13 Fascinating Items From the History of Magic at the Conjuring Arts Library

Anna Green
Anna Green

Tucked away in the middle of a drab street in Midtown Manhattan, the Conjuring Arts Research Center holds more than 15,000 books, magazines, and artifacts related to magic and its allied arts, whether that means psychic phenomena, hypnosis, ventriloquism, or men who claim to vomit wine. Inside, posters and banners for Houdini and Alexander ("The Man Who Knows") compete with row after row of centuries-old books. Mental Floss visited recently and spoke to Executive Director William Kalush, who showed us some of the most interesting items the library has to offer.

1. HANDCUFFS OWNED BY HOUDINI

Handcuffs once owned by Houdini, now at the Conjuring Arts Library

These iron handcuffs were once part of Houdini's collection. They are reputed to have held Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, when he was hanged in 1882. Kalush is skeptical about that provenance, but says Houdini thought it was at least possible. (Houdini and Guiteau had a special connection: In 1906, the magician escaped from the Washington, D.C. jail that held Guiteau while he was awaiting execution.)

2. JOSEPH PINETTI BROADSIDE

A broadside devoted to magician Joseph Pinetti

One of the most celebrated magicians of the late 18th century, Joseph Pinetti was a former professor who sometimes presented his tricks as scientific experiments. Originally from Rome, he traveled all over Europe performing in flamboyant settings (he favored chandeliers and multiple changes of clothes), becoming particularly famous in Russia and France. This German broadside is from 1781, and Kalush says it's probably the earliest known broadside on the magician.

3. OPERA-NOVA

A Venetian pamphlet known as an Opera Nova at the Conjuring Arts Library

This unique Venetian pamphlet contains simple explanations of magic tricks, and would have once been sold door-to-door by a pamphleteer. Probably from around 1530, it's just one sheet of paper printed on both sides and folded twice, making eight little pages. "It's extremely rare to find examples of these kinds of pamphlets—they're almost never found in more than one example," Kalush says.

4. HOCUS POCUS JUNIOR: THE ANATOMY OF LEGERDEMAIN

Title page for Hocus pocus junior: The anatomie of legerdemain

This is an in-depth manual for magic originally written in 1634; the Conjuring Arts copy was printed about 20 years later. The title "Hocus Pocus Junior" is a reference to a famous early 17th-century performer named William Vincent, who used the stage name Hocus Pocus. "It's really just a play on words, like saying I'm the junior to his senior. William Vincent never wrote anything," Kalush explains. "But it's a wonderful book in English that's really a manual of how to do things. As opposed to the little pamphlet from Italy, it has really solid descriptions on methods. You could become a great magician just by reading Hocus Pocus Junior."

5. DECRETALS OF POPE BONIFACE VIII

The Decretals of Pope Boniface VIII

This 13th-century book of canon law (church law) included the decretals, or papal pronouncements, of Pope Boniface VIII—including laws against magic tricks. Though it was rare for such books to have illustrations, this one, printed in Venice in 1514, includes an image of a priest or monk doing the cups and balls trick. "The penalty [for doing magic tricks] was to lose your privileges and to be treated 'no better than a buffoon,'" Kalush says. "And the only other illustrated edition we've seen is from 1525, when the priest [performing cups and balls] has been demoted to buffoon, and is wearing a court jester-type outfit."

According to Kalush, Boniface VIII was particularly concerned about magic tricks because he'd used them to help secure the papacy, whispering the "word of God" through a long tube into his predecessor's ear to convince him to retire.

6. GIROLAMO SCOTTO MEDAL

A medal of magician Girolamo Scoto at the Conjuring Arts Library

Girolamo Scotto was an Italian entertainer, magician, and alchemist active in the last half of the 16th century who is said to have performed magic for Queen Elizabeth I, among other notables. This lead medal was produced from a wax sculpture by the famed Milanese sculptor Antonio Abondio toward the end of the 16th century. "In those days there were no such things as business cards, so he had this medal made," Kalush says. It was originally cast in various other metals too, including silver, bronze, and gold.

7. IL LABERINTO

Il Laberinto from Venice, 1607

This "mind-reading" book, printed in Venice in 1607, served as a prop for a trick in which the magician was able to guess an image chosen by the viewer and held in their mind (much like the familiar card trick). Another item the library holds—A Devotione Del Signore from Naples, 1617—is similar but uses religious iconography. "We suspect they used religious iconography because Naples was under Spanish rule, and closer to the Inquisition, than was Venice at that time," Kalush explains.

