Anna Green
Anna Green

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.

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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