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Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear

4.09 of 5 stars 4.09  ·  rating details  ·  441 ratings  ·  58 reviews
Now in paperback comes Jim Steinmeyer's astonishing chronicle of half a century of illusionary innovation, backstage chicanery, and keen competition within the world of magicians. Lauded by today's finest magicians and critics, Hiding the Elephant is a cultural history of the efforts among legendary conjurers to make things materialize, levitate, and disappear. Steinmeyer...more
Paperback, 392 pages
Published September 15th 2004 by Da Capo Press (first published September 19th 2003)
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(showing 1-30 of 1,045)
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Ross Blocher
If you have any interest in the secretive history of magic, this is your book. Jim Steinmeyer is an ideally qualified author: he is not only an historian of magic, but has professionally designed illusions for some of the top names in stage magic. The list includes Doug Henning, Siegfried and Roy, David Copperfield and Lance Burton, among others. Remember the disappearing Statue of Liberty? Yep, that was his. I'd seen Steinmeyer perform at the Magic Castle a while back, where he resurrected some...more
A really interesting look at the recent history of stage magicians. The author uses each chapter to describe a certain magician's style and, in some cases, secrets. One of the more fascinating aspects is to consider how much mass entertainment has changed in the last 150 years. Also interesting is how little it has changed: people have been and still are taken in by scandalous performances and mysticism.

My favorite part of the book was the technical description of how the tricks were performed,...more
Jake Cooper
A history of magic from 1850-1925, told by a modern magician. Heavy on biography, but many sharp insights on the big questions of a small subculture. When is deception in good faith? Are secrets entertaining in themselves? In the new millennium, do people even expect to understand how things work?
Wei Lien Chin
This dense book about the Golden Age of magic is no doubt the result of author Jim Steinmeyer's years exhaustive research. Yet, it can at times read like a history textbook.

It is clear that Steinmeyer is not the greatest non-fiction writer out there. His chapters do not work like chapters should because they are not divided by topics of themes. For example, for the chapter titled Houdini, we get eight pages (I counted) on Charles Morritt and his mirror illusions before Houdini even makes an app...more
Mar 04, 2008 Becky rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: hardcore magic/illusion fans
I thought this book was ambitious in scope, but ultimately failed to deliver. This "history of magic" seemed to me little more than a jumble of results from the author's no-doubt extensive research and experience.

The format is kind of a mess. I got worried when I saw the little oval pictures and bio information of the various magicians listed in the front -- "He's lumping a lot of basic info up front, in this 'cast of characters,'" I thought. "I bet the structure of this book is going to be all...more
Lent to me by my Hungarian finder of wonders Andras.

A historical introduction to the famous illusionists. Harry Houdini, another Hungarian, was a prominent Magician included.

I enjoyed how the author himself was a person who invented magic tricks for others to use. With all his research it led him to this book that is a historical presentation that reminded me of "The Devil in the White City" in how it would build up amazing attractions without disclosing what they were. It all led to the final...more
Recommended for fans of Erik Larson's style, amateur magicians, and anyone who preferred David Copperfield (remember him?) to David Blaine.

A decent, if somewhat tangled, history of mostly American and English magicians of the later 1800s and earlier 1900s. So many of the stories intertwine that I had some difficulty in keeping who's who straight, especially towards the end when Steinmeyer is wrapping up his loose threads and jumping around a bit in time. That said, the personal background to the...more
Tough to give a star review for this. Author has designed illusions for many of the best stage magicians of the last 30+ years and has great passion for the history of magic. Plus, the book was blurbed by no less than Ricky Jay and Glen David Gold (author of Carter Beats the Devil, an excellent novel set in the world of magic).

The personalities of the performers, how they came to be magicians and the lengths they would go to to steal tricks was so interesting. The mechanics behind the illusions...more
Oct 21, 2008 James rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people tired of fiction
Like the magicians he chronicles, Steinmeyer provides the reader with both too much and too little detail to actually reproduce the illusions he describes (I'm not sure if this really matters, however, since I won't be making my own elephant disappear anytime soon).