8. PICTAGORAS ARITHMETRICE INTRODUCTOR

Interior pages of Pictagoras Arithmetrice Introductor

Printed in 1491 in Florence, this work by mathematician Filippo Calandri was one of the first arithmetic books in the Italian language. As a treat, there were magic tricks in the back. "After you learned your arithmetic lessons, you were able to use those pages to do a little bit of mind-reading," Kalush says.

9. DIALOGO DI PIETRO ARETINO NEL QVALE SI PARLA DEL GIOCO CON MORALITA PIACEVOLE ("LE CARTE PARLANTI")

Le "Carte Parlanti"

This 1543 text, written by the noted satirist Pietro Aretino, is a dialogue between a deck of cards and a man who makes them. Meant simply as entertainment, "it talks about people who cheat, like a Spanish cheater who had a machine in his sleeve who would exchange good cards for bad cards, and other comments about card magic from the playing cards’ perspective," Kalush explains.

10. THE DISCOVERIE OF WITCHCRAFT

The discoverie of witchcraft

In 1584, a British justice of the peace named Reginald Scot published The discoverie of witchcraft, which argued that much of what appeared to be magic could be explained by sociological or psychological reasoning—or by simple sleight of hand. "It's not secular; he's not saying he doesn't believe it exists," Kalush says. "It's just that a lot of things that were being attributed to witchcraft are not." For example, Scot said that the guilt produced by those who denied funds to impoverished women may have led them to accuse those same women of dark, magical works. It's also the first important book of sleight of hand, according to Kalush, with substantial sections on coin magic, card magic, and other techniques that were popular at the time.

11. FALACIE OF THE GREAT WATER-DRINKER DISCOVERED

An interior illustration from the Falacie Of The Great Water-Drinker Discovered

This pamphlet from 1650 is about Floram Marchand, a man who would swallow gallons of water and then regurgitate it into a fountain, sometimes in multiple colors (he claimed it was wine, but in fact it was water dyed red with a Brazil nut solution). "It's quite interesting because it was written by Peedle and Cozbie [two English entrepreneurs], who learned the secret from the master, and as a thank-you they exposed the trick and published it," Kalush says.

12. EXPERT PLAYING CARDS

A photo of Expert Playing Cards arranged on a shelf at the Conjuring Arts Library

The Conjuring Arts Research Center, a non-profit, also runs the Expert Playing Card Company, devoted to producing high-quality playing cards. All proceeds benefit the 501(c)3. "Expert has produced hundreds of different custom-printed decks for many artists and magicians all over the world," Kalush says; recent examples include decks inspired by Greek mythology, Art Nouveau, Gothic architecture, and classical music.

13. GIBECIERE

Several copies of the magical journal Gibeciere, produced by the Conjuring Arts Research Center

The center has also been publishing their own scholarly journal, Gibeciere, since 2005. Its pages cover little-known details about famous historical magicians, tricks, devices, and manuscripts, with work from Spanish, Italian, French, German, and other languages translated in-house. "Many of the great magic historians have contributed," Kalush says. The journal is edited by Stephen Minch, who ran an "important magic publishing house for years that published some of the great books on magic."

The name Gibeciere is a reference to a type of bag medieval hunters would wear around their waists, later appropriated by magicians as a convenient place to keep their props. Minch choose the title, Kalush says, "since we hoped it would be a mixed bag of research and history."

All photos by Anna Green.

5 Actors Who Could Replace Henry Cavill as Superman in the DCEU

Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

by Mason Segall

Though no official statement has been made one way or the other, it appears that Henry Cavill might be leaving the role of Superman in the DCEU films. According to reports, contract negotiations between Cavill's representatives and Warner Bros. broke down after the Justice League actor wasn't able to cameo in Shazam! due to a scheduling conflict.

Fortunately, the internet has stepped in to voice its opinion on who could potentially take Cavill's coveted spot in the DCEU. Of all the actors whose names have been put forth, here are the five who are probably the most realistic.

5. OSCAR ISAAC

Actor Oscar Isaac.
Pascal Le Segretain, Getty Images

This one feels like a no-brainer. Over the last few years, Oscar Isaac has proven his range as an actor in Hollywood. His classic movie star good looks, intense performances, and smooth screen presence all make him a perfect candidate to embody the American icon on the big screen.

4. ARMIE HAMMER

Actor Armie Hammer.
Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb

People have been trying to shove Armie Hammer into a superhero movie ever since he became a household name—the man just looks like a hero, and has the acting chops to match. This could very well be his opportunity to realize the dreams of his legions of fans and take on the mantle of the Man of Tomorrow.

