Magic Within the Military & the CIA
How many readers have heard of Battlefield Illusion? Some perhaps but I'd argue that unless you have a strong interest in military procedures, this term would not be known to you.
My next question is; how many of you have heard of the American, John Mulholland? Again, probably only an average percentage, since he appeared as a stage magician during the Cold War.
What about Harry Houdini? Ah .. now there is a name you did recognize, I'm sure.
John Mulholland was born in Chicago, Illinois and already made up his mind by age 5 that he wanted to become a magician. Later in life, he also became the editor of The Sphinx - the most prestigious magic magazine of it's time. It came as quite a shock to its subscribers when after 597 issues Mulholland wrote on June 29th, 1953:
John MulhollandThis is to inform you that as of June 1, 1953, the publication of The Sphinx has been suspended. The immediate cause is that my health does not permit me to do the necessary work. My Doctor orders me to confine my efforts at this time to the shows by which I earn my living.
Mulholland did suffer from various ailments, but these were not the true reason for the cessation of the journal - he had actually been recruited by the CIA. During this time he was exposed to an underworld that was utterly alien to him - drugs, espionage, covert operations - even mind control; not to mention the possibility of losing his life.
Two years before his resignation from The Sphinx the Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic bomb and the fear of global thermonuclear war was beginning to peak. In order to combat the wave of Russian wishful, world domination, the Central Intelligence Agency was formed.
At the time, the CIA got word that the Russian military could be using brainwashing methods as a new secret weapon.
Michael EdwardsAt show trials in Eastern Europe, dazed defendants had admitted to crimes they hadn’t committed. American prisoners of war, paraded before the press by their North Korean captors, “confessed” in Zombie-like fashion that the US was using chemical and biological warfare against them. When George Kennan, the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, made some inexplicably undiplomatic remarks at a press conference and was declared persona non grata by the Kremlin, American intelligence officials wondered if he had been hypnotized or drugged.
Richard Helms, the acting Deputy Director of the CIA wrote:
Richard HelmsFor example: we intend to investigate the development of a chemical material which causes a reversible non-toxic aberrant mental state, the specific nature of which can be reasonably well predicted for each individual. This material could potentially aid in discrediting individuals, eliciting information, implanting suggestion and other forms of mental control.
The CIA was indeed looking at a particular drug - not developing their own chemicals as yet - the drug was LSD or d-lysergic acid diethylamide - a powerful hallucinogenic.
This direction they were taking became one of the CIAs most closely guarded secrets - not even divulged to other parts of the Agency. His work included consultations with billionaires and inventors, cracking codes and also became part of the secret world of ESP research.
Another unit with which Mulholland interested himself, was headed by Sidney Gottlieb, a man with a PhD., in Chemistry, received from the California Institute of Technology. It was he who approached Mulholland (on behalf of the CIA) with an offer to join them.
He could really be the subject of an entirely new article.
Michael EdwardsGottlieb wanted Mulholland to teach intelligence operatives how to use the tools of the magician’s trade – sleight of hand and misdirection – to covertly administer drugs, chemicals and biological agents to unsuspecting victims.
Somehow, that still sounds like the CIA of today - let's face it, we really have no knowledge of what really goes on within their walls.
During this period, several other magicians were employed by various American government agencies to work under cover; Harry Houdini is the first that comes to mind. There is much to discover about this amazing man that I will cover in Part 2 of this article.
The other man was Jasper Maskelyne, another magician who worked undercover for the British government during World War II.
When asked why he would undertake such dangerous missions, Mulholland simply replied - because his government asked him to.
One of the many publications that he wrote, The Art of Illusion was printed small enough to fit into the top pocket of servicemen's shirts. This pleased him enormously. The Agency were very pleased in their choice of Mulholland. He was well respected as magic's most accomplished teacher and more importantly, he knew how to keep a secret.
Gottlieb's idea was for Mulholland to write an operations manual on "how to apply the magician's art to clandestine activities." After giving it some thought, the following is what Mulholland suggested for inclusion into the manual:
John MulhollandSupplying…background facts in order that a complete novice in the subject can appreciate the underlying reasons for the procedures suggested. Part of this background would clarify the erroneous opinions commonly held by those who are familiar with (magician’s techniques). In this section would be given alternative procedures, or modifications, needed by different types of operators (differences in fact or assumed), as well as changes in procedure needed as situations and circumstances vary. The material is necessary in order for the operator to be able to learn how to do those things which are required.
