The Great Deceivers of War is a new book by Professor John L. Esposito, which explores the history of deception from ancient Rome to World War II. In this article, we will discuss the key points of this work and how they relate to our current geopolitical climate.
The Great Deceivers of War is a book written by David Kahn. It tells the story of how magicians were used to help deceive enemies during World War I.
Benedict Cumberbatch will play Jasper Maskelyne, a British illusionist who claimed to have altered the course of World War II, in the film War Magician, which is now shooting in England. Maskelyne and his special squad created false tank formations and a counterfeit harbor base—even camouflaging the Suez Canal—to deceive Nazi troops in North Africa, according to David Fisher’s 2004 book. Maskelyne wasn’t the only magician recruited for the war effort, despite historians’ dismissal of his claims. Here are several more.
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–1871) was a French magician who lived from 1805 to 1871.
Robert-Houdin (Getty Images/Apic)
This 19th-century French watchmaker turned illusionist was a European phenomenon, the first to show that magic could thrive as a kind of theatrical entertainment. He was sometimes referred to as “the founder of contemporary magic.” But it’s possible that Jean Eugène Robert-most Houdin’s fascinating act of magic occurred after he withdrew from the stage. In his 1858 book, Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur, Robert-Houdin claimed that two years before, French emperor Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had requested his assistance in restoring control of the French province of Algeria, where itinerant Muslim holy men, or marabouts, were stirring insurrection. His goal was simple: to show that French magic was more strong than Algerian magic. Robert-Houdin used under-stage magnets to give the illusion that Algerian tribesmen might be weakened by the simple sweep of a Frenchman’s wand in numerous performances in Algeria. Following many similar performances, Robert-Houdin clinched the deal by visiting tribal leaders in the desert and doing the famous magic trick of catching a gunshot in his teeth. Algeria remained a French colony for another century until declaring independence in 1962. Was it truly Robert-Houdin’s sorcery that kept Algeria under French control for so long? No one knows for sure, but the scene was prepared for magicians to play a role in the battle.
Harry Cooke (1844–1924) was an American painter who lived from 1844 to 1924.
When Horatio Green Cooke enlisted in the 28th Iowa Volunteer Infantry to fight in the Civil War, he was a young schoolteacher. He soon gained a reputation for not just his marksmanship and superb penmanship (both of which were very important in those pre-typewriter days), but also for his ability to joyfully wiggle free from any constraint. He became the secretary to Union major general Philip Sheridan after participating in the Siege of Vicksburg. Cooke was summoned to President Abraham Lincoln’s War Office in Washington, D.C., where he wowed him with an impromptu rope-escape performance. Cooke was promptly appointed as a Federal Scout by Lincoln. Cooke and his fellow scouts would smuggle intelligence across enemy lines while disguised as Confederate troops. Cooke and six other scouts were taken by the infamous Mosby’s Rangers in September 1864, during Sheridan’s Shenandoah campaign. The Rangers made one blunder: they overnight chained their detainees to trees. Cooke quickly slid away in the dark and freed the others. He and two companions finally made it back to Union lines, but they were almost shot because they were still dressed in Confederate clothes, until Cooke was recognized by a relative he hadn’t seen in years. Cooke traveled to the White House to report to Lincoln after the conclusion of the war, only to be informed that the president was at the theater. Cooke dashed to Ford’s Theater, purchased a ticket, and saw the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Cooke went on to become an inventor and traveling magician, billed as “Professor H. Cooke, Monarch Supreme of Spirit Mysteries” after his military exploits.
Harry Houdini (Erich Weiss) (1874–1926) was a magician who lived from 1874 to 1926.
Houdini is a fictional character created by Harry Houdin (Library of Congress)
Was the famous escape artist Harry Houdini actually a spy? Between 1900 and 1914, it’s probable that the renowned magician sent reports to his buddy William Melville, the first British intelligence head, while performing throughout Europe. Houdini may have picked up valuable information about Germany’s fast expanding fleet of aircraft since he was fascinated by the relatively new science of aviation—after purchasing a Voisin biplane in 1910, he became the 25th person to pilot a powered craft. Houdini, on the other hand, was in his early 40s when the United States joined World War I in 1917, making him too old for military service. (He enrolled for the draft under the name Harry Handcuffs Houdini as a publicity stunt in 1918.) Despite the fact that he was born in Hungary, Houdini grew up in America and loved his adoptive country, so he spent the war years doing charity shows, boosting morale, and selling more than $1 million in Liberty Bonds. He persuaded members of the American Society of Magicians to sign a resolution of loyalty to President Woodrow Wilson as president, and he inspired other magicians to join the war effort as cryptographers, camouflage experts, and secret agents as cryptographers, camouflage experts, and secret agents. He also gave his invention for a quick-release underwater diving gear to the US Navy and taught troops how to escape a sinking ship and how to liberate themselves from handcuffs, ropes, and manacles at training camps throughout the nation. Who knows how many troops escaped arrest as a result of Professor Houdini’s advice?