Interesting look at early 20th century magic. Some of the concepts involved, mirrors, light tricks, trapdoors, are now hundreds of years old but to see them in the hands of a great magician would still make your jaw drop.

I'd recommen...more
A fascinating walk through the history of magic and the showmanship that went with it from the late 1800's through the end of magic's golden era in the 1930's. Although the book explains the mechanics of many great illusions, it's much more than just a "how they did it" book. There are compelling character studies of magicians and the entire magic community as well as an in-depth look at European and American theater of the era. The magicians' stories intertwine as illusions evolved and theater...more
It doesn't make sense to try to read this as a history of magic. It's non-linear and probably not intended to serve as one.

It's not a book of magic secrets either, though you will learn some secrets in the process of reading it.

It does give you the flavor of stage magic of the day. The effects, sure, but also personalities, egos, rivalries, successions. There are lots of interesting characters in the world of magic and I enjoyed having a look at them from the wings.

This book offers a small taste...more
Speaking as a layman, I found this a very good history of late 19th/early 20th century magic, primarily in the US. Steinmeyer cites his sources meticulously, both in the body of the text, and in an extensive notes section. The writing is engaging and I appreciated the occasional sketches.

There's some drawing back of the curtains; (including the titular trick) however, learning how it's done makes me appreciate the artistry of the performances even more. I found the ingenuity of these men compel...more
Apr 20, 2013 Bill rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: magicians, entertainers, engineers, historians

Beginning with a mystery-to-this-day Houdini miracle from the pinnacle of his career, The Vanishing Elephant, Steinmeyer jumps backward in time, in a hybrid of a James Burke "Connections" episode and historical biography, to trace the evolution of an ever-mystifying-to-audiences class of stage illusion.

Houdini and Jenni, the disappearing elephant, at the Hippodrome in New York in 1918

Each chapter documents a step, whether incremental progress, set-back, near-miss, or breakthrough, by the contributing magicians, ranging from world-renowned larger-than-life personalities to the

If you're looking for a book on how to do magic tricks, there's plenty of those, but this isn't one of them. Without wishing to diminish Mr. Steinmeyer's work, I'll warn you up-front that it's of almost no practical use if your interest is learning how to do magic tricks. That's not to say however that it isn't an interesting and enjoyable read.

This book covers the development of stage magic, primarily in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and is particularly focused on the dominan...more
Kirsty Darbyshire
This is a delve into the history of magic shows and showmen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You learn along the way how various magic tricks are done but that's not the whole point of the book. The trick here (if you'll excuse the pun) is that unlike the kind of exposé you see on TV - the kind that leaves you thinking "is that all?" - this book goes into how the illusions were conceived, invented and perfected. So you're left thinking how neat, clever and complicated it all...more
Chris Ivanovich
So good I've read it more than once. Steinmeyer is a a fixture in the world of magic. He's a top illusion designer, a performer, and as a historian and author he's top notch.

This book takes you from the origins of illusions through Houdini vanishing an elephant from the middle of an empty stage. You learn plenty of magic secrets in this book. But the best part is seeing how one illusion builds on another and how the personalities, rivalries, and plain ingenuity of magicians throughout the 1800s...more
A thoroughly entertaining and informative history of the golden age of magic - the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Packed with fantastic characters and anecdotes, this was the most fun I've had from a non-fiction book for some time. Steinmeyer excels at explaining the technological innovations that drove the developments in the magic business. And yes, it's true, it was (almost) all done with mirrors. C
Jenny Brown
A fascinating history of how magicians have created illusions starting from back in the days of fake spiritualists who manifested ghosts, through the complex inventions of levitators and, of course, Houdini's feat of making a circus elephant vanish, which gives the book it's title.

