Baltimore magician puts on show to explain Victorian history

By KATERINA FRYE | October 10, 2019

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COURTESY OF KATERINA FRYE Magician David London talks Victorian history through a magical lens.

Baltimore-based magician David London gave a show featuring Victorian history and illusions at the historical Evergreen Museum & Library on Thursday, Oct. 10. Located between the campuses of the Notre Dame of Maryland University and Loyola College, the Evergreen House is a Johns Hopkins University Museum.

Lori Finkelstein, the museum’s director, stated that the program had been inspired by a magic set that belonged to the children of John Garrett, the famous railroad financier whose family had lived on the site during the late 1800s.

“As I started to study the magic set more, I thought it would be really cool to try to recreate tricks that might have been done in the house. We thought David was a perfect fit for us to help us create a program around this historic set,” she said. 

London began his performance by asking the audience a question: What did they consider to be magic?

Most of the answers were variations of believing in the impossible or whatever inspires awe. The last response, however, elicited the most cheers. 

“Magic is a night out with my wife,” an audience member said. 

Although London maintained that he would not break the magician’s cardinal rule — never reveal the secret behind a trick — that night, he did teach the audience some basic principles that most magicians follow.

“Magicians direct your attention away from something using four principles of misdirection,” he said. “First, you look where I look. Second, a larger action covers the smaller action. Third, tension draws attention. And lastly, utilize an object unrelated to the action being performed.”

He demonstrated these principles with a trick that was invented during the Victorian age of magic. In fact, London said, the trick itself was discovered in the belongings of the Garretts, the original owners of the mansion. Although he could not use the authentic pieces, he said that he had worked with an artist to create a working reproduction.

This replica included a wooden vase and a bright red ball. London opened the vase to reveal the ball, then put the ball in his pocket before closing the lid. He then waved his hand over the top and when he opened the vase the ball was back. 

Maria Kummerfeldt, an attendee, remarked on how impressive she found the heritage of this magic.

“It’s fascinating to learn that magic is hundreds and hundreds of years old, and that other cultures have shows that are still being transmitted,” she said. “It’s been over 150 years since the Victorian era and their magic is still being practiced!”

London also replicated what might have occurred during Victorian seances. These were popularized by the Fox sisters, two actual sisters from New York’s burned-over district, which at that time was considered a hotbed for new religious and spiritual movements.

The Fox sisters, who claimed to have the ability to communicate with spirits, sold out theaters for shows displaying their talents. London explained that the attractiveness of the Fox sister’s spiritualism likely came from what it promised to contemporary observers.

“If it was possible to travel and communicate over great distances, perhaps it might be possible to actually communicate with those who had perished. With so many people having lost their lives in the Civil War, spiritualism grew,” London said.

Another spiritualist performance required a piece of chalk and a slate to allow for a visiting spirit to write its name. He placed both on the ground, and with palms upturned and eyes closed, asked any spirits in the house to come forward and identify themselves.

A few moments later, some bells that London had set on a table rolled onto the floor. He asked again for the spirits to make their presence known, but the bells, which London considered to be the time-tested tools of spiritualism, were silent.

“To be honest with you folks, I didn’t expect to make contact,” London said.

For his final spiritualist-inspired trick, London performed Harry Houdini’s famous needle-swallowing trick. 

He swallowed a piece of white thread and then swigged a glass full of needles soaked in alcohol. He then drew the thread an inch at a time out of his mouth, with the needles attached at the very end.

Discussing Houdini, London shared that the famed escapist had in fact learned many of his acts from spiritualists like the Davenport brothers.

“The escape act started as a method used by spiritualists where they would be handcuffed inside a closed cabinet and things would fly out of the cabinet,” he said. “The spiritualists were using the escapes to produce so called ‘spiritual phenomena,’ but Houdini said let’s make the escape the actual thing that people are seeing.”

Moving away from spiritualism, London also performed a telepathy trick. He invited an audience member up on to the stage and asked him to choose a 10-syllable word from a book on Victorian magic. 

The man held the book at arm’s length before announcing he could not see without his glasses. The audience broke into laughter. After the man wrote the first letter of the word onto a slate. London revealed that he had written the same letter on his own slate. On the count of three, the men both disclosed the word: basketball. 

London reiterated that he never would divulge the secrets behind his tricks, but he hinted that the mirrors lining the walls of the room he was performing in may have played a part. 

He explained his belief that the Victorian era was the most transformative time in recent history, especially with respect to innovative technology. He cited the invention of telegraphs, steamships, cameras and other technology. 

“The reliance of man on his own strength was becoming a reliance on the power of machines, and with this came a shift in the dependence on the human mind,” London said. 

He explained that Queen Victoria was a lover of living wonders and that she organized the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 to demonstrate modernity’s progress and technology.

London also noted that in the United States, P. T. Barnum created his famous circus to dazzle people with magic and other incredible acts. London doffed his hat with a flourish and bowed low before imitating the famed circus barker’s attention-grabbing cry. 

“Boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, beyond these doors you will see things you have never seen before and things you will never see again,” London said.

Kaylie Felker, who attended the event, said that she appreciated the drama and flourish. However, Felker also questioned the so-called magic at the heart of this aspect of the performance. 

“I don’t know that I necessarily believe in all the magic, but I really like the sort of joking comedic aspect of magic where you can mess with a person and make people laugh because of it,” she said. 

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