John MulhollandDetailed descriptions of (covert techniques) in all those operations outlined to me. Also variations of techniques according to whether material is in a solid, liquid or gaseous form. Included would be explanations of (the skills) required and how quickly to master such skills. It is understood that no manipulation will be suggested which requires (actions) not normally used, nor any necessitating long practice. [...]
John MulhollandA variety of examples to show in detail how to make use of the (techniques) previously described. These examples would be given with varying situations and the ways to accommodate procedure to meet variations
Gottlieb was thrilled with Mulholland's approach and was keen to begin as soon as possible. He outlined the following for Mulholland:
Sidney GottliebThe scope of this subproject is the collection, in the form of a concise manual, of as much pertinent information as possible in the fields of (magic as it relates to covert activities). The information collected will be pertinent to the problem of (surreptitiously administering) liquid, solid, or gaseous substances to (unknowing) subjects.
Sidney GottliebThe information will be collected principally from the previous studies made by Mr. Mulholland in connection with various problems he has considered. Mr. Mulholland seems well qualified to execute this study. He has been a successful (performer) of all forms of prestidigitation. He has made a careful and exhaustive study of the history of prestidigitation and is the possessor of an extensive library of old volumes in this field. He has further seriously studied the psychology of deception and has instructed graduate students...
And there you have it, (ta da!) the official indoctrination of John Mulholland into the CIA.
Sidney GottliebA variety of examples to show in detail how to make use of the (techniques) previously described. These examples would be given with varying situations and the ways to accommodate procedure to meet variations.
This project was to be known as Project MKULTRA., and became one of the most secretive operations of its time, with no known ties to the CIA or the government - even in the form of a written contract.
Of course, secrecy needed to be at the forefront of everything Mulholland would do for them. I found it somewhat creative that in order to protect the manuscript from the wrong hands -
There would be no references to “agents” or “operatives.” Instead, covert workers would be called “performers;” covert actions would simply be labeled “tricks.”
Further down the track, the CIA approved $700.00 over a period of six months for supplies needed to test or verify his ideas. He greatly worried that one of his tricks might go wrong during a covert operation and cost an agent his life. He worked hard and long to eliminate any such possiblities.
It became obvious to Mulholland as he worked, that the original 6 months he he had been given to complete the project was clearly not an informed deadline. After speaking with Gottlieb about his concerns, the latter authorized a further 6 months to ensure the best possible manual that Mulholland could produce.
As it turned out, neither the Agency or Mulholland were too thrilled with the outcome of the first draft. The manual was split into five sections:
John Mulholland1. Underlying bases for the successful performance of tricks and the background of the psychological principles by which they operate. 2. Tricks with pills. 3. Tricks with loose solids. 4. Tricks with liquids. 5. Tricks by which small objects may be obtained secretly. This section was not considered in my original outline and was suggested subsequently to me. I was, however, able to add it without necessitating extension of the number of weeks requested for the writing. Another completed task not noted in the outline was making models of such equipment as has been described in the manual.
Mulholland suggested further inclusions to the manual at an additional cost of $1800 to finish the project. Among other things, this included multiple operatives working together.
This article rests here but is not over by far:
Part 1 Mulholland
Part 2 Houdini and Bonaparte
Part 3 Battlefield Illusion
WARNING! Discretion advised: Children should not witness the following video!
References for all Parts:
U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Diversion Control
Drugs and Chemicals of Concern
d-lysergic acid diethylamide
John Mulholland's Secret Life
by Ben Robinson
CIA's Lost Magic Manual Resurfaces
by Noah Shactman
Vets Sue CIA Over Mind Control Tests
by Noah Shactman
Operation Midnight Climax
Smithsonian.com: Houdini Revealed
by Whitney Dangerfield
Other images of Houdini taken from Smithsonian.com and used in the article Houdini Revealed - Identified as having “no known copyright restrictions”
Some information (plus an image or two) was provided courtesy of MagicTricks.com
by Jackie Monticup Fair Use Policy