For hundreds of years, magicians have been wowing audiences across the globe and making them believe in the impossible. From street corners to massive arenas, magic can be an intimate, close-up trick which impresses a small crowd or an audacious, death-defying spectacle that leaves thousands of people shaking their heads in disbelief.
Although stage magicians and illusionists have enjoyed varying levels of success and popularity over the years, it has always been one of the most inventive and interactive forms of performance art. While some of the people on this list are better known for performing acts of mentalism or escape artistry rather than traditional magic, they are all considered to be some of the best of magicians who ever lived.
Take a look below for our list of 10 of the best magicians to have ever lived.
1. The Great Lafayette
The life of The Great Lafayette was surrounded in intrigue and mystery. Born Sigmund Neuberger in Germany in 1871 and emigrating to the United States at a young age, he made a name for himself early in his magic career as an imitator of the great Chinese magician Ching Loo Foo. He became one of the highest-paid names on the vaudeville circuit and earned a reputation for his sleight of hand and quick-change routines.
In the early 1900s, Neuberger reincarnated himself as The Great Lafayette and became an almost overnight success in London. His “The Lion’s Bride” act (which he had been refining for years) was a 25-minute act with a grand finale which saw Lafayette wearing an animal skin and changing places with a caged lion. Just as the lion was about to pounce on the female assistant, Lafayette dropped his animal skin to reveal himself.
It was the best illusion many people had even seen and it scored Lafayette a ten year contract from the theatre with a yearly pay of £44,000, which made him the highest paid performer at the time. Even in death, Lafayette managed to perform one last great illusion. When a fire broke out in the theatre, Lafayette stayed in the burning building as he tried to save his black stallion. A charred body wearing an elaborate Turkish Pasha outfit was found the next day lying beside the dead horse and it was quickly identified as Lafayette.
However, two days later another corpse was found in the theatre dressed in exactly the same way as the first person but this body was wearing rings on each finger on the left hand. The rings identified the body as the real Lafayette (the first person they found was a double who Lafayette used in his show) and the magician had a huge elaborate funeral in Edinburgh.
2. “Magic Babe” Ning
When it comes to women working in magic, most typically play the role of the glamorous assistant to the more well-known male performer. Although this requires a tremendous amount of skill and training (talents which go almost completely unappreciated by most audiences), some women do manage to breakout as magicians in their own right.
‘Magic Babe’ Ning is one of the biggest names working in magic today, and she is known as much for her world-class skills as she is for her glamorous beauty. Ning chooses to completely reject stereotypes and she uses swords, fireballs and other dangerous weapons in her illusions instead of the more traditional flowers, umbrellas and silks which most audiences would expect from a female magician.
In collaboration with illusionist J C Sum, Ning has attempted several record-breaking acts. In 2009, the pair set a new record for performing the most grand illusions in 5 minutes and in 2013 they completed the first tandem straitjacket escape while suspended upside down from a burning rope.
3. Ricky Jay
Widely regarded as the master of card manipulation and sleight of hand, Ricky Jay has been performing as a magician for more than 50 years. Instead of huge showy illusions and death-defying acts, Jay often just relies on a deck of cards, a small table and his refined stage patter. Up until 2002, Jay held the world record for throwing a playing card the furthest distance and at the highest speed (190 feet at 90 miles per hour) and one of his most famous acts is throwing cards at a watermelon so they stick in the surface. A true expert of his craft, Jay is an enthusiastic student and mentor of magic and he performs lectures about the history of magic and its role in con artistry as well as being an actor, author and Hollywood consultant.
4. The Masked Magician
The Masked Magician caused a huge amount of controversy among the magic community during the late 90s. The Masked Magician was the star of a primetime TV show on FOX which was dedicated to revealing the biggest trade secrets of the industry. Set in a warehouse with no studio audience, the show stripped back some of the biggest tricks in magic and showed how they are performed and what really goes on behind the scenes.
The ‘truth’ behind many different card manipulations, big stage illusions and sleight of hand tricks were all revealed during the 18 episode run of the show. In the final episode, the Masked Magician revealed himself to be Val Valentino, a professional magician. Valentino explained that he made the show to encourage magicians to create “bigger and better illusions” and that the art of magic should be enjoyed by everyone. Of course, many professional magicians didn’t buy this and were rightfully angry about their trade-secrets being spilled because an unknown wanted to make a name for himself on his very own TV show.
After all, he didn’t need to unmask himself in the final episode. However, while it can be argued that Valentino didn’t have as great an impact as he believed he did (most of the illusions he revealed have been used for centuries and the real art is in the performance, not the trick itself), it can’t be denied that Valentino sparked a huge renewed interest in magic.
5. Criss Angel
Magic went through a dramatic change as it entered the 21st century. Many magicians wanted to reach a younger, contemporary audience and do away with tired and overused clichés. Although magic has always endured as a popular form of entertainment, it was hard for new magicians to break out of the mould and do something different with their performances.
Criss Angel was determined to make magic a more rock n roll. Good looking and frequently shirtless, Angel looks more like a rock star than a magician and his unique image helped make his TV show Mindfreak a break-out hit. Comfortable on stage performing grand illusions and on the street duping members of the public, Angel is known for giving traditional acts a shocking and creative modern twist.
While it’s true that many of his acts stray into ‘shock magic’ and he often make clear use of actors, props and inventive camera angles for the sake of eliciting a reaction from his audience or the general public (one of his most-watched clips online has him rip two ‘unsuspecting’ volunteers in half in the middle of a park before he switches their torsos around – something which is obviously impossible without lots of preparation), he is clearly a master showman and one of the most engrossing performers working in magic today.
6. Derren Brown
Magicians are burdened by the fact that modern audiences are much more informed and suspicious about what is really unfolding before their eyes. Of course, most audiences have known for centuries that what they are watching isn’t really ‘true magic’ being performed, but the modern Information Age means that it’s easier than ever to find out what it is that makes most tricks work.
While other magicians have combated this with bigger and more audacious illusions or crafty street performances, Derren Brown has used this knowledge to his advantage. Through the use of illusions, mentalism and even hypnosis, Brown dupes his audiences with very clever and deceptive misdirection. Brown dedicates considerable time in his stage shows explaining the techniques and psychology behind supposedly magical acts like mind-reading, subliminal suggestibility and cold reading.
With his playful, mischievous showmanship, it often feels like Brown is letting the audience in on something he really shouldn’t be divulging. However, despite discussing the many tricks of the trade and preparing his ‘victims’ with how they work, Brown still always manages to fool the audience.
It’s an ingenious, if very risky, way to lure in an audience and make them really question what they are seeing. Brown himself admits that he is “always honest about [his] dishonesty” but it’s very refreshing to see how such a sceptical approach can actually be more magical than the real thing.
7. David Blaine
Like Criss Angel, David Blaine was one of the leading figures in the modern renaissance of magic. However, while Angel has always retained the pomp and ceremony of the more traditional magicians (albeit in a very different way), Blaine’s showmanship went in a completely different direction. Showmanship may seem too grand a term for Blaine’s understated and even sometimes creepy performances, but this behaviour helped him cultivate a mysterious and always intriguing aura.
Blaine is best known for his ‘street magic’ and, although other magicians have tried their hand at this unique, guerrilla style of magic, none of have succeeded in the way Blaine has. It’s true that many of Blaine’s sleight of hand tricks and close-up illusions wouldn’t seem out of place in the act of a traditional, top-hat wearing magician. However, the key to Blaine’s success has always been his own weird brand of stage patter.
He approaches unsuspecting people, performs a trick with little fuss or theatricality and then leaves his impromptu audience baffled and scratching their heads. Blaine has spent the most recent part of his career performing feats of endurance which have little in common with magic or illusions.