3. BRANDON ROUTH

Actor Brandon Routh.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

Brandon Routh already had a turn as ​Superman in the underappreciated Superman Returns, but he was playing what boiled down to an extension of the Christopher Reeve version of the character. If he were to replace Cavill, he could put his own spin on the hero while carrying over the classic feel of the Donner films, a magic Warner Bros. has been trying to recapture for the better part of 40 years.

2. MATT BOMER

Actor Matt Bomer.
Dia Dipasupil, Getty Images

If Warner Bros. wants to replace Cavill but keep his aesthetic and acting style, then Matt Bomer will almost certainly be their go-to guy. Not only does the Magic Mike actor bear an uncanny resemblance to Cavill, but he's already voiced Superman in an animated feature, giving him some experience with the role.

1. MICHAEL B. JORDAN

Actor Michael B. Jordan.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Essence

Michael B. Jordan is apparently already being considered for Cavill's replacement. Jordan cut his teeth on superhero movies by playing the fan-favorite villain Killmonger in the smash hit Black Panther to critical acclaim and has also been regarded as one of the best young actors in the industry today. If Warner Bros. can get him in a cape, they will.

14 Surprising Facts About Boardwalk Empire

HBO
HBO

Three long years after The Sopranos cut to black on HBO, the premium cable channel unveiled a real doozy for viewers still hankering for a good New Jersey gangster story.

Boardwalk Empire, created by former Sopranos writer and executive producer Terence Winter, was a lavish drama set in the freewheeling 1920s, while exposing the dark, seedy underbelly of the Prohibition era.

The TV series, which aired from 2010 to 2014, starred The Sopranos alum and Coen brothers mainstay Steve Buscemi as corrupt-politician-turned-bootlegging-murderer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. Throughout Boardwalk’s five seasons, audiences were transfixed as Buscemi’s Nucky slowly transformed himself from the colorful, glad-handing Atlantic City county treasurer into a cold, manipulative criminal.

But the show was always much more than just weekly kills and illegal deals; Winter and his colleagues used Boardwalk to also take a hard look at American society at the time. They didn’t shy away from the brutal African-American experience—or the mainstream acceptance of the Ku Klux Klan in a northern state like New Jersey. And while Boardwalk will never win any awards for female-centric casting (of the 21 actors who appeared in the opening titles, only four were women and two of them were gone after the second season), it regularly explored the severe social and financial limitations placed on women from 1920 through 1931.

Although it’s only been four years since Boardwalk had its last call, with Nucky paying the ultimate price for his decades of power-hungry greed, there is still much about this often-overlooked show that deserves to be celebrated. So turn on some hot jazz, raise a glass “To the Lost,” and check out some of these fascinating facts about Boardwalk Empire. Compared to the snooze that was Al Capone’s vault, our list is just the bee’s knees.

1. THE PILOT EPISODE OF BOARDWALK EMPIRE WAS DIRECTED BY MARTIN SCORSESE … AND TERENCE WINTER WAS EMBARRASSED TO GIVE HIM A NOTE.

When you have Hollywood royalty directing the first episode of your brand-new series, the last thing anyone wants to do is correct his work. But that’s exactly what creator/showrunner Terence Winter was forced to do when he noticed an egregious etiquette error during the shoot. Speaking on the season one DVD commentary for the Boardwalk Empire pilot, Winter recounted how Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody (Nucky’s protégé) was walking through a room full of women—with his hat on. The culture of the time (January 1920) dictated that a man would take off his hat when in the presence of ladies.

Winter needed to alert Scorsese, but the first assistant director told him, “No one’s ever given [Scorsese] a note before.”  The Wolf of Wall Street writer called what he did next “the longest walk of my life.” Fortunately, Scorsese—who has a little experience with period films—agreed with Winter’s change and the scene was reshot with Jimmy removing his hat.

2. STEVE BUSCEMI’S CHARACTER WAS BASED ON A REAL PERSON.

Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt in 'Boardwalk Empire'
HBO

Boardwalk Empire was populated by actual historical figures of the era; Stephen Graham’s Al Capone and Vincent Piazza’s Charlie “Lucky” Luciano were main characters for all five seasons. But when it came to his protagonist, Winter opted to fictionalize Atlantic City’s onetime political boss Nucky Johnson into “Nucky Thompson” for the sake of creative freedom. “If everybody is real, I can’t manipulate the story the way I want to,” Winter told NPR.

