by Luis Prada
John Mullholland was an early 20th century magician who rubbed elbows with magic legend Harry Houdini. He’s such an old-school magician that his Wikipedia profile image is of him in a tuxedo with coattails pulling a rabbit out of a top hat with a stern face that suggests he’s not doing it ironically.
In 1953, with the Cold War at a fevered pitch, the CIA paid Mulholland $3,000 (a king’s ransom at the time) to adapt his years of experience in the field of trickery, deception and concealment into a manual loaded with suggestions on how American intelligence agents could apply the basic principles of stage magic to their spy work. The resulting book was called The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception. If after reading that title, you’re imagining the CIA as a real life version of the Ministry of Magic from Harry Potter, pump the brakes. Agents weren’t handed a standard issue magic wand and spell book (that we know of). Instead, what they got was a book that walks the fine line between useful and ridiculous, with some of his ideas being brilliant enough to make it onto the field while other ideas probably resulted in a loss of life as CIA agents died laughing while reading.
In the early 1970s, the CIA destroyed every known copy of the manual -- or so they thought. A few copies survived the culling, and now you can actually buy one on Amazon. Or, you can just ... you know, read this article about some of the manual’s most ridiculous and incredible suggestions for spies. For instance ...
Secret Signals In Shoelace Patterns
Mulholland apparently had a minor obsession with shoelaces. He believed they could be used for pretty much anything. Later on I’ll tell you about a set that could kill a man, but for now will start off with how Mulholland suggested that agents use shoelaces to relay simplistic information to one another like, “I have information” or “Follow me” or “Your shoes are untied.”
“A shoelace missing in a workingman’s shoe, or dissimilar laces” can be used to send signals when discretion is preferred. The lacing patterns do all the talking here, but it makes no mention of the practical problems with the technique. Wouldn’t it be difficult to make out the pattern if the laces and shoes are the same color? To make it more visible, the laces would need to be a brighter color than the presumably dark shoe, which means an agent would have to walk around with a bright, eccentrically laced shoe. It wouldn’t scream “I’m a CIA agent!” to the average citizen, but it seems counter intuitive for a CIA agent to be peacocking.
To justify its obsession with shoelaces, the manual tells the tale of how magicians offered tricks and gadgets in support of British intelligence services during World War II. For instance, a surgical bone saw wire hidden within the shoelace of a British pilot ... “just in case.”
We're talking about using it to cut someone's head off. Clean off. Sorry, subtlety isn't really our thing.
Secretly Pick Up A Piece Of Paper, Using A Wax-Covered Book
Wax is another handy tool that the manual recommends time and again for various spy craft needs. Like obtaining an impression of a key to make a duplicate. It also comes in handy should an agent find himself baffled at the prospect of picking up a piece of paper. It suggests dabbing a book or magazine with small dots of wax and then casually, as one does, placing the book or magazine over the piece of paper and lifting it away. Which we suppose would be super handy in ... like a library or something? Do spies leave sensitive documents lying around in libraries?
The manual doesn’t think the wax is the star of this tactic, and for that it is wildly incorrect. It thinks the book is doing all the heavy lifting. If anything, the book is only making it more obvious. It’s basically pointing at the deception. It dares anyone watching to question what exactly is going on here since people don’t ever carefully settle large books over pieces of paper and then casually press down to ensure maximum hold before walking away with a paper fluttering in the breeze. We wouldn’t be surprised if we found out this was inspired by Mulholland getting toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
The manual then wastes a couple hundred words, carefully explaining how to fold this waxy paper with one hand and clandestinely sneak it into a pocket.
At this point, this is isn’t a guide for spies -- this is a how-to guide for cheating on a seventh grade algebra test. The illustration it went with looks like it was the inspiration for an Animorphs book cover.
Look As Stupid As Possible To Throw People Off Your Scent
Some might argue James Bond’s greatest strength is his confidence, but the CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception begs to differ. The book argues that the appearance of confidence is a great way for an agent to get themselves busted: “The fact is that physically, at the moment of doing any action requiring concentrated thought, there is an alertness of appearance which is very noticeable.” So it’s probably best to make yourself look as dumb and disheveled as possible to throw villains off your scent. How is this accomplished? Pretty much exactly as you’d imagine it, as a sample image from the book illustrates.
On the left, we have a very confident illustration of what appears to be Mark Hamill if he were a spy disguised as a middle manager who infiltrated a copy machine distributor that’s actually a front for an international drug trafficking syndicate. And also a cartoon. On the right we have a much dumber Mark Hamill. Now, one is clearly an international superspy with a long history of taking down globe-threatening terrorist plots. The other is a moron who missed two weeks of work after he got his scrotum caught in a pool filter.
Which one would you feel is up to something?
