Conjuring Credits

The Origins of Wonder

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Back Palm and Continuous Front and Back Palm

The Back Palm

Camille Gaultier claimed, in La Prestidigitation sans appareils, 1914 (see also Hugard's 1945 English translation, Magic Without Apparatus, 1945, p. 150) that Harmington (the stage name of Charles Rey, 1860-1947) and Emile Isola (1860-1945) performed the vanish of a card in Paris, using the Back Palm, c. 1890. Gaultier leaves open the claim that either of them invented the sleight, saying only that they “used it in the course of their performances.”

Across the ocean, the sleight had been attributed to Dr. James Elliott by August Roterberg in New Era Card Tricks, 1897, p. 32.

In the July 1900 issue of Mahatma (Vol. 3 No. 12, p. 370), Dr. Elliott claimed to have shown the Back Palm and the Continuous Front and Back Palm to “Morrelliaux Berntz Cortelli, a Mexican who is now living in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio. A few months later he visited Otto Maurer and showed him the sleight, without the reverse.”

Howard Thurston gave a similar story, but without mention of Elliott, in P. T. Selbit's Magician's Handbook, 1902, p. 119. Thurston told of a “Spaniard hailing from Mexico”, a gambler, who demonstrated the sleight in 1887 in the Bowery magic shop of Otto Maurer (misspelled as “Mauro” in Selbit's book).

Ten years after his first claim, Dr. Elliott told a different story in the June 1910 issue of The Sphinx, Vol. 9 No. 4, p. 82. Elliott said Imro Fox informed him of the name of the Spaniard who appeared in Mauer's shop: “The artist's name was Robertus, but where or from whom Robertus obtained this sleight I do not know or is there any way of ferreting out the mystery.

“From the foregoing information I have at all times considered Robertus as the inventor of this sleight although of this I am not absolutely certain, but as this is as far back as I can obtain absolute facts I will call it the Robertus card sleight.

“Independently I discovered the same sleight, but Robertus was the first in the field.”

Substantiating the part Elliott played in the spread of the sleight, Servais LeRoy, one of the earliest to use the sleight on stage, wrote The Sphinx a few months later to say, “1 first saw sleight done by Elliott in New York (restaurant—supper time)”; see Vol. 9 No. 8, Oct. 1910, p. 171.

In a letter written on April 15, 1917, to T. Nelson Downs, Elliot wrote: “A Mexican showed Otto Maurer on the Bowery the vanish of one card only behind the hand but [Frederick Eugene] Powell will tell you he saw a gambler do the same thing years before & Powell is not a liar.” See Gibecière, Vol. 10 No. 2, Summer 2015, p. 96.

To confuse matters even further, Elliott resurrected Cortelli when he gave the following story to Clinton Burgess, who recorded it in the October 1922 issue of The Sphinx, Vol. 21 No. 8, p. 293: “The first man to whom Elliott gave the secret of his perfected sleight was one Morrelliaux Berntz Cortelli, a Mexican gambler, who, in June, 1900, resided at Toledo, Ohio, and who later was reported shot at Albuquerque, New Mexico. […] Maurer showed Cortelli a peculiar single-handed color change, and, in return, Cortelli, who had not given much time to the Elliott sleight, taught Maurer the Elliott rear-hold, without the reverse [to Front Palm].” In the article, Elliott also gave Clinton an account of how he accidentally discovered the Back Palm during “the first part of 1895, while coaching a gambler in card moves”.

No other reference to a Spanish magician of the period named Cortelli has been found, nor has one for Robertus. If the person in question was a gambler, that absence is understandable.

This leaves the invention of the Back Palm an open question, although, despite the utter confusion Dr. Elliott's various stories contribute, it seems likely he was not the first to discover it.

Continuous Front and Back Palm

On the other hand, it does seem likely that Dr. Elliott did invent the Continuous Front and Back Palm, as he claimed in several of the references given above. No others have made an equally credible claim to the sleight—and some of the confusion in the discussion of the Back Palm and the Continuous Front and Back Palm seems due to a clear distinction in early claims as to which of the two sleights the writer was referring.