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A running joke says that wizards are very impressive in stories, right up until a battle starts. That’s when we remember that all this magic of theirs pales in comparison to real-world weaponry. The best spellcaster at Hogwarts would be no match for a well-armed Texan. Doctor Strange’s army of sorcerers aren’t as powerful as a single missile strike. Gandalf does nothing with his staff other than swing it like a club, for reasons nerds will happily explain.
And yet, in real life, magicians really have helped the military. They may lack true supernatural abilities, but magicians still do have a few tricks up their sleeves.
Jasper Maskelyne came from a long line of magicians, which sounds like a lie he might tell you at the start of a show but is true. His father Nevil was both a magician and a hacker. He hacked a Marconi radio broadcast because he and Marconi were rivals, like something right out of The Prestige. Nevil’s father was John Maskelyne, who was both a magician and the inventor of the pay toilet. Many people would curse this invention for charging them to pee, but if you saw the state of free toilets around this time, you might agree John’s john was an improvement.
via Wiki Commons
During World War II, Jasper joined the British army, and a whole lot of crazy stories became attached to him. While this next one isn’t as wild as some of them, it’s slightly better documented, so marginally more likely to be true: Maskelyne worked with the Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate, a unit devoted to building dummy targets to divert the enemy’s attention. The most effective dummy target would be a scale replica placed at a different location. Such a target would take long to build and would use up precious resources that the military could be using to make airplanes and tea kettles.
Jasper realized that this scale wasn’t totally necessary. A bomber in a plane looks down and has to judge the size of things using some frame of reference, and if you know how they make these judgments, you can fool them. Jasper convinced the unit to build a whole lot of objects smaller than the real thing, and the enemy still believed in them just fine.
As for just how small his models got, sources disagree. Some talk of him building dummy vehicles two-thirds the size of the real thing. Others go further and talk of a vast convoy made of two-inch models. It’s hard to imagine those fooling the Germans, but if they didn’t, that still left soldiers with toys to gift their children, so it wouldn’t be a total loss.
For years, rumors circulated of something called The Official C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception. Supposedly, the CIA had written it with help from John Mulholland, a magician famous for his “Hooker Rising Trick,” which we’re not going to elaborate on for fear of ruining it. As years went by, people started to conclude that the manual had been a myth, or if it had been real, all copies were long gone.
Then the CIA declassified it. The magic manual was real, and Mulholland had helped write it. This thing is hundreds of pages long and full of useful tips for the amateur magician looking to destabilize foreign countries. Let’s zoom in on a couple random extracts. For example: the section called “Handling of Tablets.” It describes how a magician performs tricks by hiding matches, and then it shifts to explaining how these same tricks can be used to hide poison pills.
An assassin may also need to hide packets containing liquid poison. Magicians’ tactics offer guidance on how to distract your target as you pour this poison into a drink.
Another section covers how to secrete the object upon your person. You put it in your pocket, of course, but specific advice guides you on how to reach the pocket without being seen.
If we had to insert a joke right here, maybe it would be something about how only men can do this trick, since women have no pockets. The CIA one-upped us, however, going into detail about this exact thing: “Depending upon the type of attire, women have no pockets at all or very few. And women’s pockets always are the wrong size and construction and in the wrong locations to hide an object easily and quickly.” The manual therefore includes special instructions for female spies, on adding secret pockets to dresses and covering the opening with a belt.
It also addresses two hiding places from fiction: down a stocking or down the front of your dress. “In most instances neither can be used inconspicuously. Further, either because of costume or anatomy, in neither place can an object of any size or weight be hidden.” And the manual talks of how women can easily play dumb in front of a man. “Men are never astonished when a woman does not know something.” However, beware: You may not fool everyone this way. “Such a pose is apt to be suspected by another woman. This point is true also of a show of coyness, shyness or maidenly modesty.”
No way Harry Houdini was going to escape this article without a mention. Houdini was active around World War I, and he did his part. He had to, unless he had some way of making his draft card disappear.
You might be surprised to see the man conscripted as “Harry Handcuff Houdini” rather than under his birth name of Erik Weisz. You also might be surprised to see the expert physical performer listed as having a weak left hand. The weakness may have referred to an injury he suffered while filming a serial about a secret agent fighting a robot. As for the handcuff thing, that suited one thing he’d be doing during the war: teaching recruits how to escape handcuffs.
