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7 Epic Magician Rivalries

In the 2006 film The Prestige, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale portray magicians in 19th-century London who go to great lengths to outdo one another on stage. While that was a fictional tale, it was undoubtedly inspired in part by the very real rivalries that have existed in the conjuring arts for centuries. Take a look at seven feuds where one party hoped the other could be made to just disappear.

1. HOUDINI VS. CIRNOC

In August 1900, legendary escape artist Harry Houdini began a two-week run at London’s famed Alhambra Theatre. Just minutes into his first show, a magician known as Cirnoc bellowed from the audience that he, not Houdini, was the “original” king of handcuff escapes. Fearing he might lose his audience to the publicity-seeking Cirnoc, Houdini made a quick escape from a notoriously difficult pair of handcuffs that didn’t allow the wearer to reach the keyhole. He then challenged Cirnoc to do the same, offering him $500 if he succeeded.

The upstart failed, and he was sheepishly forced to acknowledge Houdini’s superiority before leaving the stage. Cirnoc, whose real name was Paul Conrich, died just three years later.

2. TELLER VS. DOGGE

While magic tricks themselves aren’t subject to copyright—one could, for example, make a train disappear without having to pay David Copperfield royalties—the presentation, or pantomime portion of the performance, can be. That was the argument offered by Raymond Teller, the otherwise silent partner of Penn Jillette, when a Belgian magician named Gerard Dogge promised to reveal how one of Teller’s trademark illusions was done. In the piece, which Teller titled Shadows, he clips the leaves and petals of a rose seen in shadow on a screen; the real rose casting the shadow has the exact same pieces fall to the ground.

When Dogge posted a YouTube video insisting he knew how to do the trick and would reveal it to anyone with $3050 to spare, Teller began a years-long pursuit of copyright infringement. He hired private detectives to find Dogge so he could be served with court papers; when that failed, he emailed them to Dogge and convinced a judge that Dogge had seen them. In 2014, the judge ordered a permanent injunction against Dogge and fined him $545,000.

3. GOLDIN VS. SELBIT

In 1921, P. T. Selbit made magic history by introducing his Sawing Through a Woman illusion. In it, Selbit appeared to pass sheets of glass and eventually a hand saw through the torso of his boxed-in assistant, shocking audiences before revealing no actual harm had come to her. The trick was so potent that another magician, Horace Goldin, decided to build on it by placing his assistant in a box, leaving her head and feet exposed, and then separating the two halves. The two magicians began an onstage rivalry, upping the drama quotient—Selbit had blood running from the stage, while Goldin had ambulances on standby in case the trick failed—and tried their best to sabotage one another’s booked dates in various parts of the country. Goldin eventually became more recognized for the trick, which he later updated to include a giant buzz saw and a woman appearing fully visible on a table.

4. KELLAR VS. HERRMANN

Harry Kellar was no great showman—thick of fingers, he could be downright clumsy—but had exceptional taste in large-scale magic tricks. In 1884, he was concerned that a rival named Alex Herrmann could upstage him in markets where both had engagements. In addition to having a better stage presence, he feared Herrmann was trying to lure away one of his assistants, a clown and juggler named D’Alvini. By the 1890s, the two had resorted to papering over one another’s promotional posters. Both men enjoyed success, but it was Kellar whom Harry Houdini credited as being the greatest influence on his career.

5. FOO VS. SOO

Renowned Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo had success traveling the world with his act, but was surprised to find that his arrival in England in 1904 had been preceded by an imposter: "Chung Ling Soo" was the stage name of William Robinson, an American who had audaciously pretended to be Asian. While both were performing in London, Foo challenged Soo to a magic duel where Soo would have to successfully perform at least 10 of 20 chosen tricks. Soo (a.k.a. Robinson) performed the following day for newspapermen, but Foo declined to appear, insisting Soo first provide proof of his Chinese heritage. Most of Foo’s protests went unheard: Soo had been there first, and his persona was so convincing that many believed it was Foo who was the inauthentic one.

The American upstart’s career was derailed for good in 1918, when he died while unsuccessfully performing the “bullet catch” trick on stage.

6. RANDI VS. GELLER

Robert Sheaffer, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

A stage magician-turned-skeptic, James Randi has spent decades taking aim at those who present sleight-of-hand tricks as paranormal ability. One of his most famous rivalries came as a result of mentalist Uri Geller’s appearances on national television: Geller professed to be able to bend spoons and repair broken watches with his mental powers. Randi began a years-long pursuit of Geller, challenging him to reproduce his efforts in a controlled setting for a cash reward and even advising talk show host Johnny Carson not to let Geller near the silverware he planned on influencing before a Tonight Show segment. When Geller failed to bend anything with Carson supervising, Randi thought that might be the end of his popularity. Instead, some people assumed Geller's abilities must be genuine, as no magician would have failed in such a spectacular way. According to The New York Times, Geller and Randi sparred for decades via media appearances and lawsuits without ever burying the hatchet.

7. COPPERFIELD VS. ANGEL

Possibly the two most famous magicians of the past quarter-century, David Copperfield and Criss Angel don’t appear to be bonding over their common interest of misdirection. Angel has repeatedly taken Copperfield to task for what he alleges is Copperfield “buying” Twitter followers and failing to follow up on promises to donate to charitable causes. Angel also appeared irked that some media outlets reported Copperfield was the highest-paid illusionist in the world.

Copperfield appears to have taken the high road, doing little to respond to Angel’s accusations aside from retweeting a Forbes profile crediting him as the top-earning magician. Copperfield can probably take solace in the fact that he was once named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, an honor that has yet to be bestowed upon any other magician.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

man-shaped tea infuser
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That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

Buy on Live Infused.

18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

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