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Magic Goes to War

Doing the unexpected has always been the key to military success, but there’s more to victory than just careful planning. With a flash and a bang and just a hint of sleight of hand, our fortean prestidigator Gordon Rutter opens our eyes to the role of magic in bringing hostilities to a satisfactory conclusion.

Since the first shaman cast the runes before the tribe went into battle, magic has always played a part in war – it may surprise some people to discover that such has been the case even in relatively recent conflicts.

To cover every known instance of the magical arts being pressed into service in times of war would require a book of prodigious size, so in this article I am going to cover only a few instances – although they will be very different instances indeed, offering, I hope, some sense of the subject’s scope.

The Collins Concise Dictionary defines magic as “the art that, by the use of spells, supposedly invokes supernatural powers to influence events; the practice of illusory tricks to entertain; any mysterious or extraordinary quality or power”. As we shall see, each of these aspects of magic has played its part in warfare. For our first look at magic at war we must travel back in time to the late 19th century, when France was a major colonial power. But the natives were restless.

In 1856, there were rumblings in French Algeria. It was clear that revolution against French rule was brewing and France wanted to avoid conflict – while the colonisers wanted neither the loss of life nor the associated financial implications of quelling a rebellion, they also had no desire to give up their colony. Such a decision would surely be the first step on a slippery slope down which France had no wish to go. Enter, stage left, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Originally a clockmaker, Robert-Houdin had become a magician, or conjurer if you prefer, in 1845, at the relatively late age of 40. He was quite clear about what he did, describing himself as a conjurer and never claiming to possess genuine supernatural powers; he was the Paul Daniels of his day (and I mean that as a great compliment to both gentlemen). Very soon, Robert-Houdin was amazing audiences all over the world. He was one of the first magicians to perform in theatres rather than fairs and marketplaces, bringing to magic, in the process, a certain respectability. And he also imparted to it a touch of style – he was the first conjurer to perform in evening wear rather than the previously traditional wizard’s hat and robes, establishing for magicians a ‘look’ that would persist for the next century.

Robert-Houdin was a true innovator in the art of magic – and also the science. When he wanted an effect that didn’t exist, he invented it. When the required technology wasn’t already in place, he pushed the boundaries. Interested, it seems, in virtually every subject under the sun, he kept his mind – and his act – sharp and up-to-date by incorporating all sorts of new developments into his routines, often before they became generally known. For instance, he used electromagnetism when it was in its infancy; when it became widely understood, he modified his act accordingly. He even had a luminescent filament inside a glass bulb long before Edison or Swann had even thought about it. But, let us return to 1856.

Robert-Houdin was enjoying his retirement when he was approached by the French government seeking his help in dealing with problems in French Algeria. One of the main leaders of the potential revolution was a Marabout (a member of an Arab religious faction who were using demonstrations of magic to incite the population to revolt) named Zoras al Khatim. The Algerian wizards were highly accomplished, and anyone who commanded their power was listened to attentively. Many of the locals were wholly certain that when a Marabout showed them magic it was the real deal. Tricks such as eating glass without suffering any injury (a standard geek trick) and healing wounds were common practice. Faced with these god-like powers, people were willing not only to sit up and pay attention to the magic itself, but also inclined to go along with what the Marabouts wanted – and what they wanted was the French out of their country.

Robert-Houdin was dispatched to the capital city of Algiers, where he was booked to perform for several days at a local theatre. The word had gone out that a great French wizard was in town, and many important chiefs and Marabouts were invited to the performance. All shows were standing room only. People tried to gain entry by any method they could, and there are even reports of French nationals blacking up to try and get in! The French placed interpreters amongst the audience to ensure that everyone followed exactly what was happening.

The theatre was full, the audience was expectant, and if the reviews were bad they would probably precipitate a war. It’s safe to say that the stakes in this performance were high.

Robert-Houdin began his act. Initially, he produced some five-franc coins from his empty hand – impressive enough, but hardly sufficient to halt a revolution. But then he upped the ante. From his empty top hat, he produced a cannon ball. Now, this – or at least such was the implication – could be a problem. Who wanted to fight an enemy that could conjure up ammunition from thin air? He had planned to follow this with one of his signature tricks – the inexhaustible bottle – in which an empty bottle is shown to the crowd and then drinks of every kind (as named by members of the audience) flow from it. However, there was a slight problem. French Algeria was a Muslim country and Robert-Houdin was trying to avert a war; to insult people by offering them the alcohol their religion expressly forbade would have been distinctly counter-productive. So, tailoring his act to his audience, he brandished an empty bowl which then was miraculously filled and refilled with sweetmeats. Eventually tiring of this, he followed the sweetmeats with a magical stream of boiling coffee that was passed around to the assembled masses. Initially, the Arabs refused to drink such an unnatural brew – well, would you accept a drink from the Devil himself?

