John Mulholland (1898-1970) was an American magician, author, and illustrator who is best known for his work in the field of magic and his contributions to the history of American Intelligence. He began his career as a magician in the 1920s and went on to become one of the most respected and influential figures in the world of magic.
He was also a member of the Society of American Magicians founded by Harry Houdini in 1902. However, his name has become associated with a controversial chapter in American history due to his work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Early Life and Career
John Mulholland (born John Wickizer) was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 9, 1898. His family moved to New York City when he was a child, and it was there that he developed an interest in magic. He began performing magic shows at the age of 12 and went on to study under some of the most prominent magicians of his time.
In the 1920s, Mulholland began performing professionally and quickly gained a reputation as one of the most skilled and innovative magicians of his generation. He was known for his ability to blend traditional magic techniques with modern technology and was particularly adept at creating new illusions and effects.
Throughout his career, John Mulholland was involved in many important events and projects in the world of magic. Some of his career highlights include:
The Society of American Magicians
Mulholland was a member of the Society of American Magicians, which was established in 1902. He was instrumental in promoting the art of magic and establishing high standards of professionalism and ethics among magicians.
The Houdini Séances
Mulholland was a close friend of Harry Houdini and is reportedly said to have been part of the Houdini Séances held each Halloween after the death of the famous magician in 1926.
Mulholland was the editor of the magical trade magazine The Sphinx from 1930 until 1953 when he left his position due to ‘health problems’. In reality, it was a cover for him to work for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Mulholland was also a member of The Inner Magic Circle, a prestigious organization of magicians based in London. He was the first American to be awarded the organization’s highest honour, the Maskelyne Award, in 1960.
He was also a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians as well as the Society of American Magicians.
A Prolific Writer
Between 1925 and 1967, John Mulholland wrote and illustrated 13 books of Magic including “John Mulholland’s Book of Magic,” which was first published in 1963. The book was widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive and authoritative guides to magic ever written and was used as a textbook by many aspiring magicians.
However, he is best known for “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception”, which is based on the two training manuals Mulholland prepared as part of his contract with the CIA. These manuals were “Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception” and “Recognition Signals.”
He also wrote at least two articles for the famous American magazine Popular Science (currently known as Popsci), exposing the tricks of fraudulent spiritualist mediums, and showing scepticism for flying saucers and UFOs.
Mulholland was also a prolific collaborator and wrote many articles for The Journal of Necromantic Numismatics.
The Magician Turned CIA Asset
During the early years of the Cold War, the CIA was interested in developing techniques for covert operations that would involve deception and misdirection. One of the agency’s ideas was to use magicians and other stage performers to create illusions that could distract and confuse the enemy. In 1953, the CIA recruited Mulholland to help them develop such techniques.
Mulholland was an ideal candidate for the job. Not only was he an accomplished magician, but he was also a loyal American who had served in the Army during World War II. He was also known for his discretion and his ability to keep secrets. The CIA approached him with an offer to work as a consultant on a project codenamed MK-Ultra.
Project MK-ULTRA, a sister project of Project Artichoke and Project Bluebird, was a top-secret CIA program that was designed to explore the use of mind-altering drugs, hypnosis, and other techniques for interrogation and other covert operations. Mulholland was asked to provide advice on how to use magic tricks to create illusions that could be used in these operations. He was also asked to help develop a manual that would train CIA agents in the use of these techniques.
Mulholland took on the job and began working with the agency on a series of experiments. He worked closely with a CIA psychologist named Morse Allen, who was responsible for overseeing the MK-Ultra program. Together, they explored the use of various magic tricks and illusions, such as sleight of hand, misdirection, and stagecraft, to create the appearance of supernatural abilities and psychic phenomena.
One of the key goals of the MK-Ultra program was to develop techniques that could be used to extract information from enemy agents without their knowledge. To this end, Mulholland and Allen developed a technique that they called “the artichoke technique.” This involved using hypnosis and other techniques to create a false memory in the subject’s mind. The subject would then be questioned about the false memory, and the interrogator would use the subject’s reactions to gauge the truthfulness of their answers.
