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the art to perfection like the French magician. Later in life he
abandoned legerdemain entirely and devoted himself exclusively to the
construction of mechanical illusions. In this line, he has no equal.
Most of the really clever and original illusions brought out within
the past twenty years have emanated from his fertile brain. Houdin,
Maskelyne, and Buatier de Kolta are the three great inventors of
magic tricks and illusions. One day the Davenport Brothers came to
Cheltenham and gave an exhibition of their alleged mediumistic powers
at the town hall. Young Maskelyne was selected as one of a committee
to tie the Brothers and examine their mystic cabinet. The falling of
a piece of drugget, used to exclude light from one of the windows
of the hall, enabled Maskelyne to see Ira Davenport eject some of
the musical instruments from the cabinet, and re-secure himself with
the ropes. Delighted at discovering the trick, the young watchmaker
soon devised an imitation of the Davenport exhibition. Aided by a
Mr. Cooke, afterwards his partner in the show business, he gave an
exposé of the Davenport business, first at Cheltenham, and afterwards
throughout England. Subsequently he located at St. James Hall, and
afterwards at Egyptian Hall, London. Mr. {122} Maskelyne was called
as an expert witness in the trial of the impostor, Dr. Henry Slade,
and performed in the witness-box all of the medium’s “slate tests,”
to the great astonishment of the Court. As a consequence of these
revelations, Dr. Slade was sentenced to three months in jail, but he
escaped imprisonment owing to legal technicalities interposed by his
attorneys, and fled to the Continent. Mr. Maskelyne has written a
clever exposé of gambling devices, entitled, _Sharps and Flats_, and
various magazine articles on conjuring.

In the year 1904, he and Mr. Cooke moved their show to St. George’s
Hall, having outgrown the old quarters at Egyptian Hall. Since that
time Mr. Cooke died at an advanced age. Associated with Mr. Maskelyne
and his son is David Devant, a good sleight of hand performer.



“Robert-Houdin was a man of remarkable ingenuity and insight. His
autobiography is throughout interesting and psychologically valuable,
and his conjuring precepts abound in points of importance to the
psychologist.”—JOSEPH JASTROW: “_Fact and Fable in Psychology_.”

“To Robert-Houdin I feel I owe a double debt; first, for the great
satisfaction I have had in such slight skill as I have acquired in
his art, and, secondly, for such an insight into its underlying
principles as to keep me clear of all danger from evanescent
delusions which follow one another in fashion.”—BRANDER MATTHEWS:
“_Books that have helped me_.”


Nostradamus is said to have constructed a magic mirror of great
power. In its shining surface, he conjured up many remarkable
visions. But I know of a more wonderful wizard’s glass than that of
the French necromancer. It is the “mirror of the mind”—that mystery
of mysteries. I am able, at will, to evoke in it a phantasmagoria
of the past. I need no aid from cabalistic spells, no burning of
incense. Presto!—a picture appears radiant with light and life. I
see a wainscoted room in a quaint old mansion. Logs are ablaze on
the hearthstone. A boy is ensconced in the deep embrasure of the
window. He is immersed in a book, and entirely oblivious of the scene
without, where the Snow King is busy laying a white pall upon the
frozen earth. Snow flakes like white butterflies skim hither and
thither. The wind rumbles mournfully in the chimneys like a lost
spirit. It is the witching Christmas Tide, when of old the Magi led
by the burning star (the weird pentagram of the Initiates) came
from afar to visit the lowly cradle of the Nazarene {124} child.
Beautiful old legend! It still haunts these later years of mine,
breathing joy and peace ineffable; for is it not an allegory of the
search for, and the discovery of, the Lost Word of the Adepts of the
Temples—the word that signifies eternal life?

Let us take a peep over the reader’s shoulder, at the volume in his
hand. It is the autobiography of “Robert-Houdin, conjurer, author,
and ambassador.” And the reader is myself. O vanished years of
boyhood: you still live in the magic mirror of memory! And intimately
associated with those years is the mystic book of Robert-Houdin. Can
I ever forget the enjoyment I had in poring over the faded yellow
leaves of that fascinating work? Happy the youth who early dips
into its golden pages. The Arabian Nights forms a fitting prologue
to it. I followed Houdin in the Conjurer’s Caravan; rejoiced in his
successes at the Palais Royal; and in far-off Algeria, watched him
exhibiting his magic feats before the Marabouts.