To make the act seem even more convincing, the manual recommends that an agent throw their eyes out of focus to appear mentally vacant. The manual recommends an agent practice this dumb look by staring at an object one foot away from their face and then holding that focus while looking at something several feet away. Basically, cross your eyes and look like an idiot. Why stop there? Why not recommend they also drool and clap like a toddler when automatic doors slide open?
The Amazing, Super-Secret Trick To Stealing Things: Putting Them In Your Pocket
One of the book’s most annoying habits is over-explaining simple things, like pockets. It goes into vivid detail, describing the perfect pocket for storing stolen items, using dozens and dozens of words to describe them as if Mullholland, in a master stroke of genius, was inventing them as he wrote. The one big difference is that his had a metal wire sewn into the fabric to keep it straight. Probably to prevent bunching when trying to swipe ... whatever it is that CIA agents swipe. Small dogs? Probably small dogs.
Other than that metal wire, it’s just, you know, a pocket. The real innovation comes when the manual suggests sewing a larger version of this special top-secret pocket into the lining of their coats. The benefit of such a large coat pocket is demonstrated in this image, where a spy has to steal a dinner plate:
That plate must’ve had a really nice pattern on it or something. Or maybe there's a section of the manual on plate-based martial arts.
The directions for using the spy pocket sound suspiciously similar to that of any other pocket:
“It likewise will be plain that the other pocket will be held open when the coat is pulled away from the body with the left hand. This makes it merely a matter of tossing the object inside the coat for it to go into the pocket. While the term tossing is used, this is intended to mean only a small wrist motion which does not cause movement in either the arm or body.”
Keep in mind, CIA agents are highly trained, highly intelligent people. Yet Mullholland still felt it necessary to remind them to not throw sensitive materials in their pockets like they’re trying to strike out a batter.
The Toothpaste Gun
One of the joys of the manual is occasionally coming across gadgets that sound like they were stolen directly from Bond movies. There’s the “nondiscernible bioinoculator,” which is a very fancy term for a device that looked like .45 caliber Colt pistol that fired poison darts, only a bit wider than a human hair, up to 250 feet without making a sound. There was a Paper Mate pen that concealed a hypodermic syringe that could be filled with deadly poison ... or maybe a quick shot of insulin for a diabetic spy on the go. Then there was the brief but eye-catching mention of the different ways the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro, that included such gadgets as hallucinogenic sprays, chemically-laced cigars, and poisonous boots that would make his beard fall out.
The most fun gadget has to be the Stinger: a .22 caliber single-shot gun. Well, maybe “gun” isn’t the right word. The firing mechanism itself looks like a small flashlight or a pocket lightsaber. It wasn’t meant to be fired like a regular gun, or even held like one. It was designed to be hidden within a tube of toothpaste.
You have to wonder what scenario this could possibly have been useful in. Contextually, toothpaste only makes sense in a bathroom. Unless you’re in the store, buying toothpaste, there’s no reason to be holding a tube while more than a few feet away from a toothbrush, which also has no place anywhere other than a bathroom. And no, carrying a toothbrush with it doesn’t help, because now the spy is a weirdo who carries around a toothbrush and toothpaste set everywhere he goes, breaking the manual’s rule of not doing things that make you stand out.
If you’re thinking about putting a gun in a toothpaste tube, just scrap all your plans and start throwing rocks at your target.
The “Woman Sawed In Half” Illusion Was Used By The CIA
As you can no doubt tell by now, there’s a lot of overlap in the theories that govern spy work and stage magic. The spy world would often find inspiration in the ideas that make magic tricks possible, stealing a technique here and there to turn the clever deceptions of entertainment into life-saving and possibly world-shaping strategies for intelligence agents. Sometimes they steal from the oldest tricks in the book, like one you’ve seen dozens of times: the classic “Woman Sawed in Half” routine. Here’s an illustration from the manual on how a stage magician pulls off the illusion:
The CIA to developed a few variations on the idea, one of which actually saved a life. One of the the original ideas was a luggage cart loaded with individual suitcases that, when arranged in a specific way, created enough room for a person to secretly sit inside. Similarly, there was the stack of water bottles that disguised a compartment a person could hide within.
They managed to make the bottles look clear and transparent by stuffing the outer roll bottles with Mylar to reflect light, kind of like how poor college students lined their tiny dorms with mirrors to make it look bigger.
The CIA used this technique during the Cold War, and it actually worked. When a spy needed to be smuggled out of a hostile situation in Eastern Europe, the agency modified the gas tank of a brand-new Mercedes-Benz so that half of the tank performed it’s normal gasoline-holding duties while the other half concealed a fully grown man without killing him with gasoline fumes.
The spy had to contort his body uncomfortably to fit inside, which is a small price to pay for being able to say your life was saved by a magic trick. Which, really, if you're a true rogue ... you're probably going to say at some point in your life.
Like this article? Check out "Awful Pranks That Backfired So Hard, They Made The News" and "5 Real Smuggling Schemes That Sound Totally Made Up".