A little holiday magic?

Want to impress your friends and family with some conjuring after dinner? Whether you want to learn a few tricks to entertain the children, or like me, you are simply fascinated by how sleight of hand artists achieve their “magic,” you might enjoy “Hocus Pocus Junior: The Art of Legerdemain, or, The Art of Iugling set forth in his proper colours, fully, plainly, and exactly, so that an ignorant person may thereby learn the full perfection of the same, after a little practise.”

“Hocus Pocus Junior” is not just instructive, but fascinating from a historical perspective.  Printed in 1635, the book explains in detail how to perform conjuring tricks like the “Cups and Balls,” that still form the basis of sleight of hand artists’ acts today. However, some of the tricks described have likely lost their lustre: in the age of electric refrigeration and broad science education, it’s unlikely that we would be impressed by the ability to freeze a cauldron onto a stool using a handful of snow and some salt!

From the basic “Cups and Balls,” Hocus Pocus takes the reader through increasingly complex tricks with coins and ropes, on a side journey into how to silver mirrors using mercury (warning, don’t try this at home!), and culminates with advice on “Confederacie,” or the use of accomplices in the audience. However, my favorite has to be the gruesome, but probably not very convincing, “Decollation of Iohn Baptist:”

You must have a table with two good wide holes towards one end, also a cloth on purpose to cover the table with, so that the said covering may hang to the ground round about the table; also this covering must have two holes made in it even with the holes of the table, you must also have a platter of wood for the purpose, having a hole in the bottom to fit also unto the holes of the table, and it must, as also the table, be made to take in two pieces: having these in readinesse, you must have two boyes; the one must lie along upon the table with his backe upward, and he must put his head thorow the one hole of the table, cloth and all; the other must sit under the table and put his head thorow the other hole of the table, then put the platter about his neck, to make the sight more dreadfull to behold, you may forme some loome about the neckes of them, making small holes in them as it were veins, and besmeare it over with sheepes bloud, putting some bloud also and little bits of liver into the platter, and set a chafing-dish of coales before the head, strewing some brimstone upon the coales; for this will make the head seem so pale and wan, as if in very deed it were separated from the body.
Decollation of Iohn Baptist
The head may fetch a gaspe or two, and it will be better. Let no body bee present while you doe this, neither when you have given entrance, permit any to be medling, nor let them tarry long.

We do not know who wrote Hocus Pocus Junior; he probably did not want his fellow “Iuglers” to know who was spilling their secrets. However we do know of at least one famous illusionist who, hundreds of years later, read the book: the rare and precious original in the Library of Congress, which was scanned for Distributed Proofreaders to create this e-book, bears the inscription “Bequest of Harry Houdini April 1927.”

I hope you enjoy this little piece of history preserved.

2 Responses to A little holiday magic?

  1. LCantoni says:

    Thanks for this fascinating (and hilarious) post! Searching Google Shopping for sheepes bloud and brimstone now! 🙂

  2. Sue Clark says:

    This sounds like a fascinating book! thanks for reviewing it. It seems that even way back then, there were people who “debunked” sleight of hand trickery. It’s amazing that PG is getting to put the book out as an eBook.


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