DUNNINGERJoseph Dunninger was born in New York close to the turn of the centuryin 1892. A bit precocious, Joseph took to magic at the early age of five. This is most unusual since the rest of the family had no ties to magic at all: his

father was a textile manufacturer, his mother a housewife, one brother a painter and designer, the other a violinist. Regardless of that, his love for the art was cultivated early and encouraged by his parents, who were amused by the child's dexterity in simple tricks. Entirely self-taught, the very young Joseph proved to be quite prodigious, to the extent that his first professional show was performed when he was at the staggering age of seven before a Masonic Club in New York. He billed himself as "Master Joseph Dunninger, Child Magician." By the time he was sixteen, Dunninger was an adult magician with an enviable reputation and appeared for a year at Eden Musee in New York City. Even at this age, Dunninger ranked as one of the most prominent magicians of the time and he took to a vaudeville tour with the Keith-Orpheum Circuit.

During this tour, Dunninger developed the act of reading the minds of members of his audiences. This type of act had been done for years before Dunninger came along and used verbal coded messages sent from an assistant to the "mind-reader". Dunninger, as could be expected, did it differently: Dunninger used no assistants. In an act of inspired marketing, Dunninger offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove that he uses stooges, confederates, or assistants of any kind. Dunninger said on many occasions that he could raise the offer to $100,000, because no one would ever collect it; he didn't need assistance to read thoughts. With such an act, and such a challenge, Dunninger was soon headlining the circuit and was very much in demand for private performances. At seventeen, Dunninger was invited to perform at the home of Theodore Roosevelt and at the home of Thomas Edison. Both these men were avid admirers of Dunninger's work and mysticism in general. From these associations, Dunninger invented still more remarkable "experiments", as he referred to his effects. Dunninger was taking the magic world by storm at this point. His ability to read thoughts amazed Harry Houdini, and Howard Thurston spent a great deal of time and effort in a search for the secret of Dunninger's mental prowess. Inspired by Houdini and others, Dunninger took part in the war being waged by magicians against fraudulent mediums and mentalists.

Far from being entertainers, these frauds made their living by performing false seances and receiving payment for supposedly allowing the dead to speak from "the spirit world". In conjunction with Scientific American magazine and the Universal Council for Psychic Research, Dunninger offered $10,000 to any medium who could reproduce by psychic or supernatural means any physical phenomena that he could not reproduce by natural means or explain in materialistic terms. Dunninger also offered $10,000 to anyone who, with the aid of "the spirit world", could disclose the translation to secret coded messages entrusted to him by Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison. In addition, another $10,000 was offered to anyone who could introduce him to a real ghost.Challenges were very much part of Dunninger's act. His challenges ranged from blindfold driving tests to mental projection tests.

By far, the mental projection tests proved the most popular. During a challenge, he might recite the headline of a newspaper yet to be printed in another city, or he might project a thought into the mind of a person hundred of miles away. Dunninger learned from his association with Houdini, and, like Houdini, the stipulations to the challenge and the test conditions were agreed upon by Dunninger and the challengers before the event, which was touted in newspapers and marketing materials to a great extent and a wonderful effect. As to be expected, Dunninger kept his money. He also kept the challenges and tests, referred to as "brain-busters" in his act. They were so successful as to be instrumental in Dunninger's continued popularity. Time passed, and Dunninger became more and more in demand. Most of the largest vaudeville houses in the country hosted his shows. His act, with just himself performing, soon sported fifty performers, workers, and assistants. This new act, larger and more ponderous than anything he had done before, had Dunninger now presenting a full evening's entertainment which now included several varieties of illusions. It was claimed at the time that Dunninger had invented more illusions and apparatus than anyone of that day. Dunninger took the show to inspiring heights, performing all over the world.

