Tag Archives: Abbott Project

Review ~ The Witch of Lime Street

This book was provided to me by Crown Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Cover via Goodreads

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.

Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery’s powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee.

David Jaher’s extraordinary debut culminates in the showdown between Houdini, a relentless unmasker of charlatans, and Margery, the nation’s most credible spirit medium. (via Goodreads)

This book covers a lot of ground.

It begins with Arthur Conan Doyle’s conversion to spiritualism after the deaths of several family members before, during, and after World War I. In a way, Jaher sees Doyle as a prototypical convert for the time: a previously semi-religious man who finds solace in a new belief system that emphasizes life after death. Doyle has a run-in with the prototype from the extreme other end of the spectrum, the zealous skeptic Harry Houdini, but remains unchanged. Houdini’s militant debunking, on the other hand, was due to the frauds he found in the wake of his mother’s death.

The second portion of The Witch of Lime Street is about the formation of the American Society for Psychical Research and Scientific American‘s contest. By the late 1910s and early 1920s, it seemed that spiritualism might provide scientific proof of the afterlife and Scientific American was covering some forms of mediumship under the guise of theory. Partly to put the issue to rest and partly as a publicity device, the magazine offered $2500 to any medium that could produce phenomena under controlled circumstances. Jaher details the members of SA‘s control and judging committee (which includes Houdini) and outlines the early contenders for the prize. We also meet Mina (or, later Margery) Crandon, a beautiful socialite who begins to channel her dead brother Walter after her husband takes an interest in spiritualism. It isn’t really until the halfway point of the book that we get to Mina’s tests and the committee’s experiences with her.

This is a very well researched book. I knew the basics of the Margery/Houdini kerfuffle, but few of the details. The Witch of Lime Street is full of details. There are in fact many, many names and many, many sittings with Margery. There are passages and phrases that seem repetitive. (Since I was reading an uncorrected proof, I wonder if some of that changed in the final publication.) While mostly presented chronologically, some details of certain people’s background are held back and only brought out when especially sensational in terms of the rest of the story. All in all, though, Jaher is fairly neutral in his treatment of all parties involved.

Publishing info, my copy: ARC/Uncorrected Proof, Crown Publishers, 2015
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: Nonfiction

#15in31 ~ Three Short Reviews

I will be honest: I might be attempting #15in31—reading 15 books in the 31 days of October—but I’m going to be choosing some short works. My reviews? Maybe as short.

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A multiple exposure picture (by photographer Dickenson Alley) of Tesla sitting in his laboratory in 1899.

My Inventions by Nikola Tesla ~ Nikola Tesla is one of the most famous and most innovative inventors of the 19th and 20th centuries. A lot has been written about him (one of my favorite books of 2014 was Bernard W. Carlson’s biography), but I hadn’t realized that Tesla himself had written about his life. My Inventions is a collection of articles that were originally published in Electrical Experimenter magazine in 1919 when Tesla was 63 years old.

Tesla is actually pretty readable. Well, at least I thought so, but I *am* used to the company of engineers. These articles were also much more about the inventing than the inventions. Tesla does think very highly of himself, obviously with good reason most of the time, but somewhat incongruously at other times. For example, knowing how wildly over-budget some of his later projects were, I’m skeptical of his claim that he was able to perfectly design an apparatus in his head, without the need for testing.

My Inventions by Nikola Tesla is available online for free!

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Left: An older Joseffy with Balsamo, the Talking Skull.
Right: An illustration from the book – Joseffy performing a not entirely accurate Rising Card trick.

The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy by David P. Abbott ~ I got in the mood to read Tesla because I was in the mood to read about Joseffy. Joseph Freud, known by the stage name Joseffy, was a magician and mechanician in the early 20th century. He too was an inventor, not on the level of Tesla, but with a number of patent to his name outside of being a wonder-worker on stage. Published in 1908, The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy is a short treatise on the magician’s signature tricks written by David P. Abbott. It’s an outlier in the world of magic books. It describes the tricks without exposing them. (Most magic books of the era, written by magicians, did explain the methods behind tricks. Fellow magicians have to learn their craft somehow!)  Additionally, the book is illustrated with photographs, but they are slight exaggerations of the actual tricks and sometimes don’t really match Abbott’s descriptions. It’ss a level of misdirection which can probably only be appreciated by magicians.

This is a reread for me. Abbott is the subject of my fiction and Joseffy is probably going to make an appearance one of these days. Joseffy was a bit of a mad scientist and I’m sad that he’s relatively unknown outside of magic history circles. As I noted on Twitter, after reading about Tesla and Joseffy all weekend going back to a book about Houdini seemed rather bland. The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy is also in the public domain, but the version I read is part of House of Mystery, the complete works of David P. Abbott, collected and commented on by Teller and Todd Karr.

Cover via Goodreads

When I’m Dead All This Will Be Yours! by Teller ~ Speaking of Teller, half of the magic duo Penn & Teller…

If it weren’t for Eric, I wouldn’t own this book. Never a browser, Eric took a seat in the humor section at A Novel Idea bookstore in Lincoln, NE to wait while I shopped. I’ve been mostly scouring bookstore for books on magic and Nebraska history. “Nothing,” I stated, ready to leave. “There’s a book by Teller,” he said, pointing. “Where?!” I said, blind.

Of course this book was in the humor section. It isn’t about magic at all. At least not *that* kind of magic. Instead, it’s a quiet and funny little memoir about Teller and his parents. At the age of 50-ish, Teller learns that his father, an artist, tried his hand at cartooning in his younger days. This discovery leads him through his parent’s boxes of art and letters from the 1920s, 30s and 40s before he was born. It’s a charming little book that I was happy to snag. And I didn’t realize it when I bought it, but my copy is signed!

Review ~ The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick

Cover via Goodreads

The Rise Of The Indian Rope Trick: How A Spectacular Hoax Became History by Peter Lamont

We assume that the Indian rope trick is a piece of ancient Hindu magic. But think again: it is actually the product of a hoax which appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1890. This wonderfully researched, playfully written book takes us on a journey through Victorian society where we discover the interest in magic of Charles Dickens; Alfred Russell Wallace; Edward, Prince of Wales; Lord Northbrook and Charles Darwin. We learn how in an age of reason the British came to love all things Oriental and how the legend of the rope trick came to be perpetuated throughout the 20th century as fanatical public figures and aristocrats went to India in search of it and returned claiming to have seen it being performed. This is a charming history book filled with colourful characters, known and unknown, all of whom pursued an obsession. Some were respected members of society, some were incredibly eccentric and utterly deluded. It is set against the background of Victorian society and shows how the writing of history itself can perpetuate myths and legends. (via Goodreads)

The Indian Rope Trick: A fakir throws a rope into the air. Or maybe chain, or maybe a simply a ball of twine. Or maybe he entices the rope skyward through the use of music played on a flute. A young boy climbs the rope, maybe willingly or maybe after an argument with the fakir, and disappears. After a while, the boy reappears and climbs back down the rope. Or reappears in a basket on the ground. Or maybe, the fakir shouts for him and, when the boy doesn’t return, the angered fakir draws his scimitar and climbs the rope himself. After bloodcurdling screams, the dismembered limbs of the boy are thrown to the ground, to be reassembled and resurrected by the fakir after returning to earth. All this is done in the open air.

This is a legendary trick. Literally, it is a trick based mostly in legend. What is considered an ancient magic of India is barely more than 125 years old, the product of Orientalism and a “hoax” article that went the equivalent of viral for the late 1800s/early 1900s. While the original Tribune story was widely syndicated, the correction was not. When the trick was refuted by some of the best skeptics and magicians of the time, many travelers to the Mystic East recalled actually seeing the trick performed. Unfortunately, memory is terrible to rely on for actually remembering things and many of the witnesses were “remembering” an event that happened in the far past. Lamont notes that the above story became more fanciful the further in the past the reminiscence.

The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick is also a book about history and how writing about history and using other works about history can be misleading. Part of the problem with the rope trick is that historians in the 1800s weren’t necessarily using primary sources when writing about India. Their point of view was skewed by writers who wished India to be seen either as a place full of superstitious natives (that Imperialism could save) or a place full of wondrous miracles (that could save the Empire from the downer of science).

Lamont is probably the second funniest non-fiction writer I’ve read, after Mary Roach, but I wish Rope Trick had been a little more intuitively organized. There was a bit of repetition that I think could have been avoided by going at it chronologically. Also, despite the blurb, this book is about the trick, not really about the personalities. Still, a solid read and I’ll be on the lookout for Lamont’s other books.

The Modern Rope Trick:

Publishing info, my copy: Abacus, 2004, trade paperback
Acquired: Paperback Swap
Genre: Non-fiction, magic
Previously: Read Magic in Theory, co-written by Peter Lamont, earlier this year.

