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


“Gobak Card” (c.1943)

Card tricks can literally save lives.  This dark yet redemptive story of how Stewart James created the “Gobak Card Mystery” during a moment of desperation proves how a simple deck of cards can transform into a refuge for the mind and soul.  The effect is also a testament to the way in which magic and James’ life are inseparable.  Even in his darkest hours, his study of the art was a constant and dependable source of solace.  

Though he worked on codes and ciphers at the beginning of WWII, the magician  soon found himself transferred to a touring theatre troupe, named The Haversacks, which provided much needed entertainment for the Canadian forces spread throughout Continental Europe.  The Haversacks had been unlucky enough to miss scheduled deliveries of rations and dry clothing for a period of several weeks, forcing them to live off of what could be found on the battlefield.  They sought shelter in a deserted monastery, which had recently been used as a German prison camp.  James recalls that the troupe became much more optimistic when they were instructed to perform at a public hall, which was miraculously still intact in a nearby village (ES 98).  However, while en route to the town, they received the tragic news that a bombing raid had destroyed both the theatre and any soldiers waiting there to see the show.  After their return to the gloomy monastery, James and his companions were disheartened and distraught:

I was in a tiny monk’s cell with a five-inch-square hole in the wall, high up as a window.  The lad with me was in a blue funk and had the twitches.  Originally we each had one of the cells to ourselves but one of the boys tried suicide and after that we had to stay in twos.  I took out my deck of cards and tried to forget conditions.  I think I would have flipped my lid if it hadn’t been for the cards, and it is a wonder that I was able to write anything that made sense.  (ES 98)

Similar to the way he was able to overcome the lonely ambience of his family’s home in Courtright, James occupied himself with the invention of a magic trick to escape the depressing reality of WWII.  The magician’s unusual ability to concentrate intensely upon the invention and a written description of what would later become the “Gobak Card Mystery” helped him maintain his sanity in a place where others were loosing their minds.  In conditions harsh enough to induce attempted suicide, he was able to persevere and to find a positive outlet. 

Another example of the intimate relationship between “Gobak Card Mystery” and Stewart James’ life is evidenced by the fact that the card routine almost never made it to print.  Just as some experiences are so traumatic that people actively avoid remembering them, this magic trick brought back such painful memories for its originator that he nearly forgot it completely:

I worked on it to take my mind off the position I was in, wrote it up in a letter and sent it to Francis Haxton.  I tried hard to forget the unhappy circumstances of its birth, and this caused me to more or less consciously shun it.  I did not even remember it when Haxton first worked it on me when I had returned to England, and I was fooled as to how he knew my card. (ES 98)

In the large family of Stewart James’ innovations, this card trick is the proverbial black sheep.  Notice how the above quotation refers to the routine as if it were a neglected child.  Fortunately for the magic community, Francis Haxton was an enthusiastic proponent of “Gobak Card Mystery.” He adopted the trick and it was published in the September issue of The Linking Ring in 1948.  If James had never written that letter, or if Haxton had not recognized the intrinsic value of the card effect, the world would have been denied a compelling trick and a fascinating personal story.  But the “Gobak Card Mystery” is just one example of how the fertile mind of this magician thrived despite rigid limitations or sparse environments.




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