He read the thoughts of kings and princes, popes and presidents. But his fame would grow to astounding heights with the start of commercial radio. When commercial radio started, Dunninger was the first paid entertainer to go on the air. On this show, Dunninger demonstrated hypnosis by radio. He then starred in a radio play as a psychic detective. Neither of these shows proved popular, however. When Dunninger returned to his specialty -- thought-reading -- things quickly changed. On September 12, 1943, Dunninger first broadcast as "Dunninger, The Master Mind". To say it was a huge success would be an understatement. Fan mail flooded broadcasting offices, tickets to the show were the most demanded of all. Dunninger had found his niche and made his mark on the world. When television started proving itself to be a popular form of entertainment, Dunninger was there. He altered his act to fit the format of a television show. Amazingly, his series appeared on all the networks at different times. In the 1940s, a poll showed that his voice was more recognizable than that of the President's. In addition to the radio shows and the television shows, Dunninger began appearing as a guest star on other popular shows. Because of his star-power, built on a foundation of popularity and associations with major stars of the time such as Lucille Ball and Milton Berle, he made appearances on Perry Como's radio shows and was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen and Johnny Carson.

As brilliant as he was at performing, Dunninger proved a genius in marketing himself. To keep himself in the public eye, he wrote articles for magazines for both laymen and magicians. Soon the Dunninger byline was carried in such popular magazines as Time, Life, Look, Reader's Digest, Vanity Fair, Science and Invention, True Detective, and Sphinx. Every article brought letters from readers, evoking more interest, and therefore more articles. And it all paid off. His books were bestsellers in weeks. He commanded huge sums for personal appearances. He packed theaters from coat to coast. At his peak, during the 1940s and 1950s, the public could not get enough of The Master Mind. Dunninger performing style was unique to the day in that he typically sat on a stool or in a chair with nothing more than a pad of paper and a pencil.

He would doodle while he called out names, initials, or numbers thought of by some member of his audience. When somebody identified the information as their own, Dunninger would spell out names, read social security numbers, or serial numbers from dollar bills. He would reveal word for word phrases merely written by a spectator. He usually concluded such a reading by asking "Are you thinking of the word 'amazing'? Is it in reference to me? Thank you very much". It's of note that Dunninger, perhaps because of his war against fraudulent mediums, never claimed supernatural or psychic powers in his thought-reading. He never even claimed to be a mind-reader. In performance, Dunninger referred to his ability as "telesthesia", an impression received by a sense organ, but not a usual sense organ, and sometimes received from a distance. He described the process simply: "You pick up a vivid impression from another mind and others follow or suggest themselves. But it isn't mind-reading; it is thought reading. When a series of such thought impressions come in fairly close in succession, it takes on the semblance of mind reading, though if you check back, you may find that you have added links of your own making, just as you might piece together the fragments of a dream to form a waking continuity" Dunninger was a master of his craft, possessed of a thorough knowledge of his art. When describing the necessary techniques for a successful blindfold drive, Dunninger noted, "Any competent performer should know how to size up a committee and handle them accordingly. Otherwise he shouldn't be posing as a mentalist."

While the extent of Dunninger's mental capabilities were always the subject of skeptical analysis, his capability to understand human reactions was beyond question. Dunninger operated on the assumption that people have a tendency to believe almost anything if they are so inclined. He was careful in the selection of participants in his tests and he employed a sort of mental misdirection; he suggested constraints on the tests he performed that seemed to prevent deception, but in reality allowed for it. He explained why one impromptu test worked so well: "I stressed as absolute precautions the very factors that were making the result possible." Dunninger considered mentalists halfway between magicians and mediums. "Some mentalists," he said, "rely greatly on magical methods while others attempt actual tests in ESP. However far the pendulum swings, a capable mentalist will come through with results that a dyed-in-the-wool magician could never touch, because a mentalist plays hunches and realizes how often they may come through " And a mentalist doesn't have to advertise perfect results; Dunninger himself only claimed 90% accuracy. He died in 1975. 

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