When author J. K. Rowling described, in the third volume of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a most vicious and magical book, the Monster Book of Monsters, she was maybe thinking about magical books that, in years gone by, were deemed to contain such secrets that needed to be kept away from privy eyes, books for which methods were devised to keep them closed, locked away to the non-initiated.
While the idea of a “locked book” of secrets may seem something from a fairy tale, in the history of conjuring we have some books that have actually been published with a padlock and a key to keep them closed, in order that the casual observer could not learn the mystical secrets in the volume. These books were produced in the country of Harry Potter: England.
Every magic collector or magic buff knows what I’m talking about: the famous “locked books” by Will Goldston: Exclusive Magical Secrets, More Exclusive Magical Secrets and Further Exclusive Magical Secrets. No magic collection can be complete without these three tomes, and a fourth one, Great Magicians’ Tricks, which didn’t have a lock but could be classed as part of this series for its size and format.
I have, in my collection, these books which, personally, I value a lot, disagreeing with the general magic consensus which sees these books as a collection of material that is plainly wrong, mostly pirated and over-rated. I agree with some of these comments, but I would not classify these books as “magical garbage”.
The common element of these books, at least at first sight, is the presence of a clasp to keep the book, in cheap red leather binding, closed. Like Harry Potter’s book, these books allegedly contain secrets so powerful, so secret, that need to be protected the best we can. As a magician, you should not be able to walk in a magic shop (Goldston’s, mainly) and browse the book… the lock would have prevented you from doing so. Only if you bought the book and received its key, you would have then been able to learn the secrets of the great magicians of the time.
The first book of the trilogy, Exclusive Magical Secrets, was published in 1912. The publication was delayed for some years and Mr. Goldston, the shrewd magical merchant, had been advertising the book since 1910. This was a book that had to be subscribed to and that would have been available in only 1,000 copies. Every copy had the name of the subscriber gold-stamped on the cover and the subscriber had to sign an agreement in order not to disclose the secrets therein! Actually, some of the original subscribers, when passed away, asked to be buried with their copy of the book, to prevent it from falling in the wrong hands!
My copy of the book is number 786 and comes from the Paul Daniels’ collection. The original subscriber’s name has been rubbed off as the book exchanged hands in its 100 years’ life: I don’t know who the original subscriber was. The book contains a section by Harry Houdini, with some unusual escapes (that may have never been performed by the great artist himself) and one about Buatier De Kolta, with the explanation of his “expanding cube”, an illusion that was at the time in the hands of Will Goldston. In addition to these, the book contains the explanation of many tricks that were at the time performed in the major theatres in London and in the rest of the UK. One of this is the Kellar’s Levitation, originally Maskelyne’s, which was for the first time laid bare to the reader. Or the Mirror Illusion, an invention of David Devant that was still being performed. The Whist-Playing Automaton is also described: this is nothing else than Maskelyne’s famous Psycho automaton, whose secret was closely guarded by the Maskelyne family.
In addition to these tricks, there are a number of stage tricks and smaller tricks, what we would call today as “close-up” tricks. The list of the contributors to the book reads like a “who’s who” of magic at the beginning of the century: Houdini, Kellar, Chung Ling Soo, Chefalo, Oswald Williams, Will Goldston, David Devant, J. N. Maskelyne, Servais Le Roy, Cyril Yettmah, G. W. Hunter, Lafayette, Conradi… the list could go on and on.
But the problem is that some of the magicians whose tricks are explained in this book never agreed to have their tricks explained! As in a spy story, Goldston obtained some of this secrets by subterfuge or by stealth. Former assistants of some of these magicians sold the explanation of the tricks to Mr. Goldston. For this reason, the tricks are explained but not taught: the book lacks many of the details that would have permitted the buyer to build the illusion. This was not an issue for Will Goldston, though: his magic shop would have been able to produce, on request, any of the illusions described in the book.
A few years after the publication of Exclusive Magical Secrets, in 1921, Will Goldston published his second “locked book”, titled, quite obviously, More Exclusive Magical Secrets. The second book is of the same format of the first but contains the explanation of almost all the effects of Chung Ling Soo. William E. Robinson, the American illusionist who found fortune impersonating the Chinese magician Chung Ling Soo (and whose life story is told by Jim Steinmeyer in his book The Glorious Deception) had died tragically three years before on the stage of the Wood Green Empire theatre in London and his act was now languishing as no performer had the charisma and the skills to take it on. It was not a problem, for Goldston, to lay bare the secrets of Chung’s tricks and his precious, original, illusions: a chapter dedicated to “Chinese Tricks” described the bare bones of Chung’s act, but then his illusions (among which, The Dream of Wealth, The Crystal Casket and The Oyster Shell) were explained. Not just Chung’s illusions were explained: a clear explanation of Maskelyne’s playlet Will, The Witch and the Watchman is found here, as well as David Devant’s Gollywog Ball. What is frustrating, for the magical enthusiast and buddying magical historian, is that Will Goldston is quite scarce with the inventors’ names and with the names of the effects as advertised to the theatres’ audience. At the time, his readers would have been familiar with the various effects and the performers associated with them; today only careful cross-referencing allows us to associate any trick to a particular performer.
The third “locked book” of the series, Further Exclusive Magical Secrets, was published only six years later, in 1927 and it’s probably the less interesting of the three, although thicker… thanks to the paper used (361 pages against the average 500 of the previous two volumes). By 1927, the variety theatre had changed and illusion shows were getting rarer in the UK. Danté was working, as was Goldin, but most performing magicians were presenting smaller acts, with less assistants. Houdini had died and Will Goldston decided to explain Houdini’s tricks, like the Escape from a Straight-jacket while upside-down and his Milk Can Escape. A section of the book was dedicated to Carl Hertz, explaining the working of his canary vanish effect and a clever way to switch an egg bag; another section was dedicated to Walter Cerretta Jeans, containing some very minor tricks from this clever inventor.
Some years later, Will Goldston will publish the last book in this series, but this time without a lock: Great Magicians’ Tricks will contain again, as in the first volume, many tricks by Chefalo who, by that time, had returned to England with new ideas and new illusions. However, as the book is without a lock, I will not talk about it here.
I love these books: I love the fact that it’s obvious, on first sight, that they contain important secrets, making them an interesting topic of conversation with any visitor. I love the drawings they contain: they very quickly provide an idea of the effect seen by the audience and its workings. I love the fact that these book contain a technical explanation of the real classics of magic, many effects that, were not for these books, we would not know how they worked. I love the fact that the books contain many explanations of Chefalo‘s tricks. I don’t consider these books as practical manuals on the performance of magic: too many details are missing (just compare the explanation of David Devant’s illusions with those by the master himself in his Secrets of My Magic), but the books are still fascinating and useful to the historian and the collector.
Thank you, Will Goldston!