One of the Greatest Magicians of the 20th Century Was a Marianist Brother

When magicians are asked as to who qualifies as a Magician's Magician, the first name that comes up is Br. John Charles Hamman, S.M.

(photo: Image Credit: Hashir Milhan, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the performing arts, very few people actively dislike stage magic.

It's the principle reason I remain gainfully employed.

That, and my incredible humility.

You'll regularly find people who are bored with opera and flummoxed by modern dance, but what kind of misanthrope doesn't like a good card trick? Who doesn't want to see a bunny pulled out of a hat? Who doesn't gape at magicians, or magiciennes, who flagrantly disregard the very laws of physics and stunningly do the impossible?

But what about if you're already a magician, or magicienne, and are already privy to all of the arcane secrets of legerdemain? How can magic be entertaining? There are only so many ways to produce a bunny out of a hat. (There are exactly 32.)

Being a professional stage magician, I can assure everyone that it's exceedingly difficult to create magic tricks and still more difficult to find ones that confound other stage performers.

What do you do when you’ve already witnessed and figured out all the regular magicians' acts?

You seek out a Magician's Magician.

A Magician's Magician is a magus so skillful that his legerdemain remains a mystery even to the otherwise most experienced of stage performers. These people regularly amaze even the most jaded magician hoi polloi who've already "seen it all." It's the highest honor the magic community can bestow on one of its own.

After all, even we need to entertained.

When magicians are asked as to who qualifies as a Magician's Magician, the first name that comes up is Br. Hamman.

Most atheist magicians, and indeed any non-Catholic performer, are incredulous when they find that the standard by whom all card tricks are judged was not only a devout Catholic but, in fact, a consecrated brother.

He went by the stage name "Br. Hamman" but most magicians never make the connection that he was, in fact, an actual religious brother.

Br. John Charles Hamman, S.M. (September 3, 1927–December 5, 2000) was a Marianist Brother and professional close-up magician. The tricks he invented are still an integral part of every close-up magician's repertoire. Despite this, his first love was doing magic for his students.

Br. Hamman was well-known throughout the international magic community. His initial interest in the art started as a child. As he recuperated from polio, he spent many hours studying card tricks and other sleight-of-hand. In many cases, he accidentally "reinvented" classic legerdemain maneuvers or simplified them because he didn't have access to the appropriate magic books.

He was a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, the Catholic Magicians' Guild and the Society of American Magicians.

Br. Hamman created more than 100 card tricks throughout his life including the Hamman Count, a sleight-of-hand in which cards are falsely counted to give the impression that the magician holds more, or less, than he actually does. This is a standard by which the novice or master magician is judged even today.

He authored several books and videos on magic and was invited to many local, national and international level competitions and exhibitions including FISM (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques)―the "Olympics" of stage magic. No matter where he went, by far more famous magicians would fawn over him like star-struck groupies basking in the presence of this great entertainer hoping to see firsthand his prowess with a deck of cards. Professional magicians referred to Br. Hamman as the "Magical Marianist."

In 1981, Br. Hamman received a Creative Fellowship Award from the prestigious Academy of Magical Arts and Sciences also known as Hollywood's Magic Castle―the world's premiere magic venue. Magicians everywhere aspire to perform on its fabled stage. Extremely few of them are recognized for their accomplishments as Br. Hamman.

In 1995, Br. Hamman was the first living magician to be honored with the first St. Louis Magical Heritage Awards. Since then, it's become a "Hall of Fame" for local magicians. In his acceptance speech, Br. Hamman explained the key to a successful magic performance:

The object of magic is misdirection. Audiences are more apt to believe what they hear than what they see, and intelligent people are the easiest to fool because they don't expect me to use some childish gimmick to deceive them. On the other hand, children are hard to fool, because they watch closely and don't listen.

In 1998, Br. Hamman was the Convention Honoree at the Texas Association of Magicians Convention in San Antonio, Texas.

His first major publication was The Card Magic of Bro. John Hamman S.M., published by American magician Paul LePaul in 1958. In his foreword, LePaul wrote:

His manner is so disarming, and so casual, and his magic is so frustrating... Figuratively, he leads you down the garden path, until he gets you into exactly the spot he wants, and then he turns on the sprinkler.

It's amazing to think such a holy man of God could be capable of such entertaining deviousness and charming subterfuge.

