The magician fooled by a floating log

"He then ordered it to sink out of sight and the log obeyed him."

Here's an excerpt from The Secrets of Mahatma Land Explained (1895) by the magician Samri Baldwin, known as "The White Mahatma." Baldwin invented the stage performance in which, though he claimed no supernatural abilities, he was able to answer unspoken questions from the audience using "Rosicrucian Somnomency." His feat of mentalism is now called the "Question and Answer" act by magicians.

Here he's fooled by and befriends an Obi man while traveling in Africa.


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While traveling once in British Bechuanaland with a hunting party, we trekked into Mashonaland (NOTE: now the Republic of Botswana) to the very borders of the Matabele country, so lately the scene of the war between Lo Benguelo and the chartered company's forces. Here one evening, while encamped near a Mashona village, I made the acquaintance of one of their mystery workers.

In order to establish confidence between us and to let him see that I was one of the guild, I gave some half dozen of my illusions, and then requested that in turn he would do something for me. He hesitated for quite a time, explaining that I was a very great magician, and a devil doctor of the highest order.

Finally, he said: "Come with me; what I have to show you cannot be given before all the people (alluding to my white companions), who do not understand such things. You and I are great medicine men, but my medicine will not work with these people looking on."

I solicited permission to take the interpreter along, which was finally granted.


We walked a little distance to the bank of a stream, where the Obi man picked up a small log of wood, apparently the broken branch of a tree, which was on the bank, and tossed it into the water. There was quite a current and the branch began to float rapidly down the little river. It had gone some fifteen or twenty yards when he called aloud for it to stop. It suddenly stopped. He called for it to come up the river, when it began working its way up with a slow and rather peculiar motion, bobbing up and down occasionally in the water. He again ordered it to stop, which it did. He then ordered it to sink out of sight and the log obeyed him. Again calling it to come to the surface, it bobbed up with considerable rapidity. He requested it to come nearer to us, which it did, against a strong current, and then at his command, again stopped and seemed perfectly stationary. At his direction it would sink entirely out of sight, and once, upon coming to the surface in response to a very peremptory order, it apparently jumped some six or eight inches out of the water. Then, at his final request, came up the stream to where we were standing on the bank. The old man waded out some two or three yards, picked up the little branch and handed it to me. I examined it quite carefully, and at the time could see nothing to account for what, to me, was a most remarkable and startling performance. It was, however, just at the dusk of evening, when, although I could see quite distinctly, the light was very subdued.

We camped at this place several days, as one of our party had severely hurt himself by being thrown from his horse. I had a good deal of conversation with the old man, who flattered me highly, saying that I was a great witch doctor, and intimated to me that he would like very much to exchange secrets. That if I could initiate him into the manner of producing my mysteries, he might, perhaps, make me sufficiently powerful to produce the floating log experiment. Much of this was conveyed to me by the broken sentences of the interpreter and much by pantomimic gesticulation on the part of the Voodoo man himself.

I took him to one side and explained the secret of several startling, but simple experiments. I quite won his confidence, and after a little teaching he was enabled to do a number of small feats which would, undoubtedly, very much increase his prestige with the tribe. And in turn, although with great reluctance, he showed me the secret of the floating log.

I had been the victim of a " plant." The log lying so carelessly on the bank of the river, apparently as if it had just fallen from the tree, was really a very effective, though simple contrivance, which would deceive anybody. The little branch was some fifteen or eighteen inches long, and perhaps some three or four inches in diameter, and had been hollowed so as to be quite light and make it float with great buoyancy on the water, but without much weight. The fibres of a certain reed or grass had been twisted into a very light and thin, but extremely strong thread, just the color of the muddy water and bank of the river. By two threads only, some fifty or sixty feet long, and worked by another member of the witchfinding tribe, he was able to produce results, which, at the time, seemed to me fairly miraculous.

I don't think I ever enjoyed the acquaintance of any individual more than I did that of this unlettered, but not unlearned savage. He was as shrewd and as able a humbug in his own line as I ever met. When I had gained his confidence by showing him some of my work, and giving him a few little presents, he seemed to take it as a tacit confession that we were both engaged in making our living by delicately swindling the public, and, considering me as a brother rogue, he became quite confidential.

I could not, however, make him understand that my performances were given simply with the idea of entertaining the public. His deceptions were given purely with the view of making his tribal comrades have an implicit belief in his supernatural powers, and he could not comprehend how any person could produce work of that character, unless it was to make others believe that it was not mere trick, but could only be produced by individuals of the nature of a demi-god.

Since then, when in India or other places, I witnessed the performances of Yogis or Spiritual mediums, and was tempted to fancy that perhaps there might be some mysterious force at work, outside of mere chicanery, I have remembered how great was my amazement at the mystery of the floating log, and how simple was its solution.

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