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.

11 Facts About French Bulldogs

iStock/carolinemaryan
iStock/carolinemaryan

These cute little dogs are enjoying a serious comeback. Here’s the scoop on the fourth most popular dog breed in America. 

1. FRENCH BULLDOGS HAVE ROOTS IN ENGLAND.


iStock/malrok

The French bulldog’s origins are murky, but most sources trace their roots to English bulldogs. Lace makers in England were drawn to the toy version of the dog and would use the smaller pups as lap warmers while they worked. When the lace industry moved to France, they took their dogs with them. There, the English bulldogs probably bred with terriers to create bouledogues français, or French bulldogs. 

2. THEY WERE BRED TO BE GREAT COMPANIONS.

Frenchies are affectionate, friendly dogs that were bred to be companions. Although they’re somewhat slow to be housebroken, they get along well with other dogs and aren’t big barkers. The dogs don’t need much exercise, so they are fine in small areas and enjoy the safety of a crate.

3. THEY CAN'T SWIM.


iStock/ginastancel

As a result of their squat frame and bulbous head, French bulldogs can’t swim, so pool owners should keep a watchful eye on their pups. Keep in mind that if you plan a beach vacation, your furry friend might feel a little left out. 

4. FLYING IS A PROBLEM FOR THEM, TOO.

French Bulldogs are a brachycephalic breed, meaning they have shorter snouts than other dogs. These pushed-in faces can lead to a variety of breathing problems. This facial structure, coupled with high stress and uncomfortably warm temperatures, can lead to fatal situations for dogs with smaller snouts. Many breeds like bulldogs and pugs have perished while flying, so as a result, many airlines have banned them. 

Luckily there are special airlines just for pets, like Pet Jets. These companies will transport dogs with special needs on their own flights separate from their owners. There's a human on board to take care of any pups that get sick or panic. 

5. THEY MAKE GREAT BABYSITTERS.

When a baby orangutan named Malone was abandoned by his mother, the Twycross Zoo in England didn’t know if he would make it. Luckily, a 9-year-old French bulldog named Bugsy stepped in and took care of the little guy. The pair became fast friends and would even fall asleep together. When Malone was big enough, he joined the other orangutans at the zoo. 

6. THEY'RE SENSITIVE TO CRITICISM.

Frenchies are very sensitive, so they do not take criticism lightly. If you scold a French bulldog, it might take it very seriously and mope around the house. French bulldogs respond better to positive reinforcement and encouragement. 

7. THEY'RE A TALKATIVE BREED. 

French bulldogs might not bark much, but they do like to “talk.” Using a complex system of yawns, yips, and gargles, the dogs can convey the illusion of their own language. Sometimes they will even sing along with you in the car. 

8. THEY HAVE TWO STYLES OF EARS. 


iStock/IvonneW

Originally, French bulldogs had rose-shaped ears, similar to their larger relative, the English bulldog. English breeders much preferred the shape, but American breeders liked the unique bat ears. When a rose-eared bulldog was featured at the Westminster Kennel Club in 1897, American dog fanciers were very angry

9. THIS CONTROVERSY LED TO THE FORMATION OF THE FRENCH BULL DOG CLUB OF AMERICA.

The FBDCA was founded in protest of the rose-shaped ears. The organization threw its first specialty show in 1898 at New York City’s famed Waldorf-Astoria. The FBDCA website described the event: “amid palms, potted plants, rich rugs and soft divans. Hundreds of engraved invitations were sent out and the cream of New York society showed up. And, of course, rose-eared dogs were not welcomed.”

The somewhat catty efforts of the club led to the breed moving away from rose-shaped ears entirely. Today, French bulldogs feature the bat-shaped ears American breeders fought to showcase. 

10. MOST FRENCH BULLDOGS ARE BORN THROUGH ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION. 

Due to their unusual proportions, the dogs have a little trouble copulating. Males have a hard time reaching the females, and they often get overheated and exhausted when trying to get things going. As a result, a large majority of French bulldogs are created through artificial insemination. While this measure makes each litter of pups more expensive, it also allows breeders to check for potential problems during the process. 

French bulldogs often also have problems giving birth, so many must undergo a C-section. The operation ensures the dog will not have to weather too much stress and prevents future health complications.

11. CELEBRITIES LOVE FRENCHIES.

Frenchies make plenty of appearances in the tabloids. Celebrities like Lady Gaga, Hugh Jackman, and The Rock have all been seen frolicking with their French bulldogs. Even Leonardo DiCaprio has one—aptly named Django. Hugh Jackman’s Frenchie is named Dali, after the way the dog’s mouth curls like the famous artist’s mustache. 

This article originally ran in 2015.

12 Festive Facts About A Christmas Story

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Which Oscar-winning star wanted to play Ralphie Parker's dad? Which actor went on to have a seedy career in the adult film industry? Can you really get your tongue stuck to a metal pole? On the 35th anniversary of A Christmas Story's debut, here are a few tidbits about the holiday classic to tide you over until TNT's 24-hour Christmas marathon.