Speaking of this autobiography, Professor Brander Matthews of
Columbia College, New York, says: “These _Confidences of a
Prestidigitateur_ are worthy of comparison with all but the very best
autobiographies—if not with Cellini’s and Franklin’s, at least with
Cibber’s and Goldoni’s. Robert-Houdin’s life of himself, quite as
well as any of the others, would justify Longfellow’s assertion that
‘autobiography is what biography ought to be.’ ”

In my humble opinion Houdin’s autobiography is worthy to be classed
with the best, even that of Cellini and Franklin; yes, even with
Chateaubriand’s superb _Memories beyond the Tomb_. It is replete with
interesting information about old time necromancers; constructors of
automata; good stories of contemporary magicians; exposés of Marabout
miracles; and last, but not least, the fascinating adventures of
Houdin himself,—the archmaster of modern magic. It bears the stamp
of truth on every page, and should be placed in the hands of all
students of psychology and pedagogy. His _Trickeries of the Greeks_,
an exposé of gambling devices, is also an interesting work and should
be read in conjunction with his _Stage Magic_ and _Conjuring and

The Confidences end with Houdin’s retirement from the stage to his
villa at St. Gervais, near Blois. The book on {125} _Conjuring and
Magic_ gives us a slight sketch of his villa and the ingenious
contrivances arranged therein for the amusement and mystification
of visitors. The curtain, alas, then rings down on the scene. The
theatre is left dark and cold. We are told nothing more concerning
the great conjurer’s life, or the manner of his death. All is a
blank. Through my own efforts, however, and those of my friends made
in recent years, at my instigation, I have been able to supply the
missing data. It is very entertaining indeed. But let us begin at the


On a certain day in the year 1843, the Count de l’Escalopier, a
scion of the old régime of France, and a great lover of curios,
was strolling along the Rue de Vendôme, in the Marais Quarter, of
Paris. He stopped to look at some mechanical toys displayed in the
window of a dark little shop, over the door of which was painted the
following modest sign: “M. Robert-Houdin, Pendules de Précision.”
This sign noted the fact that the proprietor was a watchmaker,
and that his wares were distinguished for precise running. What
particularly attracted the nobleman’s attention was a peculiar
looking clock of clearest crystal that ran apparently without works,
the invention of M. Robert-Houdin. The Count, who was a great lover
of _science amusante_, or science wedded to recreation, purchased
the magic clock, and better than that, made the acquaintance of the
inventor, the obscure watchmaker, who was destined to become a great
prestidigitateur, author, and ambassador. The Count became a frequent
visitor at Houdin’s shop, to watch the construction of various
automata, which the inventor intended some day to use in public
performances. Says Houdin: “A kind of intimacy having thus become
established between M. de l’Escalopier and myself, I was naturally
led to talk to him of my projects of appearing in public; and, in
order to justify them, I had given him, on more than one occasion,
specimens of my skill in sleight of hand. Prompted doubtless by his
friendly feelings, my spectator steadily applauded me, and gave me
the warmest encouragement to put my schemes into actual practice.
Count de l’Escalopier, who was the {126} possessor of a considerable
fortune, lived in one of those splendid houses which surround the
square which has been called _Royale_, or _des Vosges_, according
to the color of the flag of our masters of the time being. I myself
lived in a humble lodging in the Rue de Vendôme, in the Marais, but
the wide disproportion in the style of our respective dwelling-places
did not prevent the nobleman and the artist from addressing each
other as ‘my dear neighbor,’ or sometimes even as ‘my dear friend.’

