The Magician: John Mulholland's Secret Life by Ben Robinson

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2009)

IN APRIL OF 2001, this magazine ran a lengthy article entitled "The Sphinx & the Spy, the Clandestine World of John Mulholland," by Michael Edwards, thereby breaking an astounding story to the world of magic. I distinctly recall how astonished I was to read therein that John Mulholland longtime editor of the venerable Sphinx, colleague and confidant to magicians from Houdini to Hooker, author of multiple volumes now considered standards in the literature, and creator of the one of the most remarkable collections in the history of conjuring libraries, and that would eventually serve as the foundation of what now comprises the David Copperfield collection had secretly worked for the C.I.A., and had devised techniques and developed a training manual to enable secret agents spies to, among other things, secretly dose victims with anything from mind-altering drugs to deadly poison.

All this, in the pages of Genii! I was dumbfounded. At about the same time, the New York Sunday Times Magazine ran a related article, which substantially focused on one Eric Olson's continuing investigation into the circumstances of his father's death, allegedly suicide, and the question of whether or not the CIA and perhaps even John Mulholiand had had anything to do with Frank Olson's fall to his death from the window of a Manhattan hotel on the night of November 28th, 1953. Did Dr. Olson, a CIA employee, depressed and disoriented, secretly doped days before with LSD by the CIA, jump or did someone from the agency push him through a glass window?

In his day, John Mulholland was one of America's most visible and respected magicians, an intellectual who mixed with high society, was routinely sought out for quotes and comments in newspaper articles and obituaries, performed at the White House eight times, wrote entries about magic for the Encyclopedia Britannica and other reference sources, and was a popular society lecturer who often wove magic into speaking presentations, since his notoriously lecturely style was perhaps better suited to speaking engagements than to strict performance.

Given his sophisticated manner and cosmopolitan resume, it is perhaps no surprise then that when the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency was looking to amass an eclectic array of sources and consultants, they tapped Mulholland. Thanks to Freedom of Information Act inquiries and Mulholland's own papers, the evidence that Mulholland worked for the agency a secret that he never personally revealed is certain. Mulholland worked for the notorious spymaster, Sidney Gottlieb, in service to an operation dubbed MK-ULTRA the MK stood for "mind [k]ontrol."

In his role as consultant, Mulholland wrote an extended manual (much of it reproduced here in Genii) about how to apply the magician's toolkit of sleight of hand, psychology, and misdirection to the deadly needs of the field agent engaging in all manner of subterfuge, up to and including assassination. Gottlieb and MK-ULTRA were open to exploring chemical and biological experimentation, among other weapons, and this new book documents numerous cases in which the agency dosed unwitting victims with LSD in order to observe the results. The CIA's Dr. Frank Olson was the recipient of such a drugging shortly before his violent death.

All in all it's quite a story controversial, bizarre, even lurid the CIA allegedly utilized prostitutes to secretly dose Johns for the agency, as it experimented willy-nilly on its citizen/victims. While Ben Robinson does tell us something about Mulholland's personal and professional life that his loving wife accepted his lifelong affair with his secretary; that Mulholland helped to write Houdini's public lectures on spiritualism it is mostly in service as background to the story of Mulholland's involvement with the CIA. Robinson makes a strong case that, while Mulholland met with Olson mere days before his death, there is no credible evidence that Mulholland was directly involved in Olson's untimely end. Mr. Robinson states, "John Mulholland was a man so in love with his art that work he did for the U.S. government was simply an assignment directed by his scholarly patriotism [emphasis per original]. Nothing more. He was paid well, and appropriately. He did nothing wrong by teaching covert operatives the world of sleight of hand. While he may have trained people to kill, he did not ever commit murder ..." While Mr. Robinson makes a convincing case for Mulholland's non-involvement with the death of Olson, readers should make their own judgments about the moral culpability of patriots who train others to kill.

Those interested in the dubious history of the CIA, and how it touched on the life of a major figure in magic, will find much of interest in Ben Robinson's new book, but I daresay they will not quite find John Mulholland, because this would require a degree of insight and literary ability beyond those of this author. Rarely have I read such ungainly and awkward prose. Three single sentences can become three serial paragraphs; facts are repeated randomly, but not as randomly as the use or absence of commas. A talented editor would certainly have helped, although only so much, and the bare bones design does little to improve matters. And for a book of this nature, the extensive 39-page bibliography unfortunately falls short when it is not accompanied by detailed footnotes that attribute sources of specific claims; the book boasts a grand total of 13 footnotes. A more scholarly approach to cataloguing the author's admittedly extensive research would have provided a more serviceable reading experience, but what's more, also a vastly more valuable reference work for future researchers. The facts of the story are unarguably interesting, but the story could have been better told the story of the man William Larsen, Sr., in the pages of this magazine, called "the most knowledgeable magician on earth."

The Magician: John Mulholland's Secret Life • Ben Robinson • 262 pages • illustrated with 80 photographs