In 1953, Frank Olson, who without his knowledge had been slipped a dose of LSD some days earlier, flew through a plate glass window of New York City’s Statler Hilton Hotel, ending up dead on the sidewalk, ten floors below. His son, Eric, says he was pushed; The CIA, Olson’s employer, said it was suicide. The CIA said they should know, since the only other person in the hotel room at the time of the death was another CIA agent. When Olson’s body was later exhumed by the family, an autopsy showed blunt instrument trauma to the middle of his forehead.
Olson was a victim of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, a program meant to investigate and utilize all manner of covert weapons that could be useful in the interrogation and manipulation of the minds of enemy agents. LSD, a relatively new drug at the time, was seen as a leading candidate for such duty. There was one major problem, however: the covert administration of the drug, and chemicals like it, required a certain measure of sleight-of-hand, artifice, ruse, and subterfuge. An expert in the highly specialized technology of deception was put onto the CIA payroll, his charge to write a manual of trickery to be used by The Company’s field agents. The expert’s name was John Mulholland; he was, at the time, perhaps the most well-known and knowledgeable magician in the world.
Writer Michael Edwards got wind of this story, meeting with Eric Olson, Frank’s son, and through Edwards’s major investigative reporting utilizing the Freedom Of Information Act, and the records from The Rockefeller Commission’s 1970s investigation into the CIA’s illegal domestic spying, Edwards was able to piece together many of the details in this story of conjuring and CIA history. His report was published by Richard Kaufman in the April 2001 issue of Genii Magazine, the world’s best-selling monthly magic magazine. Two years later, in the August 2003 issue of Genii, Kaufman published the text of Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception, the title of Mulholland’s CIA manual.
In 2008, Ben Robinson, a student of magician Milbourne Christopher, a contemporary and friend of Mulholland, published a book called The MagiCIAn: John Mulholland’s Secret Life. Robinson’s book, is really three books in one, and it’s hard for me to say which is the most fascinating: the bio of scholar-magician-collector John Mulholland; the story of CIA covert ops in the 50s and onwards; or the intersection of the two, how Mulholland provided service to the CIA through the utilization of his conjuring knowledge.
Much of the material for the last two parts was similar to what Edwards had already written, but independently verified based on Mulholland’s personal files. On Christopher’s death, Maurine, his widow, had given over to Robinson certain personal papers and effects of John Mulholland’s that had been in Christopher’s possession, relevant to the story.
Robinson’s book, which I recently finished reading, is engrossing, and anyone interested in the history of conjuring will be enthralled by it. The meat of the story—Mulholland’s involvement with the CIA—is put into its proper context, situating Mulholland as the perfect person in the perfect places at the perfect time. Robinson also gives a very good overview of the MK-ULTRA program and the subsequent experiments in Psi and ESP that the agency obsessed over.
But a couple of things were more than curious to me as I read Robinson’s book. First off, there is no mention of Edwards at all in the main text of the book. The only mention of him is in an alphabetical listing of acknowledgements that includes around one hundred names, and, later, a reference in the extensive bibliography. This seems to me remarkably ungenerous as Edwards’s lengthy article was the first to approach the story from a magician’s point of view. Edwards’s name does not appear in the index. Stranger still, the first 2008 edition of Robinson’s book makes no mention that the text of the Mulholland manual had already been printed in Genii five years earlier. To read the book, one would think that the text was unavailable to the public.
And again: in the 2010 revised edition of MagiCIAn, no mention is made of Genii‘s printing the text of Mulholland’s manual. But the strangest part is that Robinson describes a lecture he gave about Mulholland to an audience that included former CIA agent Robert Wallace and CIA head (and magician) John McLaughlin. Following that description, Robinson points out that Mulholland’s manual had been recently published in a 2009 HarperCollins edition that was edited by the same Robert Wallace, with a forward by McLaughlin.
Surely this must be a first in CIA history, the printing and authorization of one of its covert manuals for the general public. So the CIA is celebrating the outing of one of its covert programs? How can this make any sense other than to believe that they are hoping to take control of the narrative? Robinson hints that there was a second manual written by Mulholland, but the CIA wouldn’t approve its release. Is there any other information that the CIA is still seeking to keep secret about Mulholland’s participation, the Olson affair, or the MK-ULTRA program? A few days before Olson died, after he had ingested the LSD, he became extremely paranoid and agitated, and told family members he wanted to quit the CIA. Two CIA men took him to see a Dr. Abramson, who was affiliated with The Agency. What was Abramson’s method of “calming Olson down”? He gave Olson a bottle of bourbon and the barbiturate Nembutol, an obviously potentially deadly combination. The next day, Olson was taken to Mulholland “to cheer him up.” Three days later, Olson was dead on the NYC sidewalks.
Those of us who grew up in the Nixon years may recall Tricky Dick’s method of covering up insalubrious activities: “the limited modified hangout.” That is, you give them part of the story—the part they already know, in order to pacify them, and then claim the story has been told, nothing to see here, move along. We’ve seen how the CIA has been doing exactly the same thing recently with its attempt to cover up its involvement with the psychologists of the American Psychological Association who participated in torture at Guantanamo; they persistently did “the limited modified hangout,” as each new piece of damning evidence appeared. Fortunately, the efforts of Arrigo, Reisner, Soldz, and others were able to penetrate the fog and get to the truth.
Now I am not suggesting that Mulholland helped to kill Olson. What I am saying is that I am not happy with a book that lays out as much information as Robinson’s does and yet then makes a blanket statement that “Mulholland was a patriot” and “Conclusively, John Mulholland was incapable of murder” even while saying “He did nothing wrong by teaching covert operatives the world of sleight of hand. While he may have trained people to kill, he did not ever commit murder…” I do not believe these are the words of an objective scholar; Mulholland is certainly entitled to the presumption of innocence in the absence of other evidence; but that should not mean that the book is closed either on Mulholland or MK-ULTRA. The CIA’s covert programs have done much harm to Americans as the Rockefeller Commission detailed. And just as there are real ethical questions about whether psychologists should lend their knowledge to the torture of others, there are real ethical questions about magicians teaching the technology of deception to those who have such a long record of abuse of that information.
So get a subscription to Genii and get access to all the back copies and read Edwards’s article and the manual. And get a copy of Robinson’s book for an incredible overview of the life of John Mulholland and his employment by the CIA.