David P. Abbott's House of Mystery by Teller & Todd Karr
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2005)
David P. Abbott* was a well-to-do amateur magician who regularly presented elaborate private shows in his home in Omaha, Nebraska, in the opening decades of the 20th century. Not unlike Dr. Samuel Hooker, who gave performances of his legendary Rising Cards in his home in Brooklyn in the same era, Abbott was frequent host to many of the greatest magicians of his time, including the likes of Harry Houdini, Okito, Ching Ling Foo, and Harry Kellar, who described Abbott's "Talking Teakettle" as " the most magical, the most wonderful illusion ever invented."
Abbott's two major books Behind the Scenes with the Mediums and The Book of Secrets—have never been widely available. The first was published in 1907 and is only available in vintage editions; the latter was published (by Walter Graham's Modern Litho) in 1977, in an edition of only 700 copies. There are even fewer editions and copies available of his smaller manuscripts: The Wonder Girl, a 32-page portrait of famed psychic Eugenie Dennis; The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy, a pamphlet about the inventor of "Balsamo, the Talking Skull" among many other unusual effects; and The History of a Strange Case, about Abbott's investigation into the medium, Elizabeth Blake. But now, David P. Abbott's work has been collected, revived, and delivered to us en masse in House of Mystery, the latest and typically mammoth release from The Miracle Factory. Todd Karr and Teller have collaborated in editing and compiling this collection of the works of David P. Abbott, and its two-volume, 900-plus pages comprise a lively and absorbing look at one of the unsung geniuses of 20th century magic.
They have begun the task by assembling the five works mentioned above. They amassed additional Abbott material from unpublished notebooks and published journals. The Joseffy manuscript is followed by a typically cogent essay on the subject by Jim Steinmeyer, first serialized in Magical. There is informative correspondence in the form of letters from Abbott's friend Kellar, who offers unguarded commentary on the likes of Ching Ling Foo, Alexander, Horace Goldin, and Okito. There are letters between Abbott and Dr. Paul Carus, who published many of Abbot's essays and Spiritualist debunkings in his rationalist magazine, The Open Court There are Abbott's own careful pro-files of his magical acquaintances including Ching Ling Foo and Han Ping Chien. There are hundreds of historical illustrations and photographs, in the style and standard of production we have grown accustomed to expecting from Miracle Factory, and the careful and tasteful editorial work which Todd Karr has produced with equal consistency, here including a thorough index.
But it gets better. The more than 300 photos used in The Book of Mysteries have been rescanned from the originals and retouched they should look terrific in the final form. reviewed the book in galleys.) Behind the Scenes with the Mediums has been improved with 120 brand new photographs in which Johnny Thompson, (aka The Great Tomsoni) portrays the sleazy spirit medium, and Pam Thompson (aka And Company) portrays the gullible sitter (a test of her superb acting skills). Teller also sits in as both sitter and secret assistant to the medium, and these photographs serve double duty as immensely useful instructional tools as well as a delightfully entertaining confection to sweeten the pot.
And yet still, I have saved the best for last. One of the most enjoyable (and often most productive) ways to learn about any artist or work of art is from someone who possesses an impassioned appreciation for the subject. In magic, our mentors often do this for us. Dai Vernon guided us all toward and through the wisdom of Erdnase's Expert at the Card Table, not only in his legendary Revelations but most of all in a lifetime of study and guidance. In the written record, besides Revelations, the best example that comes to mind is Jim Steinmeyer's two editions of Jarrett Magic. Surely no one would wish to approach Erdnase or Jarrett without the assistance of these ardent and perceptive personal guides.
