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

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4.15  ·  Rating details ·  914 ratings  ·  100 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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Ross Blocher
Feb 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Jake Cooper
Feb 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
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?
Hy Conrad
Sep 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I've read quite a few books about this fascinating chapter in American history, and this is the best one by far. It captures the excitement and mystery and many of the best stories from the period. Stage magic used to be the most popular and lucrative form of entertainment in the US, probably in the world. Steinmeyer pulls aside the curtain on this world, and at the same time pays homage to it. ...more
Mark Speed
Dec 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
The research that's gone into this book is extraordinary. Only a true devotee would have undertaken such a mammoth (pun not intended) task. I think it's a very worthwhile read if you're a student of the history of magic, but a bit too dry and obscure if you're not. By necessity it's a bit repetitive in places. ...more
Robin Banks
Feb 07, 2021 rated it really liked it
A magician's brain salad with idiosyncratic biographies of some American an British Magicians from the 1840s to Doug Henninng (1990?).A description of many tricks, without telling you how most of them are done -- except for mirror tricks -- those get explained. Some worthy comments about showmanship in general and on audience interactions in particular. Useful for a student of magic, maybe. One key insight is why children are such poor audiences and why scientists are so easy to fool.

Much of the
...more
David Groves
Oct 27, 2015 rated it really liked it
When I first started reading this book, I didn't quite know what it was trying to accomplish, but along the way, I enjoyed the ride. I learned things about 19th-century magicians, audiences, and entertainment trends. When reading such a book, one is struck that 19th-century audiences had no radio, TV, or movies, neither social media or computers, and because of that, there was a rabid hankering for vaudeville and live performance. Today, we are so blase about seeing live performance. We prefer s ...more
Becky
Mar 04, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
Will Chin
Jun 27, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Emily
May 18, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
James
Oct 07, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Silent_count
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
Clinton
Jul 17, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Nicole
Aug 28, 2007 rated it liked it
Like a good magic trick, Steinmeyer's book lets you think you're in-the-know about some of the most famous stage illusions of all-time without revealing any true secrets. Steinmeyer creates a compelling read more fascinating for its evocation of the great rivalries of the Golden Age of magic than for technical how-to. ...more
Tom Quinn
An enterprising book on a really interesting topic, full of lofty promises: intrigue, mystery, razzle-dazzle. Steinmeyer's passion for stage magic is earnest and his research is thorough, but his personal anecdotes tend to be stilted and strained. When he tries to connect on a personal level, he seems to be trying too hard. But to his credit, Steinmeyer quickly corrects his pacing and manages to make what might be dry subject matter (patent law, rights to illusions, and competition for original ...more
Robert Starr
Sep 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I used to do magic as a kid. I think I even did a performance at a friend's birthday party. I got a kick out of being privy to secrets or maybe just being the center of attention. I don't think that love of magic ever went away, though, when you grow up, it's a little cheesy to do magic tricks for your friends. I keep a deck of cards with me wherever I go and like to practice a few tricks that I've learned, but am too embarrassed to show off what I've learned to anyone.

This is all to say that it
...more
Julian Walker
Feb 12, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A glorious trip through the development of stage magic, and the grand, set piece illusion.

The author's passion for the subject is apparent in his enthusiastic biographies of the men (and sadly they mainly were) who made magic the spectacle it is today. Giving us an insight not just into the minds of these true originators, but also into how some of the tricks are done (obviously within the bounds of allowed disclosure). This is a cracking read.

Each character takes the story on a bit, and you get
...more
Fraser Sherman
Jun 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
Steinmeyer opens with the night Houdini made an elephant disappear, going back to that topic later to explain why it didn't week. In between he looks at the history of modern stage magic from the great Robert-Houdin through John Neville Maskelyne, Charles Morritt and multiple others (I know of some prominent conjurors he doesn't mention so I'm not sure what his standard for inclusion is).
This isn't dramatically gripping — while there are some famous feuds, they're not the center of the book — bu
...more
Bang Learnedly
Nov 01, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018
An interesting history of professional magic. The timeline can be hard to follow, events aren't told in chronological order and there's so many magicians, some of which are only major players for a brief time. I often found myself coming across familiar names whose previous contributions I couldn't remember. The book includes a few interesting reveals of how different tricks are done, but the cliche that the book repeats multiple times is true, it's all done with mirrors.

It's interesting if you
...more
Tao
Mar 12, 2021 rated it really liked it
Recently re-read this out loud to my son, who is interesting in the mechanics of magic. We both enjoyed it & actually went even further back and read Robert-Houdin's memoir, which is great fun.
I think this author spend a bit too much time trying to puncture Harry Houdini mystic...not that his evidence wasn't convincing, just that it wasn't that interesting. But the rest of the book was fascinating. Loved all the history & descriptions of crazy characters & brilliant engineering.
...more
Cayleigh Arnold
Jan 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I thought that was just brilliant. Wonderfully written by someone who obviously cares about his many subjects, it was so entertaining and easy to read. A good history without too many of the embellishments you get in some biographies, made me laugh in lots of places and even get a bit teary-eyed when talking about Devant’s last days. Will be reading more Steinmeyer for sure
Joe
Dec 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating history of a bygone era told from a modern perspective. I'll never look at magic the same. Truly engaging and vividly told, the narrative transports you back in time to the darkened Victorian theater and front row in New York to see masters ply their trade. Also helps you understand how the performer thought, how the trick was performed, but doesn't tell you why you were fooled. 9/10 definitely worth a read, even if a little repetitive at times. ...more
Brogan Hastings
Jan 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've been meaning to read this book for literally years, even before I was interest in magic.

It's a tough read - but to paraphrase a quote from Teller in the Penn and Teller masterclass, a book on magic that's easy to read is not worth reading.

Thoroughly interesting and enjoyable. Nice to find out a bit of history on a subject that's become so near to my heart.
...more
James Hill
Apr 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fascinating book. It is written in a meta-magical manner, leading the reader, without them noticing, to the performance of one of the greatest tricks ever performed.

As with all the best books, I wanted to finish it as quickly as possible, but I never wanted it to end.

Truly magical.
Ralph Wilkin
I found this started out quite well but then seemed to get bogged down with too much detail of petty in fighting and ‘he said this’ and ‘he did that to him’. Better to have a chronological history of the characters and evolution of some of the tricks.
Lucas Jarche
Aug 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
3.5/5. A bit disjointed at times, going back and forth between different stories seemingly at random, but overall a solid, interesting snapshot of magic history with a sort of narrative woven throughout the whole thing.
Ella
Nov 17, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating look into the world of magic, illusion and the changing demands of the public who want to be entertained. This novel looks not just at the tricks themselves but the people who created them, whose personalities shaped magic and whose legends continue to this day.
Jenny Trick
Nov 23, 2020 rated it liked it
This book had a lot of fun facts and was an interesting read about magic as an art form. It did get a bit dull at some points listing the lineage and history of magicians but it definitely had some interesting points to make up for it.
Silas John
Jan 08, 2021 rated it it was amazing
As a magician and a member of the magic castle, this was a very well written overview of not only the history of a single magic effect, but a deconstruction of the history of magic during the 18th century. This should be required reading.
Jolene Knighton
Feb 03, 2018 rated it it was ok
Filled with the history of magic. Chapter biographies of magicians of the past. Some tricks are explained.
Andy Deemer
May 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
A glorious wander through some of the great turn of the century magicians, their wars, their collaborations, and how it all built up to Houdini hiding an elephant. A fantastic read.
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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

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