Yes, Magic is great entertainment – but did you know that it has also been used to change world history? I’m a historical magic enthusiast, and one of my favorite stories is about how a famous conjuror used his skills to prevent a dangerous uprising. Journey back in time with me…
It’s 1856, and Louis-Napoleon, the leader of France, is worried about the tribes in French Algeria. The Marabouts (a religious group) are stirring up trouble in the region. They are using “magicians” to frighten and control the people of the area, going so far as to advise their leaders to break ranks with the French. Louis-Napoleon is very concerned… until he gets the genius idea to fight magic with magic! He calls on Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, the most famous magician in France. Robert-Houdin had just retired after a long and successful career. But Louis-Napoleon asked with urgency: Would he travel to French Algeria to calm down the situation? Could he show that “French” magic was stronger?
Bust of Robert-Houdin at the
Magic Castle – Hollywood, California
Robert-Houdin rose to the challenge, assembled a presentation and went to French-Algeria. He set up special shows and astounded the tribal chiefs. An unforgettable moment came when he performed one of his signature effects, The Light and Heavy Chest. Robert-Houdin invited the strongest tribesman onstage and asked him to lift up a wooden chest that was resting there. The man grabbed the metal handle and lifted it with ease. Then Robert-Houdin announced he was going to drain all the strength out of the tribesman. After a magical incantation he directed the powerful man to try again. The man seized the handle and pulled; the box would not budge. He yanked and groaned and pulled even harder – nothing. Finally in anger he grabbed it and tried to rip it apart. Suddenly he screamed in pain – and then ran from the theatre. Needless to say, Robert-Houdin had won the day. Check out a wood engraving from 1880 that captures this moment here.
The secret? A powerful hidden electromagnet – that could be activated at will – held the box tightly to the stage when it was turned on, making the item unmovable. Robert-Houdin had also rigged the box to give an electrical shock if someone tried to break it! Talk about planning ahead!
Another powerful moment came when he had a marked bullet loaded into a gun and shot directly at him; he caught the bullet in his teeth!!! Another 1880 wood engraving can be seen here.
The result of all this amazement was that the tribes renewed their loyalty to France, and Robert-Houdin went home victorious in defusing a very tense situation, and possibly a war.
Even better, he made sure that the interpreters shared with the tribesmen that all his miracles were the result of skill and artistry, and not real sorcery or magic. He desired to lead the people out of living in fear and superstition. That to me is the ultimate artistic communication: bringing two cultures closer in understanding and respect.
Robert-Houdin was rewarded for his services to the French government. And you’ll be rewarded if you search out and read more about the amazing accomplishments of this incredible performer, the father of modern conjuring.