Greater Magic was released in 1938 as an encyclopedia of magic intended specifically for magicians, not the general public. It was only distributed and advertised within the conjuring world. It covers magic with cards, silks, billiard balls, sponge balls, cups & balls, coins, cigarettes and cigars, bills, ropes, the linking rings, mentalism, magic squares, apparatus magic, stage illusions, and more.
It contains 715 effects, contributed by over 100 magicians, including some of the greatest names of the day: Max Holden, Percy Abbott, J. N. Hofzinser, Theodore Annemann, Horace Goldin, Al Baker, Ade Duval, Karl Germain, David and Theo Bamberg, Dr. James Elliott, Joe Berg, Jardine Ellis, Sam Berland, T. Nelson Downs, Harry Blackstone (Sr.), David Devant, Floyd Thayer, Carl Brema, Cardini, Buatier DeKolta, Milbourne Christopher, Chung Ling Soo, S.H. Sharpe, Dr. Jack Daley, Paul Curry, Stanley Collins, Harlan Tarbell, S. Leo Horowitz, Houdini, Selbit, Edwin Sachs, Jean Hugard, John Scarne, Burling Hull, Stewart James, Paul Rosini, Joseffy, Stewart Judah, John Ramsay, Billy O'Connor, Harry Kellar, Lester Lake, Mora, Jack Merlin, William W. Larsen (Sr.), Paul LePaul, John Nevil Maskelyne, Max Malini, Nate Leizig, Eugene Laurant, Sid Lorraine, Audley Walsh, Robert Stull, Howard Thurston, William H. McCaffery and Dai Vernon.
John Northern Hilliard worked as press agent and advance man for Howard Thurston. After performing his duties for Thurston, at nights he began writing a book that he hoped would bring magic "up to date." His job gave him the opportunity to meet many great magicians, who shared their knowledge and creations with him. John spent hours writing down the pieces, keeping it all in three-ring binders.
In 1931, Carl W. Jones, a Minneapolis newspaperman, learned of Hilliard's manuscript from Thurston. Jones urged Thurston to talk Hilliard into allowing them to be the publishers. Hilliard accepted Jones' proposal and advance money.
In, 1932 Jones came up with the title "Greater Magic". Hilliard loved the title, telling Jones to copyright it right away. Over the next three years Hilliard kept working on the book until his sudden death in 1935. Only a third of the book was complete, with a huge amount of material still residing in Hilliard's notebooks.
Carl Jones retrieved the material from Thurston and Hilliard's family. Hilliard's daughter Helen helped by transcribing the many handwritten notes into typewritten pages for Jones, who took up the task of organizing the material. Jones corresponded with many of the contributors for help in going over their own material.
Ted Annemann offered to help, as well as a young Nelson Hahne offered to illustrate. However Jones had been considering Harlan Tarbell as early as 1933 as the illustrator and in 1937 selected Jean Hugard to take up the final task of completing to massive work. Accompanying Hugard's editing was over 1,000 of Tarbell's illustrations.
In December 1938, Carl Waring Jones finally released John Northern Hilliard's Greater Magic: A Practical Treatise on Modern Magic. Carl Jones limited the original print run to 1,000 books and priced the book at $12.50. 378 copies were sold before the first book even left the printers. It was an immediate success.
Hundreds of the tricks that Hilliard had collected were nowhere to be found in the final published book. There was a great hubbub about the missing material. A number of magicians entered the hotel room where he died ... perhaps one of them left with something.
In the 1990s, a box full of old magic catalogues was sold at an auction in middle America. At the bottom of this box, and not even listed in the contents, were two old notebooks with hundreds of typed pages in brown leatherette bindings. They were the lost notebooks of John Northern Hilliard.
The Genii Corporation published a facsimile edition of these two Hilliard missing notebooks in one book as The Lost Notebooks of John Northern Hilliard.
When Richard Kaufman reprinted Greater Magic, one of the various editions was an homage to Carl Jones' famous "expurgated edition." Jones had many non-magic friends to whom he wished to give a book, but didn't want them to see any of the secrets. So he printed a special edition that was the same size, but blank except for the first signature (32 pages).
- 1938 first edition. Nine printings, 1000 copies each time.
- 1942 revised edition - chapter XXX; "Old and New Apparatus" was replaced by "Magicana" a chapter on historic books, periodicals and prominent collections and libraries.
- 1956 five volume edition "The Greater Magic Library" by A.S. Barnes and Company (in association with Carl Jones). Same content as second revised edition.
- 1994 - Kaufman and Greenberg - The original Greater Magic reprinted, with the addition of More Greater Magic. More Greater Magic is over 300 pages of additional material and covers the origin of Greater Magic, letters and correspondence about Greater Magic, additional trips and tricks, photos, and more. (The regular edition had blue lettering on the spine, the expurgated edition had green.1)