Then, Robert-Houdin asked for the strongest man in the theatre to join him on the stage and announced that he would drain all physical strength from the volunteer. A small box, which even a child could lift, was brought out. The strong man lifted the box. No problem. The Frenchman next commanded the man to lose his strength, and invited him once more to lift the box. Expecting it to be just as easy as before, the Arab tried again… only to find that, this time, he couldn’t budge it. And worse was to come. As Robert-Houdin, with a hint of gentle mockery in his voice, suggested that the man felt an urge to release the box, the unfortunate Algerian found himself suddenly complying, much to the wonderment of all present. The French conjurer then casually picked it up with just one hand as he cleared the stage for the next demonstration. The audience was dumbfounded; the strong man was in some amazement, and fled the theatre.

It was Robert-Houdin’s interest in science that made this particular piece of magic work. I don’t think I’ll be snatched by the Magic Circle’s hit squad (who are still looking for the Masked Magician, by the way) for letting you in on this one. The answer lies in electromagnetism. In the box, there was a metal plate and under the stage where the performance took place there was an electromagnet. Robert-Houdin switched this on and off as required, seeming to rob his baffled volunteer, just as the magician had threatened to do, of all strength. And, as an extra bonus, the brass handles of the box were attached to a battery, allowing him to administer an electric shock at any time he wanted. Electromagnetism was, at the time, a little known branch of science for which no real applications had yet been found.

In another part of the act, one of the rebel leaders was made to bleed. Nothing magical there, you say – but this particular instance, the blood flowed not from the rebel himself but from his shadow!

Towards the end of the night’s performance, a Marabout attempted to shoot Robert-Houdin. The conjurer held up an apple in front of him, and the bullet lodged harmlessly in it. The Marabout seized the apple and refused to return it, thinking he had the very talisman that gave the Frenchman his magic powers.

As an encore, Robert-Houdin made a young Arab disappear from atop a table in the centre of the stage. The youth stood on the table so the whole audience could see beneath it. He then enveloped his subject in a cone of paper and, when the cone was opened, the youth had vanished. This proved too much for some of the audience, many of whom fled from their seats. On their way out, they ran straight into the recently disappeared Arab who, frightened by their questioning, fled in turn! A second night in the same theatre provoked similar reactions. Things were going well.

As Robert-Houdin’s fame spread and the hoped-for rebellion seemed less likely to take place, Sheikh Bou Allem ben Shenfa Bash Aga of the Djendel tribe invited this foreign celebrity to stay with him. The sheikh himself was known to be friendly to the French but the same could not be said for his Marabout who poured derision on every one of Robert-Houdin’s reported feats.

Robert-Houdin performed some small-scale conjuring of the sort that a table-hopping magician in a restaurant today might produce. He made the Sheikh’s rosary disappear and then reappear in a slipper next to the door of the room, a shoe which was subsequently found to be full of coins… and talking of coins, many a five-franc piece was produced from the nose of a spectator that evening. The Marabout announced he could not be deceived, and that he believed in neither the power nor the skill of the Frenchman. The words were spoken from the opposite end of the room. Robert-Houdin commanded the Marabout to close his hand and hold it in front of him. He then feigned the throwing of a coin across the room. When the Marabout opened his hand to find it empty he laughed, believing his opponent had failed. The magician apologised for throwing the coin too hard – in fact, he had thrown it so hard he thought it would be found in the Marabout’s sash – which it was. He apologised once more, saying he had been afraid of damaging the Marabout’s watch with the coin. To be on the safe side, he had called it to him. Opening his hand, Robert-Houdin displayed the poor fellows watch – which he had secretly removed from the Marabout at the start of the evening.

The Marabout, angry at being made to look foolish, then challenged Robert-Houdin to a duel and, using impeccable logic, he demanded the right to fire first – after all, didn’t the infidel claim to be invincible? Sheikh Bou Allem was furious that a guest of his should be treated in such a manner, but Robert-Houdin accepted the challenge. This was not a development that he had prepared for, but the former clockmaker was able to think on his feet, and convinced the Marabout that the time of the duel should be put back to eight o’clock the following morning – he claimed he needed to pray and meditate to ready his powers for the challenge (and he had left his magic talisman in Algiers).

The following morning Robert-Houdin went to the town square, to be greeted by the entire population of the village. The guns were powdered by the Marabout, and Robert-Houdin was given a choice of bullets. Two were chosen and loaded along with the paper wadding used for flintlock pistols. As they stood 15 paces apart, the Marabout fired first – and was amazed to see his foe still standing. Even worse, he was smiling.

As Robert-Houdin’s grin broadened it could be seen that he had caught the lead bullet between his teeth! At this point the Marabout was surely fearful for his life. Imagine his surprise when the Frenchman took careful aim and, instead of shooting the man, deliberately fired into a nearby wall, from which blood began to drip! (a fact attested to by those who rushed to the wall and even tasted the blood). This was the final nail in the coffin of the uprising. The rebels were by now firmly convinced that the French possessed far greater magicians and wizards than they did, and that any attempt to fight them would surely be doomed to failure.

The scroll Robert-Houdin received in recognition of his services is still on display in the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Missouri. He wrote this and many other tales into his memoirs, The king of the conjurers (1859). The book became required reading for many aspiring magicians, and for one of them its effect was profound.

Young magician Erich Weiss, who was born in Hungary but whose parents moved to Wisconsin when he was four, was so impressed by the French conjurer’s feats that Robert-Houdin at once became his hero, to the point where he even based his stage name on the French master – and thus was Harry Houdini born. Robert-Houdin died in 1871, but he has been truthfully referred to as the father of modern magic.

So, that’s how one retired magician averted a war in Algeria in 1856 – a case of brilliant conjuring versus supposedly real magic. But some of you are probably feeling cheated – what about the real thing?

As Robert-Houdin’s fame spread and the hoped-for rebellion seemed less likely to take place, Sheikh Bou Allem ben Shenfa Bash Aga of the Djendel tribe invited this foreign celebrity to stay with him. The sheikh himself was known to be friendly to the French but the same could not be said for his Marabout who poured derision on every one of Robert-Houdin’s reported feats.

Robert-Houdin performed some small-scale conjuring of the sort that a table-hopping magician in a restaurant today might produce. He made the Sheikh’s rosary disappear and then reappear in a slipper next to the door of the room, a shoe which was subsequently found to be full of coins… and talking of coins, many a five-franc piece was produced from the nose of a spectator that evening. The Marabout announced he could not be deceived, and that he believed in neither the power nor the skill of the Frenchman. The words were spoken from the opposite end of the room. Robert-Houdin commanded the Marabout to close his hand and hold it in front of him. He then feigned the throwing of a coin across the room. When the Marabout opened his hand to find it empty he laughed, believing his opponent had failed. The magician apologised for throwing the coin too hard – in fact, he had thrown it so hard he thought it would be found in the Marabout’s sash – which it was. He apologised once more, saying he had been afraid of damaging the Marabout’s watch with the coin. To be on the safe side, he had called it to him. Opening his hand, Robert-Houdin displayed the poor fellows watch – which he had secretly removed from the Marabout at the start of the evening.

The Marabout, angry at being made to look foolish, then challenged Robert-Houdin to a duel and, using impeccable logic, he demanded the right to fire first – after all, didn’t the infidel claim to be invincible? Sheikh Bou Allem was furious that a guest of his should be treated in such a manner, but Robert-Houdin accepted the challenge. This was not a development that he had prepared for, but the former clockmaker was able to think on his feet, and convinced the Marabout that the time of the duel should be put back to eight o’clock the following morning – he claimed he needed to pray and meditate to ready his powers for the challenge (and he had left his magic talisman in Algiers).

The following morning Robert-Houdin went to the town square, to be greeted by the entire population of the village. The guns were powdered by the Marabout, and Robert-Houdin was given a choice of bullets. Two were chosen and loaded along with the paper wadding used for flintlock pistols. As they stood 15 paces apart, the Marabout fired first – and was amazed to see his foe still standing. Even worse, he was smiling.

As Robert-Houdin’s grin broadened it could be seen that he had caught the lead bullet between his teeth! At this point the Marabout was surely fearful for his life. Imagine his surprise when the Frenchman took careful aim and, instead of shooting the man, deliberately fired into a nearby wall, from which blood began to drip! (a fact attested to by those who rushed to the wall and even tasted the blood). This was the final nail in the coffin of the uprising. The rebels were by now firmly convinced that the French possessed far greater magicians and wizards than they did, and that any attempt to fight them would surely be doomed to failure.

