In one of this blogs’ inaugural posts (“Goldfish, Part IV”), I excerpted a line drawing from Fleming Book Company reprint of Devant’s “The Educated Fish” in Our Magic. I regret that I don’t have an original edition of Our Magic, which contains photographs instead of the line drawing here. From Paul Fleming’s introduction to this edition:
The Educated Fish – Maskelyne, Nevil and Devant, David. Our Magic: The Art in Magic / The Theory of Magic / The Practice of Magic. – P. 284
however, are very different from those in the original edition, which consisted of photographic halftones. The line drawings which have been substituted for the original illustrations were made, with infinite patience by Jeanne McLavy, from halftone prints which often failed to reveal details mentioned in the text. They seem to me to be a welcome gain in clarity over the original halftones.”
– Paul Fleming in his introduction to Maskelyne, Nevil and Devant, David. Our Magic: The Art in Magic / The Theory of Magic / The Practice of Magic. Berkeley Heights: Fleming Book Company. 1946. Second Edition. p. xii. Cover | Full Title
Regardless, the picture of the stage setup had always caught my eye as intriguing. Devant’s setup to the illusion is similarly inviting:
…”Fish spell words” is our plot for the illusion we are about to describe, and the title we give it is “The Educated Fish.”
The appliances visible to the audience are a bell-shaped glass aquarium, set in a slender three-legged stand in the center of the stage. The bowl is nearly filled with water, and in the water are four gold-fish. On the top of the glass aquarium is laid a sheet of glass, upon which are placed, in little piles, twenty-six small wooden tablets, Upon each of these is painted a letter of the alphabet. A current copy of the daily newspaper, a small landing net, and a black-board upon which are printed the words: “Paper, Page, Column, Line, Word,” complete the equipment.
– Maskelyne, Nevil and Devant, David. Our Magic: The Art in Magic / The Theory of Magic / The Practice of Magic. Berkeley Heights: Fleming Book Company. 1946. Second Edition. pp 283-284. Cover | Full Title
Of that blackboard and newspaper, Jim Steinmeyer added an important insight into the in the opening words of one of his book tests:
Ironically, “The Educated Fish” isn’t a book test at all. The word is freely selected. As modern performers, we’ve been trained to turn up our noses at this sort of production value. Why bother carrying newspapers or a blackboard? Why not just have a word called out? It’s a much more miraculous effect! But, of course, Devant understood the important beats of the routine, and sought to bolster the effect through these steps. He knew that the trick was better with additional apparatus; it is the actual pages of the newspaper and the chalk on the board that visualize the selection process, making it real (instead of intellectual) for the audience.
– Steinmeyer, Jim. “The Three Book Experiment” in Genii. Vol 74, No. 2 / Feb 2011. P. 26.
Devant introduced “The Educated Goldfish” at St. Georges Hall in December of 1908. By September of 1909, Gustave Fasola was advertising for sale the necessary knock-off apparatus in The Wizard:
Selbit, P.T. [Pseud. Percy Tibbles]. The Wizard. Vol. 5, No. 49 / Sep 1909. p 786. AskAlexander (Login required)
A year later, Will Goldston published an unauthorized explanation of the trick without even crediting Devant as the performer as “A New Fish Trick” in the 1909/1910 Magician Annual
Goldston, Will. “A New Fish Trick.” in The Magician Annual 1909/10. A. W. Gamage, Ltd: London. 1910. P. 66. Cover | Full Title
Years later, in Secrets of Famous Illusionists, Goldston claimed to have received the secret thusly:
On one occasion [Houdini] was in my office when I was making up the pages for a number of The Magicians’ (sic) Annual. Press day was near and I found myself sadly lacking in material…Somehow or other our conversation turned to the new programme which Devant was presenting at St. George’s Hall. In it there were four extremely original illusions : a hand in a glass case which picked up a mysterious card ; a mysterious kettle which poured out any drink selected by the audience ; goldfish swimming in a bowl, and spelling out a chosen word ; and some glasses of stout which disappeared and reappeared on a tray held in Devant’s hand.
Houdini was greatly interested in my descriptions of these effects, but made no comment on them. Our thoughts turned to other subjects. As he turned to leave me, Houdini smiled and said reflectively : “You know, Will, every lock can be opened.” I have never been certain that I understood his meaning.
The next morning I received an anonymous package through the post. Inside were four beautifully drawn diagrams, and I saw at once they were the plans of Devant’s illusions. My editorial mind jumped at the opportunity of a “scoop”. I rushed the plans over to the printer, and within a week there appeared one of the most successful issues of The Magicians’ (sic) Annual ever published.
Devant was furious at the disclosure. One could hardly blame him. He sacked all his assistants on the spot, but, yielding to their protestations of innocence, reinstated them the following day. A little later, when our friendly relations were resumed, he asked me how I had come by my information, and in particular, how I had obtained the exact design of his wife’s buttonhook, which had an important part in the working of the “spelling Fish” illusion.
It was beyond me to give Devant an answer. The plans had been sent to me, why, and by whom ? Houdini protested that he had nothing to do with the business. And yet ? . . . When Houdini died, I felt the riddle would for ever remain unanswered.
– Goldston, Will. Secrets of Famous Illusionists. London : John Long. 1933. Pp. 158-159. Rebound Cover | Full Title
A storied history, indeed! Certainly far more interesting than the dismissive line the trick written by S.H. Sharpe: “Really a novel form of “The Rising Cards””.
- Sharpe, S[amuel]. H. Devant’s Delightful Delusions. Pasadena : Magical Publications. 1990. P. 180. Limited edition of 1,000. Cover | Full Title
So it was still with great excitement that I read in this month’s Genii that Scott Penrose was taped for Steve Cohen’s recent “Lost Magic Decoded” special on the History Channel:
I engaged Scott Penrose to perform another “Lost Magic” trick, one that has truly not been seen in generations: the “Educated Fish” by David Devant. We filmed Penrose’s handling of this marvelous routine, and I was greatly disappointed that we couldn’t include it in the show due to time constraints. Penrose has rebuilt Devant’s apparatus exactly as shown in Our Magic (Maskelyne and Devant, 1911) but with some modern additions that make it more deceptive than ever. In performance, a school of goldfish swims inside a large tank of water and the fish pluck out letter tiles one at a time to spell a freely chosen word.
– Cohen, Steve. “The search for lost magic” in Genii: The Conjurors’ Magazine. Vol. 76, No. 1 / Jan 2013. Pp. 85-86.
Scott received a brief recognition in for this illusion in The Magic Circle anniversary booklet Circle Without End:
The Third Heritage Weekend was held from 30 May to 2 June 2003 and attracted an international attendance. The focus was David Devant and the integral Collectors’ Day incorporated a programme of Devant’s Delightful Delusions, of which Scott Penrose’s re-creation of The Educated Fish was the undoubted highlight.
– Dawes, Edwin and Bailey, Michael. Circle Without End: The Magic Circle 1905-2005. London : The Magic Circle. 2005. p. 74 Cover | Full Title
A brief snippet of Scott’s Goldfish presentation can be found on his show reel – jump to 0:18 – 0:21.
Finally, be sure to check out this most excellent article for The Magic Circle, in which Scott details his process of recreating the illusion for a modern-day audience:
- Penrose, Scott. “Fish Spell Words” in The Magic Circular. Vol. 97, No. 1043 / June 2003. Pp. 190-195. AskAlexander (login required).