Br. Hamman was also a skilled Gospel Magician. He frequently used his magic to teach some important aspect of Catholic catechism to his students.

It could be asked, what made Br. Hamman a "Magician's Magician." It's easy. It's because he understood what magic did in the mind of his audiences. Here's a view into the mind of a world-class performer from the Foreword of one of his books entitled, The Secrets of Brother John Hamman:

I have collected here those tricks and notions that I like, and audiences too. Some of my past material is included here, and some not, because I fell it is now dated or less effective. But what is here comprises a sweep of effects, magical, visual, and entertaining that should give you value for your efforts. Learn them in such a way that you understand them, why the effect is accomplished, not just how. Magic is in the mind of the spectator - not in your fingers. If you understand what the flimflam is doing to the spectator's imagination, you will magically entertain him. Sleights will not―it's the plot, the visual sting, and the performer. So study the scams that fit your personality, don't just memorize them. They work for me because they are me. Have fun.

In the Foreword to the classic magic text, Seven Deadly Miracles, magician Stephen Minch described Br. Hamman's magic:

His tricks are pure magic, his psychology cunning and his methods artistic. These elements multiply geometrically to create delightful entertainment and sweet mystery that is far greater than the pieces that go into the creation of the puzzle.

Br. Hamman was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to Godfrey and Olivia (née Ruoff) Hamman. He had an older brother and a younger sister. He and his siblings were educated by the Loretto Sisters (St. Luke Elementary School) and St. Joseph Sisters (St. Rose Grade School). When he graduated, he entered McBride High School in September, 1941.

Marianist Fr. John G. Leies was an important figure in young John's life as was his older brother Donald who was already a Marianist candidate. After speaking with them both, John decided to join the Marianists at Maryhurst in 1942. He took first vows at Marynook in Galesville, Wisconsin, on August 15, 1945. John took his final vows on July 10, 1951.

Br. Hamman earned a B.A. in Education from the University of Dayton in 1948 and an M.A. in English from St. Louis University in 1963. He began teaching English at Central Catholic Marianist High School in San Antonio in the fall of 1948. He later taught for two and a half years at St. Michael's High School in Chicago.

In January, 1952, he was assigned to DeAndreis High School in St. Louis for the spring semester and then at Coyle High School in Taunton, Massachusetts in August 1952.

In October, 1952, Br. Hamman contracted polio which confined him to a wheelchair.

He spent two years at Maryhurst recuperating.

Due to his illness, Br. Hamman had a very light teaching schedule. In 1954, he taught at St. Mary's High School for seven years. He returned to Central Catholic High School for a year before going to St. John Vianney High School in St. Louis, Missouri in 1965. He taught there until he retired in 1986.

In 1995, due to his declining health and congestive heart failure, he was assigned to the Marianist Residence in San Antonio, Texas.

In 1995 he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his religious profession as a Marianist.

When he died at the age of 73 at the St. Joseph Healthcare Center in San Antonio, Texas on Dec. 5, 2000, Br. Hamman had been a professed Marianist for 56 years.

The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Saturday, December 9, 2000. He is interred in the Marianist Cemetery on the campus of St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

After Br. Hamman's death, the Society of American Magicians Assembly in San Antonio was renamed "The Brother John Hamman Assembly" in his honor.

Br. Hamman had made major contributions to the art of stage magic and legerdemain with many classic sleights-of-hand and performance routines which, more often than not, bear his name.

He had an interesting stage presence which can best be described as deliberate. He facilely directed and engaged his audience making them focus on the trick at hand. This ability gave incredible impact to his performances. He influenced many magicians around the world for the past 60-years. Every magician knows the great Br. Hamman. Certainly the excellent ones do.

Br. Hamman's reputation amongst magicians is as firm and even reverential as the name "Houdini" is to non-magicians. His card tricks will never be forgotten because even if a better magician comes along, as will inevitably happen, that performer will be good only because he had mastered Br. Hamman's artistic and intellectual legacy.

Br. Hamman was an accomplished magician, prolific magic author and inventor. He was also a dedicated and much beloved teacher. But, most importantly, he loved Christ and a part of loving Christ means Br. Hamman put his God-given gifts to the service of others. Now his name is synonymous with exceptional magic. Magic that would surprise even a magician.