Big Friday sale

The Expositor by William Frederick Pinchbeck

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii October, 1996)


What a delightful treat this project is! The folks at Stevens Magic, along with that inimitable bibliophile Byron Walker, have collaborated on the kind of publishing effort to which I can only respond, "More! More!" The Expositor, first published in Boston in 1805, is distinguished in the annals of conjuring literature as the first work on the subject which originated entirely in the United States. This little volume is thus the birth of our heritage, and what a charming debut it was. Written in the form of a correspondence between the author and (likely) an imaginary correspondent, the writer responds to his friend's queries about things magical and otherwise mysterious, apparently guiding him in his quest to become, progressively, the trainer of a Pig of Knowledge (i.e., a so-called "Learned Pig" which can locate selected cards and perform other feats of cogitation and even the paranormal); the builder of an Invisible Lady illusion (or Acoustic Temple, in which an odd-looking apparatus, obviously devoid of the presence of a person, nonetheless answers questions and demonstrates the power of sight via a disembodied voice); a master of ventriloquism; or a performer of sundry magic feats. All is communicated to the reader in an abundantly readable and charming fashion, interspersed with the author's musings on friendship and "philosophy," and topped off with several poems concerning the death of a mouse, the rescue of a fly, and the subject of philanthropy.

The content of the book is as original as its style, and does not simply rehash material like the Cups and Balls and the like which was endlessly copied for more than two centuries following Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft [page 190]. The description of the Learned Pig is insightful, demonstrating a complete understanding of the phenomenon (as well as an appreciation of the pig: "Of all other quadrupeds, the Pig in my opinion is the most sapient" writes the author) that later would become famous again in the hands—or rather hooves—of Clever Hans. This section comprises an early manual of behavior modification and one cannot help but wonder if B. F. Skinner ever came across it.

The author's instruction concerning ventriloquism is less detailed, although it may well be an accurate reflection of the state of the art at the time. He concerns himself mostly with the idea of "mimickry," along with what would now be called "distant voice," while erroneously referring to speaking out of the corner of one's mouth, and with no mention of the substitution of certain sounds so as to avoid betrayal by the movement of the lips (which may well have been a poorly refined technique at the time). However, he does discuss the use of a dummy, and the important psychological and misdirective elements of ventriloquism.

Among the various magic tricks described is an early version of the Egg Bag (when it was still essentially a production effect), a description of a Watch Bag for the apparent destruction and restoration of a borrowed watch, and cardicians will note a description of the Eight Kings stack. These are interesting entries, being as they are some 191 years old, and considering the current resurgence of interest in the Malini Egg Bag (courtesy no doubt of John Thompson's definitive version), memorized deck work (thanks in particular to Juan Tamariz), and the Watch in Nest of Boxes (which climaxes the recent Books of Wonder by Tommy Wonder [page 212 ]). The more things change...

"The Art of Legerdemain requires great dexterity, and abundance of confidence in the performer: There are but few who are equal to the task"—William Frederick Pinchbeck, The Expositor

On the very first page the author offers that "The intention of this work was not only to amuse and instruct, but also to convince superstition of her many ridiculous errors,—to shew the disadvantages arising to society from a vague as well as irrational belief of man's intimacy with familiar spirits,—to oppose the idea of supernatural agency in any production of man,—and lastly, how dangerous such a belief is to society, how destructive to the improvement of the human capacity, and how totally ruinous to the common interest of mankind." As Byron Walker points out, the author was also no doubt interested in making a buck or two, but nevertheless this demonstrates Pinchbeck's place in the tradition of skepticism and rational thought established by Reginald Scot and continuing in the literature of conjuring to this day. Thus, in the description of a borrowed ring in Nest of Boxes, the author dryly notes that "To perform this feat, agency is necessary; but not diabolical." Returning to this theme several more times, the author later refers to "clouds of superstition, which is in my opinion of all evils the most dangerous to society, as it not only cramps but tramples on the faculties of men... and in that nation where superstition waves her bloody banners, Philosophy and the arts must hide their heads, or retire, while tyranny and oppression diffuse their baneful influences uninvestigated and unrestrained."

The author's discussion of the vagaries of fortune as being unrelated to one's ingenuity can certainly be seen reflected in present day show business; he muses that a "purchaser [of an invention] becomes rich, while the inventor remains poor." But later his imaginary correspondent, in "urging" the author to publish his work despite reservations about plagiarism and other issues, comments that "...I advise you to venture: There is nothing to be done without making a trial." Reading the author's concern that "the moment [a writer] ventures to instruct or amuse his fellow-creatures, he places his reputation in the hands of a cruel and unfeeling world," one is gladdened for his sake that we are still enjoying his efforts two centuries later.

Byron Walker supplied the original copy from which this facsimile was made, and also provides a new introduction (and if you're not on his mailing list of used and new books, you should be). The book is beautifully produced. The regular version is a bargain at $45.00, with lovely green cloth covers and two-color foil stamping including the image of the learned pig. The deluxe version, of which there are a hundred numbered copies, is produced as a close replica of the original, with paper-covered board covers and a leather spine. All in all, this is a wonderful production, whose producers are to be commended and encouraged to undertake again in the future. Readers who have not yet developed an appreciation for early conjuring literature would be hard pressed to find a better introduction than this engaging work.

4 - 1/2" X 7-1/4" hardbound with two-color foil stamping; 100 pages; minimally illustrated, 1996; Publisher: Stevens Publishing