Lessons in Legerdemain

A by-product of the scholarly research that I’m doing on wonder and science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been my exposure to texts on more practical magic that creates “artificial conclusions”, to use the words of a seventeenth-century scribe. I’m really not sure what to do with these texts–especially the more modern ones that fall well outside my period–but they certainly are interesting, and entirely suitable for a blog post or two! Books on magic tricks, conjuring, sleight of hand, legerdemain, are first published in the mid-seventeenth century (at least in England) right up through the 20th, and the classics are very valuable–deemed so most especially by the magical community. The first English book on practical magic, appropriately authored by Hocus Pocus Junior was The Anatomie of Legerdemain, first published in 1634 and reprinted throughout the seventeenth century: the Library of Congress has the second edition which was bequeathed by Harry Houdini himself in 1927. Both that edition and one from 1638 in the library of St. John’s College at Oxford University have been completely digitized, so you can learn all these tricks for yourself. The 1654 edition below sold at a 2009 Sotheby’s auction for £37, 250, so I suppose we’ll have to make do with the digital editions.

PicMonkey Collage

Legerdemain 1638

Hocus Pocus 1654 ed

This is a charming little book. The anonymous author, “Hocus Pocus Junior”, whom many presume to be one William Vincent, who received a license “to exercise the art of Legerdemaine in any Townes within the Realm of England and Ireland” and was described as “alias Hocus Pocus” on several occasions, begins the preface with the question: Courteous Reader, doe you not wonder? and proceeds to define his art: Legerdomaine is an operation, whereby one may seem to worke wonderfull, impossible, and incredible things by agility, nimblenesse, and slightnesse of hand. The partes of this Arte are principally two. The first is in the conveyance of Balls, Cards, Dice, Money &tc…The Second is Confederacie (tricks performed in partnership, essentially). So we learn all the old (now newly-exposed for the first time!) cup and card tricks, along with special maneuvers like How to seeme to pull a rope through your nose and How to seeme to cut off a mans head..called the decollation of John Baptist, as well as “how to seem to eat a knife” and “breathe fire”. For some reason, the “strangest” trick is how to “seeme to cut a piece of Tape into four partes, and make it whole again with words”–and this takes quite a bit of detailed description. All the tricks do, really: in addition to being quite the magician, Hocus Pocus Junior was an exceptional technical writer.

Hocus Pocus 16353

Hocus Pocus 16354

Hocus Pocus String

Pages from Hocus Pocus Junior. The Anatomie of Legerdemain, Or, The art of jugling set forth in his proper colours, fully, plainly, and exactly, so that an ignorant person may thereby learn the full perfection of the same, after a little practise (1635 edition, Library of Congress).


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