As a professional illusionist there is something constantly inspiring about the unsung heroes that have existed throughout the history of my art, and the giants whose shoulders I stand so high upon. Magic came about as a form of entertainment in a time before television, special effects, computers or WiFi. Hundreds would fill out the theaters every night to witness the feats of wonder and amazement performed by these giants, like a woman being sawn in half, a man vanishing into thin air, or even a man who could catch a bullet between his teeth. Today, you’ll witness magic like this in front of the cinema screens on a daily basis, but back then these miracles would have been performed right in front of your very eyes, without green screens or CGI graphics.
It was, and very much still is a world of closely guarded secrets and scientific principles which magicians enjoy keeping to themselves. Interestingly though, revered illusion designer and historian, Jim Steinmeyer notes that
“Magicians guard an empty safe. There are few secrets that they possess which are beyond a grade-school science class, little technology more complex than a rubber band, a square of black fabric or a length of thread.”
Audiences however, rarely look beyond the ‘how’ of magic, and forget to ask ‘why, when and who’. It’s not just the illusions that are amazing, but the personalities, demonstrations and psychology behind the presentation – the tiny little subtleties that make a monumental difference to a performance piece, elevating it to a work of art. It’s safe to say that a lot of the hard work has already been done by the illusionists of old, and that their inventiveness, fearlessness and creativity has left an indelible mark on the mysterious art-form that is Magic.
Yet still, nobody today asks ‘who’. It appears the only name that has survived amongst the public is the illustrious Harry Houdini’s. Though he was one of the greatest performers to have ever lived, there are many other magicians whose personalities and stories are equally deserving of a permanent place in the history books among the greats. Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin is one of these greats, and possibly the most revered magician in the history of magic. To this day, he is still referred to as ‘The Father of Modern Conjuring’.
Born December 7th 1805 in Blois France, Jean Eugene Robert was a clock-maker’s son who followed in his father’s footsteps and studied the craft of horology and clock making. It was only later that he became known as Robert-Houdin, after he married and, unusually, took his wife’s name, ‘Houdin’. His baptism into magic was an accidental one, and can be blamed solely on a distracted store-owner. Robert-Houdin had visited a bookstore to buy a book called ‘Treatise on Clockmaking‘, but the store-owner was busy with customers and hastily grabbed two volumes from a nearby shelf, wrapped them and sold them to him without ceremony. Upon arriving home Robert-Houdin realized that a mistake had been made, and instead of the books on clockmaking, the store-owner had given him two volumes called ‘Scientific Amusements’, which were filled to the brim with card tricks, mind-reading demonstrations and much more. This was just the beginning. In his memoirs, he candidly writes
“I devoured the mysterious pages, and the further my reading advanced, the more I saw laid bare before me the secrets of an art for which I was unconsciously predestined”.
Even today, the memoirs of Robert-Houdin, ‘Confidences d’un Prestiditateur’, are regarded as the ‘Bible’ of magic amongst practitioners of the art.
In the 1800s, Magicians were essentially street performers, and were looked upon with a mixture of caution and disrespect. Robert-Houdin completely changed this perception, by donning neat evening attire, and presenting his magic as ‘scientific experiments’ in the drawing rooms of the rich and famous. He cleverly introduced electricity into his act, which instantly gave it a modern appeal, and allowed for new creative thinking for his illusions like his robot-esque Automata . He introduced the notion that a magician was a celebrity with a respected standing in the echelons of high society, far from the age-old imagery of pointed hats and wands.
In 1856, Algeria was occupied by the French Government, much to the anger of a group of religious mystics known as The Marabouts, who at that time were inciting a revolt. The Marabouts claimed that they possessed magical powers in the name of ‘Allah’, and regularly did magical demonstrations to gain the support of the local tribesmen, by striking fear in them. Before attempting to quell this rebellion with warfare and bloodshed, Louis-Napoleon’s French Government decided to call Robert-Houdin out of retirement to ‘fight fire with fire’, and show that perhaps French magic was more superior to theirs.
He arrived in Algeria and quickly saw straight through the ‘magical’ chicanery of The Marabouts. He performed some of his most powerful demonstrations at a variety of different galas and theatres before the Algerian Tribal Chiefs, which threw the mystical powers of the Marabouts into question. He demonstrated how he could take a man’s strength away at will, by firstly inviting him to lift a box up over his head, which was done with relative ease. Robert-Houdin would then mutter some incantations and make some magical gestures around the man, placing him into a ‘trance’ state. Upon attempting to lift the box again, the man found he had no strength, and could not move the box an inch. To add insult to injury, the man then experienced sharp electric shocks from the box handles, which sent him running from the stage!
The most famous demonstration, and the one which prevented the revolution, was Robert-Houdin’s early demonstration of the famed ‘Bullet Catch’. A Tribal Chief was asked to make a unique marking on a bullet of his choosing, which was loaded into his Pistol. He then confidently fired this Pistol in the direction of Robert-Houdin’s torso. A splatter of blood suddenly appeared in the center of his chest as he doubled over. Upon slowly raising his head up, he gritted his teeth for all to see, clearly showing that he had in fact regurgitated the bullet and brandished it between his lips. He spat the bullet out towards the feet of Tribal Chiefs as they watched in fear, and left Algeria.
Robert-Houdin was rewarded for his work in Algeria after he successfully pacified The Marabouts, and to this day a testimonial of his efforts remains framed in his former residence, Ville de Blois.
Although there is a much more to be told about the life and work of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, there is simply not enough room on this page. Throughout his career, Robert-Houdin’s contribution to magic was revolutionary and above all else, innovative in a way that magicians will never forget, as he remains to this day, the most important transitional figure in the history of magic.
Certain aspects of Robert-Houdin’s life inspired the motion picture, The Illusionist (2006), starring Edward Norton. But long before that, somewhere around 1890, Robert-Houdin inspired a young magician named Ehrich Weiss to change his name to Harry Houdini.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons