19th century magic lessons

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Bill Mullins
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Joined: January 17th, 2008, 12:00 pm
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19th century magic lessons

Postby Bill Mullins » December 11th, 2015, 5:49 pm

From the Cincinnati Enquirer 7 Aug 1880 (apparently reprinted from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat).


Robert Nickle's Classes in Sleight-of-Hand – A Reporter Takes a Lesson in the Black Art
[St. Louis Globe-Democrat]

The black art, as it was called, has at last become an open book to all who care to pay for the privilege of peeping into it and learning its secrets. A Globe-Democrat amateur had last night the privilege of being one of a class of young magicians, under the tuition of Professor Robert Nickle, and was delighted and astounded at the many marvelous things which the professional disclosed to his half-dozen pupils. Magic as seen from an auditorium and as witnessed from the side-scenes of the stage, are two entirely different things. The magician who has the eyes of the audience standing out from their heads like so many pairs of washbowls protruding from facial interrogation points, depends a great deal for the success of his tricks in having the audience in front of him. The disappearing articles and their reappearance astonish everybody in this position; but, the man behind sees and knows all – he sees where the egg, the orange, the handkerchief or other article goes to after it has quit the audience's sight, and much of the dexterity required in these feats is revealed to him. The pupils in Mr. Nickle's class last night were better located than the man behind the scenes, for in addition to seeing how everything was done, the modus operandi was explained to them, and further they were made to treat the several articles in the self-same way – to do every trick the teacher showed them – perhaps a little clumsily, but still satisfactorily enough to themselves and in a manner that gave premise of early and great improvement.

The class is held at Nos. 113 and 115 South Fifth street every evening. A parlor is fitted up for the purpose, chairs being placed around, and a small table near the center of the room serving as the teacher's desk. A small marble-top table standing a short distance away holds a number of articles employed in giving the lessons. On the first table a pack of cards were spread in semi-circular shape, three ordinary tea-cups held three small cork balls, and the regulation magician wand was lying in the rear. Empty egg-shells, coins, cork balls, glasses and silk handkerchiefs were on the marble-top table.

"PALMING" was the first thing to be taught. This consists in concealing the article to be manipulated in the hollow of the hand. For instance, a magician takes a silver half-dollar, exhibits it to the audience and asks them to thoroughly satisfy their sight that the holds the half-dollar in the hand; he then throws it into the other hand, blows and the coin is no longer to be seen. The hand into which the coin has been thrown is opened and exposed to the audience. The hand which the coin was thrown from hangs easily from the side, open, but with the palm turned away from the audience. Its position turns aside suspicion, but if the palm were turned over the audience would see the coin held firmly in position between the fleshy outside portion of the palm and the fleshy base of the thumb. This is called "palming," and is part of the alphabet of manual dexterity. The pupils were each put through this branch of the art, and the Globe-Democrat amateur had the pleasure of making more coins disappear in a few minutes, in a metaphorical way, than he could have done in reality in the same time, even if he had the full amount of money.

It is almost impossible to follow this class through the entire lesson. Mr. Nickle gave each task a clear explanation, performed it himself first as he would do it on the stage, when attempting to mystify, next slowly explaining every motion, and finally putting each scholar through the movements.

THE CARD TRICK was one of the first lessons. An ordinary pack of cards is held up, with the bottom card in full view of the audience. The card is called by name, and the magician, as he moves his arm in easy motion with a wavy turn of the hand, tells them the card whatever it was, has disappeared, and lo! there is another in its place. Thus the jack of spades would be replaced in this mysterious manner by the eight of hearts. The trick consists in dividing and shifting the pack while the hand and arm are moving. The feat is not an easy one, and the pupils sprinkled the pasteboards on the floor frequently in attempting to make the single shift.

The coin trick is as follows: Two coins are placed on the table; one is apparently thrown from the right to the left hand, and thus made to disappear. The coin is really retained in the right hand, being "palmed," and when the other coin is take up and placed behind the back, the two coins are in the right hand. The left hand is now lifted, as if throwing the first coin in the air, a clinking noise is made and the two coins are shown. The class did this trick very well.

Another and a harder trick, and one that it would take considerable space to explain so as to be fully understood, was done with a coin, a cork ball and an egg, the three articles being "palmed" in turn, being mysteriously interchanged, and finally disappear altogether. The final disappearance of the article requires a trick-coat with low inside pockets in to which to throw the articles. The full meaning of every motion, every step taken, every turn of the head and of the body, the rise of the wand, the absolute necessity of "palming" articles properly were here brought out, and although the young men could progress only a short distance in the difficult feat, they went far enough to make them familiar with the theory, and to perfect themselves after a little practice.

THE MAGICIAN'S SUIT. Mr Nickle wears his full stage suit in giving instructions. The coat, which is swallow-tailed, has six large inside pockets, four in the breast and one at each side of the tail; also two outside tail pockets. The vest is of the ordinary pattern, but the inside pockets are large, extending the full width of the cloth fronts and being very high at the back and low at the front. Any article thrown in the bosom would not miss one of these pockets, and very large objects can easily be secreted in them. From these deep recesses and the high inside pockets of the coat come the hundred and one things the magician apparently pulls out of a stove-pipe hat or produces in doing other difficult things.

The half-dozen pupils in the present class seem to be getting on very cleverly. They use their fingers deftly, and were already, after a single lesson, quite sleight of hand. Mr. Nickle intends to teach the fundamental portion of the art, the full theory, in five lessons, after which they will have to practice to make themselves perfect.


Usually Harold Comden is credited with bringing the Topit from the criminal world to magic, with his ~1920 vanishing deck trick called "Topit". But apparently Nickle had been using it for 40 years, and given that he was teaching it, it was likely that others used it as well.

Note the one handed pass used as a color change. Note the click pass, a full decade before Hoffmann mentioned it in More Magic.

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Richard Kaufman
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Re: 19th century magic lessons

Postby Richard Kaufman » December 11th, 2015, 6:21 pm

Wow! Great work, Bill.
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