Heavy Metal Madness: A Focus on Hocus Pocus

My favorite type of graphic discovery is one that comes out of nowhere, supplying with it a distinct narrow lens on a genre. It’s easy to find an exhaustive book on vintage lunchbox art or Art Nouveau theatre posters, but it’s more fun to see an individual collection, complete with the limitations, experiences, and biases contributed by the owner. You won’t, for example, see any teddy bear or unicorn images on anything I own, despite owning many things that are often adorned by these precious creatures. And some of the most interesting image collections are those where a maximum-acquisition-cost per piece is strictly enforced. I once met a surfer in Southern California who collected discarded hair combs on the beach, amazed at the beauty and variety of patterns the broken teeth provided.

So I’ve been looking forward to finally opening a small cardboard box I’ve been shuffling from cabinet to cabinet for many years, unexamined. I knew it contained the collected writings and ephemera of a semi-professional magician turned Jesuit priest, the Rev. Eugene M. Bacigalupi. S.J., who gave the box to my dad (an amateur magician himself) at least 50 years ago.

Priests can be entertainers; only their costumes and stages are made of real gold. A priest/magician doesn’t seem out of line to me, though the contrast of Christian imagery and the evil-spirit icons of magic is a conundrum.

The art of magic posters and magic tricks has always interested me, but until I opened Rev. Bacigalupi’s cardboard box, my exposure was limited mostly to over-the-top graphics like these (top) from the Bimbo of Bombay (1897, H.C. Miner Litho Company of New York), and Kar-mi of India (1914, National Printing and Engraving, New York), or the widely reproduced images from Kellar (bottom) printed by Strobridge & Company, Lithographers of New York from 1894 to 1897.

Valuable Secrets
Since the contents of this mystery box turned out to be mostly printed and hand-written explanations and drawings of magic tricks and illusions, I was able to see the priest-magician connection pretty quickly. Both are like secret societies, complete with symbols and rituals, passed among fellow members but never completely revealed to the “outside.” Perhaps Rev. Bacigalupi was relieved to meet my father, finally able to unburden himself of this box of secrets, secure in knowing they were being passed to a fellow member of the protectorate.

Rev. Bacigalupi bought this trick, called Deland’s Two-Card Monte, from Martinka, the magic shop in New York owned by Harry Houdini at the time.

We don’t place much of a value on secrets anymore, and like music or fonts, most people probably assume the explanation of a trick should be free for all to have. I am intrigued by the “business” of magic represented in this material, most of it from the early decades of the twentieth century. Many people (I imagine mostly young boys) were willing to send in a dime or a dollar in exchange for a piece of paper containing only a secret explanation. Magicians advertised their tricks in magic magazines and other periodicals, often with a self-drawn image showing the amazement you could elicit with such a terrific illusion.

Masthead and ad from Felsman’s Magazine, 1926 (top), and art from a cigarette tossing trick in the same issue (bottom).

According to a 1926 copy of Felsman’s Magical Review, “magic appeals to that indefinable something, that longing after the unknowable, which lurks in the inner consciousness of every human being, educated or uneducated. The schoolboy in his teens, the man in his maturity, the mechanic, the artisan, all sorts and conditions of men, enjoy the mystery of magic.”

Cover art from 1905 (top), and some of Rev. Bacigalupi’s stage money (bottom). It was illegal to use real money on stage or television until the 1960s.

And because they were entertainers, magicians often had an over-the-top graphic flare that is rivaled only by circus performers. This imagery took its greatest form in the stone-lithograph posters of the era — colorful, rich and imaginative. (I’ve included some poster images with this column that are not part of the Reverend’s collection but seem appropriate, mostly because I won’t be able to visit this topic again anytime soon!)

1898 stone lithograph printed by Metropolitan Printing Company, New York, to promote the third annual tour of Leon and Adelaide Herrmann.

Some of my favorite magic images are the crudest ones — those appearing in pulp periodicals from an era when restless young men and women played parlor games and solved puzzles and riddles for fun. Kind of like watching game shows, only you did it at home for laughs, not prizes.

You could order these booklets for just ten cents and be the life of the party (in 1905, at least — the racist humor wouldn’t sit well today).

One such example is the Wehman Bros.’ New Book of Fun Magic and Mystery, priced at ten cents in 1905 when Father Eugene bought it. This magazine points out that well-rounded magicians/entertainers mustn’t be content with just magic up their sleeves. They had to be a jokester, a flirt, and a raconteur who charmed the crowd. I can only imagine the pain of being entertained by such a person, but then television had its consequences for our generation, too.

Hilarious instructions on how to kiss a woman, and a guide to finger-nail reading from a 1905 edition of the Wehman Bros.’ New Book of Fun Magic and Mystery.

The best section of this ten-cent bargain publication is the one on “amusing experiments.” Here we learn how to mix charcoal, sugar, and sulphuric acid in a glass so that it will “froth up and shoot like a cauliflower out of the glass.” Or how to make artificial fire balls out of phosphorus (which I guess everyone had around then, right next to the sulphuric acid). And you thought Jeopardy was exciting.