1. JACK NICHOLSON WAS INTERESTED IN PLAYING RALPHIE'S DAD.

Though Jack Nicholson was reportedly offered the role of The Old Man Parker, and interested, casting—and paying—him would have meant doubling the budget. But director Bob Clark, who didn't know Nicholson was interested, said Darren McGavin was the perfect choice for the role.

2. IT OWES A DEBT TO PORKY'S.

What does Porky's—a raunchy 1980s teen sex comedy—have to do with a wholesome film like A Christmas Story? Bob Clark directed both: Porky's in 1982 and A Christmas Story in 1983. If Porky's hadn't given him the professional and financial success he needed, he wouldn't have been able to bring A Christmas Story to the big screen.

3. RALPHIE SAYS HE WANTS A RED RYDER BB GUN A LOT.

For anyone keeping count, Ralphie says he wants the Red Ryder BB Gun 28 times throughout the course of the movie. That's approximately once every three minutes and 20 seconds.

4. THESE DAYS, PETER BILLINGSLEY SPENDS HIS TIME BEHIND THE CAMERA.

Peter Billingsley, a.k.a. Ralphie, has been good friends with Vince Vaughn since they both appeared in a CBS Schoolbreak Special together in the early 1990s. He doesn't do much acting these days, though he has popped up in cameos (including one in Elf, another holiday classic). Instead, Billingsley prefers to spend his time behind the camera as a director and producer. He has done a lot of work with Vaughn and Jon Favreau, including serving as an executive producer on Iron Man (in which he also made a cameo).

5. YES, YOU CAN GET YOUR TONGUE STUCK ON A PIECE OF COLD METAL.

Mythbusters tested whether it was possible to get your tongue truly stuck on a piece of cold metal. Guess what? It is. So don't triple dog dare your best friend to try it.

6. ONE OF THE YOUNG ACTORS MOVED ON TO A CAREER IN ADULT FILMS.

Scott Schwartz, who played Flick (the kid who stuck his tongue to the frozen flagpole), spent several years working in the adult film industry. In 2000, he turned his attention back to mainstream films. His most recent role was as "Disco City Hot Dog Vendor" in the 2017 TV movie Vape Warz.

7. RALPHIE'S HOUSE IS NOW A MUSEUM.

Next time you're in Cleveland, you can visit the original house from the movie. It was sold on eBay in 2004 for $150,000. Collector Brian Jones bought the house and restored it to its movie glory and stocked it up with some of the original props from the film, including Randy's snowsuit.

8. THE IDEA FOR THE FILM CAME TO BOB CLARK WHILE HE WAS DRIVING TO PICK UP A DATE.

Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, and Ian Petrella in A Christmas Story (1983)
Warner Home Video

Director Bob Clark got the idea for the movie when he was driving to pick up a date. He heard Jean Shepherd on the radio doing a reading of his short story collection, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which included some bits that eventually ended up in A Christmas Story. Clark said he drove around the block for an hour until the program ended (which his date was not too happy about).

9. IT PARTLY INSPIRED THE WONDER YEARS.

The Wonder Years was inspired in part by A Christmas Story. In fact, toward the very end of the series, Peter Billingsley even played one of Kevin Arnold's roommates.

10. YOU CAN STILL BUY A RED RYDER BB GUN.

The real Red Ryder BB Gun was first made in 1938 and was named after a comic strip cowboy. You can still buy it today for the low, low price of $39.99. But the original wasn't quite the same as the one in the movie; it lacked the compass and sundial that both the Jean Shepherd story and the movie call for. Special versions had to be made just for A Christmas Story.

11. THE LEG LAMP CAN ALSO BE YOURS.

Peter Billingsley and Melinda Dillon in A Christmas Story (1983)
Warner Home Video

While we're talking shopping: you know you want the leg lamp. Put it in your window! Be the envy of your neighbors! It's a Major Award! You can buy it on Amazon (there's a 40-inch version, as well as a 20-inch replica). If you're not feeling quite so flamboyant, they also make a nightlight version.

12. IT SPAWNED A TRIO OF SEQUELS.

A Christmas Story led to two little-talked-about sequels. The first one was a 1988 made-for-TV movie, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. Jerry O'Connell played 14-year-old Ralphie, who is excited about his first job—as a furniture mover. Of course, it ends up being awful, and it might make him miss the annual family vacation at Mr. Hopnoodle's lakeside cabins.

My Summer Story, a.k.a. It Runs in the Family, debuted on the big screen in 1994. Kieran Culkin plays Ralphie, Mary Steenburgen is his mom, and Charles Grodin is his dad.

And in 2012, the direct-to-video sequel A Christmas Story 2 picked up five years after the original movie left off, with Ralphie attempting to get his parents to buy him a car.

An earlier version of this story appeared in 2008.

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