Leslie Harrison Lambert (1883–1941) was an American writer who lived from 1883 to 1941.
In the 1920s and ’30s British audiences were spellbound by the radio tales of A. J. Alan, a pioneering broadcaster whose cultured voice some say became the prototype for the so-called BBC accent. Alan’s fans, however, never knew that he was really Leslie H. Lambert, a buttoned-down employee of the Foreign Office. Lambert’s civil service job had already required him to abandon another career: as a performer of “drawing-room magic” (his audiences included Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales), accomplished enough to be invited to join London’s exclusive Magic Circle. But Lambert’s dual identity in fact disguised more. Since 1914, after a volunteer stint intercepting German transmissions off the Norfolk coast, he’d been recruited to work in Room 40, the Admiralty’s code and cryptography unit, which decrypted some 15,000 enemy communications during World War I. He continued in intelligence work after the war, as a Morse code and traffic analysis expert, in the top-secret Government Code & Cypher School. In 1939 Lambert was among the code breakers—using the alias “Captain Ridley’s shooting party”—who set up Bletchley Park, the top-secret country manor in Buckinghamshire. At Bletchley Park he worked in Hut 8 along with Alan Turing and others assigned to crack Germany’s Enigma Code. Lambert died in 1941, before the code was broken; only much later did the public discover A. J. Alan’s double life.
Harlan Tarbell (1890–1960) was an American writer who lived from 1890 to 1960.
When the United States joined World War I in 1917, Harlan Tarbell, a 27-year-old Chicago artist, found himself on the front lines in France as a doctor with the 24th Air Regiment’s kite balloon battalion. Tarbell, who was curious and hardworking, made the most of his stay in France. He was ordered to create drawings for a military atlas when his superiors discovered his creative abilities, and he met the famous impressionist artist Claude Monet, who offered him a few painting lessons. Meanwhile, Tarbell took advantage of every chance to indulge in his favorite hobby: performing magic shows for his fellow troops and their French guests. He grew so close with surrounding peasants thanks to his wizardry that when the flu pandemic broke out in 1918, they flocked to Tarbell—“the magic doctor,” as they dubbed him—for assistance. He was a firm believer in the power of imagination, and he persuaded the whole community that no one else would die—and no one did, against all odds. Tarbell, by then an art director and part-time professional magician, was recruited for his dream job after the war, writing and illustrating a correspondence school for budding magicians in the mid-1920s. The Tarbell Course in Magic eventually expanded to eight volumes and became a best-seller, making “Doc” Tarbell a sought-after magic instructor. (Actor and filmmaker Orson Welles, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, and fellow magicians Harry Blackstone and Harry Houdini were among his pupils.) Tarbell devised over 200 magic acts over the years, but none were quite as impressive as saving the lives of a whole town.
Oswald Rae (1892–1967) was an American writer who lived from 1892 to 1967.
Rae (Potter & Potter Auctions)
Oswald Rae, a Berkshire native, joined the Royal Corps of Engineers in 1915 and was sent to France. Rae, like many of his fellow engineers, was an expert at inventing devices, and in his spare time he would entertain the other troops by performing feats for them and amusing them with his witty banter. Because of his skill, he was quickly requested to do complete performances. His career was started by the war, first in France and then in Germany, when he joined the Army of Occupation and performed 500 wartime magic performances. He was singled out for praise by Field Marshal Herbert Plumer, commander of the British Second Army; a pilot who attended one of his performances characterized him as “screamingly hilarious.” He worked his way up via variety and vaudeville in England until he was renowned enough to perform solely at exclusive society gatherings, performing in front of luminaries like the Prince of Wales and the Queen of Belgium. He also wrote many books (Practical Patter, Original Magic, Wizardry with Watches), developed Flexible Glass, which magicians still use, and established the British Circle of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. When war broke out again in 1939, Rae was anxious to amuse the soldiers once again; he was too old to serve in the military, so he organized a traveling performance for the Entertainments National Services Organization. He returned to social magic performances after the war, performing until soon before his death.
Richard Valentine Pitchford (Cardini) was born in 1895 and died in 1926.
