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The Life & Magic of Stewart James (1908-1996)


“Spell of Mystery” (1929)

Mother was against magic completely, and although my paternal grandfather had made apparatus for individual magicians, and so had Father to a much lesser degree, he didn’t like me fooling around wasting my time on magic.  So a deck of cards was a natural thing to work with secretly.

— Stewart James

Three years after “A Match for Gravity” appeared in The Linking Ring, Stewart James’ independently marketed his first card trick ever: “Spell of Mystery.”  The young magician spent countless hours with decks of cards in constant search for principles similar to those which made his deceptive rope effects possible.  As the above quote illustrates, a deck of playing cards was a priceless tool.  Because they are small, portable, and standard props used by magicians, cards allowed James to practice his favorite art in a clandestine manner.  Aside from being a reliable source of escape in his parent’s authoritarian household, the trick “plots” he authored using cards each became intimate parts of his life. 

“Spell of Mystery” is exceptional in that it clearly reveals the emotional connection Stewart James had with his material.  The way he describes the marketing of this particular effect makes it sound like a cherished member of the family: “This was the first card trick of mine to go into the world, although by this time I had given birth to others” (ES 11).  The father/son or creator/creation relationship expressed in his own words will become a recurring theme in this exploration of the Canadian magician’s life.  Unlike most practitioners, Stewart James brought more than just a few innovative card tricks into existence.  And by increasing the population of certain types of card routines in the magic world, he has, with the help of many others, breathed new life into at least one significant category of card magic: cyclic stack tricks.

The method used to create the “Spell of Mystery” effect is a groundbreaking exploration of how the ordering of 52 playing cards can be manipulated to produce mathematical miracles.  Though a detailed  discussion of the underlying principle can be read in the Principles Pages of this web exhibition, the basic trick can be described as follows: 

  1. A spectator cuts the cards, completes the cut and then deals two cards face-up onto the table – a Two and then a Heart for example. 
  2. The spectator then deals one card per letter, spelling T.W.O. O.F. H.E.A.R.T.S. 
  3. The last card dealt is turned over to reveal none other than the Two of Hearts!

Though “spell-a-card” tricks represent a popular category in card magic, the above routine capitalizes upon the relationship between numbers, the letters composing the names of each playing card, and the potential of a stacked deck in a highly novel way.  Therefore, it makes sense that other magicians, such as Nick Trost and Phil Goldstein, developed other effects inspired by “Spell of Mystery” after its release (ES 11). 

Original thinking naturally attracts further experimentation in the magic community and often spawns many adaptations of the same trick.  In this sense, and in many others, Stewart James’ first mainstream card trick was a big success.  Six years later, his knack for unearthing the spectacular and mysterious properties within a deck of playing cards led to a truly magnificent discovery: the “Miraskillprinciple.




Copyright © 2007 Joe Culpepper and Magicana. All rights reserved.