book reviews

Book reviews

From THE MAGIC CIRCULAR February 2013 (n 1159) issue:

Reviewed by Eddie Dawes: This is a book that, on first sight, the magic historian instinctively feels will be an informative and enjoyable read, and so it turns out to be.  The Italian author's fascination with eighteenth-century continental European magicians who toured Britain was the springboard which launched this meticulous research, which has its genesis in the career of the Italian-born Tomaso Palatino and continues with chapters on Highman Palatine, Philip Breslaw and Herman Boaz, whilst embracing several others such as Pinetti, Astley and Jonas along the way.  There is a nice surprise too, when the author reveals that Boaz was not, as widely believed, a German but was an Englishman who hailed from Darlington and whose name was James Bowes, a surgeon.  What is more, this information is to be found in the posthumous memoirs of the famous engraver Thomas Bewick!  This is a scholary, very well-written treatise, illustrated with engravings, playbills and documents, admirably referenced and spendidly produced.  The edition is limited to two-hundred-and-fifty copies, so, "a word to the wise".

Copyright 2013 by "The Magic Circular".  All rights reserved.


From MAGICOL Spetember 2013 (n 185) issue:

Reviewd by James Alan: I am continually amazed by the amount of information that can be teased out from the past.  Reading this collection of biographical sketches of pre-Robert-Houdin conjurers makes me feel exceptionally guilty for not paying attention in high school when they tried teaching us how to search through old periodicals.  The four primary subjects are Tomaso Palatino, Highman Palatine, Philip Breslaw and Herman Boaz, with some of their contemporaries entering into the mix as well.  These are eighteenth century performers who made their living by touring, hence the title.  Do not let the fact that the book was published in Italy intimidate you.  The English is impeccable and easy to read, albeit riddled with footnotes from copious research.  It is also very modern in its outlook and the author is quite blunt in dismissing ostentatious claims from the subjects' promotional materials.  Enlightening and worthwhile.

Copyright 2013 by "Magicol".  All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.


From GENII March 2014 (Vol. 77, n 3) issue:

Reviewed by John Lovick: As the 18th century was seeing an explosion of knowledge and development in almost every human enterprise, magic was taking important steps away from its perceived roots in the supernatural and becoming pure entertainment.  during this time there were a number of conjurers from all over Europe travelling across the British isles.  They sometimes capitalized on their origins, and sometimes disguised them.  They were pioneers who were setting the stage for the golden age of conjuring that would begin a century later.  These pioneers had, of course, different styles and repertoires, but almost all of them surely struggled, as this was a time when even few theatrical actors garnered any respect; imagine how low on the social hierarchy magicians were.  They were mostly nomadic, searching new territories to exploit, and - the more things change - they stole each other's tricks, names, credits, and publicity material.  They also wrote pamphlets and books exposing methods, which were sold in bookshops during and after performances, laying the stage for the development of amateurs and hobbyists, who would also flourish about a century later, with the rise of a middle class, and the invention of "leisure" time.

Pietro Micheli is an amateur magician with an interest in collecting and research.  A couple of years ago he presented a detailed study of two 18th century magicians who shared similar names: Tomaso Palatino and Highman Palatine, and he demonstrated that they were actually two different characters rather than the same person, as had been previously thought.  for this presentation he won the first Roxy Award for Research on Magic History.  The Roxy Award is aimed at propagating interest in the research of magic history through a biennal contest where unpublished works dealing with the history of magic are judged.  Micheli's expansion of this award-winning research (combined with information about other performers of the same period) comprise his book "They lived by tricks".  These stories of "thaumaturgick practitioners" are not only important, they are fascinating, and this book adds to our knowledge of a handful of the more important and interesting of these itinerant performers from more than two centuries ago.

The magicians that "They lived by tricks" focus on are the previously mentioned Palatino and Palatine, Philip Breslaw, and Herman Boaz.  However there is also a substantial amount of material about Giuseppe Pinetti, Philip Astley, Monsieur Boulevard, Comus, and Katterfelto.  Let's be clear, you will not mistake this for (or read it like) a novel, as it is an exhaustively researched scholarly work filled with hundreds of footnotes and citations, but it is filled with surprises and delights.

For example, a passage in an early page of the book nearly stopped me cold.  This is a coeval account of a performance by Palatino.  "He suspended a pigeon attached to a ribbon and, touching only its shadow with the tip of his sword, that pigeon suffered, jumped and was on its defence as if the tip had been addressed to the body, the blood rained out of the pricks given only to its shadow".  When I shared this passage with Teller, who was delighted to learn of this artistic ancestor, he said, "Considering the age it was written in: Oh, that poor pigeon!"  Oh, that poor pigeon is right.  A footnote explains the method, and let's just say, the bird often did not survive.

Here are some other passages and facts that were highlights for me.  The following is from a newspaper report of a performance by Breslaw: "The pocket-pieces are truly amazing; but his method of telling any person his real thoughts is absolutely astonishing and incredible to all."  It made me realize I've never read anything about the origins of "mind reading".  Obviously, much of the modern mentalist's repertoire derives from the work of the Spiritualists of the late 1800s, but how far back does mind reading go?  In doing some research I've found that Breslaw, as it turns out, is credited by some with being the first to perform a stage mind reading act.  However, it is unclear whether his mind reading extended beyond the revelation of playing cards or not.

There is a great story about Breslaw getting money from a church to produce a show by agreeing to give the proceeds to the poor.  When the parish officers tried to collect the profits, Breslaw explained, "I have saved you that trouble.  I have already disposed of the money ... I have given it to my own company, who I am sure are the poorest people in all of this parish".

In a reproduction of a handbill touting the wonders on Monsieur Bouvelard, the King's Conjurer, is the following explanation of the inexhaustible combinations of his own genius: "He visits every Day Friar Bacon's omb, and swallows some of the Dust that covers the Bones of that famed Sorcerer".  Further comment would be superfluous.

One of the pleasures of the bookis reading the contemporary tricks descriptions, some of which are so outlandish they seem impossible (and not in the way magic is supposed to be "impossible").  When reading about Thomas Peladine turning a servant into a horse, or one man transforming into six, or Boaz leaping three feet into the air and remaining suspended for almost a minute, one wonders exactly what effects are really being described.  Micheli addresses the understandable skepticism generated by such descriptions and helps to contextualize and analyze many of the tricks, with plausible theories about what the actual effects were.

It's perplexing to me how little interest in magic's rich history there seems to be among those who claim to love magic.  As the semi-annual Los Angeles Conference on Magic History has proven for over 20 years, the pleasures of exploring the history of magic are bottomless.

In the book's afterword, Micheli acknowledges that his accounts of these conjuror's lives are far from comprehensive, and there are gaps.  But his hope is that other historians, collectors, and enthusiasts will help fill these gaps, adding to the scholarship we have on these characters.  I surely hope so.

Copyright 2014 by "The Genii Corporation".  All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.