GHOST BOOK OF DARK SECRETS -- The core of House of Mystery/The Magic Science of David P. Abbott, Volume One, Behind the Scenes is Abbott's 1907 best seller, Behind the Scenes with the Mediums. This volume opens with a brief biography of Abbott, contributed by Teller, and then we are into Behind the Scenes itself. I've collected and read books on seances and like activity all my life, but (as this book had so far eluded me) never before have I come across such a treasure trove of practical information, not the musings of hobbyist magicians, but the real deal that mediums used in the young 20th century to bilk marks of their fortunes, all in the guise of communicating with dead loved ones. Abbott was a tireless investigator, and his discoveries would have done Sherlock Holmes credit. Here are fascinating routines for sealed message reading, slate tests (my favorite part of the book), billet tests, vest turning (what a weird skill!), question reading, living and dead tests, fortune telling, animated trumpets, talking skulls, spirit portraiture, and materialization (I had never heard of the medium having to completely disrobe prior to conjuring a ghost!). Although the 1907 edition wasn't illustrated (Abbott's thorough descriptions didn't require it), Karr and co. have added dozens of photographs and period art pieces, including methodological illustrations featuring Johnny and Pam Thompson and Teller (with sly humor in the photos and wry captions by Teller). Detailed patter from actual seances runs throughout the book, and I loved Abbott's own phrasing, such as explaining the need for darkness because "spirits have a horror of light waves."
The volume rounds out with several reviews of the 1907 book in the national media and with studies of two remarkable mediums whom Abbott encountered. One was a trumpet medium named Elizabeth Blake who conjured whisperings of Abbott's family that startled him and which he never, to his own satisfaction, explained. The other came into Abbott's life as a darling and charming teenager (who blossomed into an equally darling young woman), a psychic named Gene Dennis (short for Eugenie) whose cold reading skills, if that's what they were, came eerily close to meeting a Houdini-like test that Abbott and a departed friend had set up to confirm an afterlife. Ms. Dennis, the "Wonder Girl" who intrigued both FDR and Einstein, went on to $2000-a-week fame that rivaled Dunninger's.
For anyone interested in the history of seance work or in performing seances, this book is essential reading.
Todd Karr's magnificent two-volume House of Mystery set of books arrived in late August, just in time for intense albeit enjoyable skimming in order to comment in this month's installment. This was a bit of a predicament, because, as Teller notes in his opening words, "Abbott's writing is not something you want to skim. This is world-class dining, not fast food." Nevertheless, deadlines beckon. One should think of my recent ability to hit deadlines as one would think of an electron obeying the laws of quantum mechanics: "August" represents only the probability that these words will get to you in August.
A SPOOK SHOW IN YOUR PARLOR -- At a recent magician's convention at the Orleans in Las Vegas, my assigned seat for the big stage show activities was next to that of Walter B. Graham. I felt honored at the time, and now, upon reading House of Mystery/The Magic Science of David P. Abbott, Volume Two, The Book of Mysteries, I feel not only honored but humbled, for without Mr. Graham's exhaustive detective work, no magician would ever have gazed upon this masterpiece.
A lifelong amateur magician not particularly fond of travel, David P. Abbott gave soirees in his home, lengthy concerts of magic, some of which lasted until three in the morning. Abbott referred to his repertoire not as tricks but as Super Mysteries, and his mysteries attracted the likes of Houdini, Okito, Kellar, Ching Ling Foo, and Han Ping Chien to his home. What a shame if this material had been lost to the ages, but it wasn't: rumor had it that Abbott had written a magic book that not only described his mysteries in his usual fine detail but which was illustrated with hundreds of sequential photos. The catch was that Abbott died before the book's publication, and the book simply didn't turn up. Teller opens Volume Two with the amazing detective story of Walter Graham's tracking down the book and photos (a tale in which Teller too plays a part), a story that not only rivals but surpasses the story of Vernon's tracking down the center deal. Graham literally rescued the book from disinterest, dispersal, and conflagration.
And so we are off into Abbott's book itself, David P. Abbott's Book of Mysteries. Abbott's primary mysteries include Balsamo the Living Skull, The Talking Teakettle (but it is really the spirit of a beautiful female mummy named Pantaura who "talks" and charms the audiences in Abbott's show; the kettle is but a tool), The Floating Ball, The Chinese Rings, The Spirit Table, Best of All Slate Writing, The Indian Turban Illusion, Spirit Portraits, The Serpent of Pharaoh, Matter Through Matter, Ching Ling Foo's Paper Tear, Han Ping Chien's Coin Illusion (the original!), Pocket-to-Pocket Card Illusion, Sawing a Woman with Cords, Spirit Spoon and Glass, and The Want-Ad Test. An additional 19 items are taught in the same detail in remaining chapters. Abbott's patter is refreshingly original, and he concatenated his methods to a degree that fooled the likes of those mentioned above, not to mention mere laymen. This is first-rate magic.
A wonderful addition to this version of Abbott's book is prologue/epilogue material provided by Teller, to virtually every item. Teller writes with grace, humor, and wisdom, throwing bright new light onto Abbott's resurrected creations. Todd Karr also illuminates the text in several spots.
Volume Two is supplemented with Abbott's appreciation of the magician Joseffy, a strange piece as Abbott had not actually seen his subject perform. Todd Karr provides the fascinating introduction, and there are further appreciations of Joseffy by Carl Sandburg (!) and Jim Steinmeyer.
As with Volume One, this is an indispensible book, a remarkable chapter in the long story of magic.
PRODUCTION VALUES -- Todd Karr came along just when we needed him most, when magic books were being increasingly replaced by DVDs, and when loving attention to detail was being replaced by the quest for the fast buck. The two House of Mystery books in this set bear the same fine production values we saw in such works as The Secret Ways of Al Baker and Mystery School. These books are compiled and edited by Teller and Todd Karr, the beautiful cover art is by Katlyn Breene, and there are many, many magicians to thank, but most of all Walter Graham and, of course, David. P. Abbott himself. 892 pages in two volumes. Get these books, enjoy them, and then get your money in for the next Miracle Factory book, Roy Benson by Starlight. As of this writing, Todd's web site still lists an introductory price of $100 for the set, with a regular price of $125, plus $10 shipping. Check the Miracle Factory on our Favorite Links (Dealers) to order.
Little Egypt Magic is the erratically updated web site of Steve Bryant, spawned (the site, not Steve) by a former internet magazine known as The Little Egypt Gazette/for magicians only.
Steve Bryant is an obscure magician and writer who generates this site from an iMac in Bloomington, Indiana. He frequently journeys to and performs magic in Little Egypt, the local name for extreme southern Illinois, where the towns bear such names as Cairo, Thebes, and Karnak.
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