Magic Monday ~ House of Mystery

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I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott by edited by Teller and Todd Karr

House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott (Volume #1)House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott (Volume #2)

A note from Teller:
This two-volume set includes Abbott’s Book of Mysteries, a collection of super-mysteries which, so far as I know, has never been surpassed. Abbott was a genius who built his work on the devious principles he learned from spirit mediums, who could not afford to get caught.
With these miracles, Abbott fooled Houdini, Kellar, Okito, Ching Ling Foo, and all the greatest minds in magic, and recorded his secrets in step-by-step detail in two of the most delightful and detailed books ever written on the art of magic.
This edition’s annotations and the newly-rediscovered articles and letters, including seven original hand-illustrated Kellar letters, make this set as essential for the history buff as it is for the professional performer.
— Teller (via Goodreads)

I’ve been wanting to get my hands on these two books for a couple of years now. And I still do! I read a browser-based scanned edition made available by the Conjuring Arts Research Center. I’d love to own my own copy. These texts are pretty lush. They contain all of David P. Abbott’s written works, as well as introductions and asides from Teller and Todd Karr that give each work context. There are crunchy historical bits: letters, photos, stories from contemporaries about Abbott and his performances. Included is an extended section on Joseffy in volume 2; Abbott’s The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy is given full treatment.

House of Mystery gives me further insight into the kind of man David Abbott was. His descriptions of his tricks are incredibly detailed. Almost mind-numbingly so. He was also a very peculiar skeptic. If he couldn’t find a complete explanation for phenomena, he was likely to officially say “I don’t know,” rather than to speculate publicly.

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What Am I Reading?

Been a slow couple of reading weeks. I’m still working on Rebecca and Magic in Theory.

On the Blog

Took last week off from blogging, more or less. I was pretty busy and I’ve been a little slumpy as far as reviewing goes. I had intended to have Rebecca reviewed for Thursday, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Instead, I’ll probably do a Throwback Thursday.

Review ~ Sleights of Mind

Cover via Goodreads

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions by by Stephen L. Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde, Sandra Blakeslee

Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, the founders of the exciting new discipline of neuromagic, have convinced some of the world’s greatest magicians to allow scientists to study their techniques for tricking the brain. This book is the result of the authors’ yearlong, world-wide exploration of magic and how its principles apply to our behavior. Magic tricks fool us because humans have hardwired processes of attention and awareness that are hackable—a good magician uses your mind’s own intrinsic properties against you in a form of mental jujitsu.

Now magic can reveal how our brains work in everyday situations. For instance, if you’ve ever bought an expensive item you’d sworn you’d never buy, the salesperson was probably a master at creating the “illusion of choice,” a core technique of magic. The implications of neuromagic go beyond illuminating our behavior; early research points to new approaches for everything from the diagnosis of autism to marketing techniques and education. Sleights of Mind makes neuroscience fun and accessible by unveiling the key connections between magic and the mind (via Goodreads)

I checked this out from the library at the same time as Will Storr’s The Unpersuadables. Without really planning it, these two books are interesting companions, covering similar (and sometimes the same) issues of perception and deception. Although the more recently published of the two, Storr’s book seemed to have the older science. Or maybe it was that his reaction to the science felt strangely outdated. A lot of Sleights of Mind wasn’t new to me. I’ve been poking around in the theories of magic for a few years now and even attended a lecture event at ASU back in 2012 with Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde and magicians Jamy Ian Swiss and Joshua Jay. When Storr was surprised and appalled by how much our brain infers and how our memories are terribly malleable, I was was kinda saying to myself, “Well, yeah.”*

Sleights of Mind assumes all the mind’s confabulations are a given and endeavors to better understand the processes by looking at how magicians manipulate their audience.

By understanding how magicians hack our brains, we can better understand how the same cognitive tricks are working in advertising strategies, business negotiations, and all varieties of interpersonal relations. When we understand how magic works in the mind of the spectator, we will have unveiled the neural bases of consciousness itself.

Which is a pretty lofty goal and one that the authors are still pursuing.

Sleights of Mind and The Unpersuadables also have journey in common. Will Storr travels the globe investigating beliefs of all kinds. Macknik and Martinez-Conde travel to magic conventions and visit with world renowned illusionists. All involved are looking for answers. What I like about Sleights of Mind is its optimism. Some of the tricks our brain plays are really extraordinary and lead to good things like our sense of wonder. Understanding is only ever a good thing.

I do think that Macknik and Martinez-Conde give magicians a little too much credit for actually knowing what they’re doing on more than an intuition/tradition level. This is an example of the difference between what science does and what can result from technological advancement without scientific method. Magicians have come upon their techniques through a process of using what works, passing it on to the next generation of magicians who might tweek the methods, but rarely innovate through scientific method (observation, hypothesis, experimentation, re-evaluation). This isn’t to say that there aren’t some texts out there by magicians that look at the nitty gritty, but it’s rare. Learning what works has traditionally superseded *why* something works.

The book exposes many magic tricks. It’s hard to discuss why magic works without talking about how its done. Macknik and Martinez-Conde have become members of the major magic guilds in existence, which includes performing for a board of professionals at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Each exposure is marked with a spoiler warning because most of the injunction against letting laypeople know secrets is to avoid inadvertent exposure. This book is really only for people who aren’t going to be disappointed to find out the nuts and bolts of magic.