[Illustration: Houdin’s Magic Clock.[21]]

[21] “The cut represents the magic clock invented by
Robert-Houdin about sixty years ago. This very remarkable
time-piece consists of a dial composed of two juxtaposed
disks of glass, one of which is stationary and carries the
hours, while the other is movable and serves for the motion
of the hands. This latter disk is provided with a wheel
or rather a toothed ring concealed within the metallic
ring forming a dial. The glass column which constitutes
the body of the piece is formed of two tubes which operate
according to the principle of the dial, that is to say,
one is stationary and the other movable. To each of the
extremities of the latter is fixed a wheel. These wheels
gear with transmission pinions which communicate, one of
them at the top with the movable plate of glass of the
dial, and the other at the bottom with the movement placed
in the wooden base which supports the glass shade covering
the clock. All these concealed transmissions are arranged
in a most skillful manner, and complete the illusion. The
movable glass of the dial, carried along by the column,
actuates a small dial-train mounted in the thickness of
the stationary glass, and within an extremely narrow space
in the center of the dial. It is covered by the small hand
and is consequently invisible. The hands are very easily
actuated by it on account of their extreme lightness and
perfect equilibrium.”—_Scientific American, N. Y._


“My neighbor then being, as I have just stated, warmly interested in
my projects, was constantly talking of them; and in order to give me
opportunities of practice in my future profession, and to enable me
to acquire that confidence in which I was then wanting, he frequently
invited me to pass the evening in the company of a few friends of
his own, whom I was delighted to amuse with my feats of dexterity.
It was after a dinner given by M. de l’Escalopier to the Archbishop
of Paris, Monseigneur Affre, with whom he was on intimate terms,
that I had the honor of being presented to the reverend prelate as a
mechanician and future magician, and that I performed before him a
selection of the best of my experiments.

“At that period—I don’t say it in order to gratify a retrospective
vanity—my skill in sleight of hand was of a high order. I am
warranted in this belief by the fact that my numerous audiences
exhibited the greatest wonderment at my performance, and that the
Archbishop himself paid me, in his own handwriting, a compliment
which I can not refrain from here relating.

“I had reserved for the last item of my programme a trick which,
to use a familiar expression, I had at my fingers’ ends. In effect
it was shortly as follows:—After having requested the spectators
carefully to examine a large envelope sealed on all sides, I handed
it to the Archbishop’s Grand Vicar, begging him to keep it in his
own possession. Next, handing to the prelate himself a small slip
of paper, I requested him to write thereon, secretly, a sentence,
or whatever he might choose to think of; the paper was then folded
in four, and (apparently) burnt. But scarcely was it consumed and
the ashes scattered to the winds, than, handing the envelope to the
Archbishop, I requested him to open it. The first envelope being
removed a second was found, sealed in like manner; then another,
until a dozen envelopes, one inside another, had been opened, the
last containing the scrap of paper restored intact. It was passed
from hand to hand, and each read as follows:—

“ ‘Though I do not claim to be a prophet, I venture to predict, sir,
that you will achieve brilliant success in your future career.’ {128}

“I begged Monseigneur Affre’s permission to keep the autograph in
question, which he very graciously gave me.”

Poor Archbishop Affre; he was killed at the barricades in the
Revolution of 1848. Though he confessed that he was no prophet,
yet his prediction was fulfilled to the letter. Houdin became the
foremost conjurer of his age, of any age in fact, and has left to
posterity more than a name:—his fascinating memoirs, and several
works in which the psychology of deception is treated in a masterly
manner. The slip of paper given to him by the Archbishop he preserved
as a religious relic. “I kept it,” he said, “in a secret corner of my
pocket-book which I always carried about my person. During my travels
in Algeria I had the misfortune to lose both this pocket-book and the
precious object it contained.”

After the séance recorded above, the Count de l’Escalopier urged
Houdin continually to abandon the watchmaking and mechanical-toy
trade and go on the stage as a prestidigitateur. Finally Houdin
confessed his inability to do so, owing to lack of means, whereupon
the kind-hearted nobleman exclaimed: “_Mon cher ami_, I have at
home, at this very moment, ten thousand francs or so, which I really
don’t know what to do with. Do me the favor to borrow them for an
indefinite period: you will be doing me an actual service.”