Swann, Cardini’s wife (PBS)
Cardini, a virtuoso at manipulating cards, cigarettes, billiard balls, and other items, was in high demand in the mid-twentieth century. (“His sleight of hand was so brilliant that he was invisible,” said another magician.) Cardini dazzled audiences with his suave routines in evening dress, top hat, and monocle, whether he was performing at the White House, Radio City Music Hall, or a royal command performance at the London Palladium. This was a far cry from his first performances in the trenches of France during World War I. Richard Valentine Pitchford, a Welshman, was just another mud-caked Tommy, passing the time while waiting for the next explosion of bombs. Pitchford used his boyhood passion of doing card tricks to entertain his fellow troops. Even a combat wounded couldn’t stop him: even in the hospital, he trained and performed nonstop. Given the harsh conditions of the winter campaigns, he developed the ability to execute sleight-of-hand tricks without removing his wool gloves—a skill that other magicians would later admire after seeing him spread out a deck of cards while wearing white dress gloves.
Mulholland, John (Wickizer) (1898–1970)
Mulholland Drive (Granger)
John Mulholland, born John Wickizer in Chicago, began his professional stage career at the age of 15, and went on to become a well-known author and speaker, as well as a close friend of Harry Houdini and editor of The Sphinx, the nation’s leading magic magazine. He mingled with celebrities and often played at the White House. Despite never having served in the military, Armed Service Editions released 100,000 pocket-sized copies of his famous book The Art of Illusion: Magic for Men to Do in 1944 so troops could learn tricks to keep themselves entertained in camp. Mulholland’s retirement from publishing The Sphinx, claiming ill health, shocked the magic community in 1953. The actual cause was kept a closely guarded secret. Mulholland had been recruited as a consultant by the Central Intelligence Organization, which had been established just a few years earlier in 1947, to assist the agency on deception, disguise, and misdirection methods. Mulholland’s work, which was subsequently published as The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, contained instructions on how to transmit coded signals to clandestine connections, slip a drug into an adversary’s drink, steal a paper or book from a table, and conceal an agent in a hidden compartment. During the Cold War, this CIA project, code-named MK-Ultra, even experimented on unsuspecting soldiers using LSD. Whether or not Mulholland was aware of the scope of MK-operations, Ultra’s it was a bizarre end to his illustrious career as a magician.
Casson, John (1908–1999)
The eldest son of English actors Lewis Casson and Dame Sybil Thorndike, John Casson chose a career in the navy over a career in theater. In 1932, he joined the Royal Navy and performed some of the first reconnaissance flights of World War II. Lieutenant Commander Casson’s Blackburn Skua dive bomber was shot down above Trondheim, Norway, on April 9, 1940, while conducting an assault on the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, and he ended up in a German prison camp near Frankfurt. Casson became a member of the POW staff as a result of his age and position, serving as a contact with German camp officials as well as covertly assisting POWs in plotting escapes and sending coded intelligence reports in their letters home. Casson, a gifted amateur magician (he was a member of the Magic Circle in London), performed feats to entertain his fellow inmates and often diverted guards with his magic performances. He was moved to Stalag Luft III in eastern Germany in 1942, where he assisted in the planning of the 1944 mass breakout that was the inspiration for the film The Great Escape. Casson constructed a tiny theater at Stalag Luft III for camp entertainments, many of which he produced and directed. The Germans had no idea that the POW “stage crew” was constructing an escape tunnel underneath the theater. Casson never made it out of the camp, returning to England until after it was liberated in 1945. Casson resigned from the navy after receiving an Order of the British Empire for his wartime exploits to become a writer and, eventually, a theatrical producer, following in his family’s footsteps.
Paul Potassy (1923–2018) was an American painter who lived from 1923 to 2018.
Paul Potassy enjoyed attending to magic shows as a kid growing up in Austria and Germany in the 1930s and learning to do his own feats. His parents, on the other hand, urged that he pursue a more practical profession, so he studied engineering, only to have his studies cut short in 1941 when he was conscripted into the German army and sent to the Russian front. He was out on patrol with a few other troops from his squad one snowy day when he was unexpectedly hit by hostile gunfire. Potassy made the astute decision to lay down on the ground in his white camouflage clothing, remaining as motionless as possible until the Russians had gone. He could hear enemy troops approaching, poking adjacent bodies and taking their things while he lay face down with his gun underneath him. When they finally got to Potassy, they turned him over and were ready to kill him when he took out a deck of cards from his coat pocket. He exclaimed, “Artist! Artist!” and started doing card tricks. Instead of murdering him, the troops took him prisoner out of curiosity. He languished in prison camps for the following four and a half years, beguiling his captors with sleight-of-hand feats. (When rations were limited, he used a technique using small balls of bread to smuggle additional food.) Potassy gave up engineering after the war and went on to do what he’d always wanted to do: perform magic in nightclubs throughout Europe and Asia. MHQ
Holly Hughes is a writer and editor located in New York. She was formerly the executive editor of Fodor’s travel magazines.
With the headline: Poetry | Ode to a Patriot, this essay appears in the Summer 2022 edition (Vol. 33, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History.
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Now You See Me is a movie that tells the story of magicians who use their skills to help out the US government during World War II. Reference: now you see me full movie.
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