Of Coins and Conjuring

Archaeologists and numismatists tell us that the first coins were issued in the east and west in the eight century B.C., and their use soon spread over the civilized world. An ancient tradition has it that coinage was the invention of Pheidon, king of Argos. By the end of the sixth century B.C., the art of coinage had been well established, and Periander had instituted the Corinthian coinage which became one of the great commercial coinages of the world. Electrum (a natural mixture of gold and silver), gold, silver, copper and bronze were the metals coined then, as today, and the oval shaped staters of Lydia, circa 750 B.C., are the earliest examples of the art of coining. By 480 B.C. coins were round, and had become objects of considerable beauty. Many of them were small, but most ranged in size from that of our quarter to our dollar, sizes ideally suited for the purposes of conjuring.

It is at this point that the archaeologists and numismatists fail us completely, for they shed no light upon the earliest use of coins in conjuring. They do tell us the ancient Greeks called the conjurer psephopaiktes, from the pebbles which he used, and that the Romans styled him the calcularius, or acetabularius, from the little stones and cups, respectively. And they have unearthed papyri and inscriptions on tombs depicting the cup and ball conjurers of ancient Egypt. However, we are entirely within the bounds of probability when we assume that these precious and artistically designed bits of metal early fired the imaginations of the cup and ball conjurers, and we can safely place the entrance of the coin into conjuring at full two thousand years before the advent of the Master of the Playing Card and his gift to the magician.

The feats with coins described by Reginald Scot in 1584 in his Discouverie of Witchcraft were undoubtedly of ancient vintage in that day, and might well have been devised by the conjurers of the eighth century B.C. Scot defined "legierdemaine" as "the nimble conveiance of the hand, which is especiallie performed three waies. The first and principall consisteth in hiding and conveieng of balles, the second in the alteration of monie, the third in the shuffling of the cards The conveieng of monie is not much inferior to the. ball, but much easier to doo. The principall place to keepe a peece of monie is the palme of your hand, the best peece to keepe is a testor; but with exercise all will be alike, except the mony be verie small, and then it is to be kept betwixt the fingers "The tricks described by Scot are used to this very day, and the plots are recognizable from his quaintly worded titles:

"To conveie monie out of one of your hands into the other by legierdemaine; To convert or transubstantiate monie into counters, or counters into monie; To put one testor into one hand, and an other into the other hand, and with words to bring them together; To put one testor into a strangers hand, and another into your owne, and to conveie both into the strangers hand with words; To throw a peece of monie awaie, and to find it againe where you list; With words to make a groat or a testor to leape out of a pot, or to run alongst upon a table; To make a groat or a testor to sinke through a table, and to vanish out of a handkercher verie strangelie; A notable tricke to transforme a counter to a groat (the double faced coin consisting of two coins filed thin and joined so the groat showed on one side and the counter on the other); An excellent feat, to make a two penie peece lie plaine in the palme of your hand, and to be passed from thence when you list; To conveie a testor out of ones hand that holdeth it fast; To throw a peece of monie into a deepe pond, and to fetch it againe from whence you list; To conveie one shilling being in one hand into another, holding your arms spread abroad like a rood."

In 1634, Hocus Pocus Junior appeared with another trick still used today-"How to make a pile of Counters seem to vanish thorow a Table." This is the Cap and Pence trick, or the Stack of Quarters, or whatever you will, and the making of the shell stack of counters is clearly set forth. The patter, unmistakably Elizabethan, would be frowned upon today. Another trick described is "How to seem suddenly to melt a peice of Coin with words." Required is a small metal box with the bottom in the center and a lid on each end, so that either end can be opened to show a transformation or vanish--even an appearance-the ancestor of the modern coin box. The eighteenth century seems to have , advanced coin magic but little. A rhymed account of a visit to Bartholomew Fair in 1717 contains these lines:

"The large Half-Crown his magick Jaws can blow

Unseen, unfelt, into the Sleeve of Beau;"

This seems to be the Flying Half-Crown trick with which the French conjurer Ollivier made a reputation almost a century later, and stems undoubtedly from the trick described by Scot "To throw a peece of monie awaie and to find it again where you list."

Jean Nicholas Ponsin's Nouvelle Magie blanche dévoilée (1853) contains a more complete section on coin magic than had previously appeared in any book. He lists three different methods for vanishing coins and describes thirty tricks, which include two multiplications of coins or counters in the hands of a spectator; the passage of a coin through a table; the flying coin as performed by the elder Conus and Ollivier; a palm change for changing a coin before the eyes of a spectator; the flying coins in the handkerchief, the first version of the Magical Filtration of Five-Franc Pieces, which L'Homme Masqu, used in 1905 as The Expansion of Texture; another flying coin trick in a handkerchief, which is the well known trick of the Coin and Burnt and Restored Handkerchief; and the multiplication of coins in a spectators' hand by means of the money plate or coin tray.