But Houdin would not accept the offer, for he was loth to risk a
friend’s money in a theatrical speculation. The Count in a state of
pique left the shop and did not return for many days. Then he rushed
excitedly into the workroom, sank upon a chair, and exclaimed:

“My dear neighbor, since you are determined not to accept a favor
from me, I have now come to beg one of you. This is the status of the
case. For the last year my desk has been robbed from time to time
of very considerable sums of money. In vain have I endeavored to
ascertain the thief. I have sent away my servants, one after another.
I have had the place watched, changed the locks, and placed secret
fastenings on the doors, but none of these safeguards and precautions
have foiled the cunning of the miscreant. This very morning a couple
of thousand {129} franc-notes disappeared. Think of the frightful
position the entire family is placed in. Can you not come to my

“Count,” replied Houdin, “I fail to see how I can help you in the
present instance. My magic power, unfortunately, extends only to my
finger tips.”

“That is true,” said the Count, “but you have a mighty aid in

“Mechanics,” exclaimed the magician. “Stop a bit! I remember when I
was a boy at school that I invented a primitive piece of apparatus
to apprehend a rascal who was in the habit of stealing my boyish
possessions. I will improve upon that idea. Come to see me in a few

Houdin put on his thinking-cap and shut himself up in his workshop.

From his inner consciousness he evolved a singularly ingenious
contrivance, designed not only to discover a thief, but to brand
him indelibly for his crime. In brief let me describe it. It was an
apparatus to be fastened to the inside of a desk. When the desk was
unlocked, and the lid raised ever so little, a pistol was discharged;
at the same time a claw-like arrangement, attached to a light rod and
impelled by a spring, came sharply down on the back of the hand which
held the key. This claw was a tatooing instrument. It consisted of
“a number of very short but sharp points, so arranged as to form the
word _Robber_. These points were brought through a pad impregnated
with nitrate of silver, a portion of which was forced by the blow
into the punctures, and made the scars indelible for life.”

When the Count saw this apparatus at work, the inventor using a
heavily-padded glove to prevent being wounded by the claw, he
objected to it strenuously, remarking that he had no right to brand
a criminal. That was the province of Justice. He also argued that it
would be wrong from a humanitarian standpoint. A poor wretch thus
branded could only get rid of it by a horrible self-mutilation. If
he failed in his endeavor, it might close the door of repentance
forever against him, and class him permanently among the enemies of
the social order. “Worse than that,” said the Count, “suppose some
member of {130} my family by inadvertence, or through some fatal
mistake, should fall a victim to our stern precautions; and then⸺”

“You are quite right!” said Houdin. “I had not thought of those
objections. I was carried away by my enthusiasm as an inventor. You
are quite right! I will alter the apparatus at once.”

In the place of the branding contrivance, he inserted a kind of
cat’s-claw, which would make a slight scratch on the hand—a mere
superficial wound, readily healed. The Count was satisfied with the
alteration, and the apparatus was secretly fixed to the desk in the
nobleman’s bed-room.

In order to stimulate the cupidity of the robber, the Count drew
considerable money from his bankers. He even made a pretence of
leaving Paris on a trip to a short distance. But the bait did not
take. Sixteen days passed away. The Count had almost despaired of
catching the culprit, when one morning while reading in his library,
which was some little distance from the bed-room, he heard the report
of a pistol.

“Ah,” he exclaimed, excitedly. “The robber at last.” Picking up the
first weapon to hand, a battle axe from a stand of ancestral armor
near by, he ran quickly to the bed-room. There stood his trusted
valet, Bernard, who had been in his household for many years.

“What are you doing here?” asked the Count.

With great coolness and audacity, Bernard explained that he had been
brought thither by the noise of the explosion, and had just seen a
man making his escape down the back stairs. The Count rushed down the
stairs only to find the door locked. A frightful thought overcame
him: “Could Bernard be the thief?” He returned to the bed-room. The
valet, he noticed, kept his right hand behind him. The Count dragged
it forcibly in sight, and saw that it was covered with blood.

“Infamous scoundrel!” said the nobleman, as he flung the man from him
in disgust.

“Mercy, mercy!” cried the criminal, falling upon his knees. {131}

“How long have you been robbing me?” asked the Count, sternly.

“For nearly two years.”

“And how much have you taken?”

“I cannot tell exactly. Perhaps 15,000 francs, or thereabouts.”

“We will call it 15,000 francs. You may keep the rest. What have you
done with the money?”

“I have invested it in Government stock. The scrip is in my desk.”