3. MICHAEL STUHLBARG SCHOOLED THE BOARDWALK WRITERS ON ARNOLD ROTHSTEIN.

Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water; Call Me By Your Name), who portrayed notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein for four seasons, had done so much research on his character that Winter brought him in to educate the show’s writers on the man. Per the Boardwalk pilot DVD commentary: “We realized we’ll never know as much as Michael did,” said Winter.

4. BOARDWALK EMPIRE GOT THE SESAME STREET TREATMENT.

Leave it to Sesame Street to turn a TV show about gruesome murders and backroom alcohol deals into a G-rated lesson about compromise. In “Birdwalk Empire,” a gang of ducks led by “Nucky Ducky” and “Mallard Capone” go up against a crew of hot-headed chickens led by “Clucky Luciano” in a fight for the birdwalk turf. Thanks to “Agent Van Cuckoo” (modeled after Michael Shannon’s shady federal official Nelson Van Alden, down to a spot-on recreation of Shannon’s signature baritone), the “bunch of flappers” figure out a way to enjoy their beachside stroll in harmony. If only the Boardwalk characters had taken a page from the birds’ playbook ... eh, never mind—if that had actually happened, the show would’ve ended a lot sooner than season five.

5. A SCENE FEATURING A KU KLUX KLAN MEETING WAS SHOT IN HARLEM, CAUSING A BIT OF TREPIDATION.

Boardwalk Empire takes place predominantly in Atlantic City, but most of its shooting locations were in the greater New York City area. So when Winter noticed that a major scene calling for a big Ku Klux Klan meeting in the season one episode “Anastasia” was scheduled to be shot in Harlem, he was “a little nervous.” As he recounted on the DVD commentary for the episode, “We were very careful to make sure no extras walked outside in a Klan costume ... I just had visions of this being in the paper the next day.”

6. THE INSPIRATION FOR RICHARD HARROW CAME FROM AN ARTICLE ABOUT A WOMAN WHO CREATED MASKS FOR DISFIGURED SOLDIERS.

Jack Huston in 'Boardwalk Empire'
HBO

About midway through Boardwalk’s first season, viewers were introduced to a character who, despite his talent for killing (he was a skilled sharpshooter), would become the series’ most tragic figure. Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) had returned from the Great War a shattered man, both on the outside and on the inside, his mangled face (rendered via CGI) now covered by an equally creepy tin mask. He was an excellent reminder of the horrors that had taken place on the battlefields of Europe only a few years earlier while the rest of the country had moved on. While Richard wasn’t based on anyone in particular, executive producer Howard Korder said in the season one DVD commentary for Boardwalk episode “Paris Green” that the inspiration for the character came from an article he read in Smithsonian Magazine about a Boston sculptress named Anna Coleman Watts Ladd. Ladd created lifelike masks that hid the returning soldiers’ facial disfigurements.

7. ONLY FIVE MAIN CHARACTERS WERE STILL ALIVE BY THE CONCLUSION OF BOARDWALK EMPIRE’S FINALE.

Unless you were a real-life mobster, Boardwalk Empire tended to view its characters as expendable—even Nucky Thompson (which, given Buscemi’s track record of dying onscreen, was inevitable). As Korder semi-joked in the season two Blu-Ray commentary for the episode “Gimcrack and Bunkum,” “Anyone can die unless they have a Wikipedia entry.” That meant that infamous criminals such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano—both of whom were main characters throughout the show’s entire run—were among the fortunate five to outlast Boardwalk’s 1931 expiration date. The other survivors were, justifiably, the three people Nucky had hurt the most: his estranged wife Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald), his resentful younger brother Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), and the permanently damaged Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol).

8. ALTHOUGH THE CHARACTER OF ESTHER RANDOLPH WAS FICTIONAL, HER BACKSTORY WAS THAT OF ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL MABEL WALKER WILLEBRANDT.

Julianne Nicholson in 'Boardwalk Empire'
Macall B. Polay, HBO

One of the coolest female characters to go head-to-head with Boardwalk’s boys’ club had to be Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson). Introduced in season two as Nucky’s formidable election-fraud case foe, this fictional prosecutor had a fascinating background drawn from the life of Assistant U.S. Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt. Like Willebrandt, Randolph had previously been a public defender in California who regularly represented prostitutes.

