Author: Jim Steinmeyer
I picked up Hiding the Elephant as a bit of research for a sermon illustration. Because I’m a first-class nerd, I’m far more likely to read an entire book than I am a short paragraph in order to share a short and sweet story with a crowd. In this case, I was fascinated by the subject matter. I grew up reading stories and writing school reports on the exploits of Harry Houdini, so I had a pre-existing condition as I jumped in headlong.
The book chronicles the history of innovation leading up to and just beyond two of the greatest disappearing acts in historical magic. First is the disappearing donkey performed by Charles Morritt (1860-1936). Second is Houdini’s Vanishing Elephant, first performed in 1918 at the New York Hippodrome, and later performed at a smaller theater near Times Square. Along the way, great conjurers of the past – Devant, Morritt, Maskelyne, Selbit, Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini and others are woven together in the historical pursuit of a particular illusion – disappearance. You could almost add a second subtitle – something like The cabinetry of conjuring – as the book also tracks the illusions of spiritualism, vanishing cabinets, and even sawing a lady in half. Steinmeyer, a seasoned magician himself, is very careful to avoid revealing secrets that can’t otherwise be discovered in previous books.
I was fascinated at his recollection of the dramatic competition surrounding the heyday of conjuring. Magic seems to be both a brotherhood and a competition. The protection of trade secrets is important, but so is being the first and the best, uncovering, imitating, and improving on the work of peers. At the turn of the 20th century, this competition was heated and prevalent even across the Atlantic.
Steinmeyer is particularly invested in the mystery of the Disappearing Donkey. I found this aspect of the narrative to be endearing. Rather than a cold and detached account of history, Steinmeyer is constantly chasing a particular secret, which gives the book heart. Because I think in pictures, I was thankful to see diagrams of a number of illusions (again, nothing so secretive that it has not already been revealed). I found it helpful to follow the narrative and see the apparatus.
Perhaps the most attuned quality of the work is the author’s understanding of the nature of conjuring. Steinmeyer’s specifics are enlightening, but at times he broadened his lens to speak of magic as a whole:
“a good conjuring trick is not so much a matter of mechanics as a “collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, that are stacked and arranged ingeniously to form the battlement for an illusion. It’s a delicate battle of wits – an audience that welcomes being deceived, then dares to be fooled, alternately questioning, prodding, and surrendering.”
“When magicians are good at their jobs, it is because they anticipate the way an audience thinks. They are able to suggest a series of clues that guide the audience to the deception. Great magicians don’t leave the audience’s thought patterns to chance; they depend on the audience’s bringing something to the table – preconceptions or assumptions that can be naturally exploited.”
“Alternatively, anyone with a firm system of beliefs, anyone who has been forced to categorize or analyze information, is ripe for a skillful deception. This is why there are famous and embarrassing examples of learned men of science being badly fooled by the simple tricks of fake psychics.”
“If the performance is successful, it is because the storytelling has been successful. If it stops being simply a puzzle and becomes magical, it is because the audience has succumbed to the magician’s direction and interpretations.”
Because of my interest in human nature, I am drawn in by these observations. Steinmeyer is not misled or misleading as to the nature of his craft. Yet it is this brutal honesty that makes the book most appealing. When an author can unmask the deception and still spark further interest, this is (in my opinion) the mark of a great read. Despite knowing more of the mechanics, I am probably more likely to take in a show having read this book.
More telling, and this was the nature of my sermon illustration, Steinmeyer provides a brilliant and particular look at humanity’s desire to deceive and be deceived. Magic is the marriage of the two. We spend a great deal of our lives mired in deception. Don’t think so? Think back to the last time you were asked How are you? Without hesitation, you probably said Good (or Well, for my grammatical friends), how are you? The reality of this everyday exchange is that we ask even though we often don’t care, and we answer without even hinting at the truth. It’s an everyday act of illusion!
I would recommend this book without hesitation to anyone who is even slightly interested in magic. Even more so, I would recommend this book to anyone who would love an industry-specific dive into human nature. You just might learn more than you anticipated!