And of course every young magician wanted to woo the ladies, so the section on “Flirtations” gives great tips on how to brandish your cigar or fork while simultaneously sending a message of love and affection. Or how if you place a postage stamp upside down, it means “I love you.” Those magicians were smooth!

From a page of flirtations described in 1905. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area there are still romantic signals you can send with your whip, but last I checked they were different than these.

Part of the reason a dollar bill has value beyond the material is because the mere effort of reproduction limits the supply. Many of the magic tricks in Father Eugene’s collection are one-off, hand typed by an eager magician’s assistant, or the third-generation carbon copy of a typed manuscript. And many have hand-drawn illustrations to demonstrate the tricks. These are truly limited-edition works, produced on demand based on request. It’s much harder these days to keep a secret, I think. Information no longer dies with the holder — it lives on and on in every sort of retrievable database. Perhaps that’s why magic now seems to be more about spectacle than slight-of-hand or mental challenge.

Two bits of hand-made memorabilia from Rev. Bacigalupi. Top, a list of acts for one of his shows (I particularly would have liked to see the pulling of sausages from his assistant, and I can’t help but wonder what the hummer detective is about). Bottom, a card-reading wheel he made to learn the key to a deck of marked cards.

Even the stone-lithograph process used for magic posters was a low-volume process. I’ve written about stone lithography before, so suffice it to say that the process of carving images into stone, treating them with chemicals to create resistance, and then printing them under heavy pressure one color at a time, is not meant for throw-away items.

This circa-1910 color lithograph (printer unknown) advertises C. Alexander. Alexander was a leading Los Angeles magician in the first half of the twentieth century. He lived from 1880 to 1954.

Letterhead for C. Alexander (top) written to Rev. Bacigalupi on June 23, 1920, and a photograph of the master (bottom).

The ornate posters were often used over and over again from city to city, while less-expensive hand bills were distributed with the exact date and theater location. That’s why some of the posters seen here command $500 to $1,000 (and more) on the auction market.

Four examples of stone lithographic and letterpress posters, ranging from 1909 (Houdini) to 1935 (Spook Party). Houdini, a favorite of Rev. Bacigalupi, only lived from 1874 to 1926, but he had a tremendous influence on magic and worked hard to expose "spiritual" fraud.

Detail from a 1899 Strobridge stone lithograph promoting Zan Zig.

From what I can gather, Rev. Bacigalupi did not take on a stage name and never had colorful posters to announce his performances. I did find an academic paper he wrote titled “Christ Was Not a Medium” that analyzes the miracles Jesus performed and gives other-than-occult explanations for each of them. So I suspect, like Harry Houdini, Rev. Gene used magic as a way to show people how easily they can be fooled by the scientific application of physical principals. This would, supposedly, make true faith even more meaningful, though I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find a trick called “The Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes” amidst his other ephemera.

Part of what made magic work back then was the audience’s desire to believe, to be fooled and to not be embarrassed by it but amazed. Everyone played along to some degree, even though very few believed the devil or dead spirits were behind what they saw.

Here’s how to make a talking head. It’s all done with mirrors.

Rev. Bacigalupi understood that the same sort of faith that goes into religion plays a role in magic, and a skilled magician (or priest) uses our gullibility to teach us lessons.

And now that I’ve read the secret solutions to the world’s great illusions and mysteries, I have to agree with him. For $1 even The Great Alexander was willing to reveal how he manipulated audience members into believing the Ouiji Board was being guided by spirits from the dead, not his own hand.

Directions for using the Ouiji divining board, printed in 1920 by C. Alexander.

But don’t ask me to tell how he did it. I’m part of the brotherhood now, and you’ll never get the truth out of me. As far as I’m concerned, the devil had something to do with it.

At top, a 1915 poster for Thurston printed by Strobridge Litho New York, and below, the front and back of cards the magician tossed into the audience during performances. Thurston and his daughter performed together at times, which has made me feel that taking after my dad might not be such a bad thing after all, even if it does entail keeping heavy secrets and making a fool of myself at dinner parties.

Read more by Gene Gable.

Posted on: April 28, 2005

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.

2 Comments on Heavy Metal Madness: A Focus on Hocus Pocus

  1. What a wonderful trip back to my childhood when I used to perform conjuring tricks and collect old magic memorabilia. Back in the 70s (and maybe still now), magic clubs in the UK used to hold regular auctions of members’ unwanted tricks, and juniors like me used to revel in ‘boxed lots’. As in antique auctions, these used to contain a mish-mash of oddities, some broken, some unique, some indescribable – a real treasure trove every time for just pennies. Those posters and handouts shown in the article are *extremely* valuable, by the way, and I am extremely envious. Thank you for sharing them here!

  2. Gene – I’d just like to say how much I love your articles. It could be because there mostly filled with pictures, but your a wonderful writer too. I was wondering if maybe in October you could do an article on Halloween poster/cards, etc. I love images of Halloween (especially haunted houses and graveyards) and would like to collect artifacts, but haven’t really seen anything worth collecting. Well, I look forward to seeing, I mean, reading your next article!
    Thanks for keeping me entertained – Kathleen

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