The collection which most intrigued me when I first arrived for my placement as a Graduate Trainee in Special Collections was definitely the Ferguson collection.
John Ferguson (1838-1916) was Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow from 1874-1915; he was also a bibliographer, who amassed a large collection of books relating to chemistry, alchemy, and other more mystical subjects such as the occult sciences and witchcraft, as well as books of secrets and treatises on natural magic. The collection comprises around 7500 volumes and contains many interesting and peculiar items. These mysterious manuals form a collection of considerable importance and give a fascinating insight into the interests of its owner.
I have had the amazing privilege while working here of being able to look at Ferguson’s exceptional library, and one day a particularly intriguing title caught my interest. I began to look though the pages, and wondered what exactly I had stumbled upon, when confronted with a piece of advice on “how to cut off a man’s head”. Curious to find out more, I soon discovered a fascinating world of legerdemain, conjuring and magic, hidden within the stacks of level 12 of the library…
It turns out that I was looking at Hocus Pocus Junior. The Anatomy of Legerdemain (Sp Coll Ferguson Af-c.29), a very popular handbook of magic tricks, first published in 1634. This was the first illustrated book in English which was entirely about conjuring. It is thought to be the first magic book written by an actual magician: the author was anonymous, and there has always been a great deal of speculation regarding his true identity. The most recent research suggests that he could have been William Vincent, a well-known travelling entertainer from London who went by the stage name Hocus Pocus and had a repertoire which included dagger-swallowing and rope-dancing.
A remarkably popular work, thirteen editions of Hocus Pocus Junior were published between 1634 and 1697, as well as later reprints and a German translation. Special Collections has three copies in the Ferguson collection, including the fifth edition of 1658, which has an unfortunate typing error in the title page: “juinor” appearing in place of junior.
Ferguson himself had this to say regarding the popularity of Hocus Pocus Junior, “One would have thought that, after eighty years, every one of the tricks would have been so familiar that even the least exacting of spectators could hardly have been impressed or mystified by them, however dexterously performed. Still, how did the book exist and persist, if there was no demand for it?”
Interestingly, Hocus Pocus Junior is not an entirely original work, and in fact heavily plagiarises a chapter of Reginald Scot’s Discouerie of Witchcraft, in which he exposes some of the techniques used by street conjurors (the Ferguson collection also holds a rare first edition of this book – Sp Coll Ferguson Ap-d.15).
The author of Hocus Pocus Junior however, intended his book to serve as a manual for would-be magicians. He begins by defining the art of legerdemain and what makes a good conjuror: he stresses the importance of “nimble and cleanly conveyance”, and the necessity of employing the appropriate theatrical gestures and phrases to “astonish the beholders”. Indeed, the whole of the book is equally concerned with teaching the mechanics of legerdemain, as it is with ensuring that the conjuror gives an adequately theatrical performance.
The text is full of handy hints and the author helpfully provides a variety of nonsense words and pseudo-Latin phrases which can be employed as stage patter, which played an important role in misdirection and entertaining the crowd. The prose is lively and engaging and rather like the magician’s stage patter, bawdy humour and innuendo are not lacking either. The author details in one instance how he was able to fleece the hostess of a “house of entertainment” for a free nights food and lodging by a employing a trick involving a box and hidden coins.
The book is illustrated throughout, and gives detailed advice on sleight of hand techniques. The largest section is devoted to tricks using cups and balls, the foundation of any street conjuror’s act, and which had a performance history dating back to Roman times. As well as other common legerdemain tricks involving coins or counters and knotted handkerchiefs are some rather more unusual tricks such as: how to seem to pull a rope through your nose; how to seem to eat a knife; how to breathe fire out of one’s mouth; and not forgetting of course, the illusion of decapitation or, how to cut off a man’s head…
You can find out more about this illusion and view a collection of images from this and other conjuring curiosities from the Ferguson collection on our Flickr pages. And if you feel like exploring more of our remarkable collections for yourself, why not come up to Level 12 to pay us a visit?