Ask David – December 2020

Welcome to my column for eJuggle, Ask David. In this column, you can ask me for my opinion, advice, or knowledge about anything juggling-related.

In case you don’t know me and you’re wondering why you might want to know my thoughts, here’s a bit about me. I’ve been a professional juggler for 36 years and have performed over 15,000 professional shows. I’ve also set over 20 world records and won 15 IJA gold medals. I’ve won two of the IJA’s honorary awards: the Bobby May Award, given to the top juggling mentor / coach, and the Excellence in Education Award. I’m also one of the world’s leading juggling historians. I’ve written 13 books about juggling history and well over 300 articles about juggling and juggling history. I also own the world’s only juggling museum, The Museum of Juggling History.

So, now that you know a bit about me, let’s get to our questions for today’s column.

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Thai Tom Chen asks, “Where does the devil stick come from?”

My response: Well, I could give you a short answer for this, but to get a more detailed one, I asked my fellow juggling historian Lukas Reichenbach to give his answer. Lukas has researched the history of the devil stick more than anyone else, so he is the man to ask. The following is what Lukas answered:

“The oldest known description of devil sticks comes from China where ‘a performer with a slender baton in each hand used them to poke a third baton which sometimes twirled, sometimes nodded, but never fell down’ in 1758. It is possible that aspects of devil sticks existed in Chinese and Indian stick dances, group performances in which the performers danced with one or two sticks creating rhythm by clapping them together and rattling the decorative bronze coins attached to the stick. These dances were usually performed in a spiritual setting and context. However, my educated guess is that it was a novelty originating in the early 18th century. By the early 19th century, it had been adapted by Indian jugglers. Two of these, the brothers Medua and Mooty Samme, had been imported to perform in Europe by a big trading company and made devilsticks known under the name ‘Chinesisches Stäbchenspiel (Chinese baton play)’ in Germany.

Medua and Mooty Samme – 1820

“European artists started copying their tricks and style including their use of devilsticks. Karl Rappo, the most successful of these copycats, would also perform devilsticks, among many other feats of juggling, acrobatics and strength, everywhere between London, Moscow, and Constantinople until his death in 1854. From then on, devilsticks were a rare but constant sight in juggling history.”

Karl Rappo 1828

So there we have it. It comes from China but was popularized by two Indian brothers and an Austrian who copied them. Thanks, Lukas, for your detailed answer.

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Scott Cain asks, “What do you know about James Dewitt Cook, the first person to juggle three clubs?”

My response: Well, we know little about him, but I don’t believe what we know has ever been published. James Dewitt Cook was born somewhere in Ohio (most likely near or in Cincinnati) in 1851. His father was a Pennsylvanian named John D. Cook (c. 1825-1882), who worked as a blacksmith and his mother was named Elizabeth Cook (1830-1906). During his performing career, he lived in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Cook performed originally as an Indian club swinger and eventually learned to juggle three of the heavy props at least as early as 1878. He was billed as the “King of Clubs.” You can see the king of clubs playing card featured in his prop stand in the following photo, which dates from 1885 and is the only known photo of Cook from his performing days.

Between tours on the vaudeville circuit, James spent a great deal of time in Mount Clemons, Michigan, a theatrical colony. When he retired from performing in the late 1890s, he moved from Cincinnati to Mount Clemons, where he opened up a cigar and newspaper stand and was known by the nickname “Cookie.” He died there in 1927 and is buried alongside his parents in Cincinnati. He never married. Below is a photo dating from 1919 during his retirement days in Mount Clemons.

I hope to find more information about James Dewitt Cook, but this is what we currently have.

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If you’d like to submit a question for Ask David, feel free to email me at davidcainjuggler@hotmail.com or contact me via Facebook.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 15 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of twenty-four books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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