Barry Robbins

Although Barry Robbins was never directly involved in psychical research his article below on "mental magic" is of great importance as it demonstrates, in plain language, how trickery can be used to demonstrate apparently supernormal phenomena.

Mental Magic - Telepathy and Clairvoyance by Trickery

 - Barry Robbins -

         MIND-READING, second sight, clairvoyance, telepathy are all names applied to a certain field of magic wherein the magician supposedly acquires knowledge by a strange and unique method; the transference of thoughts from another's mind to his own. We shall only use the term 'mind-reading' during this chapter, for greater convenience.

There have been many great exponents of this art. They have made use of many devices, some as simple as a five-word code and others involving the use of specially built furniture, wires, telescopes and additional apparatus. As in the other chapters of this book we shall discuss the simpler forms of mind-reading, but will also give you some idea of how the larger and more intricate illusions are achieved.

Successful mind-reading may be done singly, but is more generally done with an assistant. Mind-reading requires a good memory, an ability to think fast, and many hours of rehearsal. The most basic element of mind-reading performed without costly apparatus, is the code. And the secret of the code lies in the astonishingly small grouping that will include all objects carried on the person. Let me illustrate: the common form of mind-reading consists of an object being presented to the performer, or a question being asked of him, and the object then being described or the question answered by his assistant in another part of the room, with no obvious method of communication between them. The remaining pages of this chapter are an exposition of this simple effect and the many ways to achieve it.

Telephone Telepathy

The Effect: Here is one of the simplest and yet most startling illustrations of mind-reading with a code and an assistant or confederate. Pass a deck of cards around the audience asking them to freely select and agree on any card they wish. As soon as this has been done ask to see the chosen card. Study it carefully for a minute or two and then announce that you have succeeded in transferring a mental image of that card to a friend of yours with whom you have frequently had excellent results telepathetically. Give them your friend's name and phone number and when they call the number and ask for your friend he tells them the name of the chosen card without hesitation.

The Cause: You have previously arranged with a friend - preferably one unknown to the audience - the following code. You then give the audience the correct number to call your friend, but not his right name. The name is the code. In the name you give, if the first initial is A, the card is an Ace, if a B, the card is a two, C is three and so on. Similarly, remembering the word CHaSeD for the order of the suits, if the initial of the surname is C, the suit is clubs, and if S, the suit is spades. Thus if you tell your audience to call your friend's telephone number and ask for Charles Davenport, your friend, knowing the code, will immediately answer, "My friend, the magician, has just sent to me telepathetically the image of a card. It is the Three of Diamonds." The effect of this trick is most bewildering. Use it only once an evening, generally toward the end.

Mind-reading without an Assistant

There are many ways to "read minds" without an assistant. If you will remember the chapters on card tricks, many of the methods of revealing the card chosen by a spectator, can, with very little adaptation, be made to seem like mind-reading.

There are many gadgets and trick apparatus that can be bought at novelty or magic stores to assist you in a mind-reading act. Some of these are trays or bowls with false bottoms. You go through the audience, collecting questions written on small pieces of paper. As you return to the stage a flick of your finger exchanges the audiences questions for other papers already prepared by yourself, and concealed in the false bottom. Then you may answer the prepared questions and distribute them for examination. Or you may at your leisure, release some of the genuine questions and answer them.

One-Ahead Method

An essential part of mind-reading without an assistant is the 'one-ahead' method. In this method all that is needed is one question to be known and identifiable to you. This question is to be added to the genuine ones either by yourself or by a 'plant', a confederate in the audience. If the question is, "Should I quit my job" you pick out any question except that one, hold it, still folded against your head, and proceed to repeat and answer the question. After the question has been answered, you unfold it - to check yourself - and you read aloud what is written on the paper. Of course you read aloud the question, "Should I quit my job" and remember what is actually on the paper. You then lay it on the table in front of you, and answer it while holding another one to your head. When you have answered all the questions in the hat or tray, you may pass them around for examination, and your reputation as a mind-reader will be assured. Of course you unfold the prepared question last. The trick will be much more impressive if you ask the authors of the question to concentrate on their questions.

