Dear Magic Man, Jr.: How do they do that trick where the ball floats and then vanishes or lights on fire?
Editor: Thank you for your question. As you may know, we try to avoid exposing the secrets of magic here on Inside Magic. So we won’t reveal the method but your question did cause us to look into the history of the trick you described so eloquently.
The effect was first found in a rough draft of Professor Hoffman’s Modern Magic under the title “Ball Flying and then on Fire before Vanishing.” Hoffman got into a hard-fought battle with his publisher over the trick. The book exposed many of the classic secrets of magic but the publisher was dead-set against exposing this particular illusion.
“Whilst we have no objection to giving away the secret to many tricks that make up the routines of working performers who depend upon secrecy to make a living, we object to lifting the veil on this vaguely described and likely never performed illusion. It just does not seem, to us, to be in the cricket spirit.”
“Cricket” can be used as a synonym for “fair” or “appropriate” and that sense of the word is derived from the game of the same name played by unfathomable rules over the course of days and reported on the BBC shortwave broadcasts we hear at night due to a misalignment in our jaw and the resultant proximity of two silver filings.
But according to some scholars of a magical bent, the publisher was referring not to the game but insect.
At the time of Professor Hoffman’s writing, cricket fighting (or “Grasshoppering” as it was called on some of the colonial island nations) was all the rage in the British pubs and smaller arenas. A “sport” similar to cock or dog fighting, the activity brought the bloody battle to those who could not afford the larger animals. It was considered a more appropriate activity because anyone could find or breed crickets and thus participate. Charles Darwin observed, “the elite pastime of raising cocks or terriers holds no sway for this man. Give me a common tettigoniidae and a wager, and I am a happy sailor.” (See Darwin’s Dairies here.)
The Darwin quote points out an interesting twist on the story. The British “cricket” is actually what we in the United States call a katydid or grasshopper.
In a typical cricket fight, participants would paint the backs of up to five crickets at a time and drop them into the circular arena with the entries of at least two other teams. The battle would ensue for a period of time tied directly to the relative humidity of the venue. On a humid night, the fight could be as long as five hours. On a very dry night, the winners could be declared in five minutes. Continue reading “Inside Magic Letters to the Editor”