John Nevil Maskelyne: The Royal Illusionist

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Today is the birthday of magician, producer and inventor John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917). Maskelyne caught the performing bug early. As a child he had taught himself plate-spinning after seeing the effect done in a performance. As a young clockmakers apprentice, he devised his first illusion, a small box with a secret panel that allowed him to remove objects that had been quite plainly sealed and locked inside.

It wasn’t until 1865 that the young amateur magician burst into the professional scene when he attended a spirit cabinet demonstration by the Davenport Brothers. By chance, he happened to see into one of the cabinets, catching one of the brothers in the act of deception. He publicly announced that he and a partner would duplicate and exceed the Davenports effects in two months’ time – -and do so without the aid of “spirits”. As his partner he enlisted his friend George Alfred Cooke (the two young men both played cornet in a band together).

Maskelyne and Cooke delivered as promised. What’s more, Maskelyne went far beyond the simple wrist ropes the Davenports used — he allowed himself to be enclosed in a small box, which was then tied shut with ropes from the outside, the beginnings of an effect later emulated by Houdini. Maskelyne and Cooke’s triumph was a sensation and the beginning of their professional careers.

In 1873, he began to lease an auditorium in London’s Egyptian Hall, thus beginning Maskelyne’s long career as a producer and presenter of other magicians (while still performing himself).  Cooke retired in 1902. Maskelyne subsequently took on as his partner fellow magician David Devant, who stayed with him through 1915. In 1904 they learned that Egyptian Hall was slated to be demolished, and they moved their operations to St. George’s Hall.

Maskelyne devised countless more original illusions besides his spirit cabinet and box escape. Most notably he is credited with perfecting a version of the levitation illusion still in wide use today. He was also an inventor of a non-conjuring machines, including the pay toilet, and a typewriter. He also wrote the first thorough book exposing the secrets of cardsharps.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

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