Call of Chicago: Mulholland vs. Messing

“Man should not know the future. Such knowledge can be fatal.”

— attributed to Wolf Messing

In 1977, researchers Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks uncovered evidence in the accidentally unshredded MK-ULTRA files that the CIA had hired the stage magician John Mulholland as a consultant. After decades of further research, and the fortuitous discovery of the “magic manual” Mulholland prepared for CIA Technical Services head Sidney Gottlieb, some portion of the truth is out there. Born in Chicago in 1898, Mulholland moved to New York City, briefly apprenticed with Houdini, and became known as “the prince of prestidigitators.” During the 1920s he toured the world, returning to launch a successful stage career in New York in 1927. He briefly investigated UFOs in 1952 (ascribing them to hallucinations and unreliable eyewitnesses) and in 1953 (probably) joined MK-ULTRA to write a manual on, and teach CIA agents, how to use misdirection in the field. Specifically, according to the manual he wrote for the Agency, how to handle tablets, powders, and liquids, surreptitiously remove objects, and work as a team. Later, he investigated claims of telepathy (pronouncing them bogus) for the Agency; his last surviving invoice dates from 1958. His health damaged by chain-smoking, he died in 1970 with an enormous magical library, including virtually all of Houdini’s papers. His own papers contained no trace of his CIA work.

Wolf Messing, not messing around

Was there a Soviet equivalent to John Mulholland? Since the KGB was far less sloppy with its record-handling than the CIA, we may never know for sure. But the most plausible candidate we know of for “the KGB’s magician” is Wolf Messing, a Jew born in Russian Poland in 1899. Around 1910, he drifted to Berlin. There, a gift for catalepsy got him a job in a freak show, where he learned many more sorts of stage magic, including hypnotism, suggestion, and the mentalism that became his trademark. Blindfolded, he would carry out complex series of instructions “telepathically sent” by members of the audience. Touring Europe in the 1920s, he may (or may not) have encountered Erik Jan Hanussen, the mentalist and occultist popular with the rising Nazi elite; he claimed to have escaped the Gestapo by mentalist suggestion in 1940 and certainly arrived in Belorussia that year. He toured as a “psychological demonstrator” (Soviet ideology frowned on mentalism and magic) and made enough money to pay for two fighter planes. Anecdotes of Stalin testing his abilities personally come from a ghost-written (and unreliable) memoir published in parts in 1965 (and pulled from publication in 1967), but rumors persist then and now of Messing working with the KGB — probably willingly. By the late 1960s he was also claiming prophetic visions, likely a sign that his covert days were behind him — but the Soviet government insisted he keep touring almost until his death in 1974.

“There is no overall secret to magic, or any part of magic. It is the multiplicity of secrets and the variety of methods which makes magic possible.”

— John Mulholland, Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception

It doesn’t require postulating John Mulholland as a MAJESTIC control or Wolf Messing as a Yithian KGB asset to incorporate them into a Fall of DELTA GREEN campaign. (They might even have met in Europe during a Trail of Cthulhu campaign.) The actual story of intelligence agencies’ use of stage magicians and their techniques is wild and evocative enough. Although both Mulholland and Messing probably retire backstage before the 1960s, they might have prize pupils or magical heirs carrying on their good work and slowly becoming drawn into the unnatural world behind the clandestine shadows. A particularly thrilling Agent might even have a background as a stage magician, just like Rollin Hand from the Mission: Impossible TV show.

Stage Magician

Points: 10 Investigative, 40 General (includes 4 Special Training)

Art (Stage Magic) 2, HUMINT 2, Notice 2, Reassurance 2

Pick two Investigative: Anthropology 1, HUMINT 1*, Inspiration 1, Notice 1*, Occult 1

Athletics 4, Conceal 4, Disguise 4, Filch 5, Mechanics 4, Preparedness 3, Stealth 4

Pick two General: Conceal 4*, Disguise 4*, Filch 4*, Sense Trouble 4, Stealth 4*

Pick three Special Training (one free, others 2 build pts. each; FoDG, p. 072): Brush Pass/Pickpocket, Card Cheating, Escape Artist, Lockpicking, Sleight of Hand (see below)

Special Training Magics

Fall of DELTA GREEN Agents trained by Mulholland or using the Mulholland system can easily justify spending 2 build points on Special Training in Sleight of Hand (+2 to Filch rolls to palm, manipulate, and “vanish” small objects, very much including covertly spiking drinks), as well as the existing example of Special Training in Brush Pass/Pickpocket (+2 to Filch rolls to pass an object between two people, knowingly to both or unknowingly to one). Generous Handlers might allow one spend of 2 points to buy both abilities. Very generous Handlers might allow Sleight of Hand to count as a quick-draw technique (spend Filch on the surprise test; FoDG, p. 090). In Night’s Black Agents, a combine them both as a Filch cherry: Legerdemain. Spend 1 point of Filch to automatically slip a palm, pass, vanish, spike, pickpocket, load, or dip past a normal civilian (defined as anyone not: a stage magician, a pickpocket, a trained spy or cop watching for just such an action, or a supernatural observer). This also applies to the A Lift in Time Saves Nine cherry (Double Tap, p. 41).

Soviet agents trained by Messing or using his techniques have two arrows in their quiver: Ideomotorism, and Vnusheniye (Russian for “suggestion” or “inception”). Ideomotorism is a Special Training skill granting the ability to use Psychotherapy or Sense Trouble (pick one when buying the skill) to “read thoughts” by touch. For example, asking “where are the documents” induces a microscopic muscle reflex that the trained Ideomotorist can “read” to give a direction and possibly even a location (“it’s a long walk from here, and on a high shelf perhaps”). Vnusheniye allows the use of Disguise to present (seemingly obviously) false credentials, state an incorrect identity, or otherwise convince someone you showed them something or said or did something that they expected. Both skills require a test of the relevant ability, and do not include a +2 bonus. Agents resist Ideomotorism using Stability, and resist Vnusheniye with Sense Trouble; the Difficulty equals the total of the KGB operator’s roll+spend.

Player Agents who can somehow convince the Handler to let them use either of these two Soviet Special Training skills should also have to spend 1 point of HUMINT for Ideomotorism and 1 point of either Intimidation or Reassurance for Vnusheniye. In Night’s Black Agents, Ideomotorism is a cherry for Shrink or Sense Trouble; with a spend of 1 point of Bullshit Detector it automatically works on mooks, scrubs, and similar bystanders. With Disguise 8+ Night’s Black Agents characters can take Vnusheniye as a cherry; with a 1-point spend of an appropriate Interpersonal ability it likewise works automatically on the weak-minded.

The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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