When dealing with folks who describe themselves as magicians, you’ll often find that they describe themselves as “conjurers” as well. In the collective imagination, the word conjuring evokes spells, incantations, and the summoning of spirits.
Interestingly, the origin of the word conjure actually comes from the Latin coniurare or conjūrāre, which means the act of forming conspiracy.
Dictionary.com word origin: C13: from Old French conjurer to plot, from Latin conjūrāre to swear together, form a conspiracy, from jūrāre to swear
Conjurers also have a long history of involvement in espionage. A fantastic example is England’s Nostradamus-analogue “John Dee”. Dee was a cryptologist and mystic who worked for Queen Elizabeth I in Francis Walshingham’s spy service. Although it is far from a confirmed fact, many people believe that Dee was an inspiration for the character of James Bond and that he signed his name ‘007’ in secret correspondences — symbolizing his role as the Queen’s “eyes” (00) followed by ‘lucky number’ 7.
Harry Houdini is another famous example of conjurer with a “spy story”. In the early 20th century, Houdini collaborated with several secret services, including the American, British, and Russian. (Houdini was notable not only as a magician but as an early ‘skeptic’ and ‘debunker’ of magic.)
Aleister Crowley was a famous black magician and may be most notable to modern audiences as the inspiration for Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley”. But he was also a British agent who used his magic as a cover for espionage.
Orson Welles practiced magic from a young age and Harry Houdini gave him personal lessons in “the art of conjuring” (see below @ 4:33). Apart from his famed directorial and acting career, Welles described himself as a “magician”. Without a doubt, Welles dabbled in conspiracy theory, and I believe him to have been a Russian influence agent based on his financial patronage from two known spies (Louis Dolivet and Michael Olian), proximity to the Cambridge Five spy ring, and figures like I.F. Stone, Ernest Hemingway, and Michael Straight.
Today, we also have other famous self-professed conjurers like James Randi (see 0:47)(who also calls himself a “trickster”, “cheat”, “and a charlatan” for good measure). Randi hearkens to the skeptical legacy of Harry Houdini and has brushed up against known intelligence operations. Like yours truly; Randi has played a major role in going after Nostradamus and debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. He is of course, perhaps best known for his efforts to debunk Uri Geller (who claims today to have been a CIA and Mossad agent).
Randi was featured in the biographical documentary “An Honest Liar” which was modeled on the Orson Welles film “F for Fake” (which is a hoax about hoaxes and a likely piece of Russian propaganda). The story behind the scenes of the charming deception in “An Honest Liar” is that Randi is married to a Venezuelan national who was detained by Federal authorities for identity theft and whose true identity has been relatively impossible to verify with certainty — and whose age has morphed across time in various news sources — from being as young as 18 to as old as 25 when he met Randi in a public library (making him at least 33-40 years younger than Randi). (Randi has been involved in other law enforcement investigations of pedophilia as well and was recorded on tape speaking explicitly with men who describe themselves as minors.)
While the Alvarez story didn’t break until 2011, a July 1995 Scientific American piece on Randi opened with the line “You communist pervert creep”, which might get closer to the truth than most people expect. It is clear the CIA had quite a bit of interest in Randi and his activities.
Just remember next time you hear the word “conjurer” that its very meaning comes from “conspiracy” and the legacy of the “conjuring spy” may still be a very real thing in the 21st century.
In any case, call me a skeptic of James Randi. Be careful as you watch these charming con-men — don’t believe what they say — look at what they do. They’re admitted “honest liars” after all.