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Review ~ Revelations of a Spirit Medium

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Revelations of a Spirit Medium by Elijah Farrington, Harry Price (Editor), Eric J. Dingwall (Editor)

1922. Facsimile edition with notes, bibliography, glossary and index.

No mere knowledge of magical secrets will ever guarantee the reader from being deceived by fraudulent mediums. Actual acquaintance with practical methods and long experience of the conduct of seances is necessary before he will be able to distinguish the genuine from the fraudulent, and when he finds himself able to discern faintly the line which divides the two he will be in a position to understand more fully the enormous difficulties which confront the investigators of psychical phenomena. It is hoped that the reappearance of this mediumistic classic will whet the reader’s appetite and make him eager for still further information. (via Goodreads)

Originally published in 1891, Revelations of a Spirit Medium is an expose of seance techniques of that era by a former medium. It was first published anonymously, but by 1922 was attributed to Elijah Farrington.

Farrington writes candidly about his experiences as a medium; especially his slide into the profession and some of the more unbelievable frauds perpetrated by some of his fellow “mediums.” His tone is very caustic, sometimes off-puttingly so. While he ends the book with “the writer does not wish to be understood as maintaining that there is nothing in the Spiritual philosophy,” he points out repeatedly that he never encountered a medium that wasn’t in the profession only for the money. He has venomous derision for the “top-heavy investigators” who create overly complex explanations, mediums who do the job poorly (he is of the opinion that all female mediums are in this category), and sitter who fall for poorly wrought seances and tests.

From a research point of view, this is a pretty notable work. While David Abbott’s books and articles go into a lot of detail, Farrington writes as someone who was reliant on the techniques. Since he’s not worried about being technical, he writes in the slang of the time and the jargon of the profession. The story of how he came to be a medium was particularly interesting to me since it hasn’t been an aspect I’ve given thought to beyond vague explanations. I’m also impressed with the well-connected web of information archived by mediums. There is a level of effort and preparation behind these turn-of-the-20th-century seances that is admirable. Sadly, the book isn’t very well organized. Farrington meanders from one type of seance to another and back again. It’s going to be difficult to find again in the PDF the details I might want to reread.

The 1922 edition of the work also includes a glossary and a bibliography of related works (including Abbott’s) that would take me a good long while to go through, even if I could track them down.

Genre: Non-fiction
Why did I choose to read this book? Research
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes
Format: PDF of scanned book
Procurement: Open Library

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Review ~ The Glorious Deception

Cover via Goodreads

The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer” by by Jim Steinmeyer

In a biography woven from equal parts enchantment and mystery, master illusion designer and today’s foremost magic historian, Jim Steinmeyer, unveils the astonishing secrets behind the enigmatic performer Chung Ling Soo, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer” — a magician whose life of intrigue and daring remains unparalleled to this day. He learned his art during a revolutionary era in show business, just as minstrel, circus, and variety saloons were being stirred together and distilled into a heady new concoction: vaudeville. Soo’s infamous death in 1918 astonished the world: he was killed during a performance of “Defying the Bullets,” his popular act in which he caught marked bullets on a porcelain plate. After his death, the deceptions began to unravel. It was discovered that he was not Chinese, but rather a fifty-six-year-old American named William Ellsworth Robinson, a former magicians’ assistant, and the husband of Olive Robinson. But even William Robinson was not who he appeared to be, and for the first time, Jim Steinmeyer has uncovered the truth behind Robinson and the magic world’s most glorious deception. (via Goodreads)

Interwoven with the tale of William Robinson and his transformation into Chung Ling Soo is the history of a very dangerous trick: the bullet catch. Honestly, before this book, I wasn’t sure if any magician had ever died doing a bullet catch illusion. There are layers and layers of stories around magic and magicians. Some of these stories are…not true. This is obviously the case with Robinson. He spun the persona of Chung Ling Soo, the Chinese conjurer, around tricks that suited his incredible technical aptitude in order to hide his awkward stage presence. As long as he was able to lose himself in a role, he was a very fine magician. His secret, like most secrets in magic, was half-kept. Professional magicians knew what was going on (his biggest rival was the a real Chinese conjurer, Ching Ling Foo), but the general public did not.

