The Inquiring Minds Program

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Your Magical Heritage

By Vaughn Rees


An Introduction

Throughout the pages of history there are few stories more fascinating than that of magic. Among the earliest known people, anyone who considered himself wiser than his fellow beings set himself up as a magician - so to speak. He became the High Priest and with his so-called “supernatural powers” he worked wonders and performed miracles for his people. The magician commanded the elements.

Down through the Dark Ages there was a long line of practitioners of both “white” and “black” magic. They were called Necromancers, Warlocks and Enchanters. Some were mythical while others were real people such as Merlin. As mankind entered a more enlightened era, the magician, while still in existence, was no longer looked upon as a medium through whom dark powers worked their will upon man. Instead, the magician was viewed in the same category as the jester, the minstrel or the strolling actor.

References to magic in old documents are rare; probably due to the fact that the secrets of magic were closely guarded and passed on through master/apprentice relationships.

The earliest magical performance ever recorded is found in the Wescar Papyrus (ca. 3700 B.C.E.), which is the story of Dedi, an Egyptian magician. The document describes the removal of the head of a goose and its restoration and also the passing of a blade through the neck of a bull without harming it.

Other early references were in the Bible. These include stories of how the Pharaoh called together the sorcerers and magicians of Egypt to compete with Aaron. The sorcerers and magicians were told to throw down their staffs and turn them into snakes. Aaron was also told to throw down his staff and that it would change into a snake that would swallow up the other staffs. (Exodus 7:8-13). One other significant early reference is in the book A Discovery of Witchcraft written in 1584 by Reginald Scott. It was an attempt to stop the witchcraft trials by exposing the tricks of magicians of the day. Unfortunately, the Catholic church chose to ban the book and all the copies that could be located were ordered burned by King James I in 1603.

Most of the secrets of tricks performed in magic are very simple, while the explanations can remain very elusive. Nevertheless, magic, like any craft, requires both special skills and tools. Everything a magician uses, says or does is carefully constructed and practiced. They depend on you not knowing what to expect and, with this in mind, they are able to easily misdirect you into believing or seeing something that may or may not be there.

Magicians use specially prepared tools such as tables, ropes, boxes, threads and cards. They are able to take advantage of viewing angles and have an understanding of lighting and optical illusions as well as how the brain processes information. Together these talents and skills make the deceptions possible. As remarkable as the brain is, it has perceptual flaws that lead us to draw many conclusions that turn out to be wrong.

The starting point used to turn a deceptive idea into a "miracle" is a combination of suggestion and misdirection. The use of verbal misdirection plays a critical role in setting the climate. This is done in part through the use of misleading words and terminologies that are designed to confuse you and make you think that everything is above board. One of the most common methods employed is known as equivoque, which means “open to two or more interpretations; ambiguous” and often intended to mislead.

In setting the climate, the location or venue also plays a crucial role. For instance, a church setting will have a far different impact on how people interpret the experience than an office building would.

People are not aware that they act almost entirely from suggestion. From the time of our birth, we are influenced by those who suggest certain ideas to us as being true and we follow these suggestions. We seldom make an attempt to really understand the basis of what is suggested. The foundation upon which the suggestion rests is taken for granted, even with the important decisions in life.

Remember that a magician directs his audience with his or her eyes, words, and carefully planned movements.

Impression Devices

A method of secretly obtaining information

An impression device allows the transfer of anything you write or print onto the object under the device. One of the earliest impression devices, or clipboards, was invented by Samri S. Baldwin and was used by Anna Eva Fay (1851-1931), an early and prominent spiritualist. A candle was rubbed onto one side of a piece of paper and then the waxed sheet was placed under two additional sheets of un-waxed paper and then attached to a clipboard. The first sheet is written on while the second sheet hides the waxed sheet.

After someone wrote or drew something the magician then asked the person to remove and fold up the paper. At this point they may have been asked to place the paper in a safe place where it cannot be seen or they may have been asked to burn it. The clipboard is then removed, usually by an assistant, who then sprinkles a small amount of powdered charcoal or graphite over it, making it easier to read.

Another method involves handing someone a small pad of paper on which they write or draw something. After retrieving it, the magician could rub a pencil over it or hold it at a slight angle in the light and read it.

With the development of carbon paper, devices improved considerably but there still remained the possibility of the carbon paper being noticed. Eventually, NCR carbonless paper came into use. Because it was white, the paper was easily placed between other sheets where it remained virtually undetectable.

Another device that was developed was a pad holder which would retract the paper into it. With the age of electronics, clipboards were developed that would allow the information to be sent electronically and the magician would never have to touch the gimmicked clipboard after it was given to the participant.

Try It Yourself!

A very simple method of making an impression board is to use a small clipboard and some self-sticking clear laminate of the type usually found in the shelf paper section of your local hardware store or in Target type discount stores.

Cut the laminate to fit the clipboard and stick it on. Than place two sheets of thin opaque paper on top. Use the clip to hold down the top and a rubber band to hold the bottom of the paper in place as close to the edge of the bottom as possible. This discourages people from lifting up all the sheets of paper and discovering the impression. Attach a ballpoint pen with a string to the clipboard. Remember: use a hard tip ballpoint pen. This will transfer the image through the paper easier. Before you hand the participant the clipboard, pull the top sheet out from under the rubber band, which is done to ensure that when asked to remove the paper and fold it up, the participant will not pull the other sheet up allowing them to possibly see the impressed image in the clear laminate.

After the participant removes and folds up the paper, retrieve the clipboard and ask them to place their paper in a secure place. As you retrieve the clipboard, remove the second sheet of paper in front of the participant and set it aside while at the same time glancing at the impression board to see what was written. Then place the clipboard on a table. Make sure you place your table far enough away so as to give additional time if necessary to look at the impression as you walk.

Another simple impression device that can be used is any book that has a glossy cover. You should be able to find one at your local used bookstore. Hand the book to someone with a piece of paper on it and ask them to think of a number or simple drawing. Suggest to them that they should keep it simple because the more complicated it is, the more difficult it will be to receive their thoughts. Numbers are the easiest to deal with but keep them limited to no more than three because your thumb can only be moved a short distance. You should also keep in mind that you can use both sides of the book. After the first person writes down something, retrieve the book and walk back to your table and get another piece of paper. While walking back, turn the book over and your ready to go again. It’s possible that someone might notice the impression but don’t concern yourself too much about it because, even if you are discovered, most adults will say nothing.

One final yet very important detail is to draw a small circle or short line across the center of the paper. This will help to keep the person from writing all over the paper while at same time making it easier to locate what was written on the paper. You will also want to suggest to everyone that they should keep their answers short; long answers can sometimes be difficult to receive.

Suggest Reading

Panorama of Magic, Milbourne Christopher; 1962

Magic, Scientific Diversions and Stage Illusions, Including Trick Photography, Albert Hopkins; 1977

Magic by Misdirection, D. Fitzkee; 1975

The Encyclopedia of Magic & Magicians, T.A. Waters; 1988

The Indescribable Phenomenon, Barry H. Wiley; 2005

Revelations of a Spirit Medium, A. Medium; 1891


About the Author

Vaughn Rees is Projects Coordinator at the Center for Inquiry - West,
in Los Angeles, California. Vaughn is also a magician.


Center for Inquiry | CSICOP | Inquiring Minds | ©2005 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal