Update: The 1651 copy of Reginald Scot’s The Discovery of Witchcraft sold for $9,000.
What you see: A 1651 second edition, second issue of The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. Potter & Potter estimates it at $7,000 to $12,000.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Who was Reginald Scot? He was an English gentleman of some station in that era, a landowning gentleman near Ashford in Kent. I believe he was a member of Parliament.
Do we know why he published The Discovery of Witchcraft in 1584? The story people have latched onto is he was a freethinker, and able to see the big picture. He held the Calvinist idea that it was all the work of God, not witches or spells or magical forces–that the things people were witnessing were accomplished by natural means.
So it was a debunking book? That’s a way to put it. The thing that the magic community latched onto for a century or longer was he said, “This is not sorcery, this is magic.” But it’s not all magic tricks. I believe one, maybe two chapters are about magic tricks. Magic is a focus, but it’s not the bulk of the work.
We should also stop briefly and point out that Reginald Scot uses the term “juggling” in the book, but “juggling” would have been another word for “magic” back then. Exactly.
Who was Reginald Scot’s audience in 1584? Who did he write The Discovery of Witchcraft for? I suppose it was his peer group. Not only were books a luxury item in 1584, but how many people could read? Books were not commodities the way they are today. I imagine he wrote it for people with a similar or adjacent educational background. Only an educated, moneyed group of people was able to buy the book and read what it was describing.
I notice that the lot notes describe the Discovery of Witchcraft as “perhaps the most influential work in the English language on the history of conjuring” and does not call it the first book of its kind in English, as I’ve read elsewhere. Is it in fact not the first English-language book that details how to perform specific magic tricks? Recent scholarship would say it gets too much credit for being that. I say it deserves credit for recording tricks that are truly classic. The tricks are elementally the same, centuries later, as they were when Scot described them. He talks about picking up a rope, cutting it in half through the middle, and restoring it. I have a friend who performs the rope trick in a Las Vegas show every day. You could perform the tricks described in the book and make a good living.
So, Reginald Scot describes the tricks well enough in The Discovery of Witchcraft that a modern reader could learn to do them by relying on the book alone? If you can get past the “s”s rendered as “f”s, yeah, you can do the tricks based on the descriptions.
The magicians’ community frowns on those who share the secrets behind the performance of a magic trick. Might that attitude have prevented magicians from writing down and printing detailed descriptions of tricks before Reginald Scot published The Discovery of Witchcraft in 1584? Mentorship has always been a tool for teaching magicians how to perform. It was probably common at that time, and there’s a better chance magicians learned that way as opposed to reading. With Scot, probably no one told him not to write the tricks down, because it had never been done that way–they hadn’t been published in a book.
Do we know where Reginald Scot got his source information? I don’t know, and I wish I did. It’d be wonderful to say he watched an itinerant conjurer, sat him down with a glass of beer, and got the info. Some version of that story is likely.
But we don’t have any evidence that Scot performed any magic tricks himself? Not that I’m aware of.
But he was able to describe the magic tricks in a way that others could read what he wrote, learn how the tricks work, and perform them accurately, which is a skill unto itself. Absolutely. He must have been a smart dude.
What magic tricks appear in The Discovery of Witchcraft? Tricks with cards, tricks with coins, tricks with rope, even tricks with living humans. The image that people have latched on to is the decapitation of a man, where the body and the head are separated from each other, and the head’s on a plate and talking and interacting with someone. It’s a fairly diverse assortment of tricks, and they’re good tricks.
I understand there’s a discussion of gimmicked knives. Does that have to do with the decapitation trick? There’s one here that goes through your arm–“to thrust a knife through your arm and to cut half your nose asunder”. Another is about “to thrust a bodkin into your head and through your tongue”–a bodkin is like an ice pick. You can buy these tricks today.
I’m under the impression that if you’re building a first-rate library of books on magic, you need an antique copy of The Discovery of Witchcraft. Correct? Yes. That’s been true for at least a century, probably longer.
How was The Discovery of Witchcraft received on its first publication in 1584? I’m not a scholar of the reception, but I know that King James was not enamored of exposing these things and ordered the books burned. I haven’t done the research to verify that story, but the books are scarce. The first edition is not the rarest of books, but in all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve sold three.
Is the 1651 second edition just as scarce? Some say the edition in the auction is the scarcest of the editions. Someone who called me said there were four. I’m hesitant to say there’s four of anything, but this second edition, second state is more difficult to locate than the first edition.
How many copies of the second edition have you handled? Only two, so about the same number as the first edition.
Did the contents of The Discovery of Witchcraft change in any significant way between 1584 and 1651? Not that I’m aware of, but I’m not a scholar of the editions. I know the type was reset, and it’s a different printer.
Has anyone done a census of antique copies of The Discovery of Witchcraft? I have a running count in my head of where the copies are, but there’s no formal census.
Do you know how many copies of the first edition exist, and how many of the second? I don’t. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the third edition is still scarce but more readily available.
What condition is the book in? The binding is attractive and the pages are generally clean and bright and easy to read. It’s not like it’s missing words.
It has all its pages? Yes, it’s been collated. I believe the binding is later. It’s a classic full leather binding, and it’s not overdone, either. Some turn books into trophies. In 1651, they wouldn’t have done it that way.
What is the book like in person? It fits in your hand nicely. It’s not compact, but it’s easy to hold. It’s unassuming, in a way. It’s well-kept, and showing signs of its age.
Do you have a favorite plate or illustration? Probably the decapitation. I guess I’m a sucker for magic tricks.
Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.
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Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a replica demon’s head card trick device created by the late Rüdiger Deutsch; a group of Diane Arbus photographs owned by their subject, albino sword-swallower Sandra Reed; a vintage Harry Houdini postcard from the magician’s personal collection, an oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, a Daisy and Violet Hilton poster from the conjoined twins’ vaudeville years, an impressive talking skull automaton that went on to sell for $13,200, a magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, a rare book from the creator of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000, a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.
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