M is for John Nevil Maskelyne

This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!
John Nevil Maskelyne

John Nevil Maskelyne

In the last round of ABC Wednesday I wrote about the War Magician, Jasper Maskelyne, mentioning that he was the grandson of the pre-eminent Victorian magician and inventor of the pay toilet, John Nevil Maskelyne, and it felt only right that I should complete his story.

The Maskelyne family liked to suggest that they were descended from Nevil Maskelyne, the famous astronomer royal under George III, but they weren’t.

The Maskelyne magic dynasty began in 1839 when John Nevil Maskelyne was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the son of a saddler.

The young Maskelyne was apprenticed to a clockmaker and as well as playing the cornet and singing in his church choir, he meddled in magic. But it was his mistrust of charlatan spiritualists that set him on his career on the stage.

One day a supposed medium came into the clockmaker’s shop with a ‘surgical device’ that needed mending. It was an odd looking thing with a leather strap and a swinging metal arm. Maskelyne repaired a broken spring and realised that it was meant to be strapped to the medium’s leg who could then operate the trigger with his heel to produce mysterious raps on the bottom of the table during a seance.

He was delighted to have worked it out, but appalled at the deception so he returned the device with a bill that read: ‘Repairs to table raising apparatus 1s 6d’. He didn’t get any more business from the local spiritualists, but tellingly table rapping completely disappeared from their acts.

Davenport Brothers' Cabinet SeanceAnd it was his unmasking of another séance scam that sealed his future. Ira and William Davenport were American spiritualists/magicians who became famous for their cabinet seance trick in which they were tied inside the large box with various musical instruments.

The doors would close and then music would play from inside, but when the doors opened again, there were the brothers still securely tied.

They claimed that this was a genuine spiritualist experience and they would invite people on stage to oversee the trick, as they did when they appeared at Cheltenham Town Hall and the twenty-six-year-old Maskelyne was one of the supervising committee members.

It was an afternoon performance and the curtains were drawn against the sunlight. The raps, ringing and strumming began and as usual, the centre door opened and instruments poured out, but at that moment a gust of wind briefly lifted one of the curtains and a ray of light entered the box.

From where he was stood, Maskelyne could see Ira Davenport throwing out the instruments with a free arm before realising he had been spotted when he slipped it back inside his bindings.

It happened quickly, but it was enough for Maskelyne who ended the performance when he stepped forward and announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, by a slight accident I have been able to discover this trick’.

It wasn’t the first time that the Davenport Brothers fell foul of exposure (PT Barnum included them in his 1865 book The Humbugs of the World), but the young Maskelyne declared that he would learn the skills necessary to repeat the trick for the people of Cheltenham. This he did, even improving on the trick.

Maskelyne & CookeMaskelyne went into partnership with fellow bandsman, cabinetmaker and amateur conjurer, George Cooke and the two began a tour of the country and their array of illusions developed into a short play called ‘The Mystic Freaks of Gyges’. The was to become a hallmark of their act – a sense of theatre that delivered one surprise after another.

Makelyne and Cooke took their act to London in 1873 and took out a three-month lease on the tiny Egyptian Hall Theatre in Piccadilly.

The interior was adorned with hieroglyphics and papyrus leaf columns and seated just 200 people, but its narrow stage was perfect for magic and in the years that followed many other magicians honed their skills there so that it became known as ‘England’s Home of Mystery‘.

Shortly after 1873, Maskelyne began work on an automaton, or mechanical man, who would appear to think, answer questions and even play a hand of cards.

PsychoThe idea was suggested to him by inventor, John Algernon Clarke, who when he wasn’t patenting agricultural devices enjoyed magic and the theatre.  His suggestion was that the automaton could be operated remotely using an air pressure system. Maskelyne and Clarke filed patent papers and set about creating Psycho which made its first appearance at the Egyptian Hall in January 1875.

Psycho wore Hindu dress and a large turban and sat cross-legged on a small chest. This, in turn, stood on a glass pillar so that the audience could see that there were no hidden working – well none that they could fathom.

In front of Psycho was a rack of thirteen playing cards with which he would play a game of whist, his hand moving with a mechanical clicking as he selected which card to play.

Psycho was a sensation with all sorts of theories as to the secret of the trick. Some thought it was controlled by electricity or magnetism, or some sort of heat ray. Some thought there was a dog inside the base controlled the automaton as if a card-playing dog would be any less amazing than Psycho!

Maskeyne and ZoeThe secret of Maskelyne’s success was that he was a showman and for a time the greatest brand name in magic. He invented many illusions that are still performed today and many more famous names, like Harry Houdini, owed their reputations to him, at least in part.

And along the way, he invented the lock for public toilets that required a coin to open and thus the euphemism to ‘spend a penny’ entered the language.

Throughout his career, Maskelyne opposed the idea of spiritualism and the supernatural, insisting that magic was a man-made illusion, pure and simple, and in 1914 he founded the Occult Committee with the remit to ‘investigate claims to supernatural power and to expose fraud’, in particular, to prove that the Indian Rope Trick has never been performed.

You can read much more about John Nevil Maskelyne elsewhere and I would recommend Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer, the source for much of this post. Meanwhile, below is a rare and extremely brief video of Maskelyne in action.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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