John Nevil Maskelyne

John Nevil Maskelyne (22 December 1839 – 18 May 1917) was an English stage magician and inventor of the pay toilet. He invented many other important Victorian inventions. In the 19th century, Maskelyne invented a lock for London toilets which required a penny to operate, hence the euphemism “spend a penny”.

Maskelyne was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, United Kingdom, Europe. Maskelyne was trained as a watchmaker, but became interested in conjuring after watching a performance of the fraudulent spiritualists, the Davenport Brothers. He saw how their spirit cabinet worked and stated in the theatre that he could recreate their act using no supernatural methods. With the help of friend and cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he built a spirit cabinet. Together, they exposed the Davenport Brothers to the public at a show in Cheltenham in June 1865. Inspired by the acclaim they received in Cheltenham the two men decided to become professional magicians. At first they struggled to make ends meet but they were saved by a 27-year-old theatrical agent named William Morton, who saw their show in Liverpool and offered to finance a tour. Morton ended up as their manager for twenty years and helped them become firmly established on the national stage, including residencies such as their famous tenancy at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly from 1873 to 1904.[3]

In 1894 Maskelyne wrote the book Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. This book became an instant hit and to this day is considered to be a classic gambling book. What made this book so popular is the fact that it was the first detailed revelation of the secrets of the cardsharps. Other authors, before Maskelyne, wrote about crooked gambling, but never before had anyone published a work with in-depth, detailed explanation of the secrets of crooked gambling. The first edition of Sharps and Flats was published in London and New York. Later, when the book entered the public domain, the Gambler’s Book Club, from Las Vegas, published the first reprint edition. The book is now also available online in the form of a web site, with annotations. In his lifetime, Maskelyne authored several books, but Sharps and Flats is by far his most important literary work and without any doubts the best known of his books.

Maskelyne and Cooke invented many illusions still performed today. Maskelyne was adept at working out the principles of illusions, one of his best-known being levitation. Levitation is commonly, but incorrectly, said to be Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin’s illusion, but it was Maskelyne who invented it. The confusion arises because Robert-Houdin invented the illusion “La Suspension Ethéréene” (aka. the “Broom Suspension”). Levitation is also credited to American magician Harry Kellar, who in fact stole the illusion by bribing Maskelyne’s technician, Paul Valadon.

Upon Cooke’s death in February 1905, Maskelyne started a partnership with David Devant. Devant had first joined Maskelyne’s team in 1893, when he auditioned as a replacement for Charles Morritt, a conjurer and inventor who had worked with Maskelyne at the Egyptian Hall but who left to set up his own show.

Maskelyne was a member of The Magic Circle and, like Harry Houdini, tried to dispel the notion of supernatural powers. To this end, in 1914, Maskelyne founded the Occult Committee whose remit was to “investigate claims to supernatural power and to expose fraud”. In particular, the committee attempted to prove that the Indian Rope Trick has never been performed.


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