He also taught them how to escape a type of cage that Germans used, and how to escape from being tied up with rope. Plus, here’s some advice on what to do when your vessel sinks and you’re underwater: Relax your body for a few seconds so that you float and hit the topmost surface of the room you’re in. When underwater, Houdini told the recruits, you can easily lose your sense of direction and panic. The first step is to confidently reassure yourself which way’s up.
Underwood & Underwood
So, that’s how Houdini helped the war effort. He also possibly did more. He might have been a spy.
We won’t go too deep on that count, as details are scant. But one biography of Houdini claimed that when he was in Germany in 1908, he was on a secret mission for England, observing German aircraft and transmitting details. He was reporting to the former head of Scotland Yard, who went on to found MI5. We can’t find other sources corroborating this, though, so we can’t guarantee that the biographer isn’t mixing Houdini up with Quentin Locke, the character he played on-screen, the one who fought the robot.
Houdini named himself after an earlier French magician, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. People call this guy the father of modern magic. Magicians put on shows before he did, but he opened his own luxurious theater just for his act. If you associate magic with red velvet and tuxedos, thank this guy. His theater was so fancy that although a wealthy count backed him, Robert-Houdin still needed to sell three houses he’d inherited to fund the venture.
One of Robert-Houdin’s famous illusions was called the “Light and Heavy Chest.” He walked onstage and lifted a wooden box. Then he invited audience members to give it a try. Various strong men would come and fail to lift it. Sometimes, as a punchline, he’d invite some small child onstage, and this kid would now lift the box with ease. The trick here: magnets. An electromagnet sat in the floor below the box, and an assistant would turn the current on or off as needed, pinning the steel down or releasing it.
When Robert-Houdin retired in 1853, it seemed he’d never perform this trick again. But Napoleon III asked him to return, for the good of France. Over in Algeria, holy men were claiming to be prophets. They were charming snakes and walking on fire and doing other stuff that they claimed to be magic — not just illusions but real magic. These fakirs (also referred to as “fakers,” or as another word that sounds like both those) were vying for power. Napoleon told Robert-Houdin to head down to a theater in Algiers and put on a show for the chieftains, showing them French magic beats Algerian magic. This would quell an incipient rebellion.
So, Robert-Houdin performed for an audience of 60 chieftains in an Algiers theater. He did coin tricks and pulled stuff from his hat, and he did his Light and Heavy Chest illusion. This next part is why we’re rooting for him in this story. After his act, he told his audience how he’d performed the tricks. Through translators, he explained about the electromagnet and all the rest. He didn’t want to convince them that he was a prophet (or Satan), or that France wielded the power of Allah. He wanted to tell them that all magic is just tricks, and the fakirs were lying to them.
Of course, Algeria eventually did become independent from France. That happened years later, and without a revolution. For now, though, a couple days after the performance, the chieftains created an illuminated manuscript praising Robert-Houdin and declared that they were cool with France. We like to imagine they also all purchased top hats and bunnies and decided to go into show business.
Eddie Chapman was a gambler, a drunk, a thief and a convict. He became the head of a gang and pulled off a heist, putting on a disguise, smashing through a wall, stealing a safe and then blowing it up. He was in jail for this on one of Britain’s Channel Islands when Germany invaded during World War II. And if you want to know what he did next, well, here’s a photo of Christopher Plummer playing him in the 1966 film Triple Cross:
Yeah, he signed up with the Nazis. Soon after, though, he was back in Britain as the Reich’s secret agent and went right to MI5 and told them he wanted to work for His Majesty after all. MI5 had actually already known the Germans had him and were planning on arresting him, but this suited them much better.
Chapman was on a mission to blow up the De Havilland aircraft factory, a mission he wasn’t particularly keen on fulfilling. If the factory exploded, Germany would accept him as their man for sure, and he’d go on to be an illustrious double agent for England. Or maybe they could merely trick Germany into thinking the place had exploded.
Imperial War Museums
And so, they put together an illusion, with the help of a magician. Some sources say this magician was our old friend Jasper Maskelyne, though that’s uncertain. They used papier-mâché to simulate exploded transformers and other rubble. A few specially designed tarps thrown over nearby buildings gave the appearance that a blast had affected those spots too. The Germans bought the ruse, and they embraced Chapman. Mission accomplished.
It was all thanks to stagecraft — stagecraft, and the small fact that the British government also planted a story in the Daily Express falsely reporting on the nonexistent bombing. Yeah, stage magic is all very well, but the real masters of misdirection are the wielders of the written word.
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Michael O’Donoghue is rolling in his black-comedy grave