John Nevil Maskelyne

John Nevil Maskelyne (22 December 1839 – 18 May 1917) was an English stage magician and inventor of the pay toilet, along with other Victorian-era devices. He worked with magicians George Alfred Cooke and David Devant, and many of his illusions are still performed today. His book Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill is considered a classic overview of card sharp practices, and in 1914 he founded the Occult Committee, a group whose remit was to "investigate claims to supernatural power and to expose fraud".

John Nevil Maskelyne
John Nevil Maskelyne.jpg
Born(1839-12-22)22 December 1839
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
Died18 May 1917(1917-05-18) (aged 77)
Marylebone, London, England
OccupationMagician, escapologist, inventor, and paranormal investigator
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Taylor (1840–1911)
ChildrenNevil Maskelyne
  • John Nevil Maskelyne (1800–1875)
  • Harriet Brunsdon (1812–1871)


Maskelyne was born on 22 December 1839 at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England to John Nevil Maskelyne (1800–1875), a saddler, and his wife Harriet née Brunsdon (1812–1871). He trained as a watchmaker.


Maskelyne became interested in conjuring after watching a stage performance at his local Town Hall by the fraudulent American spiritualists the Davenport brothers. He saw how the Davenports' spirit cabinet illusion worked, and stated to the audience in the theatre that he could recreate their act using no supernatural methods. With the help of a friend, cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he built a version of the gigantic cabinet. Together, they revealed the Davenport Brothers' trickery to the public at a show in Cheltenham in June 1865, sponsored by the 10th Cotswold Rifle Corps to which they belonged .[1] In addition to the pseudo-spiritualist phenomena of the Davenports, they added comedy illusions which included the transformation of Maskelyne and Cooke into an 'unprotected female' and a gorilla.[2] Inspired by the acclaim they received for their clever exposure of the deception, the two men repeated their show several times.[3]

Becoming professionalEdit

Following their local success, they branched out taking their show to nearby towns. Encouraged by their results, they decided to become professional magicians and organised tours, building on their initial routines and expanding their programme.

At first they struggled to make ends meet but they were saved by a young and relatively inexperienced theatrical agent named William Morton, who saw their show in Liverpool and offered to finance a tour. He engaged them at a weekly wage of £4 10s for Maskelyne and his wife, and 50 shillings for Cooke. Morton ran them round the country for two years, ending at The Crystal Palace for several weeks. He then secured for them the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, renovated it, put in a new stage and opened at the end of 1873.[4] Morton ended up being their manager for a total of 20 years. He helped them to become firmly established on the national stage including such marathon theatrical engagements as their famous 31-year tenancy at the Egyptian Hall, only ending in 1905 when the Hall was demolished.[5]

Further achievementsEdit

Maskelyne and Cooke invented many illusions still performed today. Maskelyne was adept at working out the principles of illusions, one of his best-known being levitation. Levitation is commonly, but incorrectly, said to be Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin's illusion, but it was Maskelyne who invented it.[6] The confusion arises because Robert-Houdin invented the illusion "La Suspension Ethéréenne" (aka the "Broom Suspension").[7][8] Levitation is also credited to American magician Harry Kellar, who in fact stole the illusion by bribing Maskelyne's technician, Paul Valadon.[1]

Upon Cooke's death in February 1905, Maskelyne started a partnership with David Devant. Devant had first joined Maskelyne's team in 1893, when he auditioned as a replacement for Charles Morritt, a conjurer and inventor who had worked with Maskelyne at the Egyptian Hall but who left to set up his own show.[9]

In 1894, Maskelyne wrote the book Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. This book became an instant hit and to this day is considered to be a classic gambling book. What made this book so popular was the fact that it was the first detailed revelation of the secrets of the cardsharps. Other authors, prior to Maskelyne, had written about crooked gambling, but never before had anyone published a work with in-depth, detailed explanation of the secrets of crooked gambling. The first edition of Sharps and Flats was published in London and New York. Later, when the book entered the public domain, the Gambler's Book Club, from Las Vegas, published the first reprint edition. The book is now also available online in the form of a web site, with annotations. In his lifetime, Maskelyne authored several books, but Sharps and Flats is by far his most important literary work and without any doubts the best known of his books.


