In the 1980s and ’90s, magic duo Penn & Teller earned a reputation for giving away the secrets of magic tricks, becoming known as the Bad Boys of Magic. They would even perform some tricks using clear props that revealed how they were done. But the truth is that Penn & Teller’s reveals were fairly tame, and to this day they still impress with tricks that they keep secret, like their famous take on the magic bullet catch.
But nearly 100 years before Penn & Teller were revealing the secrets of magic, Henry Hatton and Adrian Plate revealed magic secrets in the pages of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. And wouldn’t you know that one trick they revealed is the secret of the bullet catch! Penn & Teller may not do it this way, but here’s what Hatton had to say about his version of the trick, and one night when things didn’t go exactly as planned:
“One night I had announced on my programme, ‘A Modern William Tell,’ the fanciful name for a startling pistol trick. In this the performer allows one of the audience to load a duelling pistol with powder and ball and then to fire at the performer, who is supposed to catch the marked ball in his teeth. In doing the trick the performer slips into the muzzle of the pistol a sort of thimble, and it is into it that the unsuspecting voluntary assistant drops the bullet. By a deft movement this thimble is afterward removed, thereby giving the performer possession of the ball. Not many attempt the trick, for more than once it has led to fatal results when the man who loads the pistol either through ignorance or malice manages to get the bullet into the pistol barrel. The result is that he who exhibits the trick must watch every move made. On the night in question my attention was called away for a second, and when I attempted to remove the thimble I discovered that it was not in the pistol. Whether or not the bullet was in the barrel I did not know. What was I to do? I had only one life, and as for that I had an undying love I was averse to risking it. There was no time for hesitation, so walking to the footlights with the effrontery that is a factor in ‘the profession,’ I addressed the audience: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ I said. ‘I cannot go on with this part of my programme. Something wrong has happened, and should I continue you undoubtedly would see in to-morrow’s papers: “Bullet-in Hatton Killed While Attempting a Trick.” Would you believe it the generous audience received this statement with as much applause as if I had performed the trick successfully?”
When I read that, I thought it was a lame and anticlimactic way to end the trick. Isn’t there an old saying that the show must go on? Shouldn’t he have figured something out? I’ll bet Penn and Teller would have figured out a way to do the trick. But then I remembered an episode of Penn Jillette’s short-lived 2006 radio show where he says:
The show must go on. Stupidest rule ever made, the show must go on. If there’s one thing that doesn’t need to go on, it’s a show. Last night, 800 people, a thousand people, had come to see the Penn and Teller show. If there had been an announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, Penn Jilette is sick. Why don’t you all go home?” the worst thing that happens, the horrible nightmare that happens is that these people go out and probably have dinner together, maybe go back to the hotel a little earlier and screw. I mean, that is the nightmare. The nightmare is they don’t get to see Penn and Teller catch a bullet in their teeth and do the show. It’s a really good show. I’m proud of it. I love it. But compared to spending time with someone you love, no big deal, ya know?
Yeah, I guess aborting the trick was better than getting shot in the face. Okay, Hatton. You’re off the hook.
MAGICIANS TELL THE SECRET OF FAMOUS TRICKS: Henry Hatton and Adrian Plate Give Some of Their Methods and Experiences in the Art of Mystifying the Public. (PDF)
From October 23, 1910