Out of courtesy I won’t name names.
In the early 90’s I went with my brother and his wife to see a Great Magician in Atlantic City. We paid a dear price for those tickets and afterwards felt disappointed, except for one truly remarkable trick which he learned (or inherited) from his father. The rest were pretty much large scale versions of magic tricks I’d performed as a kid. Plus a 12-piece band to maintain the energy level.
One of the Great Magician’s last tricks that evening involved taking ten volunteers from the audience and bringing them onstage as assistants. Their role, in addition to assisting in carrying out the ruse, was to affirm that it wasn’t rigged, that indeed it was an impossible escape that this audience was about to witness.
When he asked for volunteers I leaped up, went into the aisle and raised my hands. To my surprise, he nodded in my direction and I ran up onto the stage.
To my greater surprise, he was exceedingly irritated because the guy he nodded toward was either behind or next to me. He had eleven members of the audience onstage and, it turns out, one was just a grinning buffoon who was not a shill. (This, of course, was me.)
The trick involved tying a man’s hands so he could not escape. Blackstone gave instructions as the others watched, holding the ends of the rope or generally playing a role that would baffle and amaze the audience. Because I was not supposed to be there, he didn’t know what to do with me other than allow me to stand onstage in front of 1700 paid spectators.
What I observed was that because of the scale involved, ten shills seemed beyond what the audience would expect. Like everything else in the show, it was a matter of scale. In this case, the quantity of pretenders gave an air of authenticity to their innocence. Ultimately it was a grand scam, the ten pretenders helping the Master deceive his audience.
The Great Magician was clearly annoyed at my presence on the stage. I saw clearly that the man’s hands were not tightly bound behind his back. In fact, they were hardly bound at all. And I’m sure the magician didn’t like me standing there seeing it all so plainly, but there was nothing this he could do now but follow through.
The shills all agreed that there was “no way” the bound man could escape. The audience pretty much bought in I suspect and it would have been bad form on my part to raise objections at that point.
Shills have played a role in many ventures throughout history. Dr. Ben’s Medicine Show in the wild west utilized shills who testified to the potent powers of Dr. Ben’s All Purpose Healing Fluid. Occasionally Dr. Ben and his shills would get carried out of town on rails, tarred and feathered.
Shills are sometimes used in auctions to bid up the price so as to gain better profits, both for the seller and the auctioneer whose take is dependent on selling price. For this reason, the use of shills is considered unethical, though it undoubtedly occurs on eBay and, rumor has it, even at Sotheby’s.
In journalism, a shill is someone who mouths the talking points of a point of view, who has a vested interest in one side or the other on a controversial issue. The unethical part of this equation is that the shill conceals his allegiances. He pretends to be just another journalist, and even takes pains to assume this pose. When called upon, he is only too eager to serve the puppet-master.
What frosts a lot of people is that our incursion into Iraq appears to have been an orchestrated manipulation of public opinion utilizing shills embedded in the media. Evidence was repeatedly hinted at and used as justifications to move forward because the risks involved in remaining passive were too great.
With the Great Magician, it was the scale of the scam which proved so convincing to the audience. In today’s media, it has become harder than ever to sort out facts from the fictions. Perhaps this is why C.S. Lewis said he didn’t read the news at all because you never knew what was true until six months later.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com