Magicians: Influence Beyond the Stage
Believe it or not, stage magicians (illusionism, prestidigitation, conjuring, hypnotism, mentalism, escapology, etc) has it’s roots in debunking frauds back in the 16th century! The first book of magic tricks was published in 1584 was devoted to debunking the claims of magicians and showing how their ‘magic tricks’ were in reality accomplished. Among the tricks discussed were ‘sleight-of-hand’ manipulations with rope, paper and coins! In the 17th century, even more books were published on the subject. Thus started a trend of “industry insiders” trying to prevent the public from being taken advantage of. This trend still carries on today! Let’s look at some of the magicians who have had the most influence off the stage!
Possibly the most well-known magician and escapologist of all time, Harry Houdini was the bane of fraudulent mediums, psychics, and hoaxers during his life. Houdini was so committed to debunking false claims that he wrote a book titled The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin in which he calls his former idol a liar and a fraud. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, it turns out, had claimed to invent automata and aerial suspension… Effects which had actually existed for a number of years. Houdini was a member of the Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium or psychic who could prove their abilities. None ever claimed the prize.
Houdini often traveled to seances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and a police officer. His adventures are chronicled in his book A Magician Among the Spirits. Houdini is also famous for being the most well documented (if not the only) spiritualism experiment from beyond the grave. The magician and his wife, you see, had a secret phrase to prove authenticity if one of them died and the other found it possible to communicate from the afterlife. Harry’s wife Bess held a seance every year on Halloween for ten years, but finally gave up, saying “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”
James Randi originally performed as a magician under the name The Amazing Randi, performing a variety of telekinetic, mentalist and illusionist acts. He slowly became on of the most notable skeptics and fraud debunkers, going on to start the James Randi Educational Foundation, which offers a cash prize to any eligible party who can evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event under test conditions agreed to by both parties. The prize started as a $1,000 prize in 1964 but has grown to $1,000,000! The cash prize has gone unclaimed for over 50 years!
Penn and Teller
This famous duo of magicians specialize in comedic magic as well as absurd and outlandish acts. Even though they still headline their own act in Las Vegas, the magicians have also been featured on their own T.V. show, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! which ran for 7 years. On their television show, the magicians typically pick one topic to discuss or debunk. They have features on alien abductions, alternative medicine, and ghost hunters. Unlike James Randi and Houdini, however, Penn and Teller often pick politically charged topics or organizations to criticize. Episodes include Greenpeace, PETA, NASA and The Vatican. While not everyone will agree with their positions, it must be noted that the magicians seem to do their best to expose frauds and promote honesty.
Who’s your favorite magician both on and off-stage?