While the art of magic and the conjuring arts has existed since pagan times through priests, witches, etc., it is the ones who dare – the magicians who defy death and show acts that we ourselves wouldn’t even dare think of – that have gained the most following and become the most remembered. Here are a few whom we believe rank among the best and most popular of all time.
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871). Jean Robert-Houdin was the son of a French clockmaker, whose interest in magic began when he received from a bookseller – erroneously – a two-volume set of books on conjuring called Scientific Amusements instead of the books on clock making that he had reserved. He went on to study magic and opened the first magic theatre in France. Houdin is considered the Father of Modern Magic and it is from him that Harry Houdini took his stage name. Among his most popular acts were Second Sight, a two-person mind reading act where his blindfolded assistant (played by his son) described whatever it was that Houdin was holding or doing at the other side of the room; and Ethereal Suspension, where he suspended his son in mid-air, balanced only by his right elbow.
Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896). Born to a family that was known as “the first family of magic,” Alexander Herrmann’s father was a physician who also performed conjuring acts. His elder brother Carl was a medical student who became a professional magician. When Alexander was eight years old, Carl kidnapped him from the family home after seeing his interest in magic and took him to Russia to teach him the art. The two brothers performed together until 1885, when they decided to go their separate ways. Dubbed “Herrmann the Great” by Russian society after his show stopping tour in Russia, Alexander eventually became an American citizen. He died in 1896 while on board a train on his way to a performance. Among his most popular acts are the Card Throwing act, where he would land a card on the lap of a spectator at the back of the theatre by throwing it through the air. Another is the Bullet Catch, an extremely dangerous trick, where spectators would fire loaded pistols at him and he would catch the bullets and remain unhurt.
Harry Houdini (1874-1926). Born in Hungary as Ehrich Weiss, Harry Houdini emigrated to America with his family when he was four years old. At age nine, he became a trapeze artist. He changed his name to Harry Houdini when he became a professional magician. The first name was chosen in homage to Harry Keller and his last name to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, both magicians who heavily influenced his art. Houdini specialized in escapism, of which his most famous act is called the Chinese Water Torture Cell, where he was hung upside-down with his ankles locked in stock, lowered into a glass tank filled with water, and the restraints locked to the top of the cell. In his later years Houdini set about exposing the frauds of self-proclaimed psychologists and mediums. He died at age 52 of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix after collapsing onstage during a performance in Michigan.
Harry Blackstone (1885-1965). Born as Harry Boughton, Harry Blackstone Sr. was one of the most famous stage magicians during the early 1900s, frequently appearing in the vaudeville circuits. His stage career started via a comedy act he did with his brother Peter Bouton. He was extremely popular during World War II through shows he did for the troops and was called The Great Blackstone. While he was considered an “elegant” magician with his white tie and tails, some of his acts, particularly his “Sawing a woman in half”, could be quite imaginatively gory. This illusion is performed using a circular saw. Blackstone would demonstrate how it would be used by sawing a piece of lumber. Then an assistant would be placed on the table and sawn in half, with the saw seen to be going through her body. The woman’s body particles are scattered by the blade, she shrieks, the blade stops, and of course her body is unharmed. Another famous illusion is the Vanishing Bird Cage where Blackstone invites children onstage and asks them to touch a cage with a canary inside. Blackstone then lowers the cage, throws it, and both cage and canary disappear in front of the children. In his later years Blackstone performed at The Magic Castle, a nightclub for magicians and magic fans. He died in 1965. His son, Harry Blackstone, Jr., followed his steps and is himself now a famous magician.
David Copperfield (1956-present). Described by Forbes Magazine as the most commercially successful magician in history, David Copperfield began practicing magic at age ten, and at twelve was admitted to the Society of American Magicians. Copperfield likes to work with large-scale illusions and huge magical feats. Among his famous acts are the laser illusion and flying illusion. In the laser illusion, Copperfield’s body is sliced into two or more parts by his assistants using a laser beam. While his upper body sits down on a chair, the lower half continues walking. The flying illusion is a levitation trick where he flies around the stage, seemingly unsupported by any wires. Copperfield then invites a member of the audience, usually female, to join him and they both fly around ala Superman. Copperfield clinched his claim to fame when he made – in separate instances – a full size Learjet, and the Statue of Liberty, disappear into thin air before the eyes of the public.
David Blaine (1997-present). Of Puerto Rican and Russian Jewish descent, David Blaine White was four years old when his interest in magic began after seeing a magician perform tricks in a subway. Filming his own act and sending the tape to the ABC broadcast network led to his first television special, where he performed tricks for strangers, up close, as cameras filmed live. Blaine has since progressed to large-scale physical stunts such as Buried Alive, where he was buried in a transparent plastic box for seven days, underneath a tank filled with 3.5 tons of water. Blaine survived on two to three tablespoons of water daily for the entire week, and his only means of communication with the outside world was via a hand buzzer. In 2000, Blaine did another endurance test called Frozen In Time, where he was encased inside a huge block of ice for 62 hours with only air and water for sustenance. Two years later he defied vertigo by standing at the top of a 100-foot high, 22-inch wide pillar for 35 hours, enduring the high winds and cold weather with no food. His tour de force is the Self-levitation illusion, where he lifts himself up two feet above the ground. Blaine has been called the next Harry Houdini.
This list is by no means comprehensive. There are many, many more magicians – some from centuries ago, others in recent years – who have been famous and are probably some of the best. Magic continues to draw interest – in good times, in bad times – and has spawned a billion dollar industry of magic tricks, accessories, tools, books, kits.