9. THE BEACH MATRON FINING ANGELA DARMODY’S SOON-TO-BE LOVER FOR SHOWING TOO MUCH LEG? THAT WAS A REAL THING.

In the season two episode “Two Boats and a Lifeguard,” Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino) witnesses a fellow female beachgoer get fined for what was then considered indecent exposure: not covering her legs with stockings. Not only were these modesty patrols a common sight at beaches during the 1920s (click here for a cringe-worthy photo of a male cop measuring a woman’s bare thigh), but according to this New York Times clipping, the Boardwalk scene in question was likely based on an actual incident: The year and location match up (Atlantic City, 1921), and the woman arrested was named Louise—just like Angela’s eventual new bedmate.

10. BOBBY CANNAVALE WAS THE SOLE CAST MEMBER TO SNAG AN ACTING EMMY FOR HIS SEASON THREE ARC.

Chris Caldovino, Bobby Cannavale, and Charlie Cox in 'Boardwalk Empire'
Macall B. Polay, HBO

Talk about making it count: Bobby Cannavale only appeared in a single season—as Nucky’s season three antagonist Gyp Rosetti—but managed to walk away with the series’ lone acting Emmy. After Cannavale’s monstrous character met a well-deserved death (stabbed in the back by one of his own men!), the Vinyl star took home the Outstanding Supporting Actor trophy in 2013. Despite its dearth of awards in the acting categories (the show did slightly better at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards), Boardwalk still wrapped its run with a total of 57 Emmy nominations and 20 wins.

11. THE SERIES’ TIME JUMP BETWEEN ITS PENULTIMATE AND FINAL SEASON WASN’T THE MOST SEAMLESS OF SHIFTS.

Following its fourth season, which took place in 1924, Boardwalk Empire’s story lines took a pretty hard turn: The fifth and final outing skipped ahead seven years to 1931, placing the series’ unscrupulous characters at the twilight of Prohibition. From a narrative perspective, this choice made sense, as Winter had wanted to finish the show at least close to the end of America’s questionable experiment with making alcohol illegal. What also likely contributed to this abrupt time change was HBO’s decision to cancel the series, along with a downsized eight-episode order for the final season (as opposed to the usual 12). For the most part, Winter wrapped up everyone’s story arc nicely—except for Stuhlbarg’s Rothstein. In reality, the legendary numbers fixer had the bad sense to die in 1928, putting Stuhlbarg out of a job for Boardwalk’s fifth season and turning the character into a footnote.

12. IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST EXPENSIVE SERIES EVER PRODUCED.

Michael K Williams in 'Boardwalk Empire'
HBO

Another possible reason for Boardwalk’s cancellation? Its hefty price tag. Between the period cars, a $2 million set of the 1920s-era Atlantic City boardwalk, and the extravagant wardrobes worn by both the men and the women (Michael Kenneth Williams’s Chalky White always had the best outfits, IMO), this was not a series that could be done on the cheap. The pilot episode alone was budgeted at a whopping $18 million, whereas average episodes reportedly cost an estimated $5 million each.

13. THAT SALACIOUS-SOUNDING DITTY BUGSY SIEGEL SANG AFTER BEING CAPTURED BY NUCKY IN SEASON FIVE’S PENULTIMATE EPISODE WAS NOT MADE UP FOR THE SHOW.

Before Michael Zegen garnered notices as Midge Maisel’s philandering Jewish husband in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, he was honing his philandering Jewish husband chops as aspiring gangster Benny “Bugsy” Siegel on Boardwalk Empire. In one of his more hilarious moments, Zegen’s Siegel, having been kidnapped by Nucky and tied to a chair, chose to annoy his captor by loudly crooning about “My Girl’s P*ssy.” Turns out Bugsy wasn’t just being obnoxious: He was singing a real tune from 1931.

14. IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE DAUGHTER MAITLAND’S HAUNTING, A CAPPELLA VERSION OF “RIVER OF JORDAN,” MARGOT BINGHAM INSISTED ON RECORDING THE SONG ON SET, RATHER THAN IN THE STUDIO.

As she told Rolling Stone, Margot Bingham (Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It), who joined Boardwalk Empire in season four as tortured blues singer Daughter Maitland, “fought” against recording her evocative rendition of “River of Jordan” in a studio. Because Daughter initially sings the traditional tune while riding in a car (the extended version of the track played over the closing credits) during the episode “White Horse Pike,” Bingham didn’t see the sense in going into the studio, where all of the raw elements of her performance would be scrubbed away.

“The sound department was like, ‘We’re going to pick up feed,’” said Bingham. “I totally understood that, but at the same time [I figured], ‘If I’m going to be singing it in a car then I should stay consistent to the song.’” Bingham’s argument won out: “I sat in the car, and they closed down the whole set and everyone was super-quiet and we just had the microphone and boom come in and we recorded it there.”

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