* One of the things that did catch my interest was the McGurk effect. This is a sort of weird perceptual misfire that can occur when what we see and what we hear differ. It’s easier to link to a video than explain it:

Except this illusion didn’t work for me. Some other videos that I surfed to did, but results were mixed. Which got me to wondering, is it my face-blindness? Is it my left-of-center placement on the autism spectrum?

Publishing info, my copy: Henry Holt and Company, 2010, Hardback
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: Non-fiction, Magic and Related Subjects
Previously: Susana Martinez-Conde was an occasional guest lecturer in one of the classes my husband Eric took for his Computational Bioscience masters. He even got to play with brains at the Barrow Institute… And as I said above we also attended a panel discussion at ASU. It’s on YouTube!

Review ~ Magic And Mystery

Magic And Mystery: The Incredible Psychic Investigations Of Houdini And Dunninger

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This is a review that could easily partner with Monday’s post about books exposing the techniques of fraudulent spirit mediums.

Houdini, the most famous magician ever, had an interest in spiritualism throughout his career. He and his wife, Bess, did a mentalism routine for a while before he, like many magicians, realized that his audiences truly believed he had supernatural powers when such mind-reading and seance magic were part of the act. Houdini became a very vocal crusader against spiritualism and kept scrapbooks of mediums and exposures.

Joseph Dunninger was the Darren Brown of his era. His career spanned from the 1920s to the 1960s, overlapping Houdini’s by some years. He was an amazingly popular mentalist, known for his radio show and for his own efforts to educate the public about the ways mediums can take advantage of audiences. The first section of Magic and Mystery is Dunninger’s edits of Houdini’s scrapbooks, at least as far as I can tell. The authourship of this volume is a little hazy. The second section are some of Dunninger’s own recollections of visiting notable mediums and spiritualists.

Magic and Mystery is light on exposure. Tales are told in a couple of pages with a quick “It was, of course, done like this…” denunciation at the end. My edition is lacking a picture/illustration section. I have a feeling that it was cut for cost, but the manuscript wasn’t re-edited.

To get a feel for Magic and Mystery, here is Joseph Dunninger with a few exposures:

My Edition: Weathervane Books, 1967, hardback
Genre: nonfiction, magic

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Be the Expert / Become the Expert

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Week 2: November 10 to 14 (Hosted by Leslie @ Regular Rumination)
Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

It is difficult for me to claim “expert” in anything. The more research I do on any topic, the greater the realization that I don’t know much. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been gradually doing research for a novel I want to write about David P. Abbott, a magician who lived in Omaha, NE (my hometown) at the beginning of the 20th century. Abbott’s specialty was the exposure (in the most courteous manner possible) of spirit mediums. Here are three books that I’ve found useful on the subject of fraudulent mediums. (Longer list here.)

CoverRevelations of a Spirit Medium by Elijah Farrington – Published anonymously in 1891, this volume predates David Abbott’s involvement in spiritualism (at least that I know of) and certainly predates Houdini’s crusade against fraudulent mediums. It’s an utterly scathing indictment of the spiritualist movement in the late 1800s. Farrington tells of how he was frankly recruited to become a “medium” and how lucrative the job was. Revelations exposes a multitude of tricks used in cabinet mediumship and is doubly interesting because the exposures are written by someone who had to rely on the techniques. (Available Online, My Review)

booksThe History of a Strange Case by David P. Abbott – Abbott wrote several treatise on mediumship including Behind the Scenes with the Mediums, which is probably the most comprehensive article on spirit slate writing ever. But if I were to recommend one thing to read by David Abbott, it would be Strange Case. In it, Abbott tells of his journey from Omaha to a rural town in Ohio to investigate Mrs. Blake, a woman who could manifest voices from a trumpet or other objects. What sets this work apart for me is the attention to detail during the investigation and Abbott’s dogged open-mindedness. He isn’t willing to write off Mrs. Blake as a fraud without evidence. (Available Online)

Cover via GoodreadsTricks of the Mind by Darren Brown – Darren Brown is probably the most famous mentalists in the world today. Tricks of the Mind offers a modern view on the practice of today’s mediums.  Cabinet performances and the slate writing tests are now solidly the prevue of magicians, but the psychology that leads audiences to go along with cold reading and hypnotism stunts still remain. Brown explains a good number of the memory and suggestibility tricks he uses to produce the same effects as the Sylvia Brownes of today’s world. (My Review)

 

What haven’t I read yet?

  • Facts, Frauds, & Phantasms: A Survey of the Spiritualist Movement by Georgess McHargue
  • A Magician Among the Spirits by Harry Houdini
  • The Spirit World Unmasked by Henry Ridgely Evans
  • The Wandering of a Spiritualist by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Ten Years with Spiritual Mediums by Francis Gerry Fairfield

And so many more…