One of the oddest items from my collection is something I acquired many years ago for a very low price… The price was actually what made me buy this item. It is a worn and moth-eaten folder which contains some belongings of Louis Nikola, today remembered for his Nikola’s Card System, the first example of memorized deck. These items are twelve photographs of playing cards, as mirror images, and six notices to be hang in the wings during Nikola’s performance asking other performers to refrain from standing in the wings. The photos are quite odd, what were they for?
Louis Nikola’s life is the subject of a series of articles by Prof. Edwin Dawes published in Volume 97 of The Magic Circular, the magazine of The Magic Circle, in his series A Rich Cabinet of Magical Curiosities. All articles in this long series are now available in electronic format, and they represent a real treasure trove for the magic collector/historian. The CD is available from Peter Scarlett. From this biography, we learn that Nikola was born on 14 March 1878 in Southampton and that had a long magical career working the halls in England and, during WWI, Australia. Nikola was one of the performers at Maskelyne‘s St. George’s Hall. During his career, Nikola published a number of books on magic and related arts (shadowgraphy) and articles on the major magic magazines. He died on 11 November 1936.
As said, he is today remembered mostly for the invention of the Nikola’s Card System, an arrangements of playing cards that is committed to memory by the performer. His stack, unlike previous ones (like the Galasso/Si-Stebbins) doesn’t have a mathematical base, nor employs a cyclic sequence, but is composed such as the position of any card is known to the performer. In recent years, this principle has been widely expanded and the literature on it has grown exponentially, thanks to performers like Simon Aronson, Juan Tamariz and Michael Close, among others. Nikola published a pamphlet about his system in 1927 and Jean Hugard re-published it, ten years later, in his Encyclopedia of Card Tricks.
However, my folder presented me with a puzzle as I didn’t have any idea of what the photos could have been for, what effect (if any) was possible to achieve with them. And the mystery remained for a number of years: I don’t have any of Nikola’s books, especially his Magical Masterpieces, published in 1934, which contains the secrets of most of his tricks, including those published in Percy Naldrett‘s Collected Magic series. On examining the photos, whose size is 10″ x 11 3/4″ (25.4 x 29.7 cm), nothing can be discovered. All photos are slightly out of focus and showing a mirror image of a playing card. The card itself occupies most of the photographic plate, but doesn’t fill it all; some of the photos are scribbled on the back (like marks), these marks being very faint; one photo has some red liquid on it… maybe a backstage accident.
The cards don’t seem to follow any specific sequence: they are 3C JD 9C 10H 8D 9H 8S 6C 4C QS 8C 6H, being the positions 9, 14, 19, 20, 21, 28, 29, 31, 35, 43, 46, 48 of the Nikola Stack. I don’t think the Nikola Stack has anything to do with these cards, rather it seems to me these are twelve random cards.
However, Prof. Dawes found an interesting bit of information about Nikola’s performance for the Fifth Grand Séance of The Magic Circle (whose name, incidentally, was proposed by Louis Nikola) in 1910:
…For his second effect a lady selected a card and Nikola then displayed a sheet of photographic paper, which was marked for identification, and a photographic printing frame into which the paper was placed. After wrapping it in newspaper it was given to a member of the audience to hold, while the lady fixed her thoughts on the card she had chosen. On unwrapping the frame, the image of the card was found on the previously marked paper.
Bingo! This is obviously the trick whose apparatus now is in my hands! Obviously, Nikola would surreptitiously introduce the photo of the selected card in the frame (rather than the blank paper) and reveal it. But why are the cards out of focus? Was this a mistake of the photographer? And why are they mirrored?
As I said, I don’t own any of Nikola’s books, but I was aware of the existence of a trick called Magic Photography in his Magical Masterpieces. This book was published in 1934 and it’s now available electronically on Lybrary.com but also elsewhere on the internet. By checking the description and the explanation of the trick, we realize I own the apparatus originally used by Louis Nikola or, at least, a part of it.
Nikola described the effect, in Magical Masterpieces, as:
A piece of photographic printing paper is taken from the manufacturer’s packet, marked on the back, fastened into a photographer’s printing frame, wrapped in newspaper and given into the custody of a spectator. A lady is now invited to think of a card, to concentrate her mind very intently upon it, and while doing so to gaze into a hand mirror. The performer now turns the mirror in the direction of the covered frame, for the purpose, he says, of reflecting the image of the lady’s thought. The wrapping paper is torn from the frame, and there, in truth, is an enlarged image of the card. It is an actual photograph, newly printed, and unfixed, and is proved to be upon the marked paper.
He quickly explains that the paper is actually marked after it is placed in the frame (and it has been exchanged for the card’s photo) and that a card is forced to a spectator, rather than simply thought. Nikola then explains that he has three methods to exchange the photographic paper and describes one in the book, quite simple but, perhaps, not his first choice. He further explains that he would force the card with a Siamese Svengali deck where the short card is glued to the bottom of the normal card below (this is a deck attributed to Lu Brent). Anyway, we are interested in the photos. Of these, Nikola says:
For the preparation of the photographic prints, it will be necessary to have a stock (large or small according to individual requirements) of negatives photographed in a camera from playing cards. It will break the photographer’s heart, but tell him to make the negatives out of focus. The pictures are supposed to be of occult origin; therefore they must not appear too blatantly material. For the same reason, they should be underprinted, to present a somewhat ghostly appearance. Size is a matter of personal convenience, but I do not recommend anything smaller than “half-plate” (6-1/2 in. x 4-3/4 in. or the American equivalent, 7 in. x 5 in.) “Whole-plate” (8-1/2 in. x 6-1/2 in.) is more impressive.
This satisfactorily explains why the photos in my collection are blurred and the size they are! And the presentation also explains why the cards are mirrored: the lady must concentrate on the card while gazing in a mirror and it’s the mirror image that is impressed on the paper! All the logical details of the effect have been taken care of, justifying all the elements of the produced photograph which may then be left with the audience and which could be the centre of an Edwardian after dinner discussion on the powers of Magic. This is the sort of twisted “magician’s thinking”, but it makes some sense of sort.
I don’t have in my possession the photographic frame where the normal paper was (allegedly) placed and where the transformation occurred: it may have been lost, thrown away with other “junk”, or, maybe, some collector, somewhere, has a contraption whose use is obscure… who knows?
Nikola ends the explanation of the trick, in Magical Masterpieces, with the following tease:
In two later methods of frame construction, one specially designed for stage use, with a large frame taking a print 15 in. x 12 in., it is possible to shew the paper on both sides and lay it quite openly upon the glass in the frame, without any exchange or subterfuge, and the illusion in these is as nearly perfect and smooth working as it is possible for any trick to be, and practically undetectable. These I am reserving for a small book of special revelations that I hope to prepare as a supplement to the present volume.
Unfortunately, Nikola died two years later and the methods of frame construction have never been explained, as far I know, but I will be glad to be corrected by any fellow collector who may know better.
And here we are: part of a magic trick performed as early as 1910 is in my collection and I have been able to discover what this trick was about. However, something still perturbs me: if Nikola was forcing a card, with a prepared deck, why would he need twelve photographs of different cards? Why not twelve copies of the same card? Did Nikola actually use at least twelve gaffed decks? Or was he being sneaky in his explanation and did he have a method to allow the audience a free choice of the card and then load the correct photo? I’m afraid we may never know: we can only dream the face of a lady looking in a mirror hoping the image of a playing card would materialize in front of her bright eyes.
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