Mulholland also helped to develop a manual that was used to train CIA agents in the use of these techniques. The manual, titled “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception,” was a classified document that was not declassified until the 1990s. It contained detailed instructions on how to use magic tricks and illusions to create false impressions, distract and confuse enemies, and extract information.
“This book, created from two long-lost training guides designed to teach Agency officers how to integrate elements of the magician’s craft into clandestine operations, revealed that the CIA’s connection to the world of magic was decades old.” Source: CIA
The manual was based on Mulholland’s extensive knowledge of magic and deception and contained detailed instructions on how to use magic techniques to deceive and misdirect enemies. It was an important contribution to the field of intelligence and is still studied by intelligence agencies around the world today.
The manual also contained a number of case studies that described how these techniques had been used in real-world situations. For example, one case study described how a CIA agent had used a magic trick to distract a Soviet agent while he photographed a secret document. Another case study described how a magician had been used to create the impression that an American POW had psychic powers.
“In 1973, when then-CIA Director Richard Helms ordered the destruction of all documents associated with the MKULTRA program, the manuals were thought to be gone forever. Then, in 2007 while going through some unrelated documents, Robert Wallace, a former director of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services, discovered references to the manuals and tracked down poor-quality copies of each that had somehow escaped the shredder.” Source: CIA
Mulholland’s involvement in the MK-Ultra program and the development of the manual of trickery and deception showed how magic could be used as a tool of deception and misdirection in the world of espionage. His contributions have been recognized as important in the development of covert operations and in the history of American intelligence.
However, his involvement in these activities was also controversial and raised questions about the role of magic in society. Some people felt that his work had undermined the integrity of magic and had betrayed the trust of fellow magicians. Others felt that it had been an important contribution to national security.
John Mulholland’s legacy as a magician and a pioneer in the world of magic is a lasting one. He was a talented performer, author, and illustrator who made important contributions to the art and science of magic. He was also a patriot who used his knowledge and skills to serve his country during a time of great uncertainty and danger.
Mulholland’s work for the CIA was controversial, and he was criticized by some members of the magic community for his involvement. Some felt that he had betrayed the trust of his fellow magicians by sharing their secrets with the CIA. Others felt that his involvement had tarnished the image of magic and made it seem like a tool of espionage.
Despite the controversy, Mulholland remained loyal to the CIA and continued to work with them until his death in 1970. His contributions to the MK-Ultra program and the development of the manual of trickery and deception have been recognized as important contributions to the history of espionage and the development of covert operations.
Although his involvement with the CIA and the MK-Ultra program has been controversial, there is no denying that his contributions to the development of covert operations and intelligence-gathering techniques were important and significant. He was one of the few magicians who was able to use his skills and knowledge to serve his country during a time of great uncertainty and danger.
In the end, John Mulholland’s legacy as a magician and a patriot remains a complex and nuanced one. He was a man who used his skills and knowledge to serve his country during a time of great uncertainty and danger. He was also a man who faced criticism and controversy for his involvement in activities that blurred the lines between magic and espionage.
His legacy as a magician and an innovator in the field of magic continues to inspire and influence magicians around the world today.
4 thoughts on “John Mulholland: The 20th Century Magician Turned CIA Asset”
interesting article and amazing story of John Mulholland. how he was able use his skills and knowledge to serve his country during that time for me this kind film material. hope someday there will be movie about him with god script and good actor who can wake up the character of John Mulholland .
He was a magician who had skills and used whatever he knew to create this image for himself.
A man who served his country and faced up to the criticism and a controversial life he had at that time.
The great life he had encouraged other magicians in this modern day.
I liked the review, well written. It is always good to know about magicians and their beginnings, as always, the relationship with Houdini is undeniable. It was interesting to know about Mulholland’s relationship with the CIA, it never ceases to amaze what the war leaves and everything that countries try.
l liked the review, well written. It is always good to know about magicians and their beginnings, as always, the relationship with Houdini is undeniable. It was interesting to know about Mulholland’s relationship with the CIA, it never ceases to amaze what the war leaves and everything that countries try.