A Magical Libel

Washington Irving Bishop (1855 – 1889) was an American thought-reader who used to amaze his audiences with impressive demonstrations of mentalism and his marvellous feats of prediction.

However, in 1885, he failed to predict that an article he had written in 1883, in which he attacked English Magician John Nevil Maskelyn (1839 – 1917), would result in an action for libel being brought against him by the affronted conjurer.

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, covered the story in its edition of Friday, 16th January, 1885:-


“In the Middlesex Sheriffs’ Court yesterday before Mr. Under Sheriff Burchell and a jury, the case of Maskelyne v. Bishop came up for hearing.

It was an action brought Mr. John Neville Maskelyne, the lessee of the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London, against Mr. Washington Irving Bishop for publishing in July, 1883, a libel contained in a paper entitled The Truth.

Mr. Murphy, Q.C. (with whom was Mr. Breton), in opening the case for the plaintiff, who, along with Mr. Cooke, had for many years conducted, in the Egyptian Hall, public entertainment, said that his client had been most scandalously and cruelly attacked by the defendant, Mr. Washington Irving Bishop, the well-known thought-reader, in an article inserted by him in a publication named The Truth, issued by the defendant as a facsimile of Mr. Labouchere’s paper, and circulated in London and the provinces, wherever the plaintiff gave an entertainment.

A photo of John Nevil Maskelyne.s
John Nevil Maskelyne


The animus for this proceeding was explained by the fact that Mr. Maskelyne, shortly after the defendant had appeared in this country and professed to be able to perform many wonderful feats, such as the discovery of pins and other minute articles, no matter where hidden, exposed the modus operandi of the whole proceeding, and, therefore, along with Mr. Henry Labouchere, MP., who was also rather dubious of the bona fide and genuine nature of the marvellous deceptions practised by Mr. Bishop, incurred the displeasure of the latter, who accordingly took his revenge by getting and issuing a bogus newspaper called The Truth, exactly like the weekly journal of that name, edited by the member for Northampton, and in which he published on June 26, 1883, the libel complained of.


It was in these words:-

“In London, this dastard plot, which will forever cover John Neville Maskelyne and Henry Labouchere with infamy, was being hatched with the slow yet simple precision of the automaton Zoe. . . . The scheme was worthy of the gigantic brains of Jagoo and the waxwork man.

Now then, let John Neville Maskelyne, whom I unqualifiedly stigmatise as a man devoid of honourable instincts, bring forth this proof of fraud and collusion, with others to which he alludes in his letter with the gorgeous cresset.

Let him bring it before any court of British Justice with jagoo (Mr. Labouchere) waddling in his train, and I will make them groan for the day they meddled in my affairs.

I shall punish J. N. Maskelyne heavily for his villainous conduct.

On the odium of public opinion I crucify this villainous brace of scoundrels.”

A portrait of Washington Irving Bishop.
Washington Irving Bishop.


The plaintiff was called, and said he knew nothing of Mr. Bishop, and was not personally acquainted with him. There was not the slightest pretence for saying that he had entered into a conspiracy with Mr. Labouchere or anybody else to effect the defendant’s ruin.


The defendant did not, either by counsel or otherwise, appear.

The jury, after a short deliberation, assessed the damages at £10,000.”