Hoaxes and Hoffmann: a Contemporary Twist in Magic History

Many people may be aware of the vague concept of the ‘magician’s code’ – the idea that a magician never reveals the secrets behind his tricks. Although the idiom steamrolls over a much more complex history of performance magic, it is true that even today some information regarding conjuring can be difficult to come across, especially when it comes to the nineteenth-century subjects of my doctoral research. Many histories of conjuring or specific biographies of magicians are self-published, often by collectors, resulting in very small print-runs which often end up in these same private collections. Researching this area can, as a result, often lead to some obscure resources and bizarre rabbit holes, and recently my explorations turned up a very odd story, even for magic studies.

 

This search focused on a figure who features frequently in one of my thesis chapters, Angelo Lewis, better known as the amateur magician and author ‘Professor Hoffmann’. Lewis, born in 1839, was an English lawyer, who began writing instructional conjuring manuals and dabbling in magic himself in the mid-nineteenth century. His best-known conjuring manual is Modern Magic (1876), followed by three sequels, slightly unimaginatively titled: More Magic (1890), Later Magic (1903), and Latest Magic (1918). As Hoffmann, Lewis also wrote a novel, Conjurer Dick (1885), which is the main reason for my interest in him (fiction written by magicians about magicians is rare) and shorter works such as King Koko (1904).

A statement which I have often seen associated with Lewis, however, is the speculation that Lewis began using the Hoffmann pseudonym because he feared that his career as a lawyer would be injured if clients began to associate him with magic and by extension, deception. The cover of Conjurer Dick itself seems to echo this idea – some copies feature Lewis’s real name with his pseudonym in brackets underneath, whereas later copies exclusively use the Hoffmann pseudonym. This is reiterated on Genii Magazine’s Magicpedia site, by no means an academic source but often useful for date checking and source comparisons.(1) Hoffmann’s Magicpedia page states that ‘he used the pen name, Professor Hoffman, because he feared that his professional prospects as a lawyer would be injured if it became known that he possessed such an intimate knowledge of the arts of deception’, and even provides a citation for this information. J. Gingles’s Accidents of Luck – A Personal Memoir (Washington, DC, 2007) is given as the source.

 

This source was clearly of great interest in finally pinning down whether Hoffmann was actually concerned for his career prospects in regards to his interest in magic. A general internet search provided little information regarding the Gingles text, nor did more specific catalogue checks such as the British Library and Senate House’s Harry Price collection. After many different yet fruitless combination searches, I was eventually led to a Reddit thread from 2016 which at first glance had little to do with Victorian magicians. It chronicled the misuse of Wikipedia editing by an individual who seemed primarily focused with posting negative commentary about Hillary Clinton to her Wikipedia page. Whilst at first this seemed unrelated, further reading revealed that this same individual was purporting to be the author of Accidents of Luck, which ‘can’t be found at any book store but can be found on magic wikis’.(2) The book, then, did not exist, and was part of a fake identity created to generate ‘fake news’, in a surprisingly contemporary and political turn of events.

 

Although bizarre and interesting, this saga had failed to provide any actual sources for the claim which I had set out to verify, so I turned back to database searches in the form of the Victorian Popular Culture database and online collections of magician magazines (which were common from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries). I also posted this strange turn of events on Twitter, which boasts a small but dedicated magic history community, and whilst I was searching the pages of The Sphinx and Mahatma magazine I came across a related front cover, which Phillip Treece also very kindly sent over on Twitter.(3) The cover for the July 1900 issue features a profile on Hoffmann featuring the exact phrase supposedly used in the fake Gingles memoir, and so had clearly been lifted as part of the mysterious hoax. The profile states that: ‘The pen name of “Professor Hoffmann” was adopted because the author, known in private life as Mr. Angelo Lewis, M.A., and Barrister-at-Law, feared injury to his professional prospects if it were known that he possessed so great a familiarity with the arts of deception’. As we can see, with a few alterations, this is almost the exact statement referenced to the illusive Gingles.

Whilst this was a useful source, going back further to 1896, I found deep in the recesses of my resources folder an interview with Lewis conducted by George Knight for The Windsor Magazine. In this interview, Lewis alludes to this issue more subtly than the Mahatma cover, noting that he asked for Modern Magic to be published anonymously as he ‘didn’t expect that it would do a practising barrister any good to pose as the author of a work on conjuring’ (pp. 362-363), but that Edmund Routledge asked him to use a nom de plume instead. This, at last, provided some genuine information from Lewis himself on the subject, and whilst not as severe an expression of concern as had been originally stated, did show a degree of caution on Lewis’s part as to how the law and magic would mix.

 

This experience, whilst entertaining, highlights the importance of fact-checking even in the most esoteric of subjects, and has certainly provided a useful rebuttal to anyone who would question the value of studying Victorian magic in the current climate. In what has now been termed a ‘post-truth’(4) world by many, perhaps it is unsurprising to find a Victorian magician tangentially linked to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton!

 

 

(1) Hoffmann’s page can be found here: http://geniimagazine.com/wiki/index.php?title=Professor_Hoffmann

(2) The full Reddit thread, which is an entertaining read, can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/WikiInAction/comments/3vmx2f/dear_diary_retired_professorfederal_employee/

(3) Philip Treece can be found at @PhilipTreece on Twitter, and also runs a highly informative blog at collectingmagic.co.uk

(4) A brief search will bring up a plethora of reading in regards to this term, named the ‘Word of the Year’ in 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries (https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016/). Further reading includes Post-truth by Lee C. McIntyre (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018) and The work of literature in an age of post-truth by Christopher Schaberg (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).

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