Harry Houdini and David Blaine may be household names, but their success has been built on the shoulders of magicians who haven’t received much recognition. The “celebrity magician,” after all, is a recent phenomenon: For centuries, illusionists and escape artists were impugned as low-lifes (at best!) and criminals (at worst). But none of that would stop these magic-makers, who slowly helped pave the way for our modern superstars. From mythical sorcerers to skeptical writers, here are some of the most influential magicians in history.
Djedi: History’s Most Captivating Decapitator
An Egyptian magician who purportedly lived 4700 years ago, Djedi may have been history’s first illusionist. According to the Westcar Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian text, Djedi could magically remove — and reattach! — the heads of living animals: Geese, waterfowl, and even bulls. (Centuries later, David Blaine would re-enact the stunt with a chicken.) Historians, however, caution that the magician’s greatest trick was fooling us to believe he existed: Djedi might be a work of fiction.
Belshazzar’s Incompetent Magicians: The Reason There’s Writing on the Wall
The Bible contains dozens of references to sorcerers, necromancers, and conjurers. In the First Book of Samuel, the Witch of Endor summons the spirit of a prophet. In the apocrypha, Simon Magus is able to levitate and even fly. But one of the most famous references to magicians appears in the tale of King Belshazzar’s Feast. As the story goes, the King was enjoying an opulent meal when a hand mystically appeared and began to write a cryptic message on a nearby wall, spelling out his doom. A panicked Belshazzar asked his magicians to interpret the message — but the magicians failed, and Belshazzar soon died. The scene is now immortalized in the idiom: “To see the writing on the wall.”
Luca Pacioli: The Accountant Who Could Breathe Fire
An Italian mathematician and friar who lived in the 15th century, Luca Pacioli is widely considered the “Father of Accounting.” But his skills expanded beyond bookkeeping: He’s also one of the earliest writers on the art of magic. His unpublished 1508 book De Viribus Quantitatis discusses an array of magic tricks: how to make an “egg walk over a table,” how to make a “cooked chicken jump on the table,” and how to “make a snow torch that burns.” He’s also the first to discuss various card tricks, coin tricks, and fire-eating techniques.
Reginald Scot: The Skeptic Who Debunked Witchcraft
Many modern magicians will hide their secrets at all costs. Others, such as James Randi, a retired magician and co-founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, delight in giving them away — usually in an effort to teach audiences a lesson about science and superstition. But Randi is nothing new; these skeptics have been around for centuries. In the 16th century, as countless people were being prosecuted for witchcraft, one skeptical Englishman named Reginald Scot decided to investigate the charges. His 1584 book The Discoverie of Witchcraft debunked paranormal explanations of witchery through reason, logic, and religion. The exposé is among the first books to explain the art of conjuring, and Scot's work was said to have been a big influence on a number of Shakespeare's stories.
Ching Ling Foo: America’s First Chinese Superstar
The first Chinese performer to hit it big in America, Ching Ling Foo’s performances in 1899 routinely packed the house and made him a superstar. An expert in traditional Chinese illusions, Foo could throw a shawl into the air and — as it settled to the ground — conjure large objects out of thin air. Unfortunately, Foo would be the victim of a racist scam. An American magician named William Robinson stole Foo’s act, dressed in yellowface, called himself “Chung Ling Soo,” and billed himself as Foo’s competitor: “The Original Chinese Conjurer.” The two magicians would feud for the rest of their lives .
Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin: The Clockmaker with Magic Hands
A French clockmaker, Robert-Houdin developed fine-motor skills fixing cogs and gears in his family’s shop — and then began using them to learn sleight-of-hand tricks. He used this know-how to build androids and other mechanical wonders, which helped him build audiences in the mid-19th century. It wasn’t long before Robert-Houdin was performing conjuring acts for mass audiences. Today, Robert-Houdin is widely recognized as the father of modern magic, having transformed it from a low-class artform to something the theater-going wealthy could enjoy. He’d also inspire a young Ehrich Weiss, a Hungarian-American escapologist who you might know by a different name — Harry Houdini.
Alexander and Adelaide Herrmann: Magicians with a Funny Bone
Few people have shaped our definition of a magician more than Alexander Herrmann. Called “Herrmann the Great,” the Victorian-era Frenchman was one of the first people to pull a live rabbit out of a hat. But Hermman’s most important contribution to modern magic was his performing style: He was one of the first magicians to make a comedy routine central to his performance. His wife, Adelaide, was no slouch, either. Called the “Queen of Magic,” she’s believed to be the first woman to ever perform the dreaded “bullet catch trick,” and she continued to tour internationally for another 25 years after Alexander’s death.
Jasper Maskelyne: The Illusionist Who Deceived the Nazis
Every magician, at his or her core, is a master of deception. But when Jasper Maskelyne moved his act from the stage to the theater of war, his deception skills were used to save lives. During World War II, Maskelyne joined the British military and used his knowledge as an illusionist to trick the Nazis. His team took camouflage to a new level, creating deceptive decoys to trick enemy fighter pilots: fake harbors filled with phony boats and dazzling light-displays that, from above, looked like cities. The illusions reportedly caused the enemy to waste tons of ammunition.
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