The scroll Robert-Houdin received in recognition of his services is still on display in the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Missouri. He wrote this and many other tales into his memoirs, The king of the conjurers (1859). The book became required reading for many aspiring magicians, and for one of them its effect was profound.

Young magician Erich Weiss, who was born in Hungary but whose parents moved to Wisconsin when he was four, was so impressed by the French conjurer’s feats that Robert-Houdin at once became his hero, to the point where he even based his stage name on the French master – and thus was Harry Houdini born. Robert-Houdin died in 1871, but he has been truthfully referred to as the father of modern magic.

So, that’s how one retired magician averted a war in Algeria in 1856 – a case of brilliant conjuring versus supposedly real magic. But some of you are probably feeling cheated – what about the real thing?

On 11 May 1941, Crowley received a phone call from one of the three men who recruited him: “The sea is calm. The bird has flown. Balder is back from Hell”. Rudolf Hess had arrived in Britain just after 11pm the previous evening. Haushoffer and Retinger were personal friends and advisers of Hess and have been implicated in various aspects of the Deputy Führer’s still unexplained flight from Berlin to Scotland. Some reports claim that Hess said he had received spirit messages telling him that he was the chosen one and had a mission to undertake. After Hess’s flight, Hitler purged his advisers of astrologers and seers.

So, was Crowley responsible for one of the most baffling mysteries of WWII? Was it really he who forced Hitler’s staunchest supporter and deputy to leave Germany at the height of the Nazis’ power, or did Crowley just appropriate an historic event and weave himself into the story for whatever reasons?

Crowley, though, was not the only mage working for the British war effort. Occultist and author Dion Fortune was also hard at work during the Second World War, particularly in the period 1939 – 1942. Fortune utilised the members of her Society of the Inner Light, sending out letters each week instructing them to meditate every Sunday on a given subject. Rather than being destructive in nature, these missives were intended to heal the psyche of the beleaguered nation and boost national morale during the darkest years of the war.

Some magicians were pressed to service in other ways. The conjurer Jasper Maskelyne – a celebrated magician from a family of magicians – was asked to employ his skills in a most unexpected way, in a battle of wits with the Desert Fox, Irwin Rommel himself. Maskelyne turned his considerable powers of illusion to the fields of camouflage and military deception, going so far as to make the Suez Canal invisible to enemy aircraft! [see FT149: 22].

The strange relationship of magic and warfare didn’t end with WWII. During the Cold War in the 1950s, John Mullholland trained American intelligence operatives in sleight-of-hand. Was this so they could pose as wandering conjurers to throw enemy spooks off the scent? No, it was to allow them to pass messages clandestinely from agent to agent. And even in the recent Iraq conflict, the ideas of Dion Fortune were brought into play once more, with regular meditation sessions, this time conducted with the aid of mysteriously named Psychotronic Generators.

Oh go on, then – you want to know how Robert-Houdin survived being shot in that duel don’t you? The two bullets fired had been specially prepared by Robert-Houdin the previous night (when he claimed he needed the time for meditation); both were made of wax and lamp-black, and both were hollow. The first bullet was very thin walled, and the act of loading the flintlock pistol destroyed it, so Robert-Houdin was in no real danger. The second had thicker walls and was filled with blood. Simple really, although I wouldn’t recommend you try it at home.

A film based on the events of Robert-Houdin’s visit to Algeria has long been in the offing. Smoke and Mirrors was most recently to have starred Michael Douglas as Robert-Houdin and Kirk Douglas as Bou Allem, but since its inception in 1993 (when it was to have starred Sean Connery) it has remained in development hell. It seems as if not even the magic of Robert-Houdin can get this project off the ground. And the same goes for Maskelyne – attempts to turn his story into a major motion picture go back to 1966 and are still ongoing – it looks as if this one might take off in 2005, with a certain Tom Cruise as the debonair Jasper.


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Magic Goes to War
A poster for the Theatre Robert-Houdin, after it had been bought by the illusionist and film-maker George Méliès for his own extravaganzas.  Image: Maison de la Magie
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Robert-Houdin
Robert-Houdin.  Image: Maison de la Magie
  Magic Goes to War
 
Author Biography
Gordon Rutter is a freelance writer and lecturer based in Edinburgh. He is a regular FT contributor and organises the Edinburgh Fortean Society.

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