John Nevil Maskelyne

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John Nevil Maskelyne
John Nevil Maskelyne.jpg
Born (1839-12-22)22 December 1839
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
Died 18 May 1917(1917-05-18) (aged 77)
London, England
Occupation Magician, escapologist, inventor, and paranormal investigator
Children Nevil Maskelyne

John Nevil Maskelyne (22 December 1839 – 18 May 1917) was an English stage magician and inventor of the pay toilet, along with many other Victorian-era devices. Working with magicians George Alfred Cooke and David Devant, many of his illusions are still performed today. His book Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill is considered a classic overview of card sharp practices, and in 1914 he founded the Occult Committee, a group whose remit was to "investigate claims to supernatural power and to expose fraud".

Biography[edit]

Maskelyne was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England. He trained as a watchmaker but became interested in conjuring after watching a stage performance by the fraudulent spiritualists, the Davenport brothers. He saw how the Davenports' spirit cabinet illusion worked, and stated to the audience in the theatre that he could recreate their act using no supernatural methods. With the help of a friend, cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he built a version of the cabinet. Together, they revealed the Davenport Brothers trickery to the public at a show in Cheltenham in June 1865.[1] Inspired by the acclaim they received for their clever exposure of the deception, the two men decided to become professional magicians.

At first they struggled to make ends meet but they were saved by a 27-year-old theatrical agent named William Morton, who saw their show in Liverpool and offered to finance a tour. Morton ended up being their manager for a total of 20 years. He helped them to become firmly established on the national stage—including such marathon theatrical engagements as their famous tenancy at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly from 1873 to 1904.[2]

In 1894, Maskelyne wrote the book Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. This book became an instant hit and to this day is considered to be a classic gambling book. What made this book so popular is the fact that it was the first detailed revelation of the secrets of the cardsharps. Other authors, prior to Maskelyne, had written about crooked gambling, but never before had anyone published a work with in-depth, detailed explanation of the secrets of crooked gambling. The first edition of Sharps and Flats was published in London and New York. Later, when the book entered the public domain, the Gambler's Book Club, from Las Vegas, published the first reprint edition. The book is now also available online in the form of a web site, with annotations. In his lifetime, Maskelyne authored several books, but Sharps and Flats is by far his most important literary work and without any doubts the best known of his books.

Maskelyne and Cooke invented many illusions still performed today. Maskelyne was adept at working out the principles of illusions, one of his best-known being levitation. Levitation is commonly, but incorrectly, said to be Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin's illusion, but it was Maskelyne who invented it.[3] The confusion arises because Robert-Houdin invented the illusion "La Suspension Ethéréenne" (aka the "Broom Suspension").[4][5] Levitation is also credited to American magician Harry Kellar, who in fact stole the illusion by bribing Maskelyne's technician, Paul Valadon.[6]

Upon Cooke's death in February 1905, Maskelyne started a partnership with David Devant. Devant had first joined Maskelyne's team in 1893, when he auditioned as a replacement for Charles Morritt, a conjurer and inventor who had worked with Maskelyne at the Egyptian Hall but who left to set up his own show.[7]

Maskelyne was a member of The Magic Circle and, like Harry Houdini, tried to dispel the notion of supernatural powers. To this end, in 1914, Maskelyne founded the Occult Committee whose remit was to "investigate claims to supernatural power and to expose fraud". In particular, the committee attempted to prove that the Indian rope trick has never been performed.[8]

The writings of Maskelyne on Spiritualism and Theosophy were included in the book The Supernatural? (1891) with the psychiatrist Lionel Weatherly (1852–1940). It was an early text in the field of anomalistic psychology and offered rational explanations for occult and Spiritualistic practices, paranormal phenomena and religious experiences.[9]

Inventions[edit]

Maskelyne's invention of the door lock for London toilets required the insertion of a penny coin to operate it, leading to the euphemism to "spend a penny".[8]

Family[edit]

Maskelyne was the father of one daughter and two sons,[10] one of whom was Nevil Maskelyne, and the grandfather of Jasper Maskelyne, both noted magicians and in the latter case possibly – there is some doubt – creator of large-scale ruses, deceptions, and camouflage during the Second World War. Maskelyne claimed to be a descendant of Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811), the Astronomer Royal, but there is dispute as to whether this was true.[1][11] Agent Zigzag,Ben Macintyre,ref second World War

Publications[edit]

  • Maskelyne and Cooke: An Exposé of the Falseness of Their Pretensions (1873)
  • Modern Spiritualism: A Short Account of its Rise and Progress, with Some Exposures of So-Called Spirit Media (1876)
  • Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill (1894)
  • The Fraud of Modern "Theosophy" Exposed (1912)
  • (with) David Devant (2008, reprint). The Art, Theory and Practice of Magic – Stage Illusions. Wexford College Press. ISBN 9781934939369

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Jim Steinmeyer (2005). Hiding the Elephant. Arrow. pp. 95–96. ISBN 0-09-947664-9. 
  2. ^ Dawes, Edwin (1979). "The Great Illusionists". Chartwell Books Inc. pp. 157–159. 
  3. ^ Dawes, Edwin (1979). "The Great Illusionists". Chartwell Books Inc. p. 161. 
  4. ^ Dawes, Edwin (1979). "The Great Illusionists". Chartwell Books Inc. p. 81. 
  5. ^ "Brief Biographies of Magic Inventors – page Q-R-S". magicnook.com. Retrieved 19 September 2007. 
  6. ^ Jim Steinmeyer (2005). Hiding the Elephant. Arrow. p. 201. ISBN 0-09-947664-9. 
  7. ^ Dawes, Edwin (1979). "The Great Illusionists". Chartwell Books Inc. p. 167. 
  8. ^ Lionel Weatherly, John Nevil Maskelyne. (2011). The Supernatural? (Cambridge Library Collection – Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1108029193
  9. ^ Addison, Henry Robert; Oakes, Charles Henry; Lawson, William John; Sladen, Douglas Brooke Wheelton (1907). "MASKYLENE, John Nevil". Who's Who, 59: p. 1188. 
  10. ^ "Who's Who of Victorian Cinema". John Nevil Maskelyne – British magician and illusionist. Retrieved 4 June 2006. 

External links[edit]