May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
You’re expecting me to say Houdini. Why? Because Houdini is the only magician in American history you can name. And possibly you’ve heard technically slick but charisma-free modern would-be rivals of Houdini say, “Oh, Houdini was a great publicist, but only a mediocre magician.”
Such posers are not fit to lick the flyspecks off Houdini’s handbills.
Magic is the art of making an audience overrate prosaic actions so that they seem wondrous. If a man can hide a pigeon in his sleeve but have it look as though he’s just created wildlife out of the ether, he’s doing his job, making you overvalue manipulation as miracle. In other contexts (say, medicine) this kind of puffery would be unconscionable. But because a magician trumpets the fact that he’s going to test your ability to sift fact from fiction (Houdini, for example, called himself a “mystifier”), you delight in being hoodwinked. Houdini’s stage was the world. If he hid a smallish elephant in a box the size of a tractor-trailer but convinced the world he had made a mastodon vanish—poof!—in the middle of an empty stage “in full light,” well, he’s all the greater magician for it. In short, the more overrated Houdini is, the more he deserves his acclaim.
It’s hard to call anybody underrated in a group that nobody, save for a handful of hobbyists, rates. However, I do have a favorite little-known magician: David P. Abbott, a portly, rubicund Omaha businessman who in his spare time investigated the tricks of “spirit mediums” and became an exceptional amateur conjurer. The only people Abbott performed for were his houseguests, but he baffled them all, including some of the canniest magicians who ever lived: Blackstone, Thurston, and Kellar.
Abbott invented the Talking Teakettle. As you sat munching cookies in Abbott’s gothic parlor, he’d ask you to examine an empty kettle. Then, if you held the spout to your ear, you would hear a voice claiming to be a centuries-dead Egyptian princess. The voice would tell you secrets about your past, your private life, and your dead relatives. The information was frequently so disturbing that the spectators wept.
And, oh, yes, Abbott was doing all this back in 1907, decades before miniature radio electronics.