Cover image for Hiding the elephant : how magicians invented the impossible and learned to disappear
Hiding the elephant : how magicians invented the impossible and learned to disappear
Steinmeyer, Jim.
Personal Author:
First Carroll and Graf edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Carroll & Graf Publishers, [2003]

Physical Description:
xxi, 362 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GV1543 .S84 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Harry Houdini was the greatest escape artist in history, yet known to his contemporaries as a terrible stage magician. Nevertheless, in 1917 he performed a single illusion that has been hotly debated ever since: Under the bright spotlights of New York's Theatre Hippodrome, he made a live elephant disappear. Where did he learn this amazing trick and how did it work? The answers lie in magic expert Jim Steinmeyer's chronicle of illusionary innovation, backstage chicanery and espionage, elevated showmanship, and keen competition within the world of magicians. Steinmeyer has captured the cultural history of magic during its "Golden Age" in America and abroad. Readers will learn the secrets and life stories of the fascinating personalities behind optical marvels such as floating ghosts appearing onstage and interacting with live actors, disembodied heads, and vanishing ladies. The people and events surrounding each step toward "The Vanishing Elephant" reveal how simple principles, mixed with ingenious psychology, can entertain and deceive. Houdini's great feat of invisibility was based on a secret passed onto him by Charles Morritt, and the trick remained their secret for more than eighty years. In this book, Steinmeyer reveals Houdini's mystery and more.

Author Notes

Jim Steinmeyer has designed illusions for today's leading magicians and theatrical productions, from Ricky Jay to Siegfried & Roy and "Mary Poppins," set for the London stage in 2004

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Writing a history of stage magic, Steinmeyer reveals the secrets of such famous feats as hiding an elephant, one of Houdini's big tricks, as he details notable stage magicians' careers. He shows that this venerable entertainment genre is indubitably more illusion, performed by monumentally clever practitioners, than magic. Brother-and-sister mind-reading act Charles and Lilian Morritt perfected a silent code based on synchronized counting that defied cagey observers' abilities to detect, let alone understand. Charles went on to realize the sleight central to Houdini's disappearing elephant bit, and that is just one of the delicious connections Steinmeyer points out among performers who seem to constitute a fellowship. Complementing Steinmeyer's profiles are excellent portraits of his subjects by underground-comix stalwart William Stout. Delightful and informative. --Mike Tribby Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The success of a magician "lies in making a human connection to the magic." Create an illusion in the audience's mind, and they're hooked. But to understand magicians, we need to understand the art of that creation. Steinmeyer, who has designed illusions for Siegfried and Roy and David Copperfield, presents a cultural history of magic's golden age (from the 1890s to the 1930s), some legendary tricks (including the Levitation of Princess Karnak and Harry Houdini's Disappearing Elephant) and the fierce rivalries that dominated the craft. Steinmeyer reveals certain secrets, which rely on engineering, artistry and sheer chutzpah, but he hasn't betrayed anyone; most of his information has been published elsewhere. What he adds is context. Magicians advertise deceit, then perform it. Unlike political chicanery, which Steinmeyer dubs dishonest trickery, magic is a kind of pure trickery. Audiences pay for a ruse, not a lecture on fraud. Do we believe movie special effects are real? Of course not, but it doesn't detract from our enjoyment. Similarly, while many 19th-century spiritualists were rightfully debunked as frauds and charlatans, audiences loved the antics. Some, such as the Davenport brothers, were a magnet of controversy and a wild hit, successfully mixing "religion, agnosticism, science, superstition, and fraud." Steinmeyer diagrams famous tricks, celebrating their science and ingenuity. Readers meet characters as colorful as their acts. Buyer beware: If you want to keep your illusions, go to Las Vegas. But for magic lovers who revel in learning the magician's art, this book part research study, part salute is a find. 8 pages of b&w photos and diagrams.(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. vii
Cast of Charactersp. x
Forewordp. xiv
Introductionp. xvii
1. Overturep. 1
2. The Ghostp. 19
3. A New Type of Magicp. 45
4. The Formula for Invisibilityp. 71
5. The Chiefp. 91
6. Two Wizardsp. 115
7. Father and Sonp. 137
8. Stealing Secretsp. 159
9. Special Effectsp. 177
10. Magic Wordsp. 197
11. Solomonp. 219
12. Houdinip. 239
13. Jenniep. 257
14. Sensationsp. 275
15. Keeping Secretsp. 297
16. Encorep. 317
Acknowledgments and Notesp. 333
Indexp. 353