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The Sphinx

reviewed by Richard Hatch
Rating: ★★★★★ (Date Added: Saturday 03 December, 2005)

The SphinxA complete file of "The Sphinx" is probably the greatest single resource in English for research on 20th-century magic. From the first issue in March 1902 till the final one in March 1953, it documented the golden age of magic with a profusion of tricks, reviews, photos, playbills, tour routes, letters, and gossip. About four years ago, Christoph Wasshuber of Lybrary.com purchased a near-complete file of "The Sphinx" to scan the pages for this digital project. After he finished, about two years later, the 'digital facsimile edition' was released in 2003, and I received a copy. While the facsimile version came with a searchable index of articles (more on that in a moment), there is a huge difference between searching the index and searching the actual file. Searching the index would tell me every time 'Vernon,' for example, was mentioned in the title or as the author of an article or trick, but to find the many 'Vernon' references in the body of the text you need a version where the digital images have been subjected to high-resolution optical character recognition software, converting the images to reliably searchable text. Essentially, the facsimile edition was page, after page, after page of "The Sphinx" on two DVDs. It wasn't easy to use. This summer Lybrary.com completed and released a searchable version.

The product, "The Digital Sphinx", comes on two DVDs, organized into 54 PDF files, one for each volume, plus one for the index and one containing introductory essays by Wasshuber and Gabe Fajuri (both an expanded version of his March 2002 "Magic" article commemorating "The Sphinx" on its 100-year anniversary and a Power Point presentation he gave at that year's Yankee Magic Collectors' Weekend), and an article by magical scholar Bill Kuethe on "The Lore of The Sphinx", and another on longtime editor/publisher Dr. A. M. Wilson by his great granddaughter, Mary F. Syphus. The latter two were especially prepared for inclusion in "The Digital Sphinx" and have not been published elsewhere. There is also an html file with a hyperlinked version of the index, allowing you to jump to the article of interest by clicking on its indexed entry.

While you can access and search the DVDs themselves, Wasshuber recommends that you copy the files onto the hard-drive of your computer, which will both protect your DVDs and speed up access to the files.

Okay, let's give it a 'test drive': If we want to find the earliest reference to Dai Vernon, we don't want to miss possible references to him under his birth name of David W. Verner, so let's search for every time the consecutive letters 'vern' appear in "The Sphinx". As the search runs, you can see each 'hit' as the Adobe Acrobat reader finds them. Fortunately, you can view them in context without needing to jump to each entry, so it is easy to dismiss the numerous hits on 'Vernelo,' the first publisher of "The Sphinx," the vaudeville act 'Ziska and Vernon,' the ventriloquist Vernon, Harry Vernon of Glasgow, references to 'Mt. Vernon,' as well as any use of the terms 'cleverness,' 'government,' 'cavern,' and so on. When you do want to take a closer look at an entry, clicking on it takes you to the page on which it appears, and the search word is highlighted in context. Within a matter of minutes, we find on page 27 of the April 1916 issue (Volume 15, number 2, page 27, henceforth 15: 2: 27), under the heading 'Broadway Chatter' by 'One of the Boys,' the following quote from, 'Verner (fresh from Canada)': 'You're all a bunch of pessimists. The man with the goods will make good.' In the very next issue, our suspicion that this is indeed the 22-year-old Vernon is confirmed when we learn that 'Dav [sic] W. Verner' and his friend Cliff Greene were elected members of the Magicians' Club of New York on April 25th and showed the others 'some of their work, which is truly wonderful...Verner does second sight and mind reading with cards. He showed us several which are wonders.'

Vernon does not get mentioned again until nearly six years later, when the February 1922 issue notes the presence of 'D. W. Verner of Ottawa, Ontario' as one of 98 participants in Chicago's Houdini Night at the Crystal Room of the Great Northern Hotel, a post-performance celebration that began at 11:30 p.m. and did not disperse until 3 a.m. Could that have been when Vernon famously fooled Houdini?

His first entry as 'Vernon' comes a few months later, in the July issue (21: 5: 171), where Leslie Guest of Cincinnati reports: 'Vernon was in town for a few days recently, and those of the boys who called on him saw some card work that smacked of black magic.' The next issue notes the presence of 'Dallas [sic] W. Vernon, pasteboard expert and magical enthusiast of Ottawa, Canada' at a show in New York City (21: 6: 206). A few pages later in that same issue (21: 6: 211), Leslie Guest reports that he and Stewart Judah had 'each showed some of the card mysteries entrusted to them by Vernon on his recent visit' at the July 11th meeting of the Queen City Mystics.

One of the pleasures of such browsing is finding things you weren't looking for. Just above this last mention is a notice of Blackstone performances in Holyoke, Massachusetts on July 13-15, at which 1,000 people were turned away at each performance. The reviewer notes that, 'Adding the horse to his Ku Klux illusion is sure marvelous.' Does anyone know the nature of that illusion?

Well, we could go on with the many increasing Vernon references, but you get the idea. I literally spent the entire first weekend I had this finding the answers to many things that had long puzzled me, while opening many new avenues for further exploration. Obviously, the same kind of search can be done on Houdini, Kellar, Drs. Elliott, or Daley, Thurston, Blackstone, Malini, etc., or on a particular trick or sleight. The possibilities are literally limited only by one's interests and imagination.

In order to access "The Digital Sphinx," you need a computer with a DVD drive, AcrobatReader 6.0 (available as a free download), and nine gigabytes of space if you want to copy it to your hard drive. Because of its large size, searching the complete file is not instantaneous, and the time will vary greatly depending on the search parameters and the capacity of your computer. I conducted my test drive on an ancient three-year-old home computer and the initial search took nearly three hours to find the 2,538 occurrences of 'vern' in all 54 PDF files. Wasshuber, with a newer, faster computer, can search his 'entire digital library' in just 25 minutes, 20 of which he estimates are due to "The Sphinx." He has a number of recommendations for streamlining searches, such as increasing the size of the Acrobat cache setting, which will speed up subsequent searches, or using one of the emerging third-party desktop search utilities, many of which are available as free downloads and are rapidly improving their indexing capabilities. Adobe Professional (as opposed to the free download) also has an indexing capability, he says, which would make searches virtually instantaneous.

Wasshuber estimates that he and his staff spent 3,000 hours preparing this product, the equivalent of nearly a year and a half of 40-hour work weeks, so he will have to sell quite a few of these at this price to get a decent return on his investment. I hope he does, because this is a terrific product for anyone interested in magic history.

For those who already have a file of "The Sphinx" and just want an index to facilitate their non-digital searching, Lybrary.com's PDF file index to "The Sphinx" is available as a stand alone product, either as a download or on a CD for just $20. The index has nearly 14,000 entries covering tricks (indexed by category), articles (with the exception of monthly columns of local news, such as club reports), obituaries, and even photographs (indexed by caption). This file alone runs 540 pages and is a fantastic resource as well as a way to find out what is available on the complete file. Quick searches on it (each took less than a minute on my computer) produced 29 hits for 'Vernon,' but just 21 on the complete word 'Dai' (to eliminate hits for 'daily,' for example). Given the hundreds of hours Wasshuber estimates it took to prepare the index alone and the fact that the $20 is applicable toward later purchase of the complete file should one decide to upgrade, this is an outstanding value.

[With permission from Magic Magazine, September 2005, p. 38-39. While Magic Magazine does not rate products, Richard Hatch personally gave the five star rating below.]

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