Making Envelopes Transparent

Another method employed by some "solo mentalists'' as they are called, makes use of a small sponge wet with pure alcohol and palmed. The questions are written on pieces of paper, which are not folded but are inserted in blank envelopes and sealed before being given to the performer. After the performer has collected the envelopes, all he has to do is lightly wet the face of the envelope with the alcohol. This has the effect of making the envelope temporarily transparent at that spot and he can easily read the words or questions written on the paper inside. The alcohol dries rapidly and the envelopes may be returned to the audience, seemingly undamaged in any way. A sense of the dramatic improves the effect of this trick, as is true with all mind-reading performances.

Other methods call for trick boxes, or trick watches, or trick apparatus of any sort that permits the performer to look at what has been written after it has been concealed from him, or, on the other hand, to know in advance, what will be written. These feats of mind-reading, performed by a single individual, are also frequently called 'clairvoyancy', clairvoyant being a French word meaning "seeing clearly".

Mind-reading with an Assistant

By far the larger part of mind-reading, whether done from a stage or in a room, is of the kind based on 'thought-transference' between two people. And this of course can be done either by mechanical means unknown to the audience, or by a code, equally unknown. At the end of the chapter, we will discuss a few of the elaborate mechanical means by which this has been accomplished by some of the greatest illusionists. For the most part, however, we shall discuss codes. And we shall start with the most simple.

Silent Telepathy

The Effect: Your confederate leaves the room. The group, selects one of its members for you to think about. You concentrate briefly. Your confederate enters the room and immediately announces the name of the person of whom you are thinking.

The Cause: As you concentrate, you cross your legs and make sure that your shoe points to the proper person. That's all there is to it. If the person is right next to you, making this difficult, leave your legs uncrossed. This tells your confederate that the cue is in the position of your hand in your lap. If it is yourself, have your hands folded.

A variation on this trick, which should be inserted to mislead the audience, is to nonchalantly assume the same attitude as the person being thought of. If he is holding his cigarette in his right hand, you do the same. Or cross your legs the way he crosses his, etc. Your eyes closed tells your confederate that you are imitating the posture of the person being thought of.

"Oar" Telepathy

The Effect: Ask three people to stand next to each other, while the rest of the group selects one of them to be the test. You call your confederate, and as he comes in the room through one door, you leave by the other. In fact you can leave before he enters. He will immediately name the selected individual. This is all the more amazing because you are not in the room to give him any clues and no word has been said to him.

The Cause: The secret is in the way you call your confederate, but the audience will never guess it. Think of the word 'oar'. The 'o' stands for 'o.k.' and means the person on the left. The 'a' stands for 'alright' and means the central figure. The 'r' of course, stands for 'ready' and indicates the man or woman on the right. These three are all natural words for you to use in summoning your confederate, and the cue word is the only word ever spoken in this simplest of all verbal codes.

Sequence Codes

One group of codes depends on one item in a series giving the cue to a later item in the series, which is the one to be revealed by the assistant. For example, the confederate is to come into the room and name an article or person that has been selected by the group. One common 'sequence' code is to be agreed that the chosen item is to be named by you immediately after the first item having legs. In other words, you would communicate the knowledge that the chosen article was a radio by asking "was it a radio?" immediately after asking "was it a chair?" or "was it Mary?" or "was it a table?" The only precaution is that the chosen object is to immediately follow the first mention of any object with legs. It can be arms, or heads or seats. Or it can follow any black object. Or the key characteristic may be roundness, flatness, height or anything agreed on by you and your confederates. In fact it is better if you agree in advance to use three or four different variations of this code in a certain order. The audience will never be able to guess your secret if you do this.

Another form of this same trick is in revealing the names of famous people. The cue here is that the correct name follows the first female name mentioned. Or it can be the third name after the first female name. Or any other variation you can think of. These codes place no stress on the memory other than remembering the particular code to be used.

Animal, Mineral, Vegetable

The Effect: Here is an amusing and diverting trick that will tantalize your audience because they will be so sure that they can figure out your code, if you do the trick "just one more time". You may do it one more time or ten more times, and they will never arrive at the secret. I have seen a group of adults entertained by this one trick for over an hour, without coming close to the answer. The trick places great importance on the ability answer of the one who gives the cues to think quickly, while the assistant can hardly be much slower. It is fun for both the performers and the audience. Lay out thirty-six cards on the floor in four horizontal rows of nine cards each. The audience selects any card while the assistant is out of the room, the magician greets him with an outlandish sentence such as "my Mother hates cats." Whereupon, the assistant names the correct card.

The Cause: The trick is for both the performer and his assistant to visualize the thirty-six cards as consisting of six groups of six cards each. The first group holds the first three cards of the top and second rows. The second group includes the middle three cards of the top and second rows, and the third group holds the last three cards of the top and second rows. Groups four, five, and six include respectively, the first three, middle three and last three cards of the bottom two rows. Next is the part of the trick that gives it its name. You and your assistant have names for each group. They are, in order, animal, mineral, vegetable, man, woman, and child. In the short simple sentences you speak to your assistant, the first noun, or the subject, places the chosen card in a particular group of six. For example, in the sentence used above the word 'Mother' indicated that the chosen card was in the 'woman' or fifth group. This group holds, the middle three cards of the bottom two rows. The next noun, or object of the sentence, names the actual card chosen within the indicated group. Again using the above example, the next noun was the word 'cats' which places the chosen card in the 'animal' or first position within the six card group. This would reveal that the chosen card, was the fourth card in the third row. Actually it tells the assistant that it is the first card in the group composed of the middle three of the bottom two rows. This is the fourth card in the third row, as you can easily see by laying out the thirty-six cards.

To give another example we can reverse the above sentence, "Cats hate my Mother". Cats tells the assistant that the card is in the animal or first group which includes the first three cards of the top two rows. Mother announces it as the woman or fifth card in the group. This means that the chosen card is the second card in the second row. You will rapidly acquire skill in coining sentences that will amuse and entertain as well as bewilder your audience. It is best to rehearse this trick three or four times with your assistant before performing it in public. Simple, sentences such as "Boys will be boys" and "John likes girls" and "I never eat fish" are good examples of cue sentences. The more truthful the sentence, the harder it will be for your audience to figure out how you do it.

Instantaneously Naming Chosen, Cards

The Effect: Lay out nine cards on the table in 3 rows of 3 each. Your assistant comes into the room, and without a word being exchanged between you, announces the name of a card previously pointed to by a spectator.

The Cause: There are many ways to do this. The most standard is to reveal the position of the selected card by holding your thumb in a similar position on the back of the remainder of the deck, which you naturally hold in your hand. If the centre card is chosen, hold the deck in your left hand with the left thumb in the centre of the top card. If the card is the upper right, hold the thumb at the upper right corner. Any position of the thumb on the deck will seem quite natural and will be, noticed by none except your assistant. He sees the position your thumb is in at first glance as he comes into the room. You may then change or not change, or do anything you wish with the cards. An amusing variation of this trick is to ask the spectator to place his finger on the chosen card for a second or two. When your confederate comes in he bends closely over the cards and locates the chosen one by his acute sense of smell. While being amusing, this is also perfect misdirection and renders the real clue much safer from detection.

The same trick can be done by reading a magazine, and appearing quite oblivious to the entrance of your confederate. The position of your right hand on the cover of the magazine tells him the position of the selected card.

Still another version which is a good variation to introduce if asked to perform the trick several times, is to pull out a pencil and tap the cards on the table and ask your confederate to name the right one. To make the trick more impressive, ask a spectator to tell you which cards to tap, and in what order. You merely tap each card once, and yet your assistant knows the correct card. Merely tap the first card in the part of it corresponding to the position of the chosen card: If it is the centre card, tap the first card in the centre. He then knows the card and can reveal it after the third or fourth card is tapped.

Book Mind-reading

The Effect: Have your assistant blindfolded and ask him to sit on a chair in the centre of the room. Then take a book from the table or bookshelf, and a namecard or other small white card, over to a spectator. Give him the card arid ask him to insert it anywhere in the book. The book is then opened at the page where the card was inserted and the assistant is asked to name the number of the page, and if possible the first few words on the page, which he does after a moment's concentration.