House of Mystery presents the work of David P. Abbott as seen through eyes of a similarly keen and earnest guide, in the person of Teller. Unarguably one of our greatest con-temporary stage magicians, Teller has rarely spoken as it were to magicians about his thoughts on magic. It is only in the past few years that he has begun to address magicians directly, through small but significant contributions in several books produced by the Miracle Factory about some of his favorite magic authors. In Germain the Wizard (2002), Teller contributed a moving final essay, "Looking-Glass Wizard," in which he wrote about having long ago "embraced (Germain's) aggressive love of things poetic." And in The Secret Ways of Al Baker (2003), Teller contributed his research and reconstruction of Baker's "Cake in Hat." Entitled "Recipe," it concluded with one of Teller's own secret recipes for success in magic: "Never trust a recipe till you've baked the cake yourself."
In House of Mystery, Teller provides more than 40 commentaries about Abbott's work, primarily in the form of prologues or epilogues (and in some cases, both) accompanying virtually every trick of The Book of Mysteries and the additional tricks added in Volume II of this production. In Volume I, which includes Behind the Scene with the Mediums and other material related to spiritualistic effects and exposes, Teller contributes an introductory piece, "Behind the Scenes," and later a description of his own billet switch, as used in a number of theatrical séances that he and Penn performed in private homes in the early 1980s. (Say what?) Along with the trick commentaries in Volume II, Teller also provides "The House of Mystery," an engaging account of how Omaha magician Walter B. Graham eventually came to discover the unpublished manuscripts and original photographs of Abbott's Book of Mysteries (and which appeared in the August 2004 Genii.) There is now much to learn about not one but two tasteful and sophisticated magical intellects; it is a fabulous tour of the mind.
As mentioned, Volume I contains Behind the Scenes and other material of a spiritualist flavor. In his commentary here, Teller, after mentioning some other prominent texts written by magicians of the era to expose spiritualist fraud, declares Abbott's volume to be "the greatest of these exposures ..." and points out that it was "first published in 1907, fifteen years before Houdini became famous for his spiritualist investigations." Anyone with even a passing interest in the subject and that should include not only magicians but particularly mentalists will soon discover that Teller's estimation of Abbott's book is not exaggerated. There is a staggering amount of material in Behind the Scenes, and much of it is relevant for the thinking and working mentalist. After all, as Max Maven pointed out in a lecture he debuted last August at the 31 Faces North gathering in Toronto, there are no new mentalism methods that appear in the 20th century; that is, there's not a single significant method in mentalism that does not have its roots in the 19th century or earlier (and in many cases, far earlier). Modern mentalism has its roots in the methods of spiritualism, and early and mid 20th century mentalists (like Dunninger) were a bridge from the spiritualistic readers and Washington Irving Bishop types of the century before. Magicians like Houdini essentially secularized the medium's methodology, and thus the escape act was born. And so there are many lessons to be drawn from an illuminated look into the dark séance chamber—not to mention those to be found in the arena of human foible and folly.
Abbott was both a painstaking investigator of séance phenomena and a brilliant and imaginative magician who also used these discoveries as grist for his own creative mill. Thus a first-time reader will find himself boggled at the array of slate handlings which Abbott provides, with clever routines that in some cases utilize more than a dozen slates, and an equally diabolical routine that relies on just two unprepared slates that may even be provided by the sitter. Busting psychic methods was clearly a lot more fun in the late 19111 and early 20th centuries, when mediums were busily switching slates and spirit grips in the dark, rather than today's lame con men who simply prey on the weakest members of the human herd, playing miser-able (in more ways than one) guessing games while channeling voices of the dead in full light. But there is still fun to be had in studying the collection of methods that Abbott catalogs here, accompanied all the while with deep lessons in conjuring psychology and misdirection. Behind the Scenes includes reading of sealed messages; slate writing and billet tests; question-and-answer work; living-and-dead tests; and much more. This is a remarkable collection of material; in essence, a potentially seminal text that has been widely overlooked for a variety of reasons, including its lack of availability, the minimal illustrations, the sophistication and detail of the explanations, and perhaps even the fact that the book was originally marketed to the public and it was quite successful in that attempt, as attested to by a New York Times review included with this edition.
