A couple of weeks ago I talked about Georges Méliès and how he became interested in stage magic. I mentioned that he was fascinated by the performances of John Nevil Maskelyne at the Egyptian Hall in London. Today it is the birthday of John Nevil Maskelyne and he is definitely worth a mention today.
Maskelyne was born in Cheltenham in 1839 and like Houdin, who I also recently wrote about, he trained to be a watchmaker which made him interested in all sorts of mechanical things. He and his friend George Cooke, a tailor’s apprentice, were amateur magicians. So when the famous Davenport Brothers rolled into town in 1865 with their spirit cabinet the two where pretty keen to see the show.
What the Davenport Brothers did was have themselves tied to chairs, their wrists were also bound and their hands filled with flour. On a table between them was a glass of water, some musical instruments and a board, a hammer and some nails. With all these thing they were put inside a cabinet and all the lights in the theatre were put out. After less that a minute, the audience would hear the sound of hammering and then the musical instruments being played. When the lights went up again, the two men were sitting tied to their chairs, but their coats were on inside out. The water had gone and the nails had been hammered into the board. Everyone was supposed to believe that this had been done by spirits, but Maskelyne thought otherwise. One of the blackout curtains in the theatre had slipped and he somehow managed to observe the brothers slip their ropes, put the flour carefully in their pockets and take off their coats. They then hammered the nails, played the instruments, drank the water and put their coats back on inside out. They retrieved the flour from their pockets and replaced their hands in the ropes.
Maskelyne and Cooke thought they could probably do that too. They made an announcement that they would perform the same feat and no spirits would be involved whatsoever. After building themselves a similar cabinet, together they revealed the trickery of the Davenport Brothers to a Cheltenham audience. That was when they realised that they could make their living as professional magicians. Maskelyne was the magician and Cooke the assistant. It wasn’t easy. They spent eight years touring the country and eventually got enough money together to hire a hall in London for three months. Maskelyne’s intention was that they would go on tour afterwards as ‘Maskelyne – The Great London Magician’. They made so much money in London that they decided to stay and took over a beautiful building in Piccadilly called the Egyptian Hall, which was originally a museum. As a result became known as ‘England’s Home of Mystery.’ This is where Méliès saw Maskelyne’s show. They were there from 1873 until 1904.
Maskelyne was fond of exposing frauds and wrote a book called ‘Sharps and Flats’ which explains in detail all the tricks that crooked gamblers used. It is still a classic text on the subject today. He wrote several other books on magic and, as a member of the Magic Circle, he was intent on dispelling all notions of supernatural powers. He also developed tricks of his own. The most famous is the levitation trick which was later developed by Houdin and has been much imitated since. Included in his performances were a couple of plays based around magic. They have great names, one is called ‘The Mystic Freaks of Gyges’.
He didn’t let his watch-making skills go to waste. He built several automata. These included a girl called Zoe who could draw portraits and one called ‘Psycho’ who could play whist and smoke whilst he was doing it. But Maskelyne is also remembered for another, less magical invention. He was the originator of the special door lock on toilets that required a person to put in a penny to open it. This is the origin of the euphemism ‘spend a penny’ for going to the toilet.