Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Hocus Pocus

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 4, 2015

Hocus pocus science or legal hocus pocus or medical hocus pocus have to do with science, law, or medicine that relies on ignorance, laziness, or hypocrisy to be successful.  Through verbal misrepresentation, the goal is to take advantage of others for the benefit of the one using hocus pocus science or legal hocus pocus.  In other words, it’s nothing more than fraud.

In Ted Hoffman’s November 21, 1999 column, “Culture Shocked” — published by the Lakeland Ledger — he took on the issue of televangelist Peter Popoff in an article entitled, “Mumbo Jumbo, Hocus-Pocus.”  His article made it clear to readers what hocus pocus was!

Yet millions of us perpetuate and fall victim to mumbo-jumbo, hocus-pocus, phony-baloney, pseudo-scientific tripe.  Astrology.  Crystals.  Psychics.  Tarot.  Channeling.  Magnetic healing.  Homeopathic medicines.  Creationism.  Psychic surgery and faith healing.  After-death contact. Reincarnation.  Past-life regression. Velveeta snorting.

On March 2, 1972 the Lodi News-Sentinel published a news article written by Andrew Tully who was covering the bail hearing of Angela Davis, a woman who was released on $105,000 USD bail for her involvement in the murder of four people in a courtroom shootout a year and a half earlier in August 1970.  The article was entitled, “Hocus Pocus Science” and ended with this paragraph.

In any event, the law has surrendered to a segment of public opinion.  Coke probably is swiveling in his grave, but not the 18th century playwright, Charles Macklin.  In “Love A La Mode,” Macklin observed that “the law is a sort of hocus-pocus science.”

In the Milwaukee Journal of March 31, 1936 the newspaper reported on a $150,000 USD libel suit that had been brought by Edward A. Ernest against the newspaper proper with regards to comments made about the merits of the spectro-chrome health machines — little machines that contained electric light bulbs and colored glass — invented by Dinshah P. Ghadiali (an inventor with a string of fake degrees, may of which were from diploma mills), and marketed and sold by Edward A. Ernest.   J.G. Hardgrove was acting counsel for the Journal.

The complaint had to do with a newspaper article that referred to the machines as “hocus pocus.”  Edward A. Ernest’s name was not mentioned in the article, however, he insisted in his lawsuit that the article held him up to ridicule.

J.G. Hardgrove proved that Edward A. Ernest came up with his own medical vocabulary to replace standard medical terminology with which to fool potential customers.  Rather than talk about cures, diseases, and diagnosis, Edward A. Ernest would talk about normalizing, and unbalance, and measurement instead.  When counsel for the Journal asked Edward A. Ernest about his concept of an auric vehicle — asking if it was six inches thick or a millionth of an inch thick — Edward A. Ernest replied that the invisible egg-shaped ovid’s size was unknown to him.

As the trial continued, the questions as well as the responses were said to bring “smiles from the jury” and is it any wonder why?

“Now, listen here, it follows that,” Burke started to say when Judge Smalley commented.  “If I understand what hocus pocus means, it means fraud, doesn’t it?”

Burke again started to give his definition when Hardgrove explained, “As applied to this machine it means a machine that can have no scientific basis.”

SIDE NOTEIn later years, a United States district court in Camden, New Jersey found Dinshah P. Ghadiali guilty on twelve counts of violating the federal pure food and drug ace, and confiscated his phony healing devices which were destroyed shortly afterwards.

Playwright Charles Macklin was quoted again, this time by the Gazette Times on August 7, 1907 by writer Erasmus Wilson in his article, “Quiet Observer.”  His column explained his position that “all good things are possible if persistently sought, and wrought for.”  Midway through his essay, he used the quote in its more complete form.

The law is a sort of hocus-pocus science that smiles in your face while it picks your pocket; and the glorious uncertainty of it is of more use to the professors than the justice of it.

In 1801, “The Sports and Pastimes Of The People Of England: From The Earliest Period” by English author and antiquary Joseph Strutt (27 October 1749 – 16 October 1802) explained that the term hocus pocus was a term applicable to a common cheat, and referenced Reverend John Tillotson’s “Sermon XXVI.”

In 1681, English writer, philosopher and clergyman, Joseph Glanvill (1636 – 4 November 1680), late Chaplain in Ordinary to his Majesty the King and Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote about hocus pocus in his book, “Saducismus Triumphatus.

And that here this name is not from any tricks of Legerdemain as in common jugglers that delude the fight of the people at a market or fair, but that it is the name of such as raise Magical Spectres to deceive mens fight, and so are most certainly witches, is plan from Exod.22.18  Thou shalt not suffer [Mecassephah] that is, a witch to live.  Which would a law of extream (sic) severity, or rather cruelty, against a poor hocus-pocus for his tricks of legerdemain.

Now what Reverend John Tillotson, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury (1630 – 22 November 1694) wrote in his sermons about hocus pocus was this:

In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.

And English General Baptist minister, Thomas Grantham (1634 – 17 October 1692) — the Curate of High Barnet near London — used hocus pocus in his essay “A Marriage Sermon, Called A Wife Mistaken Or A Wife And No Wife” published in 1643.  The term is used many times, including in this passage:

We say that man is an excellent hocus-pocus, excellent in Lederdemain, and slight of hand, that can deceive one that looks upon him.  But he that can deceive the hearing and the feeling, he is far more excellent:  My sight may be deceived, for I may take that which is pictured to be lively and real; but my hearing, my feeling cannot be so easily deceiv’d.

And John Gee used the term in his book “New Shreds Of The Old Snare” that was published in 1624 where he wrote:

I alwayes thought they had their rudiments from some iugling Hocas Pocas in a quart pot.

Traveling further back in history, the term is found in the German edition of “The Taming Of The Shrew” by William Shakespeare (April 1564 – 23 April 1616) and published in 1590.

Hocus Pocus_Shakespeare
Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of hocus pocus and any of its variants earlier than the German publication.  However, the word was understood by the Germans around 1590 as well as the English.  As it was already part of the common man’s language, hocus pocus most likely dates back to the mid-1500s, if not earlier.

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One Response to “Hocus Pocus”

  1. […] that could be considered magical by those who were unfamiliar with the trickery.  In other words, hocus pocus, legerdemain, prestidigitation, sleight of hand.  If one was adept at conjuration, there was […]

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