Although his ‘character’ doesn’t translate as well to these large-scale stunts (after all, it’s not very exciting to see any person encased in a block of ice or stuck in a plastic box for days on end), Blaine still always manages to create a buzz of excitement with everything he does. Part mystical shaman and part viral sensation, David Blaine is a one of a kind magician.
8. David Copperfield
David Copperfield is the perfect embodiment of true showmanship. Although he has always balanced quite precariously on the fine line which separates master showman and cheesy performer, Copperfield is the undisputed king of magical spectacle. Copperfield achieved massive commercial success (his $800 million fortune makes him the most successful magician of all-time – he even owns his own string of islands) thanks to his ambitious stage shows and hugely popular television specials.
Making full use of his bevy of beautiful assistants, massively elaborate props, constantly running smoke machines and sweeping, cinematic musical score, the scale of Copperfield’s acts and illusions simply cannot be seen in any other stage show. Copperfield has performed jaw-dropping acts of escape, mind-boggling illusions and dangerous death-defying acts, but his crowning achievement has to be his 1983 TV special in which he made the Statue of Liberty disappear (ever the optimist, he has said that he wants to best this trick by making the moon disappear). Copperfield may be more glam rock than rock star, but there’s no denying that he is the best at what he does.
9. Penn And Teller
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes Penn & Teller so special. While it’s true that their shows have the well-rehearsed flow and energy of a refined stand-up routine, they still manage to entertain the audience in shocking and truly impressive ways. Although at first Teller’s long-standing refusal to speak seems like a gimmick and a jokey take on the traditional magician’s assistant (Teller is also usually the one who is at the brunt of most of the duo’s dangerous tricks), his performance is a truly essential part of the act.
Neither one of them is ever really relegated to the role of magician’s assistant and, like any great mime, Teller’s silence makes his performance all the more alluring and engaging. Of course, given Penn’s loud, brash stage patter, there really wouldn’t any room for another voice on stage anyway. The duo have been mixing magic and comedy for more than 30 years and they are able to deftly switch between very different types of tricks and illusions like a sketch show come to life. Some of their illusions are definitely not for the faint-hearted as over the years Penn has managed to saw through, drill into and even run over Teller (many of these acts use blood packs and squibs for full gory effect).
However, Penn & Teller also love to involve the audience in ways that are much more engaging than simply picking on volunteers to come on stage. When Penn & Teller reveal how their tricks are done, they create a shared dynamic between the performer and the audience so the performance can be admired rather than waiting for the pay-off.
The duo often walk the audience through a trick step by step, but they change the routine to something completely unexpected and absurd so that the audience is never quite sure what’s going on. It’s a different spin on how magicians like to pull back the curtain and it makes Penn & Teller a truly unique and creative magical duo.
10. Harry Houdini
There is simply no way to talk about the power and skill of magicians without paying tribute to Harry Houdini. The undisputed master of the craft, Harry Houdini is the father of modern magic. Born as Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, Houdini moved with his family to America at the age of 4. He showed a keen interest in performing during his childhood and he would often entertain crowds as a trapeze artist under the moniker Ehrich “Prince of the Air”.
Houdini began practicing magic in 1891 but he found little success with traditional card tricks. In 1899, he was taken under the wing of vaudeville manager Martin Beck who thought that Houdini’s real talents lay in escapology. Houdini honed his craft over the next decade and he was given the nickname the “Handcuff King”. Although he was perhaps best known for his sensational escapes from handcuffs, strait jackets and tanks of water (sometimes all three at once), Houdini was an adept showman who never failed to wow a crowd with his suspenseful, death-defying acts.
Sadly, Houdini’s career was brought to an abrupt end when a fan unexpectedly hit him several times in the abdomen and he suffered from a burst appendix (rumour has it that Houdini claimed that no blows to the stomach could hurt him but he didn’t have the time to brace himself before he received these fatal punches). Houdini has inspired countless magicians over the years and it’s hard to dispute his tremendous impact on the world of magic.