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Maskelyne, John Nevillocked

(1839–1917)

Maskelyne, John Nevil (1839–1917), magician, was born on 22 December 1839 at 20 White Hart Row, Cheltenham, the son of John Nevil Maskelyne, a saddler, and his wife, Harriet Brunsdon. He was descended from the astronomer royal Nevil Maskelyne, who had a crater on the moon named after him. He was apprenticed to a watchmaker, and as a boy was a keen amateur conjuror, giving a public performance of his own tricks at the age of sixteen. In 1865 his exposure of the famous spiritualists the Davenport Brothers as impostors led Maskelyne and his friend George Alfred Cooke, a cabinet-maker, to embark on a joint career as professional magicians. Their first appearance, billed as 'the only Successful Rivals of the Davenport Brothers', was on 19 June 1865 at Jessop's Aviary Gardens, Cheltenham. Meanwhile, on 10 December 1862, Maskelyne married Elizabeth Taylor (1859–1911), the daughter of Thomas Taylor, a stagecoach driver.

After touring the provinces for eight years, Maskelyne and Cooke began a short season in 1873 at St James Hall, Piccadilly, with their 'entertainment of pure trickery'. This was so successful that in May 1873 they took a lease on the Small Hall at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, but soon moved into the Large Hall, where they remained until its demolition in 1904. The Egyptian Hall became known as England's ‘Home of Mystery’, and was as essential for family outings as the Tower of London or London Zoo. In 1904 the show moved to St George's Hall, Langham Place, and on Cooke's death in 1905 the famous magician David Devant became Maskelyne's partner. The era of 'Maskelyne and Devant's Mysteries' lasted until 1915, when the partnership ended.

Maskelyne's repertory included many famous tricks and illusions which were repeated and improved upon over the years. One of his earliest tricks, first performed in 1865, was ‘escaping from a box’, in which he managed to escape from a locked, roped, wooden box inside a cabinet in seven seconds. This box escape was later incorporated into Will, the Witch, and the Watch, a musical dramatic sketch performed more than 10,000 times over four decades. Maskelyne developed many of these dramatic sketches, which embodied tricks and illusions: two of the most famous were Elixir vitae, which involved the illusion of decapitation, and A Spirit Case, or, Mrs Daffodil Downing's Light and Dark Seance, which conjured up a ghost to the sounds of a violin suspended in the air. One of his most famous illusions was his Levitation, which he first performed in 1867, when he caused his wife to rise from the stage. He created several automatons, the most celebrated being Psycho, which first performed in 1875. Psycho was a cross-legged Hindu figure, 22 inches high, which played whist with the audience and solved arithmetical problems set by them. Psycho made more than 4000 consecutive appearances before it was withdrawn in 1880. Another of Maskelyne's specialities was plate-spinning—he traced his first ambition to be a conjuror to his experience as a boy watching a famous plate-spinner, Antonio Blitz.

In addition to developing his own tricks and illusions, Maskelyne was important as an impresario, booking guest performers to appear in his show. Many successful magicians began their careers at the Egyptian Hall: one who never performed there was Houdini, who wrote asking for an engagement in 1898, before he became famous, and was refused. Maskelyne entered into several lawsuits. One of the best known followed his offer of £500 to anyone who could reproduce the box used in his box trick. He disputed the design of the trick box produced by Stollery and Evans, and the case went to the House of Lords, who ruled against Maskelyne. Throughout his career he attacked and exposed bogus spiritualists, including Eusapia Palladino. Among his publications was Modern Spiritualism (1876).

Maskelyne took out patents on more than forty commercial inventions, including a cash register (patented in 1869), which won a major award at the Paris Universal Exhibition, a typewriter (1889), and his coin-operated lock for public lavatories (1892), which was used in England until the 1950s.

Maskelyne died on 18 May 1917, at St George's Hall, 4 Langham Place, London, and was buried on 22 May at Brompton cemetery. His wife had predeceased him, on 23 July 1911. He was survived by his sons Nevil and Edwin and a daughter. Nevil and his sons, Clive, Noel, and Jasper, kept the entertainments going at St George's Hall until 1933.

Sources

  • J. Fisher, Paul Daniels and the story of magic (1987)
  • E. A. Dawes, The great illusionists (1979)
  • The Times (19 May 1917)
  • Era Almanack and Annual (1912)
  • B. Hunt, ed., The green room book, or, Who's who on the stage (1906)
  • J. Parker, ed., The green room book, or, Who's who on the stage (1907–9)

Likenesses

  • portrait, repro. in Fisher, Paul Daniels and the story of magic, 103

Wealth at Death

£5366 19s. 7d.: probate, 21 Nov 1917, CGPLA Eng. & Wales