|Topic: Ch 1: BACKPALM: Of Chickens or Eggs|
Before we move on to more modern applications of the Back palm, let’s spend a moment with a couple of dusty texts that just happen to have fallen off the shelf. As you will recall, I last posted that the back palm of a coin was T. Nelson Downs’ application of the similar move done with cards. That this may well be true, but I think you’ll be surprised to hear what Howard Thurston had to say about the development of the “reverse palm” with cards. Turns out, our friend Downs was right there in the thick of it.
Howard Thurston wrote the following in P.T. Selbit’s The Magician’s Handbook, published in London just two years after Downs’ Modern Coin Manipulation:
“It is agreed that the back-hand palm was first shown to American performers by a magical dealer named Otto Mauro, who kept a little store of conjuring apparatus in a cellar at the Bowery, New York City. The idea was given to him by a Spaniard hailing from Mexico, who was not a performer but a gambler. This was in 1887, and it then consisted of holding the card between the tips of the first and fourth fingers, and then, without the aid of the thumb, reversing it to the back of the hand, thus showing the palm empty. Until 1895, no performer, to my knowledge, was introducing this effect upon the stage, but from 1895 to 1897 several magicians were doing it, but only to the extent of holding the card in the left hand and apparently taking it in the right, really pushing it behind the left. After vanishing the card the left hand reached up in the air and produced it therefrom. That was all the back-palming being introduced at that time, and the performers presenting it were Downs, Imro Fox, Houdini, Robinson, Ziska, and myself. In 1897 the continuous or reverse palm was discovered, it is claimed, by Dr. Elliott, but Downs and Houdini were making a hit with it until 1898, when Downs worked the first combination back-hand palm trick I ever saw. This was in vanishing five cards behind the hand, and then producing them from the air one by one.”
So, according to the “King of Cards” himself, the back palm with cards was invented in 1887, and Downs himself was “making a hit of it” sometime before 1898. And he was doing it with a routine that sounds strikingly similar to his “Eureka Pass” sequence. So had Downs helped pioneer the card back palm, and then adapt it to coins? That’s not how he would have us remember it. In the introduction to his MCM, he claimed to have invented it back in 1884:
“In this chapter it is proposed first to give an outline of same, and then to explain all the different “sleights” necessary for its accomplishment, which the author desires to emphatically state were all, without exception, invented by himself some sixteen years ago. He mentions this fact for the information of those who may be in doubt as to the origin of the back palm.”
Modern Coin Manipulation (1900)
Can the claim be verified? Not yet, not by me. While he was certainly performing his Miser’s Dream for many years prior to 1900, the earliest written report of Downs using the back palm that I have access to is the New York Sunday Telegraph for December 26, 1897, which said of Downs: “He can cause a coin to pass from the front to the back of his hand with so great a rapidity that it is almost impossible, even watching it closely, to tell how he does it, or see where the money goes, and he can use his left hand as skillfully as his right.”
Two things stand out here. First, the reviewer might not have been so impressed had he known that Downs was left-handed. More importantly, I doubt many performers today would have been happy with a review that exposed the mechanics of the act in such detail, or with the statement that it was merely “almost impossible” to see where the coin went. Most of us hope for more. Yet Downs used this piece, and others like it, to promote his performances. Contrary to contemporary dogma, he believed that “finger flinging” was indeed entertaining, or at least, that’s how he sold it. While you may disagree with his performing philosophy, you can’t argue with his popularity and success.
All that aside for now, the question remains, “which came first”? Downs says it was the back palm with coins, and he was certainly in the position to know.