Similar layers of truth and falsehood surround dangerous magic tricks*. Many of Houdini’s death-defying acts were very well planned and prepared, only seeming to be potentially fatal. When a magician claims that something is dangerous, that it may be fatal, I only half believe. But the bullet catch, historically, has been both. It involves not entirely safe modifications to firearms and a blurring of reality that has led audience members to disregarding the whole trick aspect of the trick.

I debated buying this book for a while. I had already read Steinmeyer’s Hiding the Elephant and The Last Greatest Magician in the World, both of which cover the same era in stage magic. I didn’t think I could justify a biography of Chung Ling Soo as more research material. My correspondence with Chicago magician Neil Tobin helped make the decision. He suggested it since Robinson (aka Soo) was once almost arrested for being involved with a sham seance during the Chicago World’s Fair. While Robinson did write a book on spiritualism, his involvement isn’t delved into too much in The Glorious Deception. Ultimately, this book wasn’t a hugely useful resource aside from providing more information about the time period.

I was also worried that the stories, and Jim Steinmeyer’s writing, might get a little stale. The major magicians of the late 1800s and early 1900s knew each other, were friends and rivals (often both). Robinson, before he became Chung Ling Soo, worked for the Herrmanns and Harry Keller as an assistant and stage manager. Howard Thurston (the subject ofThe Last Greatest Magician) was associated with Keller and tried to impress Leon Herrmann, a story in which Robinson plays a role. Tales overlap. I was worried that I might get tired of reading them. But I didn’t. All the little stories snap together; little clusters of puzzle pieces fit together into a richer picture. Currently, I have a lot of enthusiasm for magic history.

Steinmeyer is a talented writer. I’ve said it before, he has obvious love for the subject matter and that comes through in his work. Looks like I’m going to be asking for the rest of his books for Christmas.

* See also, Penn & Teller’s nail gun trick.

Genre: Non-fiction.
Why did I choose to read this book? I really like Jim Steinmeyer’s books; it was also suggested to me by a magician as good research material.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Absolutely.
Craft Lessons: Man, I really do envy Steinmeyer’s way with words. I read. Why don’t I use words better?!
Format: Paperback.
Procurement: Amazon.com
Bookmark: Business card from SteamCrow.com

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Back to School Reading Challenge Check-In (08/14/13)

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I haven’t finished or reviewed anything yet for the Back to School Reading Challenge, but I like the idea of reminding myself about what I may have learned in the past week.

I started reading The Glorious Deception last Wednesday and have finished about a third of it. Much of it has been about William Robinson’s development of his black art routine. Black art isn’t as occult as it sounds. French magician Omar Pasha still performs such an act:

Also sifted through articles on magic from the 20s and 30s, including material on Houdini’s exposure of David P. Abbott’s talking teakettle. Abbott was pretty gentlemanly about the whole deal. While I now know the secret behind the teakettle, it’s the amount of preparation and work behind the trick that tell me something about both Mr. and Mrs. Abbott.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of CharacterMy local digital library only had How Children Succeed as an audio book download. Despite my dislike for audio books, I checked it out. I’ll admit it: I’m not very good at listening. We’ll see how this goes.

Listened to the Introduction this morning.

Interesting in learning new things? Check in with the other check-ins!

Back to School Reading Challenge

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No one fails at the Back to School Reading Challenge, so choose a level that works to challenge you but not so much it causes stress. Here are the levels:

  • Freshman: 1-2 books
  • Sophomore: 3-4 books
  • Junior: 5-6 books
  • Senior: 7-8 books

Read books on one topic or eight different ones or anything in between. Fiction is fine. I’ve learned a lot of history from novels set in other times and a lot about other cultures from novels set in other places. As long as you’re reading the book to learn something new, it counts for the Back to School Reading Challenge.

I’ve been going back and forth about joining this challenge since last week, mainly because I know I have a bunch of fiction ARCs to read in September. But, I also have some research materials I want to get through, and I’m curious about what other readers are learning about. I’m going to shoot for Sophomore level.

The books (a list that is far from set in stone):

The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer" A Magician Among the Spirits Cover of: Revelations of a spirit medium by Elijah FarringtonCover of: Spirit slate writing and kindred phenomena by Chung Ling Soo