1902 Encyclopedia > Legerdemain


LEGERDEMAIN, PRESTIDIGITATION, OR SLEIGHT OF HAND, as it is variously called, is the art of deceiving the eye of the spectator by adroit movements of the hand of the operator so as apparently to cause an object either to be changed, produced, or made to disappear. The term "legerdemain" is extended in meaning to include all sorts of "conjuring" by means of mechanical and other contrivances, although it properly applies to tricks performed with the hand alone. Even in ancient times two distinct branches of magic existed – the impostures of divination and necromancy, and the amusing exhibition of jugglery and sleight of hand. Judging from the accounts which history has handed down to us, the marvels performed by the thaumaturgists of antiquity were very skillfully produced, and must have required a considerable practical knowledge of the art. The Romans were in the habit of giving conjuring exhibitions, the most favorite feat being that of the "cups and balls," the performers of which were called acetabularii, and the cups themselves acetabula. The balls used, however, instead of being the convenient light cork ones employed by modern conjurors, were simply round white pebbles which must have added greatly to the difficulty of performing the trick. The art survived the barbarism and ignorance of the Middle Ages; and the earliest professors of the modern school were Italians such as Jonas, Androletti, and Antonio Carlotti. In England legerdemain has always found professors and patrons; Chaucer, in describing a motley assemblage, says: -

"There I saw playenge jongeleurs,
Magiciens, tregeteours,
Old witches, sorceresses;"

And in another place (House of Fame, bk. Iii.) he records a startling feat of prestidigitation:-

"There I saw Coll Tregetour
Upon a table of sycamour
Play an uncouthe thynge to tell;
I saw him cary a wyndemell
Under a walnot shale."

But there is no reason for supposing that the ancient magicians were more proficient in the art than their modern successors, and, as Robert-Houdin, the greatest of modern conjurors, has pithily observed, "if antiquity was the cradle of magic, it is because the art was yet in its infancy." Towards the close of the reign of Elizabeth the profession had fallen very low in England, and the performers were classed with "ruffians, blasphemers., thieves vagabonds, Jews, Turks, heretics, pagans, and sorcerers." In 1840 a German physicist named Dobler devised an entertainment which gave an entirely new development to the science, and was in effect the same as the conjuring entertainments which have since become so popular and familiar. The most eminent conjurors of the modern school have been Robert-Houdin, Wiljalba Frikell, Hermann, and Buatier de Kolta.

The secrets of legerdemain were for a long time jealousy guarded by its professor, but in 1793 a work appeared in Paris entitled Testament de Jerome Sharpe, Professeur de Physique Anmusante, which gives a very fair account of the methods then in vogue. Its authors was M. Decremps. In 1858 a still more important and accurate book was published-Sorcellerie ancienne et moderne expliquee, by J.N. Ponsin; and ten years later J.E. Robert-Houdin issued his Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie, which is a masterly exposition of the entire art and mystery of conjuring. The last0mentioned book has been translated into English by "Professor Hoffman," the author of Modern Magic, the best English treatise on the subject. Modern magic calls to its aid all the appliances of modern science, -electricity, magnetism, optics, and mechanics; but the most successful adepts in the art look down upon all such succedaneous aids and rely upon address and sleight of hand alone. Confederacy is never resorted to except by the merest tyros. The prestidigitator’s motto is "The quickness of the hand deceives the eye;" but this very phrase, which is always in a performer’s mouth, is in itself one of the innocent frauds which the conjuror employs as part and parcel of his exhibition. The truth is that it is not so much upon the quickness with which a feat is performed as upon the adroitness with which the time and means of performing it are concealed that its success depends. "A prestidigitator," says Robert-Houdin, "is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician, an artist whose fingers should be more clever than nimble. I would even add that, in the practice of legerdemain, the calmer the movements are the more easy is it to produce an illusion on the spectators." Professor Hoffman corroborates this statement, and says, "The effects of magic re produced by successive adroit substitutions, and the whole magic of the trick consists in the concealment of the particular moment at which each substitution is effected. The right opportunity for executing the required movement is technically called a temps. This is defined to be any act or movement which distracts the attention of the audience while something is being "vanished" or "produced." Experiment will readily convince any one that it is absolutely impossible to move the hand so quickly as to abstract or replace any object without being perceived, so long as the eyes of the audience are upon the performer. But it is very easy to do so unnoticed, provided the audience are looking another way at the time; and the faculty of thus diverting their attention is at once the most difficult and the most necessary accomplishment for a conjuror to acquire. It does not suffice to point, or ask them to look in another direction, because they will obviously suspect the truth and look with all the more persistence. The great requisite is to "have a good eye"- in French conjuring parlance avoir de l’oeil; an earnest, convinced look of the performer in a particular direction will carry every one’s glances with it, while a furtive glance at the hand which is performing some function that should be kept secret will ruin all.

Robert-Houdin may be considered the actual founder of the modern school of legerdemain. This celebrated conjuror, who was originally a watchmaker and mechanician, possessed a remarkably inventive genius, and having early turned his attention to legerdemain, he concentrated all his efforts upon the development and improvement of that art. Discarding the clumsy tricks of what he calls the "false-bottomed school," as well as the gaudy paraphernalia with which his predecessors used to encumber their stage, he produced in 1845, at a little theatre in the Palais Royal, a number of entirely new illusions, in which all the resources of mechanical and electrical science were combined with manual dexterity and personal address. His entertainments, which he called Soirees Fantastiques, made a great sensation in paris, and placed him at once at the head of his profession. His skill and success were so great that the French Government sent him on a sort of roving commission to Algeria, in order that he might, by his exhibitions of natural magic, destroy the prestige of the marabouts-wonder-workers who had obtained a great and dangerous influence over the Arabs by their pretended miracles. The motto prefixed by Robert-Houdin to his chapter on the "Art of Conjuring" is – "to succeed as a conjuror, three things are essential: first, dexterity; second, dexterity; and third, dexterity"; and this is not a mere trick of language, for triple dexterity is required, not only to train the hand to the needful adroitness, but to acquire the requisite command of eye and tongue.

Besides the legitimate application of legerdemain to the purpose of amusement, it serves another and less innocent purpose, being employed by card sharpers in their nefarious profession. The successful card sharper must have qualities which, if applied in a legitimate direction, would ensure distinction in almost any profession. He must be observant, dexterous, cool; but above all he must have impudence. If it requires a considerable share of this quality to perform an ordinary feat of legerdemain with all the advantages of scenic effects and stage arrangements, how much more must it need to effect a trick under the very eyes of a vigilant adversary, and when the consequences of failure are so extremely unpleasant? As in legitimate conjuring, too, it is not so much that actual dexterity or the quickness of the hand deceives the eye as that the attention is diverted by some ingenious but unperceived device at the moment when the operation is performed.

Legerdemain as applied to cheating at cards may be divided into the following branches;-(1) marking the cards; (2) abstracting certain cards during the game for clandestine use; (3) previously concealing cards about the person; (4) packing the cards; (5) substituting marked or prepared packs; (6) confederacy; (7) false shuffles. All these methods are thoroughly exposed in Robert-Houdin’s work Les tricheries des Grecs.

In addition to the works on conjuring already mentioned , reference may be made to Sleight of Hand, by Edwin Sachs. (E. H. P.)

The above article was written by Edward Henry Palmer, M.A., late Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge; Lord Almoner's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, 1871-81; murdered in Egypt, 1882, while serving on Government secret service; author of Arabic Grammar and Persian Dictionary.

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