Tinker, tailor, soldier… illusionist?
When the CIA tried its hand at magic
By Tom Scocca
November 1, 2009
What goes on in the shadows? First, consider what’s happening in the foreground.
“The instant the performer sees the spectator take a cigarette, cigar, or pipe, he takes the packet of matches from his pocket, tears off one match, and holds packet and match ready to ignite the match,” the magician John Mulholland wrote in a manual in the 1950s. “He does these things openly because what he does can only be looked upon as a friendly and courteous gesture.”
Mulholland’s instructions were written not for stage magicians, but for the covert operatives of the CIA. At the height of the Cold War – in the era of nuclear missiles and submarines, amid the tangled cloak-and-dagger maneuverings of espionage and counterespionage – the agency was also secretly doing something else. It was trying to learn to do magic.
The CIA hired Mulholland to explain techniques of sleight-of-hand and surreptitious signaling so that agents could use them in the field. His text, which was originally supposed to have been destroyed, has now been recovered, declassified, and reprinted as “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.” It deals mostly with basic stagecraft, minus the stage. If, before you struck a match, Mulholland advises the reader, you had stuck a pin into the back of the matchbook, it would be possible to pull the pin out with the fingernail of the left ring finger, the whole maneuver physically concealed by the matches and psychologically concealed by the broad, open gesture of lighting a match.
Or instead of a pin, one could glue a small pill to the back of the matchbook. And with practice, one could pick the pill off and make it fall at the moment the matches were passing above a drink belonging to the – what was the word? – “spectator.” Words, too, require a little legerdemain, when the readers are secret agents and the point of the maneuver is to drug or poison someone. Here is a trick with a pin that also works with a pill. Foreground, background.