ALCHEMY AND BANKROBBING: Applied Magic(k) column by the Center for Tactical Magic (Arthur, 2013)

Alchemy and Bankrobbing

Applied Magic(k) column by the Center for Tactical Magic, illustration by Aaron Gach

Originally published in Arthur No. 33 (January, 2013)

“Money always fascinates people, and magic with money is doubly fascinating.”

—J.B. Bobo, Master Magician and author of Modern Coin Magic

You don’t have to be psychic to know that many people who want their fortunes told have concerns about money matters. Indeed, even the name ‘fortuneteller’ implies a talent for making economic predictions. However, the fortunetellers most in demand these days are a different sort of financial forecaster. Bankers, financiers, and investment brokers gaze not into crystal balls but into multiple LCD screens showing real-time and projected financial data used for profitable prophesy. To the unanointed, the machinations of Wall Street mages are masked in a mysterious lexicon; indeed, it takes a bit of translation to understand the esoteric formulas behind high-frequency trading, an investment strategy based on proprietary computer algorithms devised to exploit minute fluctuations in the markets to make numerous trades at lightning speed throughout the day.  

High-frequency trading is a bit like a magician’s performance of “The Miser’s Dream” in which the performer makes coins appear out of thin air and drops them into a bucket—except there’s no show; only money and a bucket. Oh, and also market instability that directly impacts the livelihoods of those of us who don’t even want a seat at the show in the first place. One doesn’t need an economics degree to see the Faustian bind produced through the financial industry’s flash crashes, credit default swaps, commodities speculations, scandals, fraudulent practices and whatever other demons are yet to be unleashed by undisciplined and unscrupulous dabblers.

But, dealing with devils isn’t unique to Wall Street, and ultimately, there’s nothing new about the any-means-necessary path to wealth. Through the ages, numerous grimoires have detailed spells and rituals for gaining riches.

The Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage, for example, is a 15th-century grimoire that has influenced several occult societies including the Golden Dawn, and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema. According to the book, one must complete a months-long purification operation to first gain knowledge and conversation with one’s guardian angel. Aspirants must then evoke and bind the 12 Kings and Dukes of Hell, thus granting control over their infernal influences. The Book then lists 24 magical workings for obtaining treasure in a myriad of forms, with 22 additional workings to aid in bypassing security via lock-breaking, shapeshifting, and turning invisible. So, if your sense of integrity won’t settle for selling your soul to work for Goldman-Sachs, the Abramelin operation might be a better investment.

In fantasy films and literature, it’s commonplace to find wizards and sorceresses using their enchantments to steal one king’s treasure or protect another’s. However, the ability to create treasure in the first place is the real stuff of magical legend. Alchemical traditions from across half the globe date back at least 4000 years. Although a more detailed discussion of alchemy is perhaps better left for a future exposition, it’s worth pointing out here that one of the great quests of alchemists has been chrysopoeia—the transmutation of ‘base’ metals into ‘noble’ ones. As the language indicates, the desire to turn lead into gold clearly demonstrates not only a mastery over the elements but also of one’s socio-economic standing. Although you might be inclined to dismiss such attempts as proto-scientific tomfoolery, it deserves mentioning that nuclear physicists synthesized gold from mercury by neutron bombardment in 1941. Unfortunately, the gold was radioactive. Still, scientists and amateur alchemists continue their quest for chrysopoeia today.

If you don’t have security clearance to access the Spallation Neutron Source or any other nuclear particle accelerator, don’t fret—there are still other ways to turn lead into gold. In 1866, several men (likely including Frank and Jesse James) walked into a bank in Liberty, Missouri and perpetrated the first armed bank robbery in US history. While there’s nothing particularly scientific or mysterious about swapping lead bullets for gold coins, it proved effective nonetheless. The James brothers, along with the Dalton Gang, the Wild Bunch, and a drove of other desperadoes, inaugurated a new American archetype that persists to this day.  By the 1930’s, the declining economy of the Great Depression had given rise to the “golden age of bank robbers,” including: John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Ma Barker, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Machine Gun” Kelly, “Baby Face” Nelson, “Slick” Willie Sutton, and many more.

But the man credited as the “Father of Modern Bank Robbery” is a less familiar name. Herman Lamm, a.k.a. “the Baron” is responsible for introducing the well-planned heist to the bank robbers’ bag of tricks. A former Prussian soldier, who was kicked out of the army for cheating at cards, Lamm moved to the States just before World War I.  Using his military experience, he developed what came to be a known as the “Lamm Technique”—a system of organization in which he pioneered the idea of “casing” a bank in advance. The Technique also assigned specific roles and responsibilities to his team, including: lobby man, vault man, lookout, and driver. In addition, he made his team go through elaborate, timed rehearsals using scaled layouts of the bank, role-playing with props, and getaway test runs along multiple routes.  

The Baron recognized that the probability of a heist’s successful outcome could be greatly improved with a bit of organization, rather than simply rushing in with a gun and a loud mouth. That Lamm netted more than $1 million (about $27 million in today’s dollars), helped prove the point. Research, reconnaissance, and rehearsal were so ritualized for the Baron and his team that their ability to manifest their desired outcome became the stuff of legend among other bank robbers who eagerly sought entry into Lamm’s inner circle. Most notably, Dillinger himself sought out the secrets of the Lamm Technique and famously put them to use, becoming the most celebrated Depression-era outlaw. Not only is Dillinger reputed to have robbed banks by posing as a security system salesman, but legend has it that he pushed the theatrical illusion one step further. Under the auspices of scouting a film location for a bank robbery scene, he and the “film crew” robbed the vault while bystanders watched on with amusement.

References to the Great Depression in relation to today’s economic conditions easily outnumber all the pennies in the wishing well. But why stop at simple reminders that the economy is debased, corporate greed in unrestrained and the short-selling of the the public interest have historical precedents? What else can be gained by scrutinizing the Great Depression? Longstanding traditions of magic(k) prove what Dillinger learned from The Baron: the power of creative visualization is a well-established force for overcoming barriers and liberating one’s desires. In fact, some of the earliest forms of spellwork—cave-paintings, carvings, and effigies—can be thought of as magical proposals inviting the approval of supportive spirits.    Whether one wants to improve their situation, overcome adversity, or challenge the powers-that-be, understanding the necessary formula for affecting change—research, reconnaissance, planning, and execution—can help to make any enchantment most effective.

Do you have to rob a bank to achieve alchemical mastery over the cosmos?  No, but planning a heist may still serve as a useful exercise for considering your relationship to risk and reward, investment and return, and tactics and strategy. It might also help make financial institutions seem less like an abstract adversary and more like a concrete, vulnerable, and surmountable challenge. And, it might provide for hours of enjoyment with friends and family. In fact, we think it’s such a worthwhile endeavor that we’re offering $1,000.00 for the best bank heist proposal submitted by mail by January 31, 2013. For more details and a call for entry, check out:  

Good Luck!

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