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John H. Percival Papers

Biographical note

John H. Percival was born in East Providence and developed an interest in the magical arts after seeing a magic show when he was a child. From the age of eight until his death at eighty-six, Percival remained active as an amateur magician, using the pseudonyms ‘Mysterious John’ or ‘Rene’ when he performed. The first trick Percival learned involved breaking a matchstick in two, wrapping the pieces inside a handkerchief and removing the matchstick whole at the conclusion of the trick. When not engaged at his day job with the New England Telephone Company Percival attended performances and magicians’ conventions, where he became acquainted with many 20th century magicians, including Harry Blackstone, Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini.

Percival acted as a ‘stooge’ for Houdini — a plant in the audience during the latter’s performance — during a few shows the legendary magician performed in Providence. When Houdini called upon an audience member to bring him a pair of handcuffs from which to escape it was Percival who provided the special cuffs. He also inspected the tank used by Houdini in his escape from the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In a 1963 interview with M-U-M, Percival remarked that he and Houdini got into an argument over the examination of the front bars of the tank, though whether this was a genuine tiff or merely acting for the benefit of the audience is not clear.

Percival was active as a magician for much of his life, appearing in clubs, lodges and churches, where he performed a variety of illusions, including escapes, but card tricks were his specialty. Though he would occasionally enlist his wife, Irene, as a partner during a mindreading act, Percival was mainly a solo artist, which could have its pitfalls. During what was doubtless a memorable performance at the Iroquois Theatre in East Greenwich disaster struck when a drop crashed down from the ceiling onto his carefully arranged prop table.

In addition to his role as a performer, Percival was an avid collector of magic books, periodicals and ephemera, amassing over 1,500 items during his lifetime. The book collection of over 1,200 items features volumes on magic tricks, ventriloquism, spiritualism and gambling. Items of particular interest include Will Goldston’s Exclusive Magical Secrets, which took Percival two years to find and is secured with a lock and key, Harry Houdini’s exposé of fraudulent spirit-mediums called A Magician Among the Spirits, a mystery novel by Clayton Rawson titled Death from a Top Hat and a practical guide to fortune-telling, Zancig’s New Complete Palmistry. In addition to his books, Percival also donated his collection of periodicals, catalogs, correspondence, photographs and manuscripts. Among Percival’s ephemera is an autograph book of magician’s signatures which he collected between 1916 and 1931 and his correspondence with H. Adrian Smith, whose own collection of magic books can be found at Brown University’s John Hay Library.