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Out-Hoaxed

British MuseumIn some respects research for academic purposes has similarities to attempting to recreate a new magic routine. You begin with what has been done before, reading all the relevant journals and papers. And then see how that can be moulded to your own specific area of interest. Occasionally you have that eureka moment - in a routine it might be a funny line or honing a sleight. With research it is uncovering something pertinent to the topic you are investigating. 

And then, of course, you have your dead ends. In magic this often comes out in performance; a bit of subtlety or misdirection that seemed cast iron in the comfort of your own room, emerges as fatally flawed in front of real people. Fortunately in academic research the wrong turning is not quite so public.

british libraryI have recently been investigating the perpetuator of an 18th century conjuring hoax; trying to determine when the prime suspect was first fingered in print as the culprit. The closest I could get to was some 30 years after the event. 

As quite a lot of research has been done on this topic, I wasn't confident about finding anything new. However I came across the write up of a print in a catalogue about the hoax which specifically referenced the scam artist. The print also, in passing, mentions a famous general, a brothel owner, a Roman physician and the second son of George II. But these were all very tangential connections 

What was potentially exciting was that the citation was extremely obscure - it just said "memoirs" (p.c. 21 a). The Wellcome Library couldn't help me, nor could the British Museum, despite owning the print and also having compiled the catalogue. I was advised to try the British Library, so that was my next port of call.

brothelThe general Reading Room librarian was stumped - and said my only hope was a curator from the Rare Books department. The man there recognised the initials 'p.c'. as meaning 'private case' - these were documents kept locked away in the old British Library housed at the British Museum, as they were considered too controversial for public viewing. My excitement level was rising. Perhaps I was finding something that hadn't been checked out for many a long year - a paper that both emininet historians Eddie Dawes and Ricky Jay (who had both also done research on this hoax) had overlooked.

Unfortunately, explained the helpful curator, the citation was now no longer used; private cases had been re-indexed quite a few years ago. It would take him sometime to track where the relevant memoirs were. Leave it with him, he said, and he would email me when he had discovered more.

Yesterday I received his email. He had found the new shelf number and could tell me the title of the private case.  It was the "memoirs' of the brothel owner!

fooled youSo nothing to do with my suspect and, in any event, the memoirs had been written 25 years before the hoax even took place.  Given the subject matter, it was clear now why they were considered (at one time) to be of a sensitive nature. 

Although it was indeed a dead end, I couldn't help be amused by the thought of the compiler of the catalogue lasciviously reading these scandalous memoirs in the name of 'research' - knowing full well they had nothing to do with the subject matter he was writing about.  Perhaps the citation had been deliberately obscure (his own idea of a hoax), so as to provoke a future reader into a wild-goose chase.

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