the ball, which is heard to fall into the glass of water; but on instantly removing the handkerchief the ball has completely vanished.
The secret lies in the use of a half shell of thin glass, which fits accurately on the ball. This is slipped on by the conjurer when he receives the ball back from the audience; and as it is quite transparent, its presence cannot be detected. Under cover of the handkerchief the ball is removed, leaving only the glass shell convex side upwards. This looks exactly like the solid ball as the handkerchief falls round it. When the ball is apparently dropped into the glass, it is the shell that falls with a splash into the water, and on removing the handkerchief the ball is seen to have vanished, as the glass shell is quite invisible in the water at two or three yards distance.
The last trick that we shall describe is a favourite with many conjurers, who perform it purely by sleight of hand. But the amateur can produce the same effect without much practice by using a simple little device.
A soup plate after being shown empty is inverted the table. The performer then takes two or three small silk handkerchiefs and rolls them up in his hands, upon which they completely disappear; but on lifting the soup plate they are found underneath it.
The method that we recommend for working this trick is as follows. In the first place the soup plate has a false bottom, and under this are concealed a set of duplicate handkerchiefs. When showing the plate to the audience the performer is careful to hold the false bottom in its place, but upon inverting it on the table this at once drops and releases the concealed handkerchiefs. Needless to say, the inner side of the false bottom is covered with material to exactly match the tablecloth, so that it is not seen when the handkerchiefs are removed. The first set of handkerchiefs are then taken in the hands, and under cover of them a little box shaped like the heel of a boot is picked up. The performer now waves his hands up and down, carefully working the handkerchiefs into the box, and as soon as they are concealed in it, the box itself is slipped over the back of the hand, to which it sticks, as it has been previously well waxed. The performer now separates his hands, showing them empty, but being careful to hold the hand with the box in such a position that only the palm is seen by the audience. At the same moment, with the other hand he lifts the plate and discloses the duplicate handkerchiefs.
It need hardly be said that half the secret of successful conjuring lies in the possession of absolutely perfect sang froid on the part of the aspiring performer, and in the use of plenty of effective and amusing "patter." The average amateur fails from a want of ability in this direction far more often than from lack of manual dexterity. The nervous performer rarely, if ever, becomes a successful prestidigitateur.
We are indebted to the courtesy of Mr. Henry Bate, of Hove, Sussex, who has had many years' experience as a practical conjurer and manufacturer of conjurers' requisites, for facilities for obtaining the information and photographs contained in this article.