• Weird History

The Secrets Behind Historic Magic Tricks

List RulesVote up all the most surprising magic secrets.

Jim Steinmeyer designs magic tricks that other magicians use. He knows the ins and outs of illusion. He's written several books on the subject and, in one, he claims, "Magicians don’t protect their secrets from the audience, they protect the audience from their secrets." Indeed, the magic is in the presentation, not in knowing how it's done.

But magic as we know it has been around for quite a while. The ancient conjurers became traveling vaudevillians who morphed into Las Vegas showmen and street mentalists. By this point, many stage tricks have been explained in books. Some have been revealed in lawsuits. Even Harry Houdini has had the secrets behind his most well-known tricks exposed.

This list isn't exposing anything that isn't already out there. These are classic tricks whose secrets are known. If you wish to remain amazed, read no further. If you want to learn the truth, read on and all will be revealed.

  • Photo: David Copperfield - Illusion / CBS

    Making The Statue of Liberty Disappear

    The Trick:

    On a live CBS special in 1983, David Copperfield did the impossible and made the Statue of Liberty disappear. The live audience, television crew, and stage are all on a large platform viewing the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

    Also on the platform, framing the statue, are two scaffolds decorated in lights. Copperfield raised a curtain between the scaffolds to hide the statue and gave a short soliloquy on cherishing freedom. Then the curtain dropped, the lights flashed, and the Statue of Liberty was gone.

    How It's Done:

    The platform rotated. The vibrations of its movement were masked by loud music being pumped through speakers while Copperfield spoke over the noise.

    When the curtain dropped, the platform had moved so the statue was blocked from view by one of the scaffolds. Its lights were turned on so bright that no one could see the statue behind them.

    Surprising secret?
  • Photo: Carl Dietz / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Underwater Box Escape

    The Trick:

    Harry Houdini was a gifted magician who specialized in escape tricks. One of the most memorable was the underwater box escape. Houdini was handcuffed and climbed into a wooden crate that was then nailed, trussed, and chained shut. It was hoisted by a crane into New York's East River and sank. A few minutes later, Houdini would emerge, free of his bonds, at the water's surface.

    How It's Done:

    The crate was specially designed for this trick. It had small holes in it that allowed Houdini to easily breathe while he waited for the box to be nailed. The holes would also help the crate sink. The crate appeared to be held together by nails, but one of the sides of the square crate had two fake nail heads. That part of the crate was held shut by a hinge on the inside. Once Houdini was inside the crate and it was being lifted by the crane, he would take off the handcuffs (he kept hidden keys). After the crate hit the water and sank sufficiently, he would simply kick open the crate at the hidden hinge and swim to the surface.

    Surprising secret?
  • 3

    Mentalism Levitation

    The Trick:

    This is a self-levitating magic trick, often performed as street magic and made popular by the newer style of mentalist magicians like Criss Angel and David Blaine.

    A magician on the street steps away from a small audience of people. With their audience positioned at their back, and often with a box in front of them, the magician waves their arms and levitates several inches to a foot off of the ground.

    How It's Done:

    The placement of the audience is of the upmost importance as this trick may only be viewed at a certain angle.

    In the most common variant, a slit is cut in the front of one of the legs of the magician's pants. Strong magnets may be placed in the shoes so they stick together. The magician, out of the audience's view, removes their leg through the slit in the front of their pants, places their foot on the box in front of them, and raises themselves up, appearing to levitate.

    A less impressive version of this trick can be performed without the assistance of a prop box, by simply raising up on one toe and showing the audience the levitating foot. TV specials showing performers levitating several feet into the air are usually done with wires, special effects, and an audience that is in on the trick.

    Surprising secret?
  • Photo: Brattarb / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Zig-Zag Box

    The Trick:

    The Zig-Zag illusion was first performed in the mid-1960s by magician Robert Harbin. In the illusion, an assistant steps into an upright cabinet, with their face, hands, and a foot visible through openings in the front. The magician inserts metal blades horizontally in the cabinet's midsection, dividing it into thirds.

    The magician then slides the cabinet's midsection apart from the top and bottom thirds, so it looks as though the assistant's midsection has been pulled away from the rest of them. A small door on the cabinet's midsection can be opened to see the assistant's body inside.

    At the end, the assistant's midsection is slid back into place, the two blades removed, and they step out of the cabinet in one piece.

    How It's Done:

    This is the rare trick where the assistant is responsible for the heavy lifting. 

    The box is larger than it appears because the black strips down the sides make it appear narrow. That black space is actually usable. The assistant still fits in the rearranged box, though it's a very tight fit. The blade is inserted on the right side and looks like it takes up more space than it does, with the handle and protruding box space taking up most of the blade.

    The trick relies on a flexible assistant and items being presented to appear as different sizes than they actually are.

    Surprising secret?