The Wonderful Wizard of Dartmouth

by Mary Liza Hartong | 9/25/14 6:29pm

Upon entering Dartmouth, students are bombarded with hordes of questions ranging from “What’s your major?” to “Where do you see yourself in five years?” to “How’d you get that wart?” For Joel Ash ’56 Th’58, the real question was “Do you believe in magic?”

I first heard about Ash through an email he sent to The Dartmouth, introducing himself as a member of the Wizards of the Upper River Valley as well as The Country Squires of New London. Needless to say, I was more than a little intrigued by his proposition of a story about his organization, seeing as it’s not every day I get contacted by a wizard. Ash also mentioned that he was the author of more than 550 limericks, so by that point, I was sold.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, I made my way to his home in Eastman, New Hampshire, not knowing what to expect. Was I about to walk into Hogwarts or Houdini’s lair? I was almost disappointed when Ash greeted me at the door not wearing a traditional wizard cloak. Instead Ash like a polished, kind older man — he could be anyone’s grandfather. His home was absolutely filled with Dartmouth memorabelia. He had handpainted Dartmouth plates, Dartmouth flags, and a miniature Dartmouth in the train landscape in his basement. But my disappointment disappeared as he ushered me into the “Magic Room,” his very own haven of tricks and illusions. The roam boasts ancient sets of cards, finger guillotines and, if you believe the myth, Harry Houdini’s wand.​ I say myth because Ash keeps the wand in a very fancy display case, but you’ll have to go to one of his shows to see the trick revealed.

“I started when I was 8 years old with a magic set, the typical story,” Ash said, recalling his first visit to the famous Tannen’s Magic Shop and the enormous effect it had on him. Ash described Tannen’s as a kind of wonderland for kids, and some of the tricks that he uses today were purchased the first time he visited the shop. “Most magic now is sold on the Internet, not in brick and mortar shops like that.”

From there, he went on to perform magic in high school, and later at Dartmouth.

“I majored in magic at Dartmouth,” said Ash, who entered college at the age of 16. He’s quick to correct himself. “No, I didn’t really. I wrote a lot of papers about magic. In the library at Baker there was a collection of magic books, and I used to read them. It was an important part of my getting into the world of magic.”

While at Dartmouth, Ash studied the books and performed for Hanover residents and for members of his fraternity. However, he was unable to find a true magical community at the College.

“I found a fellow on the Hanover police who was interested in rope tricks, and he taught me this one,” said Ash.

With one invisible swoop of his hand Ash knotted a small rope around his arm. He performed the trick a few more times for me, but I could never tell quite how he did it.

After graduating from Dartmouth and the Thayer School of Engineering, Ash joined IBM, the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

“Then magic took a backseat — I spent a lot of time with family, career, other things, retirement — then I went back to magic in a big way,” said Ash.

Before moving back to New Hampshire in 2002, Ash lived in Weston, Connecticut for 18 years, and Massapequa, New York for 18 years before that. He joked that he must have six years left in the state because he’s spent 12 years here so far. After returning to the Granite State, Ash was eager to revisit the books at Dartmouth that had taught him so much, as well as check out new magic volumes. He was disappointed to find the magic books inferior to the collection he had amassed over the years in his home. Yet Ash was not stymied by a lack of resources. He continued to purchase his own books and make many of his own tricks in the woodshop in home’s basement. The next step was to find fellow wizards.

“When I first came to New Hampshire I wanted to join a ring,” said Ash. “It’s a club within the [International Brotherhood of Magicians]. The name of their magazine is the Linking Ring. In the back of the magazine, it shows you new members and where they’re from.”

Ash spent months combing the magazine for New Hampshire members who might be interested in joining his club. He found a few, but was unable to recruit enough to form an official ring under IBM standards. For this reason, he started the Wizards of the Upper River Valley as an independent magic club. Four years have passed since any new members joined, so Ash hopes that there are magicians at Dartmouth who might be interested in participating. There are not any other magicians in his family, Ash hopes to find “someone to leave [his] magic collection, which is extensive.” When asked about what his wife’s response to his magic habits, Ash joked, “she puts up with it,” adding that she will watch and provide suggestions beforehand if he is preparing for a performance. Ash performed two 90-minute one man shows in 2009 and 2011, and said that he does not do magic for children, preferring an adult audience.

The seven-member club meets periodically in Ash’s Magic Room to present new tricks and discuss methods, which Ash said he loves because magicians understand the skills and techniques. Ash keeps a detailed log of each trick and its secrets, dating back to the club’s formation in 2008. I was a little disappointed that his log is a typed spreadsheet, rather than an old leather bound tomb filled with aging parchment and magical secrets. It does, however, include 500 to 600 tricks altogether, and is affectionately called the “Diary of a New Hampshire Wizard.”

“In the magic club we share all secrets,” said Ash. “We had a guy in the club who wouldn’t, and we threw him out.”

I asked him if he wouldn’t mind doing a few tricks for me.

“It’s not really set up, but maybe I could do a little ectoplasm,” said Ash, who proceeded to levitate a cloth and reveal the underlying ectoplasm, a term used by mediums to describe the viscous manifestation of a spirit.

Does this wizard have a favorite trick? Well, sort of.

“My favorite trick changes from month to month,” said Ash. “It’s impossible for me to really come up with an answer to that. Someday it’s on my list to do my favorite magic tricks and have everybody in the club come in and do their favorite tricks.”

For Ash, magic is more than just a little hocus-pocus. It’s a way of life. And maybe it’s the life for you.