7 of the most mystical magicians in history

We’re so excited that everyone’s favorite magic brain, Jonathan Creek, returns to WGBH this week. Creek designs magic tricks and illusions to earn a living and uses these deception skills to solve impossible crimes. Magic, crime and mystery – what more could you ask for?

Humans have long been fascinated by magic. Since ancient times, people accused of magic and witchcraft were considered outcasts by society. Jonathan Creek may be fictional, but real-life magicians have become some of our most influential performers. So we couldn’t help but wonder: how did magic move from condemnation to celebration?

It turns out that theatrical magic as we know it today began its rise to the stage in the early 18th century. Before that, magicians and magicians were found on the streets and in the markets, a habit of gypsies, street performers and traveling musicians. Magic as a performance art was aided by the advent of machines and electricity, when these forces were still a mystery to the general public. Fast forward through a few centuries, and magicians have captured the attention of people all over the world.

We take you back in time to meet some of history’s most mystical magicians and explore what made them so successful.

Courtesy of Magic: an illustrated history of conjurers in the theater

Famous for: Create large-scale illusions
Asset: Late 1800s
With both a father and an older brother who made their living as magicians, French-born Alexander Herrmann had magic in his blood and lived up to expectations by earning the nickname “Herrmann The Great”. Magic shows at the time were generally serious business shrouded in mystery, and Herrmann broke with this tradition by introducing humor and joy into his acts. His stage performances elevated magic to a new art form, creating grand illusions that mystified audiences. He deployed lavish stage decorations to distract the audience as well as cleverly constructed props that seemed deceptively simple. For his famous “Escape from Sing Sing” act, he used body doubles as well as an elaborately constructed prison with hidden compartments to simulate shooting an escaped convict. Herrmann became world famous and eventually had audiences with world leaders such as Queen Isabella II of Spain, President Abraham Lincoln, President Ulysses S. Grant, and Sultan Abdul Aziz, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. After Herrmann’s death, his wife Adelaide performed for 25 more years – and became known as “The Queen of Magic”.

John Nevil Maskelyne
John Nevil Maskelyne

Courtesy of Günter Josef Radig (Woodburytype Business Card)

Famous for: Invention; Using Deception to Aid War Efforts
Asset: Late 1800s to mid 1900s
Sometimes magic is a family affair, which was certainly the case with the Maskelyne family. It all started with John Nevil Maskelyne, an inventor credited with developing the levitation trick. His son Nevil was also a magician, as was Jasper, Nevil’s son. Like Jonathan Creek, Jasper Maskelyne would have used his own powers of deception for another purpose: deceiving the Nazis and aiding the Allied forces in World War II. Maskelyne and his “Magic Gang” allegedly used illusions to create fake tank and soldier movements, fooling Nazi troops, and they were even able to conceal important Allied targets. Jasper’s exploits would be supposed be the subject of an upcoming film with Benedict Cumberbatcha seasoned actor playing another eccentric crime solver.


Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Famous for: Levitation
Asset: Late 1800s to early 1900s
Harry Kellar was considered the first great American magician, and Harry Houdini credited him with having a significant influence on his own performances. Like Jonathan Creek, Pennsylvania-born Kellar started out as an assistant to magicians before striking out on his own. As his fame increased, he became a rival of Alexander Herrmann. The key to his success was a lavish presentation and an ability to misdirect an audience. One of his best-known acts was “The Levitation of Princess Karnac” in which a girl floats off a couch and Kellar passes her a hoop to prove she’s not suspended. The trick used a machine hidden by stationary decorations, while the girl rested on a flat board that could lift and lower her. Future magicians would repeat the trick for years.

Harry Houdini chained
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Famous for: Acts of escape
Asset: Early 1900s
Probably the most famous magician on this list, the Hungarian-born Houdini was part magician and part entertainer, captivating audiences around the world who traveled far and wide to see the “Handcuff King” escape impossible dilemmas. What was the secret of his success? Spectators have often noted Houdini’s powerful physique and flexibility. Additionally, a locksmith who once knew him praises his “remarkable knowledge of locks and locking devices”. Houdini claimed to have “photographic eyes”, which allowed him to memorize all types of locks, ropes and knots – and how they worked. He did other amazing acts, escaping straitjackets, tied ropes, underwater packing boxes, and even a milk can. For anyone wishing to recreate his exploits, he gave some advice in his own 1910 book Secrets of handcuffs: “You’ll notice that some of these tricks are very simple,” he wrote, “but remember it’s not the trick that matters, it’s the style and how it’s done. presented.”

Learn more and watch American Experience: Impulse to Escape by Harry Houdini.

Howard Thurston Poster
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Famous for: Traveling magic show
Asset: Early 1900s
Howard Thurston dominated the American magic scene in the early 1900s, and became known as the “King of Cards”. He made his big break with card tricks, most notably the “Rising Cards” trick, where he would conjure up the card chosen by an audience member and it would come out of a glass goblet and into his hands. He will later realize great illusions, including the famous Levitation of Princess Karnac, which had been invented by John Nevil Maskelyne and performed by Harry Kellar. Electricity was still a novelty in many homes, and its machines added to its mystery. He was also known for his ability to make many types of objects disappear – groups of people, pianos, lions, tigers, and even automobiles. With the expansion of the railroad in the early 1900s, Thurston could take the magic on the road. He developed a traveling magic show that became the greatest American ever.

Ricky Jay

Courtesy of David Shankbone

Famous for: Sleights and Card Tricks
Asset: Mid 1900s to early 2000s
Ricky Jay has studied magic throughout his life and began performing on stage at the age of 7. He quickly found his magical passion – card tricks – and devoted his life to perfecting his craft. He is well known for his precision with card throwing, known as scaling, which was introduced to magical acts by Alexander Herrmann and Howard Thurston. One of Jay’s signature acts was piercing watermelon with cards across the stage. His magical expertise and prowess in deception led him to consult on films such as Ocean’s Thirteen, the illusionist, and Prestige. Like any magician, Jay never revealed his secrets, but admits comedy and entertainment were a big part of his appeal. “Most people realize that magical powers aren’t invoked and it’s someone who has created a way to mystify and entertain you,” Jay said. The New York Times in 2002. “The key is surprise. If you give the method, you deny someone the surprise.

Learn more about Ricky Jay from American Masters: Deceptive Practices

David Copperfield

Courtesy of ABC Television

Famous for: Elaborate TV stunts
Asset: Late 1900s
Magic took another step in the 20th century – from the stage to our television screens. With an ability to reach whole new audiences, magicians have found new avenues for fame and glory, like David Copperfield, one of the most successful American performers in history. He became known for elaborate acts broadcast live on television and was clearly influenced by his theatrical predecessors. His television towers included survivor of being thrown from Niagara Falls all chained up, cross the Great Wall of Chinaand escape from alcatraz. Perhaps most famously, he did the The Statue of Liberty disappears on live television in 1983. It turns out that the live audience – and the cameras – were on a platform that just rotated gradually and quite slowly so that the statue hid behind a two pillars holding the large curtain. Thanks to a few cleverly placed lights, the statue seemed to disappear. Copperfield also wanted to use magic for a different purpose: patriotism. He wanted to show “how precious freedom is and how much it can be lost. I can magically show how we take our freedom for granted,” he said.

Jonathan Creek airs on WGBX Thursday, April 11 at 9 p.m.

9 of David Copperfield’s most memorable illusions
American Experience: Harry Kellar
Escape Secrets: Harry Houdini
Gibson, Walter B (1966). The Master Magicians. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Howard Thurston, the magician who disappeared
Price, David (1985). Magic: an illustrated history of conjurers in the theater. New York: Cornwall Books.
The most famous magician you’ve never heard of

Brian L. Hartfield