The thief yielded up the securities to the amount of fifteen thousand
francs, and wrote a confession of his guilt, which he signed in
the presence of a witness. The kind-hearted nobleman, bidding the
valet repent of his crime, forthwith dismissed him from his employ,
agreeing not to prosecute him provided he led an honest life. One
year from that date, the wretched Bernard died. Remorse hastened his

M. de l’Escalopier took the money thus recovered to Houdin, saying:
“I do hope, my dear friend, that you will no longer refuse me the
pleasure of lending you this sum, which I owe entirely to your
ingenuity and mechanical skill. Take it, return it to me just when
you like, with the understanding that it is to be repaid only out of
the profits of your theatre.”

Overcome by emotion at the generosity of his benefactor, Houdin
embraced the Count. “This embrace,” he says, “was the only security
which M. de l’Escalopier would accept from me.”

This was the turning point of the conjurer’s life. “It is an ill wind
that blows nobody good.”

With this money Houdin without further delay built in the Palais
Royal a little theatre. “The galleries which surround the garden of
the Palais Royal are divided,” says Houdin, “into successive arches,
occupied by shops. Above these arches there are, on the first floor,
spacious suites of apartments, used as public assembly rooms, clubs,
cafés, etc. It was in the space occupied by one of these suites, at
No. 164 of the Rue de Valois, {132} that I built my theatre, which
extended, in width, over three of the above-mentioned arches; and in
length the distance between the garden of the Palais Royal and the
Rue de Valois, or, in other words, the whole depth of the building.”
The dimensions of this miniature theatre were very limited. It would
not seat over two hundred people. Though the seats were few in
number, their prices were tolerably high. Children were paid for as
grown persons.

The Palais Royal was formerly the residence of Cardinal Richelieu,
the “Red Duke,” and afterwards became the home of the Orléans family.
The Regent d’Orléans, in the reign of Louis XV, experimented with
magic mirrors in this building. It was in the Palais Royal that the
French Revolution was hatched. Could a more favorable place have been
selected in which to start a revolution in conjuring? I think not.

The following is the announcement of Houdin’s first performance,
which appeared on the bill-boards of Paris:

Aujourd’hui Jeudi, 3 Juillet 1845.
Première Représentation
Soirées Fantastiques

“On this day,” says Houdin, “by a strange coincidence, the
Hippodrome and the ‘Fantastic Soirées’ of Robert-Houdin, the largest
and smallest stage in Paris, were opened to the public. The 3d of
July, 1845, saw two bills placarded on the walls of Paris; one
enormous belonging to the Hippodrome, while the other of far more
modest proportions, announced my performances. Still as in the fable
of the reed and the oak, the large theatre, in spite of the skill
of the managers, has undergone many changes of fortune; while the
smaller one has continually enjoyed the public favor. I have sacredly
kept a proof of my first bill, the form and color of which have
always remained the same since that date. I copy it word for word
here, both to {133} furnish an idea of its simplicity, and to display
the programme of the experiments I then offered to the public:”—








The Performance will be composed of entirely novel Experiments
invented by M. ROBERT-HOUDIN




Box-office open at Half-past Seven

Price of places: Upper Boxes, 1 fr. 50 c.; Stalls, 3 fr.; Boxes,
4 fr.; Dress Circle, 5 fr.

These fantastic evenings soon became popular. When the Revolution of
1848 ruined the majority of Parisian theater managers, Houdin simply
locked the door of his hall, and retired to his little workshop to
invent new tricks and automata. His loss was very slight, for he
was under no great expense. When order was restored, he resumed the
_soirées magiques_. The newspapers rallied to his assistance and
made playful allusions to his {134} being related to the family of
_Robert le Diable_. The leading illustrated journals sent artists to
draw pictures of his stage. Houdin found time, amid all his labors,
to edit a little paper which he called _Cagliostro_, full of _bon
mots_ and pleasantries, to say nothing of cartoons. Copies of this
_petit journal pour rire_ were distributed among the spectators at
each performance.

As each theatrical season opened, Houdin had some new marvel to

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Online LibraryHenry Ridgely EvansThe Old and the New Magic → online text (page 12 of 28)