Putting The CIA in MagiCIAn


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.

The Sphinx Silently Sleeps (Part 4)

dec 1952 godfrey

As our mad ride through the pages of The Sphinx comes to an end, we arrive, out of breath, at the door of 1952. John Mulholland still holds the reins as editor, as he did back in 1937, and as he will a year later, when The Sphinx finally goes mute.

The Sphinx has some competition now, what with The Phoenix, Hugard’s Magic Monthly, and Genii, among other American magic magazines, all publishing simultaneously in this period. The most notable fact about The Sphinx‘s publication is that it has ceased to be a monthly. It has become a somewhat irregularly published quarterly, with only three issues published in 1952: March, June, and December, and the final one in March 1953.

The strains of the time are evident: the challenges facing the contemporary performing magician are many, but the biggest obstacles can be represented by just two factors—the death of the large touring illusion show, and the advent of the new-kid-on-the-block entertainment medium, television. Television, with its constant need to fill large blocks of time with visual entertainment turns to magic very early in its development. But the challenges of learning to perform for the camera eye are different from that of performing for a live audience, as magicians to their chagrin are quick to discover. Bruce Elliott, the publisher of The Phoenix, gets himself into hot water by producing a television magic special for the popular avuncular TV host Arthur Godfrey.  Elliott was spared no mercy in the judgment of Eaton Hope, the author of the cynical Sphinx column, Out of My Profonde (BTW, you are awarded an invisible brass figleaf with bronze oakleaf palms, if you know what a profonde is without looking it up.):

bruce elliot 1

But the real reason for Elliott’s failure, according to Hope was this:

elliott 2Yes, in the opinion of the old-timers, the new guard of close-up performers and hobbyists, who Elliott represented, had no knowledge of, and little respect for, the great working illusionists.

And readers wrote in as well, incensed at the exposure caused by performers unaware of the problem of bad camera angles. You might recognize the name of the 17-year-old writer of this letter to the Sphinx editor:


So, the budding Kreskin understood that if magic were to survive, it would have to navigate the currents of television.

Certainly, the old way of magic life was nearly dead. Movie houses and television were turning vaudeville houses all around the world into dust. The venues for performing a big live illusion show were becoming extinct. No less an authority than David Bamberg (Fu Manchu) whose father, Okito, had written in the pages of The Sphinx almost half a century before, had this tale to tell to the new generation of magicians, about touring Latin America:

bamberg 1The cost of traveling with several tons of scenery and equipment, and setting up with an untutored local crew was becoming prohibitive. Bamberg counseled that “In order to lick this situation one is forced to have a light, compact, and easily set-up show.”

One gets the feeling of a general dispiritedness in the air amongst the old guard. In addition to Eaton Hope, Mulholland was also giving over column inches to the equally cynical illusion creator and builder Guy Jarrett, whose tough guy prose makes for some entertaining reading. Jarrett praises the legit stage producers, like Belasco, for whom he creates illusions, but Jarrett gives up on modern magicians as hopeless:

jarrettAnd even Mulholland seems to be tired out. He sends his regrets that he has not been in the office for a while, and thanks those who have inquired about his health, stopping by only to find the office door locked. But as we will see a little later on, this was just misdirection for Mulholland’s greatest feat of deception.

If the old-time illusionists were dying out, the content of the magic in The Sphinx in these years remained very high. Mulholland had a consistently excellent line-up of all kinds of magic written up in The Sphinx. Matt Schulien had a great Card in Sugar Lump (yes!) effect, and Carlo Colombi contributed a Bullet Catching method that David Bamberg proclaimed to be “theoretically” perfect. Jacob Daley tipped his “Chromo-spheres” effect, a three-ball routine with different colored balls, and Lou Tannen had an ESP card divination effect, utilizing an old principle, ingeniously disguised. The much-maligned Bruce Elliott contributed the entire text of a booklet of mentalist Theo Annemann’s, called Buried Treasure, which you can read here. And, of course, there were dozens of other great tricks published over the year, both for close-up and for stage.

What a time for learning magic! If so inclined, and with the requisite cash, one could respond to the following ad:


In publishing, the magic world was delighting to each new edition of the Stars of Magic pamphlets, with “Vernon on Leipzig,” and “Vernon on Malini,” being the hot new items. Lou Tannen published Bill Simon’s modern classic Effective Card Magic, and our friend Bruce Elliott was getting beat up again, for exposure, for writing Classic Secrets of Magic. There were fierce objections that the book had been published by a mainstream publisher with a money-back guarantee.

But then The Sphinx, with no warning, fell silent. The last issue, dated March 1953, had promised great things to come in its new quarterly format, however, nothing more was ever published. Mulholland, as is now known, was involved with another profession filled with deceit and deception, only this time for real. The illness and closed office were part of a cover story for something else entirely. As the Ever-Reliable Wikipedia tells us, Mulholland ended the publication:

“…to be consultant to the newly born CIA in 1953. His assignments included working with billionaires and inventors, cracking codes and delving into the clandestine world of ESP research, LSD use and the secret MK-ULTRA world headed by the notorious Dr. Sidney Gottlieb.”

