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Lost Notebooks of John Northern Hilliard, The Review

Official Review

December 14th, 2002 6:50pm
Rating:
Reviewed by David Parr
This book is at the center of a mystery. The mystery begins at a hotel in Indianapolis, where, at 9:00 a.m., a nervous hotel manager and several workmen drill a hole through the steel door of a room so they can reach inside and unlock the deadbolt. Within the room lies the body of John Northern Hilliard, dead at the age of 63. Hilliard's death itself is not a mystery. (He died of natural causes.) But what came after it is.

As advance man for Howard Thurston's road show, Hilliard spent most of his time travelling from city to city, hobnobbing with magicians. And for many years he had been asking them to contribute material to his magnum opus, a book that would include nearly 1000 new routines and ideas from some of the most creative minds in magic, a book that would change the face of conjuring and bring it wholly and unequivocally into the twentieth century. But somehow, on or about March 14, 1935, a significant portion of that material vanished without a trace.

What we know is this: Many people entered and exited the hotel room where Hilliard died, including a number of magicians. And by the time Hilliard's belongings were packed up (by persons unknown) and shipped off to his family in Rochester, two leather-bound notebooks, containing hundreds of effects and routines, went missing.

While magicdom was all abuzz about Hilliard's "lost notebooks," the task of realizing Hilliard's dream project was taken up by Carl Jones, Jean Hugard and Harlan Tarbell. John Northern Hilliard's magnum opus would see print, three years after his death, as Greater Magic.

The scope of Greater Magic is staggering. Over 700 effects from over 100 magicians. It's a great big bombshell of a book, a magical blockbuster. One can only imagine the impact this book must have had in its day. Greater Magic represented how far magic had come since the nineteenth century; it provided a comprehensive picture of modern magic and magicians in the 1930s. Well, perhaps not so comprehensive: There was still the nagging question of the missing notebooks. Magicians had to make due with tantalizing hints, in letters and conversations, of how much greater Greater Magic might have been.

Cut to fifty years later. A box of magic instructions is purchased at an auction somewhere in the Midwest. At the bottom of the box are two musty leather-bound notebooks.

Just how J.N. Hilliard's notebooks came to be in that box remains a mystery. But the missing material intended for Greater Magic is a mystery no longer. With the publication in 2001 of The Lost Notebooks of John Northern Hilliard, The Genii Corporation has finally made it possible to see a more complete picture of what Greater Magic was meant to be. And it is an impressive picture indeed. The Lost Notebooks contains nearly 300 effects, including large sections devoted to contributions from Stewart Judah, Al Baker and Ted Annemann. There are sections on stacked decks, poker deals, and the Living and Dead Test. Also included are Hilliard's notes, which suggest improvements or variations to the effects, or different effects altogether.

Simply put, this book is a potential gold mine of ideas, but finding the right ones will require some digging. And while the material is not quite cutting edge at this point, there are definitely gems to be found here, from classic effects that eventually made their way into print in another form, to routines that have not seen the light of day for sixty years.

That said, I have two caveats about this book:

First, while perusing The Lost Notebooks, one must always bear in mind that Hilliard was not a stickler for credit. He often simply recorded the name of the person who showed him an effect or method, without bothering to find out who had actually created it. Consequently, some of the items in this book -- and in Greater Magic, for that matter -- may not be credited to their originators.

Second, The Genii Corporation has opted to publish The Lost Notebooks in facsimile format. In other words, the reader is viewing photographic reproductions of the actual pages from Hilliard's notes, complete with typos, misspellings, XXXings out, corrective scribblings, and bar napkin drawings. Hilliard's marginalia are in his tiny, spidery handwriting. The reader can pinpoint exactly when Hilliard should have replaced his typewriter ribbon -- or his typewriter.

The decision to release material of this significance in facsimile format is, for me, a major disappointment. I suppose the publisher might argue that this was done to preserve the historical value of the material. But does a photocopy of The Bill of Rights have historical value? I would argue that, while the notebooks themselves certainly have historical value and should be preserved, the practical value of this material would have been better served had it been professionally transcribed and typeset.

Nevertheless, for intrepid magical explorers willing to wade through the mass of bad typing and barely decipherable handwriting, many rewards are in store. And those rewards seem all the more precious when we consider that, if not for an improbable stroke of luck, The Lost Notebooks of John Northern Hilliard might have remained lost forever.

Product info for Lost Notebooks of John Northern Hilliard, The

Author: Hilliard, John N.
Publisher: Genii Corporation
Average Rating:  (1)
Retail Price: $80.00
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Manufacturer's Description:

In a hotel somewhere in the Midwest, Howard Thurston's advance man has finished his dogged work for the day and, as dusk falls, he clicks on the lamp and slips a piece of paper into his portable typewriter. He begins to tap out descriptions of tricks for a book he's been dreaming of writing for over a decade. At this moment, in 1928, he doesn't have a title or a publisher, but he's the happiest guy in the world.

Tonight he's eagerly typing up tricks by Al Baker and Ted Annemann, both of whom he saw in New York City a few days earlier. Last week it was miracles by Stewart Judah, S. Leo Horowitz, and Dai Vernon. He spends seven years collecting the most staggering miracles of the day from the most prominent magicians.

Though extremely ill in 1933 and 1934, he keeps this to himself and, despite his precarious health, continues traveling around the country, working for Thurston during the day and collecting tricks for his masterwork in the evening. He types late into the night.

In 1935 John Northern Hilliard died suddenly while in a hotel room in Indianapolis. When the book on which he had worked for so many years, Greater Magic, was eventually published in 1938, hundreds of the tricks Hilliard had collected were nowhere to be found. There was a great hubbub about the missing material. A number of magicians entered the hotel room where he died ... perhaps one of them left with something?

A decade ago a box full of old magic catalogues was sold at an auction in middle America. At the bottom of this box, and not even listed in the contents, were two old notebooks-hundreds of typed pages in brown leatherette bindings. The lost notebooks of John Northern Hilliard had been found.

At 300 over-sized pages, with almost 300 tricks, this magnificent volume is the perfect companion for anyone who has spent happy hours reading Greater Magic. 60 tricks by Al Baker, dozens by Stewart Judah, 10 tricks by S. Leo Horowitz, 30 tricks by Ted Annemann, with hundreds more from Dai Vernon, Cyril Yettmah, Jack Merlin, Gerald Kosky, Eugene Laurent, Ching Ling Foo, Stanley Collins, John Northern Hilliard, Paul LePaul, Michael F. Zens, and many more.


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