In my upcoming posts I want to do a series of blogs about famous magicians in the Victorian Age, and I would like to start with someone that many of you may not know. In the world of Victorian magic, one name stood alone, John Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne, born in 1839, in the town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, was the son of a saddle maker, and when he came of age, he was apprenticed to a watch maker, a skill that would serve him well when he became a magician.As John started tinkering with this piece of machinery, he found that he could mount it to his leg and use it to make rapping sounds very discreetly under a tabletop. Later he had the chance to see further trickery happen when at the age of twenty-six he saw the Davenport Brothers use their Spirit Cabinet. The Davenports didn’t call themselves magicians but spiritualists. They toured the United States and Europe under the guise of being tied up in a special cabinet in which spirits would play musical instruments. During this performance Maskelyne saw the “flash”, where a magician unwittingly does something that shows how the trick is done and understood how the cabinet illusion worked. He stood up in the theater and told the audience that he could recreate the Spirit Cabinet communication without the aid of anything supernatural. Maskelyne, along with his friend cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, built a giant Spirit Cabinet and revealed the trickery of the Davenports in a show in Cheltenham. In this performance they also included comedy illusions including one where Maskelyne and Cooke were transformed into a woman and a gorilla. After several successful local performances, they decided to become professional magicians and went on tour. They expanded their routine and eventually became famous and highly successful and performed across the country. Maskelyne would often perform short plays and do illusions as part of the act on stage. Their tours included a tenure at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly which started in 1873 and would continue until the Hall closure in 1905.
After the death of George Alfred Cooke in 1905, Maskelyne made David Devant his new partner. Devant started working for Maskelyne in 1893 at the Egyptian Hall, working as a conjurer as well as a creator of illusions until he and went out on his own creating his own show. After Devant came back in 1905, he came now with street experience and new insights on manufacturing magic tricks, and along with Maskelyne created many of their best illusions.
Many of Maskelyne illusions are still performed today. Probably the most famous of these illusions is Levitation. Harry Kellar was also known for this illusion and claimed that he was the inventor though in truth Kellar had bribed one of Maskelyne’s technical assistants, Paul Veladon, and stole the illusion.
When Maskelyne first witnessed the Davenports’ Spirit Cabinet illusion, he was driven to expose fraudulent spiritualists and mediums who took advantage of other people. In 1876, Maskelyne was called as an expert witness for the prosecution in the matter of Henry Slade, a medium who was being tried for fraud. Like Houdini, Maskelyne brought his magic skills to unmask those who claimed supernatural powers and would continue with this for the rest of his life. In 1891 he and Psychiatrist Lionel Weatherly published a book called The Supernatural? This book offered logical explanations to spiritualistic practices, the occult and supernatural phenomena.
Even though Maskelyne left this world in 1917, he left a huge mark on the magic community. Not only was he a master of illusion but his work with cards was phenomenal. In 1894, he published Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of The Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. This book would be the bible for card workers for years and included an excellent chapter on an apparatus known as a “holdout” which is the main reason magicians had to show that there was “nothing up their sleeve”. It is a fascinating book and I recommend it to all magicians who do card magic.
Maskelyne was also an influence on his son and grandson who both became stage magicians. Jasper Maskelyne, his grandson, has been credited for creating large-scale deceptions and camouflage to aid the British government in their fight against the Germans during World War II.