The Cause: Previously agree with your assistant which page is to be used. Place a small white card in the book at that page. When you take the book to the audience, you hold it so that the secretly inserted card is nearest your body and invisible to the audience. After the spectator inserts his card you turn away for a moment, facing your blindfolded assistant. At this moment you reverse the book so that your card faces the audience and the spectator's invisible. Shove the spectator's card all the way in. Now when you open the book in front of the audience to the page where the card is inserted it is the page of which the number and first few words are known to your assistant.

Mind-reading the Dictionary

The Effect: This is one of the most impressive of all mind-reading tricks. Give ten small identical pieces of paper to various members of the audience. Ask them to write down any number under 300. These are collected, folded and placed in a tumbler. Do the same thing with ten other pieces of paper and ask that these may have any number under 50 written on them. Have these folded and collected and placed in a hat or other receptacle on the table. The magician then asks one spectator to draw a slip out of the glass and another to withdraw one from the hat, and to read their numbers aloud. As soon as this is done, the magician or his assistant writes something on a piece of paper and gives it, folded, to another spectator to hold. Then, taking the dictionary, he asks the audience to open it at the page corresponding to the larger number withdrawn, and to locate the word corresponding to the smaller number. When this word is read aloud, the magician asks that the piece of paper, on which he wrote his prophecy be unfolded. Of course it contains the same word.

The Cause: Before the performance, write a number over 100 on ten pieces of paper, and a smaller number on ten other pieces of paper. These should be identical with the papers you are going to distribute later. Have these folded and, placing rubber bands around them place them in your coat pockets. As you gather the first group of papers from the audience, exchange it for one of your groups and place it in the glass, minus the rubber band, of course. Do the same thing with the other papers and the other group. Now you can allow any member of the audience to select a paper freely from the hat and the glass, as you already know what word in the dictionary will be indicated.

More Complex Codes

As we have seen, it is possible for the performer to transmit many thoughts to his assistant or medium by either spoken or silent cues. These codes may be as complicated as. you wish. The more complicated the code, the longer it takes the team to acquire mastery. By the same token, however, the more complicated the code, the greater the list of objects it can identify and the greater the detail. Most spoken codes consist of assigning a short phrase to each letter of the alphabet, and to the numbers from one to ten. These phrases should all be ones that are normal and natural to say under the circumstances. For example, the letter "e" is the most common, so the word 'please', also very common, could represent it. Similarly "now" could stand for "a", "tell" for "s" and so forth. Words like "but" and "next", and "more" could stand for one, two of three. With a little thought, you and your assistant can work out a list of thirty-six common and normal key words or phrases that would represent the letters of the alphabet and the ten numbers.

In addition to this, it is well to agree on many abbreviations for most common objects likely to be presented as 'tests of the medium's powers. For instance "p" would be "pen" and "pi" would be "pencil". "Kn" is sufficient for "knife" and "go" would indicate "gold". With a list such as this and an intelligent use of abbreviations, the magician can have the members of the audience give him almost any object in their possession and he can transmit that knowledge to the medium by natural words and phrases. Much practice is necessary before this system works smoothly, but when you have achieved mastery, you will certainly be able to entertain and mystify large audiences.

After much experience with the code, it is possible to allow the members of the audience to ask the questions directly of the medium. This is always most amazing, as it seems that no possible hint could have been given by the performer to his assistant. The cue in this instance appears in the words addressed to the spectator such as "please tell her now yourself". This sentence could contain three key letters which would be enough to identify most objects. The spectators should not be permitted to ask all the questions. The mere fact that they are allowed to ask an occasional one is sufficient to impress them with the apparent sympathetic relationship between their minds and the medium.

A Memorized Order of Objects

Another form of spoken code that seems to belie the fact that there is any code, makes use of a previously memorized list of fifteen or twenty most common objects that would be found among an average audience. The magician goes rapidly through the audience asking them to hold up the objects they want identified. He selects the ones he wishes in the order agreed upon by himself and the medium. This way he need say nothing more than "What is this?" and he always says the same thing. Since he never changes his question or his tone of voice, the audience assumes there can be no code, and it is truly a feat of telepathy or mind-reading they are witnessing.

Silent Code

Although the example just above, reduces the verbal code to almost no code at all, it is still not as satisfactory in its effect as a completely silent code. Many such codes have been worked out, and the simple ones listed earlier with the various positions of the thumb on the deck or magazine are examples. Of the more complex silent codes the two most popular are the "eye" code and the "finger' code.

The "eye" code consists of assigning a number from one to ten of different combinations of positions of the head and eyes. For example, holding the head straight forward with the eyes to the left is 'one', and with the eyes to the right is 'two'. By moving the eyes up and down, and by turning the head to the left or right, completely normal moves of both can be given numerical values. Once the ten numbers are identified the letter of the alphabet can be expressed numerically. So can anything else if enough preparation is done. By a combination of numerical equivalents for letters and intelligent use of abbreviations, a whole story can be told by head and eye movements with never a word spoken. When this trick is done from a stage another assistant is usually placed behind a curtain near the medium. He has a powerful telescope with which to read the expressions of the performer in the audience and he then whispers the correct letter to the medium.

The finger code is frequently used in large rooms or theatres. In this system, the name or object to be identified is written on a large piece of cardboard in a pre-determined order. Then either the order or the necessary letters may be indicated by the position of the fingers on the back of the cardboard. As an example, one, two, three or four fingers on the back of the card low down may mean 1, 2, 3, or 4. Higher up they may mean, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Fingers apart may mean 9; fingers at the top 10 and fingers at the bottom may be the neutral or meaningless position.

These codes may be used in a great variety of ways. From the examples you may devise other codes. Much practice is necessary for a smooth working of the code between you and your assistant. Memory plays an important role in the use of codes. One famous American team of mind-readers had a system of codes employing over 1,000 different code words. With this system they could express anything, no matter how unusual.

Physical Telepathy

There is one other field of mind-reading which has a growing following at the present time. It comes closer to being truly telepathic and mental than any of the others. In this phenomenon an object is hidden somewhere in a room unknown to the performer. He then grasps the wrist of a member of the audience, and the spectator unwittingly guides the performer to the hidden object. Or a certain word in a book is selected, and the spectator unerringly guides the magician to the proper word without meaning to. Some forms of this trick stagger the imagination, and yet they are possible for you to do with little or no practice. For instance, one performer located a certain word, in a certain book in a strange house, on a strange street in a strange town - while blindfolded - merely by holding the wrist of a man who knew where the word was located. This took several hours, but the important fact is that it was done, not how long it took. Another variation of this trick is to have the letters of the alphabet printed on a large chart. Have the audience select a certain word. By grasping the wrist of a member of the audience the magician, can successfully point out the individual letters and finally the word on the chart. In other versions a series of errands or deeds are planned for the performer. He knows nothing of any of these and yet performs them all, exactly as planned.

The secret of this lies in the physical contact established between the performer and a member of the audience. With a little practice and training you will learn to recognize the involuntary muscular movements made by your guide as you do well or poorly on your search for the missing word or object. The only conditions to be observed by the guide are that he must in all fairness, continue to concentrate on the hiding place, or the series of deeds expected of the magician. If the trick is to learn a certain word from letters on a chart, the magician taking the subject's wrist, rapidly hovers over one letter after the other, telling him to concentration the first letter of the word. The magician will easily recognize a pull when the right letter is reached. And so on for all the others. The trick may be done just as easily by having the spectator hold firmly to your wrist. If you are to locate someone in the audience, have the guide grasp your wrist and immediately dash rapidly back and forth in the audience. The faster you move, the stronger will his reaction be. Actually, he will want you to succeed and will be unable to prevent his giving you certain muscular signals during the search.

Some performers have developed their skill at this so well that they can dispense with the physical contact, and can accomplish the same thing by merely having the guide stay near the performer at all times. The magician observes everything about the guide, his eyes, his hands, his feet, his posture, his voice, etc. These are all guides to the trained eye. Much fun can be had with the development of this skill and since it contains less trickery than any other form of mind-reading, it is highly recommended as a worthy subject for your extra hours of practice.


The article above was taken from Barry Robbin's booklet "Everybody's Book of Magic Tricks" (P.M. Productions Ltd., London and Letchworth).


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