Mulholland’s portfolio was essentially to teach the CIA spies how to use the technology of deception to fight the Cold War. The story is told in detail in Ben Robinson’s 2008 (later revised) book, MagiCIAn: John Mulholland’s Secret Life. I’m just beginning to read that book, and I hope to have a review of it in the future. By all accounts, Mulholland was a fascinating man: a Jimmy Stewart-like character with secrets he told no one.

But back to The Sphinx. I can’t recommend this DVD more highly. In my four blog posts, I have not made even a scratch on the nail of the little pinky toe of the Sphinx’s paw in my descriptions of its contents. If I had only $60 left to spend on magic for the rest of my life, this is what I would buy. I would recommend this to anyone even remotely interested in magic. The Ultimate Sphinx is an enormous achievement by the Conjuring Arts Research Center. Magicians of today can give great thanks to CARC for getting The Sphinx to speak, at last, so accessibly and so eloquently.

The Penultimate Ultimate Sphinx (Part 3)

LePaulOnce more (see here and here for previous installments), we take a wild gallop through The Sphinx. We’re riding on twenty years further from last time, arriving at 1937. Paul LePaul is on the cover, and John Mulholland is now the editor. Though the Sphinx is still closely associated with the SAM, they declare themselves “An Independent Magazine for Magicians.” There are still reports from SAM assemblies across the country, but there are also reports from IBM as well; and the heads of the SAM Parent Assembly have a conspicuous notice that their listing in the Sphinx is a paid advertisement.

Mindreading is all the rage, and with the advent of somewhat portable electronics, ads like this from Nelson and others begin to show up:

nelson short waveThe ad says that they are offering “the magical and mental profession the first ultra short wave sending and receiving set for mindreading purposes that can be completely and logically concealed under ordinary wearing apparel.” A later ad prices the unit at $150. The inflation calculator at http://www.westegg.com/inflation/ calculates that $150 then was worth about $2400 today.

The format of the magazine now includes a lead trick explained by a famous magician of the day, and there are some really excellent ones. There is a nice Copper-Silver routine from S. Leo Horowitz; a Disappearing Bird Cage (with live bird), complete with lightening flash, from Keith Clark; and an Invisible Inky Liquid Transportation effect from Al Baker. Baker’s contributions over the year are all highly ingenious—here’s an intriguing diagram illustrating the ink effect:

al bakerThe Bambergs are still a force with which to be reckoned, with an article by son David (Fu Manchu) explaining his magic apprenticeship conducted at his mentor’s knee—i.e. his father, Theo Bamberg (Okito). The article is illustrated by a lovely photo of the two of them in costume:

bambergsLater, there is a truly wonderful explanation by David Bamberg of The Growth of Flowers. The effect is this: the magician briefly puts a cloth in front of an empty flower pot and a small green bush appears; he covers it again briefly and the bush grows larger; once more and still larger. Finally, the pot is covered one more time, and the bush is discovered to be filled with blooming roses. The magician takes one or two, cuts them from the plant, and tosses the fresh live roses into the audience. The method is perfectly practical, and it’s a wonder more magicians today don’t do this.

While Chinese conjurers both real and faux were fixtures on the American stage, African-American magicians were not as prevalent. The minstrel show, which dated back to pre-Civil War days, was still a popular form of entertainment in 1937, and it pretty much determined how African Americans would be depicted on the contemporary stage and in popular magazines. For example, this was how Ralph Hull’s “Goofy Dice” trick was pitched in an ad in The Sphinx:

goofy diceIn a Christmas greetings section in the December 1937 issue, many famous magicians took out ads to express their Christmas sentiments. One that stands out is this one:

joganWhether Jogan’s tagline was strictly true is debatable, but it was evidently credible enough that Jogan would claim it.

Perusing the books  and manuscripts that were advertised is instructive—lots of cigarette and nightclub material, and the big sensation was Keith Clark’s Encyclopedia of Cigarette Magic. Another blockbuster was Glenn Gravatt’s Encyclopedia of Card Tricks. Both of those books went for $5, which the inflation calculator estimates to be about $80 in today’s currency. There is no account of what the ebooks sold for…

One surprise to me was the listing of the following book:

fitzkeeWhile I was well aware of the Fitzkee trilogy, I had never come across the mention of the above book. Does anyone know if this is an easily available book presently? The contents look like it’s full of useful material.

And magic continues, in the late 30s to be, as in all ages, a tough, heart-beaking business. This ad from The Great Leon says it all:

leonThe ad states that The Great Leon, who used to make from $1000 to $2000 a week in vaudeville, is forced, due to ill health, to sell his complete act—over $30,000 worth of illusions—for a mere $1000. How fickle fortune can be! “Three tons of beautiful show.”

Finally, wrapping up this week’s look at The Sphinx, we turn to the Halloween issue. Of course, Halloween is special to magicians for many reasons, but, famously, it was the day that Houdini died. And Bess, after 11 years, was now reconciled to his final vanish:


Next time, I’ll finish up this series by looking at the final year of The Sphinx‘s publication in 1952-1953. I hope you’ll join me.

(Th next installment is here: https://jackshalom.net/2015/06/20/the-sphinx-silently-sleeps-part-4/ )