Volume II includes The Book of Mysteries, which is simply one of the meatiest books in the literature of stage magic. The opening section on "Electrical Mysteries" includes Abbott's "Talking Tea-kettle," in which Kellar took such delight, and which fooled the pants off the great magicians of the day, including no less than Harry Houdini himself. The teakettle, like most of the material in Mysteries, was part of Abbott's home parlor shows—shows which often ran as long as four hours! We learn here that the secret "was in fact in print during all the years Abbott performed the effect," and we also get to meet the original inventor, the tragically eccentric Philip H. Meyers.
The next segment, of "Mysteries for the Parlor," opens with Abbott's "Floating Ball." This is the trick that eventually became associated with Okito, and I well recall my original reaction when I first opened my 1977 edition of The Book of Mysteries only to be arrested and then fascinated by the incredible photographs—more than 30!—of Abbott and the ball, with the placement of the thread drawn in.
Other routines include the Indian (cut-and-restored) Turban Illusion, a repeat version of which served Penn and Teller as a longtime opener; the Linking Rings (with the earliest reference to the spinning move of which I am aware); an early version of the Serpent Silk; Abbott's favorite "best of all" slate routine; spirit paintings; Ching Ling Foo's Paper Tearing Mystery, a legendary "fooler" at the time, which Abbott learned from Ching himself and subsequently taught to Kellar; and Abbott's extremely deceptive want-ad prediction, which was his closer. About this last piece, Teller considers the brute force ugliness of the method, presenting an argument that concludes with this thought: "Thus, it is out of love for the audience and not for moral or ethical reasons—that magicians keep their ugly little secrets."
Also included is Abbott's detailed description of Han Ping Chien's Coins Through the Table, which is worthy of the special attention of close-up workers, since the handling is not only described in extreme detail, but appears quite different from the handling we associate today with Slydini. In Abbott's description, the closed hand is held finger-side up, a position we tend to associate with Johnny Benzais, and the overall impression of the description is reminiscent in many, albeit not all, respects with the con-temporary state-of-the-art approach credited to Geoff Latta. It appears possible all the more so in light of some underground video I have seen of Vernon teaching the technique in the 1970s that much of the modern approach may have come full circle as a reinvention of some of the originator's first handling, which was later altered by Slydini to suit his particular physical and misdirection style, but which then was subsequently assumed to be more similar to the original handling than it actually was.
All along there is Teller's voice, offering appreciation, guidance, cautionary notes, encouragement. "Savor Abbott's astute dissections," Teller reminds us, "of scenes of great emotion, wickedness, and ingenuity ... Digest Abbott's savvy, serene world view. And ... assimilate Abbott's understanding of multi-layered misdirection—where one method seems to cancel out the other." He observes with palpable admiration that "The ability to turn a rudimentary effect into a full composition is one of Abbott's trademarks." Elsewhere Teller reminds us that "In real life, effects have causes. In good magic, effects have fake causes that are beautiful or funny or thought-provoking. That's the idea of magic: connecting a cause with an effect by means of a lie that tells a greater truth." Many magicians forget this big idea, and do so at their constant peril.
In his prologue to Abbott's Linking Rings routine, Teller considers the difference between illusion and mystery: "Illusion is fun and surprising, akin to watching cartoons or juggling. Mystery has a troubling aftertaste, an intellectual dissonance that does not rest, but burns in the brain." With the rings, he suggests, "When many rings are used, real mystery becomes possible." In his epilogue to the same routine, Teller considers the length of Abbott's ring "act" (as it was originally dubbed by the author). Teller addresses the dumbing-down of magic in the age of tele-vision, which served to trivialize and destroy "masterpieces like 'Harbin's Zig-Zag Lady' by presenting them as cute novelties, instead of leisurely descents into profound paradox." In contrast he observes that "When an audience in a theater honestly cares about what's going on; when they are drawn by curiosity, fascinated by ideas, or caught up in a powerful plot; or even when they are simply engaged by the presence of an illuminating human being onstage, then time and conventional rules (like those peddled by pundits Nelms and Fitzkee) vanish." I believe he knows whereof he speaks as did David Abbott and now we get to learn these timeless lessons from them both together after all these years.