"The Human Encyclopedia"
A few years ago I wrote a “Pictures From The Past” article for The Linking Ring about Bernard Zufall. I had proposed the idea to Linking Ring editor Sammy Smith who enthusiastically endorsed the idea.
I had become intrigued by Mr. Zufall after discovering one of his out of print booklets at Ed Kaczmarek’s magic shop in Sarasota, Florida many years ago. I had learned the peg mnemonic system from Harry Lorayne’s works and had used this method to study during graduate school. And when I became a teacher, it was fun to challenge my students to see if I could remember and repeat in any order a list of fifty objects. They were always impressed and I tried to teach them the basics of the peg system to enhance their study skills. But Zufall was a name I was not familiar with.
So when the opportunity came to research Zufall I was thrilled. The following information comes from that Linking Ring article with some additional content I have learned since it was first published.
Bernard Zufall (1894-1971) billed himself as the “Human Encyclopedia,” “Mr. Memory,” and as a “Mental Gymnast.” He lived in a borough of New York City and when not working as an executive with the General Electric Company, demonstrated his prodigious ability to commit vast amounts of factual information to memory. Among his noteworthy feats he memorized the entire Manhattan and Bronx phonebooks and was able to know the day of the week for any date between 1752 and the year 2000. He could also name every city in the world, he knew the names of every one of the world’s rivers, the heights of all of its mountains, or the distance by airplane from New York to anywhere on the planet.
Obviously he was a very talented man, a prodigy who was able to learn, store, and recall vast amounts of information. But despite his natural talent, Mr. Zufall still worked hard at his craft spending a great deal of time studying and memorizing everything from phonebooks to dictionaries. He believed that the human mind was capable of anything and he was willing to devote whatever time it took to absorb so much information.
As his reputation grew, Zufall became a lecturer and instructor of “memory training” and “mental efficiency,” teaching in New York City at the local Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. Mr. Zufall noted in the preface to one of his Trix publications that there are five major cognitive activities connected to memory: Attention, Assimilation, Imagination, Association, and Repetition. To facilitate storing, remembering, and recalling so much factual information, he employed mnemonic systems. The “man with the photographic mind” as some referred to him, was also a tenacious student of the subject of memory, a voracious reader who amassed over the course of many years a collection of close to five thousand volumes pertaining to mnemonics and related topics. This collection, by the way, which he later donated to Yale University, was said to surpass those of the Library of Congress and the British Museum when it came to texts on memory. It included many rare and ancient works, some dating back to the mid-fifteenth century.
Bernard Zufall was a member of both the International Brotherhood of Magicians as well as the Society of American Magicians and was a featured performer at conventions including the 1936 I.B.M. Convention in Batavia, New York. He was featured on the cover of the July 1940 issue of The Linking Ring and that same year he began publishing six booklets titled Zufall’s Memory Trix. In each he shared his methods for remembering numbers, facts and figures, playing cards, dates, and much more. They are strategies that have stood the test of time and continue to be used in one form or another by mentalists and magicians throughout the world. In the April 1951 edition of The Linking Ring one of Mr. Zufall’s “Trix” was included in “The New York Mid-Century Parade,” replete with contributions from legendary magicians including Dr. Jacob Daley, John Scarne, Lou Tannen, Al Baker, Bruce Elliott, and Milbourne Christopher.
They say to err is human, and even “the man with the photographic mind” was fallible. After performing in New York in 1935 and demonstrating his exceptional skills, he was approached by a woman who in essence said, “Remember me?” Zufall was caught off guard and ran his hand through his hair as he tried to put a name with the face. He had just completed demonstrating how he could memorize the entire contents of a magazine, but for the moment he was stuck. It was reported in The New York Times that he remained calm but finally had to ask her for her last name. If anyone in the audience that day got a cheap thrill out of seeing this mental gymnast tumble, they were in for a surprise. Upon hearing the woman’s last name, Zufall then proceeded to recall her first name, her maiden name, the address where she had lived, and that she had grown up to marry a physician. Memory, Zufall reminded everyone, is about association. But he acknowledged that like everyone else, he too sometimes forgets the little things. Mrs. Zufall, no doubt would agree. He mentioned the time he forgot to mail a letter for her.
And what was it like for Mrs. Zufall to live with this amazing gentleman? In the May 1936 edition of The Linking Ring, visitors to the Zufall home in Forest Hills, New York met Mrs. Zufall and asked her what she thought about her husband’s remarkable talent and the thousands of volumes he collected and stored in their home. “There’s such a thing,” she said, “as carrying a hobby too far.”
The Linking Ring, Vol. 16, No. 3, May 1936
The Linking Ring, Vol. 20, No. 5, July 1940
The Linking Ring, Vol. 31, No. 2, April 1951
The Milwaukee Journal, March 19, 1937, p. 34.
The New York Times, May 12, 1935, p. 35
Tops, Vol. 04, 1939