The Magic of Professor Louis Hoffmann
Most magicians’ throughout our fascinating history gain their notoriety as performers on the stage, on the street, or in a theatre setting. Fortunately a few gain their rightful place in the history of magic from their contribution to magical literature. Born Angelo John Lewis in London on July 23, 1839, Lewis wrote prolifically using the pen name Professor Hoffmann. Throughout his career, he wrote more than 25 volumes on magic and was once described by Harry Houdini as ‘The Brightest star in the firmament of magical literature’. Had he only ever written one book ‘Modern Magic’ in 1876, this would have assured his position as a great magical writer in the annals of the history of magic.
“Modern Magic’ contained not only descriptions of effects using playing cards, dice, coins, watches, rings, hats, cups and balls, handkerchiefs etc. but the manner of dress and stage settings. The book also explained how to routine an act and also various utility devices necessary for conjurors. It was the first book in English that actually became the formal handbook for all aspiring professional performers.
Influences of Professor Hoffmann:
Prior to Professor Hoffmann’s writing there had been a number of earlier magic publications starting with Reginald Scots “Discoverie of Witchcraft” in 1584 that suggested that witchcraft was basically a skill learnt by jonglers (travelling conjurors) to bewilder the public. Whereas with the advent of Professor Hoffman’s books, these really became the first real text books on teaching magic. Previous books lacked full explanations about how to actually perform magic tricks but some children’s books had chapters on magic tricks usually written by authors who had little knowledge of the true elements of magic. Robert Houdin along with Professor Hoffman were undoubtedly the leaders in writing actual textbooks on magic. Hoffman not only wrote in the English language, he actually translated the 2 technical books written by the Frenchman Houdin.
Hoffman became fascinated with the art of magic at age 10 when he witnessed a magic performance by Professor John Taylor in 1849. After completing school he entered the University of Oxford graduating in 1856, eventually gaining a Bachelor and Master of Arts. Later he became a lawyer and only occasionally performed a modest range of parlour tricks. His interest was again aroused during the 1860’s when he saw a street conjuror give a clever show. This prompted Hoffman to collect books and apparatus and began to give amateur performances for friends. Seeing an advertisement for a new boy’s magazine he offered to contribute a few articles on conjuring. This was accepted and the publishers suggested that he should undertake a more extended series and perhaps a book on magic. The incentive of $500 (that he spent mostly on apparatus) convinced the Professor that perhaps writing would merely facilitate his hobby for his own amusement. Hoffman decided to use a pen name in case his real name interfered with his legal work. If clients knew of his association with the art of deception, it may very well become prejudicial with his law cases.
He began work on his first major book titled ‘Modern Magic’ that was released in July 1875 to a completely unexpected large demand for the first edition. While the illustrations at the time cost over $1600, they were first drawn by hand and then engraved by hand on wood. At that stage the illustration process had not yet been discovered, so initially illustration was quite costly. The first edition of 2000 copies sold for seven shillings and sixpence ($1-90) that were exhausted in 6 weeks. The American magic dealer
Martinka sold his batch in a few days. Altogether there were 12 editions between 1876 through 1909 of Modern Magic that became the handbook for many magicians. Modern Magic was followed by More Magic then Later Magic as well as a number of other books on the subject. Today these three particular volumes have become collectors’ items of value. After this period Professor Hoffmann ceased his law practice at the bar and devoted himself entirely to literary work. He became an authority on games and revised and edited several editions of ‘Hoyles Book on Games’. His writings on card games like Whist and other card amusements of the period were in every household and accepted as the final authority. In 1885, Professor Hoffmann won the $500 prize offered by the Boston based publication “The Youths Companion”, for the best short story for boys. Then as a journalist he served a late apprenticeship as a ‘leader-writer’ for a large London newspaper. At the time he published his Modern Magic he was perhaps the greatest authority on the theory and practice of good magic, despite his limited professional experience as a conjuror. He had a way with language that described magic in easy to understand phraseology that was very much needed at the time.
Some of the magicians active at the time Modern Magic was published were aghast at the revelations of the secrets of manipulation and apparatus that Hofmann had exposed. This was a period before magic societies had been formed and it was thought that it would never be worthwhile to publish a book exclusively for magicians only. Today we look upon his fine books as text-books and not exposure and indeed Hoffmann was genuinely opposed to exposing magic.
He stated,” I am strongly opposed to exposes, whether on stage, in public, or in magazines addressed to the general public. I think however that describing of simple ‘pocket’ tricks, and not giving away general principles, or important devices, are free from objection”.
Hoffmann firmly believed that the most successful magicians of the future would be those who judiciously combine apparatus and non-apparatus. The ideal entertainment from the audiences point of view is one that includes feats of dexterity in conjunction with brilliant stage effects of a more spectacular kind. Regardless of today’s magicians’ talent level, we all appreciate and admire skill in manipulation and sleight of hand.
Professor Hoffmann also wrote the following, “If, of two performers one can produce through magic of his own fingers, the same degree of illusion for which the other needs elaborate apparatus, the former is surely the greater artist”. The lesson that Hoffmann is perhaps alluding too is to encourage magicians to practice and learn sleight of hand and to not rely merely on props and apparatus.
Magic Literary Legacy:
Professor Hoffmann was indeed a leader in compiling text books in the English language yet despite his brilliance, he remained a humble person yet a most prolific writer. He was enthusiastic about the large number of books written and circulated for only magicians. He likewise praised the many magic periodicals that he called the ‘magic newspaper press’. They record the activities of magicians around the world. These little magazines indeed do keep us informed and the art of illusion is in a healthy condition. Hoffman invented a number of magic tricks but few of today’s performers realise his capabilities and knowledge of magic he has left us. He was a strong advocate of magical societies and associations for magicians and became an honorary member of the American Society of Magicians (SAM) and an early member of the London Magic Circle. His legacy in the history and field of magic is often seen in magic club libraries which often have a number of his books among their collection. It is worthwhile to browse these wonderful volumes to gain an insight into another earlier period of magic that allows us to appreciate the magic of today. His last book “Latest Magic” was published in 1918. He passed away in Sussex on December 23rd 1919 aged 80.
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