Fooling Garwulf
"Shoot to Kill" and Ethics in Magic

Robert B. Marks | 21 Jul 2015 19:00
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So what are these ethics? Even Nelm's concise description has some variation - there is a divide in modern magic between those who see their role as performing tricks for an audience with no conceit towards powers, and those who present tricks while implying real magical powers, even though none are explicitly claimed. Indeed, one of the main theories on showmanship is that in any given trick, an audience needs to be led down a path where all logical explanations for the trick are disproved, leaving only "magic."

At the heart of this, though, is still the refusal to make outright claims to magical or supernatural powers. Those who do, such as John Edward and Uri Gellar, risk the ire and wrath of magicians, who will often be the first to stand up and debunk them. During Phenomenon, a magic talent show that aired in 2007 on NBC, a spiritualist act by Jim Callahan prompted a challenge for proof from judge Criss Angel - a challenge that Angel issued to his fellow judge Uri Gellar as well.

How magicians should treat each other is also an ethical matter. Today, most magicians operate with a great deal of respect for their fellow performers - in principle, tricks should not be stolen, and magicians should not expose the methods of others. Even Penn and Teller only expose tricks that they have specifically designed to be exposed (or, sometimes on Fool Us, methods that have already been confirmed to be incorrect). In the past, however, this respect has been honoured more in the breach than the observance. A century ago, espionage between magicians was commonplace, to the point that by the time P.T. Selbit brought his sawing a woman in half illusion to America in the early 1920s, the American magician Horace Goldin had already copied it, performed it, and taken legal action to prevent it from being performed by anybody else. Between Selbit and his imitators, the illusion would spend years in legal dispute.

However, perhaps the worst offender was Erik Weisz, known by his stage name of Harry Houdini (1874-1926). Houdini was a mercurial man when it came to how he treated his fellow magicians, halfway between angel and demon with wild swings in both directions. He spearheaded a number of initiatives - such as the expansion of the Society for American Magicians into a national organization - to help bring professional and amateur magicians together and help their careers. When Houdini toured he spent his off-time organizing communities of magicians, causing magic clubs to appear in his wake. In fact, he may have done more to advance magic in America than any other single person in his lifetime. This charity, however, only extended so long as it was Houdini on top.

Houdini wanted recognition as a magician above all else, and saw any other performer within his level of success as competition to be crushed. Inside magic circles, Houdini was legendary for his vindictiveness, which included exposing the secrets of tricks he had finished with - along with those of others - to prevent them from being performed by his competition, filing legal actions against anybody trying to imitate his stage name, and undertaking a public relations campaign to slander and discredit Robert-Houdin, the very man who had inspired Houdini, after Robert-Houdin's widow had refused to meet with him.

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