When Robert-Houdin published his Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie in 1868, we find, for the first time in any language, the principles of coin conjuring properly explained--the various methods of palming, vanishing and changing the coins, then the tricks. The Melting Coin, The Flying Coins, The Shower of Money (the Miser's Dream, using a top hat!), The Multiplication of Money, The Magical Filtration of Five-Franc Pieces, The Intelligent Coin, The Coins and the Two Hats, and The Golden Coin in a Dinner Roll-all of them magic of the purest kind, just as sound today as they were a hundred years ago. Step by step Houdin instructed in the essentials of the craft--the sleights, preparation, patter and sequence--leaving out none of the subtleties, artifices and manipulations which constitute the art of conjuring. Each trick was a complete lesson, and his book remains one of the best ever written upon the subject. That he did not describe all the coin tricks current in his day he admits, saying "I have selected some of the best, which will serve as specimens whereby lovers of the art may arrange others at their pleasure, making use of the principles laid down at the outset of this chapter."

Modern Magic by Professor Hoffmann in 2876 drew heavily upon RobertHoudin's treatise, and added to the conjurer's aides such stalwarts as the coin wand, or wand for producing a coin, and the rattle box. In The Shower of Money (Miser's Dream) detailed instructions are given for passing a coin through the side or the crown of the hat, and the use of the coin slide, a form of coin dropper for delivering coins into the hand, is advocated. Also, it is suggested that a few coins be caught on the coin wand.

More Magic (Professor Hoffmann, 1890) acquaints us with the folding coin and the trick of passing a coin into "an ordinary narrow-necked bottle." And in "Multiplying Coins and Tricks Therewith," the multiplying coin is the familiar shell which fits over a coin. Both are popular items today. Professor , Hoffmann himself seems to have been the inventor of a "passe passe" effect in which two covers and eight coins, two of which are shell and coin "doubles," are used. This trick has gone through countless variations over the years, and at one time was included in most "boxes of tricks."

The great innovator in coin magic, T. Nelson Downs, presented his famous coin act for the first time in 1895 at the Hopkins Theatre in Chicago. To Downs is credited the invention of the back and front palm with coins, and many other sleights and passes that produced the astonishing effects which made his version of The Miser's Dream the sensation of the vaudeville world, and established him "King of Koins" in spite of a host of imitators. Downs may truly be called the originator of modern coin manipulation; his book, Modern Coin Manipulation (1900), established the fashion for coin magicians for the first quarter of this century. It has remained until today the only book in the English language devoted entirely to coins, and in it are disclosed the sleights and passes that enabled the "King of Koins" to reign supreme as a vaudeville favorite both here and abroad.

But even as the "King of Koins" went triumphantly from engagement to engagement, the inventive and restless minds of the world's hanky panky men were evolving new bits of coin chicanery. The best of it was acquired by the "King" and set down for us in The Art of Magic, another great book bearing his name as author, and John N. Hilliard's as editor. In this book, which made its appearance in 1909, we find, among other good things, the Downs thumb crotch palm, the coin roll, The Sympathetic Coins (attributed to Yank Hoe), The Expansion of Texture by L'Homme Masque, and a number of other useful subtleties. The magic of the twentieth century has been greatly influenced by this man from Iowa, whose inventions have stamped him one of the magical giants of his time. Other clever minds have taken up where he left off, and explored the vistas he opened for them, to provide you with the wealth of coin magic you will find collected here.

From the eighth century B.C. to the middle of the twentieth century, a long procession--nay, pageant-of magical craftsmen has contributed to this book of coin magic. As John Northern Hilliard said, "A panorama of civilization. A glorious and sordid pageant, like history itself." May the collected coin magic of these worshippers of the Goddess Maja, to which J. B. Bobo has devoted so much of his magical life, give you pleasure and serve you well!


Downs' Modern Coin Manipulation. 1900.

Gaultier's Magic Without Apparatus. (1914) 1945- PP- 249-358.

Hilliard's Greater Magic. 1938. pp. 665-72o.

Hugard's Modern Magic Manual. 1939. pp. 7-21.

Tarbell Course in Magic. 1941. Vol. a. pp. 63-115.

Buckley's Principles and Deceptions. 1948.

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