There's lots of background on various magicians, details on how they constructed their paraphernalia, and the reader comes away with an heightened understanding and appreciation of magic as an art with its past master...more
Read this if you have even the slightest bit of interest in magic! The extent of my interest was a sort of "whoa, how'd they do that?" reaction to the movie The Prestige, and I whipped through this book in about two days, so ...

It gives away just enough secrets to be interesting and keeps just enough secrets to remain mysterious. Excellently presented.

From the forward: "Hiding the Elephant is less like a history book than like an unforgettable all-night conversation with a fascinating stranger....more
Finished 3/2/2014. The book started well but then slowed down.
A fairly interesting history of magicians from 1800 to the 1930's. He also explains lot of illusions like how to make someone levitate, an elephant disappear, and how they do that ghost scene in Disney's Haunted Mansion (okay, I know you all knew how to do that one). It was slow going, so I only recommend it if you really want to drain the magic out of illusions and find out that Houdini wasn't a great magician, just a great escape artist.
From when I was very young I have had a keen interest in magic history and the secrets behind magic tricks. This is just the book for someone like me. The author helps us step inside a time when many popular magic tricks were invented. He gives plenty of fun anecdotes about legends of magic history and leaves the reader fascinated with some secrets behind amazing tricks of the age. Pure joy to read for a magic enthusiast.
Nov 11, 2008 April rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: magic buffs
This is a wonderful history of the high points of stage magic, centering around the early 1900s, within a framework of explaining how Houdini vanished an elephant on the stage of the Hippodrome. Woven throughout are real-life stories of intrique, espionage, jealousy, creativity and love (of magic) - along with the secrets of how some of the most memorable stage illusions actually work.

Very readable and edifying.
Excellent book on the history of magic and famous magicians, focusing mostly on the late 1800s thru the 1930s. After reading this book, you might understand the principles behind some famous illusions, but you will still believe in magic.
Whilst not a gripping read, I enjoyed this book. It gives an interesting account of the development of magic over the last 200 years with lots of focus on the characters and the technological breakthroughs that allowed new tricks to be created.

It doesn't give away all the tricks but does explain some of the common principles and mis-directions.

Worth reading if you want a change from regular fiction.
David Fenton
May 10, 2010 David Fenton rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in the history of stage magic.
An interesting book on the magicians in London, Europe and the US in the latter years of the 19th Century. Paints an evocative picture of many of the characters involved and goes into fine detail on the actual illusions they were famous for. Tends to lose focus and pace in the second half of the book and it becomes pretty much a retread through information previously gleaned in the earlier chapters.
Peter Salva
This treatise on optical conjuring is Steinmeyer at his best. Brilliant!
David Ward
Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear by Jim Steinmeyer (Da Capo Press 2004)(793.8). This is a history of stage magic in the early Twentieth Century. It follows the major magicians who were also the main innovators in the creation of new illusions. Houdini is featured prominently. My rating: 7/10, finished 2009.
Affectionate account of the history of magic. This book illuminates the wonder of the innovations and the personalities behind them, while never once making us feel as though we are worse off for knowing their secrets. I did however, during the course of this book come to realize that many magicians are rather awful, and the history is loaded with intense racism.
Jaime K
Well-written book introducing many of the magicians from the 1800's through 1950's, while revealing how many illusions are constructed and executed. Amazing to see how many popular magicians in present day are still using the same tricks! I have a newfound respect for the vision, engineering and performance needed to pull off a successful illusion.
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Jim Steinmeyer was born and raised just outside of Chicago, Illinois, and graduated in 1980 from Loyola University of Chicago, with a major in communications. He is literally the man behind the magicians having invented impossibilities for four Doug Henning television specials, six touring shows, two Henning Broadway shows, and numerous television and Las Vegas appearances.For one of David Copperf...more
More about Jim Steinmeyer...
The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer" Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker's Trail of Blood Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural Art and Artifice and Other Essays of Illusion

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