An Incomplete History of Card Magic Literature: The Early Years

While magic books have always included sections on card magic (call them “general books” on magic) – going back to Reginald Scot‘s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), it was likely that one of the first dedicated solely to card tricks written in English did not arrive until the end of the nineteenth century. While the 1876 Modern Magic (originally serialized in Every Boy’s Annual magazine) by Professor Hoffmann (Angelo John Lewis) contained many pieces with cards, it was in 1889 that Herrman’s Tricks With Cards and Tricks With Cards was published. In 1894, the performer and author John Nevil Maskelyne published Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. In 1897, August Roterberg published New Era Card Tricks, one of the first books dedicated solely to card magic. S.W. Erdnase‘s Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table: A Treatise on the Science and Art of Manipulating Card which became known as The Expert at the Card Table (thanks to the stamp on the original binding) was published in 1902. While it is true that this volume has never been out of print, it has not always been the “bible” of card magic and it took many years of advocacy from one of its primary students, before it was studied intently. More on him later.

One of the earliest performers of “modern” card magic is Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser (1806-1875). If not for the work of fellow Austrian Ottokar Fischer, Hofzinser’s significant contributions to card magic might have been lost. Even though many of Fischer’s solutions to Hofzinser’s work may not be 100% accurate, the book Kartenkünste (1910) was translated into English by S.H. Sharpe (1931) and in a volume by Richard Hatch (2008). Magic Christian published work on Hofzinser in German in 1998 with a two-volume edition of Non Plus Ultra translated to English in 2013.

Another significant early text was Elliott’s Last Legacy (1923) written by Clinton Burgess (and edited by Harry Houdini). Dr. James William Elliott (a trained physician) became a professional magician and was legendary for his skill with cards. He toured as Bosco with the Le Roy, Talma and Bosco show for a decade before returning to medicine. It has been recounted that, when he traveled, Elliott would engage two adjoining hotel rooms and have one of them stripped of all furniture but a table and chair to be used solely for his practice. Another notable book of this period is Card Tricks You Will Do (1928), by Rufus Steele. While not a prolific author, Steele, who was a professional gambler, teacher, and card expert, produced books on card magic at least once in each of four decades including: Card Tricks that are Easy to Learn (1935), 52 Amazing Cards Tricks (1949), and The Last Word on Cards (1952). While the latter may have been Steele’s last word, it did not prove to be the last word on cards.

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2 Responses to An Incomplete History of Card Magic Literature: The Early Years

  1. Leo Hevia says:

    I think it’s Clinton Burgess.

  2. Andrew Pinard says:

    Exactly so, Leo. A slip of the fingers. Sorry it took me so long to correct! Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season…

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