The secret of a magic doll called the Bonus Genius

The secret of a magic doll called the Bonus Genius
The Bonus Genius was naked in the 
magic book "Hocus Pocus Jr."
published in 1635.

In this excerpt from Paul Curry’s book Magician’s Magic, he explains the secret of an old trick where a doll is made to vanish. He called it the Bonus Genus, but actually the trick was called "Bonus Genius" or "Nuntius Invisibilis". The principles behind the trick explain some of the basic ways that magic works.

He also mentions how this trick is related to the author Charles Dickens.

One trick, popular ages ago, but no longer performed, involved a small wooden doll, a miniature cape, and an "invisible" coin. Judging from early writing, this ancient trick, known originally as "Bonus Genus" and later as "The Little Messenger," was a favorite with magicians and their audiences. It was a good trick and I touch on it here, not only because it illustrates the type of magic performed by the ?rst magicians but also because it serves to introduce some of the basic principles of magic. To "see" the trick just as it was performed, suppose we roll back the years to an era long gone and join a knot of spectators watching an open-air magic show. The place may be a London street corner, a crowded fair, or a Parisian park.

The magician, with sleeves rolled back, displays a small wooden doll, about six inches in height. Watch closely. He’s going to make the doll disappear right before your eyes, and the odds are that you won’t have the faintest notion as to how he does it.

After introducing the doll as a magic messenger possessing the mystical ability to whisk itself, instantly and invisibly, to any designated spot on earth, the magician taps it sharply to prove that it is solid through- out. Next he shows a small cape which ?ts over the doll’s head and hangs down below its feet leaving only the head in view, protruding from the neck of the cape.

The secret of a magic doll called the Bonus Genius
"The Little Messenger." Above, a 
woodcut showing an ancient 
performance of the trick. 
Below, the workings of the 
trick as seen from the back.
(Click to enlarge)

The magician declares that the messenger’s destination must be decided. In this bit of whimsy, the magician consults the children in the group. After some humorous byplay, it is decided that the messenger will be sent to a far-off mysterious land for the purpose of transmitting some nonsensical message.

Now, the magic moment has arrived. The magician taps the doll’s head, and the children, as instructed, shout "Go!" Nothing happens! The embarrassed magician, after pretending to consult with the doll, apologizes to the onlookers and explains that he forgot to furnish the messenger with travel expenses.

 "He doesn’t use ordinary money," the magician tells his audience. "He only uses special invisible money. Luckily," he adds, "l have some of these coins here in my pocket."

The secret of a magic doll called the Bonus Genius
A Bonus Genius and his cape

After pretending to tuck one of these invisible coins into the messenger’s cape, the magician announces that everything is ready. Again he taps the doll‘s head, and again the children shout "Go!" And this time the messenger does leave. There’s no doubt about this point the doll has actually disappeared! The magician flips the empty cape inside out and rolls it into a ball. The solid six-inch doll everyone was watching so closely has, apparently, dissolved into nothingness. The magician’s hands are empty, the cape is empty. Where, then, did the messenger go?

To begin with, what fooled everyone was the apparent disappearance of a small wooden doll in full view one second, gone the next. But is that what actually happened? Not exactly. The presence of the doll, the complete doll, was assumed by the watchers, but in reality only its head was in sight at the time of the "vanish." Suppose, for the moment, that the doll didn’t have a body at that point; let’s say the doll‘s body had been detached from its head early in the trick, and that the magician some- how had managed secretly to steal it away. This would present an entirely different problem, wouldn’t it? The cape could have a small secret pocket on the inside and when the magician tapped the head he would merely have to make sure that it dropped into this secret pocket. The cape would look empty and could be turned inside out and rolled into a ball. No one would give it a second thought because, you see, everyone was thinking in terms of a six-inch dollnot just a small round head.

This, of course, is exactly what happened. The magician did make off with the doll’s body without the audience’s seeing it, and the doll’s head was dropped into a secret inside pocket. But how could the magician have spirited away the doll’s body without anyone’s knowledge? Did it go up his sleeve? Was the hand quicker than the eye?

The secret of a magic doll called the Bonus Genius
Two more examples of Bonus Geniuses

Use of the sleeves is ruled out since they were rolled back at the start of the trick. As to the hand’s being quicker than the eye it just isn’t. The hands of the nimblest magician travel at snail’s pace when measured against speeds the eye can readily detect. No, the little headless messenger was disposed of simply and openly. No one paid much attention because the magician’s actions appeared natural.

The so-called invisible coin is the clue. The messenger’s body was concealed ("palmed") in the magician’s hand when he reached into his pocket to obtain the coin. When the magician withdrew his hand, supposedly holding an invisible coin, he had left the body of the doll behind safely out of sight.

And why did this brazen action go unnoticed? First, the spectator didn’t realize that the body was detachable. In short, there was advance preparation of which the viewers were unaware. For many a trick, preparation gives the magician a long head start over his audience. Secondly, by palming the doll’s body, the magician made an unusual act appear innocent and natural. The hand that went to the pocket looked empty although, of course, the magician did not call attention to this point. Lastly, the move to the pocket, which might have been received with a high degree of suspicion despite the apparent emptiness of the hand, was cloaked in innocence when the magician announced that the pocket contained an invisible coin needed for the messenger’s trip. With that declaration, the magician prepared the audience to accept the thrust of his hand into the pocket as sort of an incidental part of the fanciful story he was weaving. If he had neglected to prepare the way for what was to follow, and had simply plunged his hand into his pocket without ?rst giving his viewers a reason for doing so, alarm bells would have clanged loudly in their minds and most, if not all, of the mystery surrounding the trick would, like the messenger himself, have vanished.

Simple? Obvious? Simple, perhaps most tricks are but certainly not obvious. For in this explanation, one important ingredient is missing: the ability of a skilled magician to misdirect the attention of his audience so that they see and remember only those things he wants them to see and remember. In the hands of a clever, glib performer, "The Little Messenger" was both baf?ing and entertaining. The English author Charles Dickens, an ardent amateur magician, never failed to include this trick in his elaborate and carefully rehearsed performances of magic. Years after the death of the novelist, his daughter Mamie, in My Father as I Recall Him singled out this trick with the doll and mentioned that ". . . it was a particular favorite and was eagerly awaited and welcomed."

I have taken time to dust off and describe this antique museum piece mainly because it introduces some elemental principles of magic. My hope is that in describing the trick from the viewpoints of both the spectator and the magician, I have given the reader a glimpse, however faint and ?eeting, of the fascination magic offers to those who perform it. The needopenly, but indetectably to steal away the doll’s body illustrates the type of problem continually confronting magicians. In a sort of visual battle of wits, there is a unique excitement in meting such challenges head on and successfully fully disposing of them the excitement experienced by a poker player when his bluff works. And unlike losers in a card game, magicians’ audiences delight in being outsmarted.

– Magician’s Magic, Google Books>>
– Martin’s Magic Bonus Genius>>
– Bonus Genius from Hocus Pocus Jr, Gutenberg>>

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