Maskelyne was a member of The Magic Circle and, like Harry Houdini, tried to dispel the notion of supernatural powers. To this end, in 1914, Maskelyne founded the Occult Committee whose remit was to "investigate claims to supernatural power and to expose fraud". In particular, the committee attempted to prove that the Indian rope trick has never been performed.[10]

The spiritualist Alfred Russel Wallace did not accept that Maskelyne had replicated the feats of the Davenport brothers utilizing natural methods, and stated that Maskelyne possessed supernatural powers.[11][12] Maskelyne's observations of trickery at the Cambridge séance sittings in 1895 were important for the exposure of the medium Eusapia Palladino.[13]

Maskelyne's writings that criticized Spiritualism and Theosophy were included in the book The Supernatural? (1891) with psychiatrist Lionel Weatherly (1852–1940). It was an early text in the field of anomalistic psychology and offered rational explanations for occult and Spiritualistic practices, paranormal phenomena and religious experiences.[14]

In 1910, Maskelyne debated Hiram Maxim in The Strand Magazine on the trickery of the Davenport brothers.[15]


Maskelyne's invention of the door lock for London toilets required the insertion of a penny coin to operate it, leading to the euphemism to "spend a penny".[10]

With John Algernon Clarke, Maskelyne invented the Psycho Automaton, a machine supposedly that could play Whist. At London's Egyptian Hall, Psycho appeared in more than 4,000 performances.[16]


Maskelyne married Elizabeth Taylor (1840-1911) in 1862 Pershore, with children:[17]

  • Nevil Maskelyne (1863–1924)
  • Minnie Jane Maskelyne (1866–1942)
  • Edwin Archibald Maskelyne (1879–1920)

Of these, Nevil Maskelyne, was the father of Jasper Maskelyne. Both Nevil and Jasper were magicians and Jasper has been credited as a possible creator of large-scale ruses, deceptions and camouflage used during the Second World War.

Maskelyne claimed to be a descendant of Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811), the Astronomer Royal; although some sources repeat this,[18][19] other recent biographical accounts establish otherwise.[1]

Maskelyne died in Marylebone, London, on 18 May 1917.


Mr Fay's Cabinet Trick: A £20 Challenge to Mr Maskelyne.
Mr Maskelyne's Reply to Sir Hiram Maxim's Challenge.
Mr Maskelyne's Reply to Sir Hiram Maxim. Part I.
Mr Maskelyne's Reply to Sir Hiram Maxim. Part II.
Maxim Versus Maskelyne: The End of the Discussion.


  1. ^ a b c Jim Steinmeyer (2005). Hiding the Elephant. Arrow. pp. 95–96, 201. ISBN 0-09-947664-9.
  2. ^ Cheltenham Chronicle, 15 August 1865 p. 5, A Davenport "Expose."
  3. ^ Cheltenham Chronicle, 22 August 1865 p. 4
  4. ^ Hull Daily Mail, 11 February 1937 p. 6 Old-New Maskelyne Trick. A little more detail of their early days can be found in the relevant section of William Morton (theatre manager).
  5. ^ Dawes, Edwin (1979). "The Great Illusionists". Chartwell Books Inc.: 157–159. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ Dawes, Edwin (1979). "The Great Illusionists". Chartwell Books Inc.: 161. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ Dawes, Edwin (1979). "The Great Illusionists". Chartwell Books Inc.: 81. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  8. ^ "Brief Biographies of Magic Inventors – page Q-R-S". Retrieved 19 September 2007.
  9. ^ Dawes, Edwin (1979). "The Great Illusionists". Chartwell Books Inc.: 167. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ Brandon, Ruth. (1993). The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. Secker & Warburg. p. 230. ISBN 0-436-20060-0
  11. ^ Byrne, Georgina (2010). Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850–1939. The Boybell Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 978-1-84383-589-9
  12. ^ Brandon, Ruth. (1983). The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 138. ISBN 0-297-78249-5
  13. ^ "The Supernatural?" Cambridge University Press.
  14. ^ Hawkey, Arthur. (2001). The Amazing Hiram Maxim: An Intimate Biography. Spellmount. p. 135
  15. ^ Psycho | Museum of London
  16. ^ Addison, Henry Robert; Oakes, Charles Henry; Lawson, William John; Sladen, Douglas Brooke Wheelton (1907). "Maskylene, John Nevil". Who's Who. Vol. 59. p. 1188.
  17. ^ "Who's Who of Victorian Cinema". John Nevil Maskelyne – British magician and illusionist. Retrieved 4 June 2006.
  18. ^ Agent Zigzag, Ben Macintyre

External linksEdit