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present to his audiences. His maxims were: “It is more difficult to
support admiration than to excite it.” “The fashion an artist enjoys
can only last as long as his talent daily increases.” Houdin had
but few, if any, rivals in his day. His tricks were all new, or so
improved as to appear new. He swept everything before him. When he
went to London for a prolonged engagement, Anderson, the “Wizard of
the North,” who was a great favorite with the public, retired into
the Provinces with his antique repertoire. What had the English
conjurer to offer alongside of such unique novelties as the _Second
Sight_, _Aerial Suspension_, _Inexhaustible Bottle_, _Mysterious
Portfolio_, _Crystal Cash Box_, _Shower of Gold_, _Light and Heavy
Chest_, _Orange Tree_, _the Crystal Clock_, and the automaton figures
_Auriol and Debureau_, _the Pastry Cook of the Palais Royal_, etc.,


Jean-Eugène Robert (Houdin) was born on December 6, 1805, in the
quaint old city of Blois, the birth-place of Louis XII. and of Papin,
the inventor of the steam engine. Napoleon was at the zenith of his
fame, and had just fought the bloody battle of Austerlitz.

Luckily for the subject of this sketch, he was born too late to serve
as food for powder. He lived to grow to man’s estate and honorable
old age, and became the veritable Napoleon of necromancy. His career
makes fascinating reading. Houdin’s father was a watchmaker, and from
him he inherited his remarkable mechanical genius. At the age of
eleven, Jean-Eugène was sent to college at Orleans. On the completion
of his studies, he entered a notary’s office at Blois, but spent most
of his time inventing little mechanical toys and devices, instead
of engrossing {135} dusty parchment, so the notary advised him to
abandon the idea of becoming a lawyer and take up a mechanical trade.
Houdin joyfully took up his father’s occupation of watchmaking, for
which he had a decided bent. One evening the young apprentice went
to a bookseller’s shop in Blois and asked for a work on horology by
Berthoud. The shopman by mistake handed him a couple of odd volumes
of the _Encyclopédie_, which somewhat resembled Berthoud’s book.
Jean-Eugène went home to his attic, lit a candle, and prepared to
devote an evening to hard study, but judge of his surprise to find
that the supposed treatise on watchmaking was a work on natural magic
and prestidigitation, under the head of scientific amusements. He was
delighted at the revelations contained in the mystic volume, which
told how to perform tricks with the cards, to cut off a pigeon’s head
and restore it again, etc., etc. Here was an introduction to the
New Arabian Nights of enchantment. He slept with the book under his
pillow, and possibly dreamed of African wizards, genii, and all sorts
of incantations. This little incident brought about great changes in
Houdin’s life. He secretly vowed to become a prestidigitateur,—a rôle
for which he was eminently fitted, psychologically and physically.
The principles of sleight of hand Houdin had to create for himself,
for the mystic volume, though it revealed the secrets of the
tricks, gave the neophyte no adequate idea of the subtle passes and
misdirection required to properly execute them.

Though an ardent devotee of legerdemain, Houdin did not neglect
his trade of watchmaker. When his apprenticeship was over, he went
to Tours as a journeyman, in the shop of M. Noriet, who afterwards
became a noted sculptor. While in the employ of M. Noriet, Houdin
was poisoned by eating a ragôut cooked in a stew pan in which there
chanced to be verdigris. He was very ill, and his life was saved
with difficulty. Possessed with the idea that he was soon to die,
he escaped one day from his nurse and doctor and set out for Blois
to bid adieu to his family before he departed from this sublunary
sphere. A most singular adventure befell him, which reads like a
romance. Those who believe in destiny have here a curious example
of its {136} strange workings. The jolting of the lumbering old
diligence gave Houdin great pain. He was burning with fever and
delirious. Without any one knowing it, he opened the door of the
_rotonde_, in which he happened to be the only passenger, and leaped
out on the high road, where he lay unconscious. When he recovered his
senses, he found himself lying in a comfortable bed. An unknown man
with a phial of medicine in his hand bent over him. By the strangest
luck, Houdin had fallen into the hands of a traveling conjurer named
Torrini, who went about the country in a sort of house on wheels,
which was drawn by a pair of big Norman horses. This unique vehicle
which was six yards in length could be converted into a miniature
theatre twice its size by an ingenious mechanical arrangement. The
body was telescopic and could be drawn out, the projection being
supported by trestles. Torrini early in life had been a physician and
was able to tend his patient with intelligence and skill. Finding
the young watchmaker a clever mechanician, Torrini gave him some
magical automata to repair, and Houdin was introduced for the first
time to the little Harlequin that jumps out of a box and performs
various feats at the mandate of the conjurer. A delightful friendship
began between the watchmaker and the wizard. Torrini, who was an
expert with cards, initiated Houdin into the secrets of many clever
tricks performed with the pasteboards. He also corrected his pupil’s
numerous mistakes in legerdemain, into which all self-educated
amateurs fall. It was a fascinating life led in this conjurer’s
caravan. Besides Torrini and Houdin there was Antonio, the assistant,
and man of all work. Torrini related many amusing adventures to
his young pupil, which the latter has recorded in his admirable
autobiography. It was he, the _ci-devint_, Comte de Grisy who
performed the famous watch trick before Pius VII. and had so unique
revenge upon the Chevalier Pinetti.

Torrini’s son was accidentally shot by a spectator in the gun trick
during a performance at Strasburg, as has been explained in the
chapter on the “History of Natural Magic and Prestidigitation.”
Overcome with grief at the loss of his only child and at the
subsequent death of his wife, he abandoned the great cities {137}
and wandered about the French Provinces attended by has faithful
assistant and brother-in-law, Antonio. But to return to Robert-Houdin.

One day at Aubusson the conjurer’s caravan collided with an enormous
hay cart. Houdin and Antonio escaped with light contusions, but the
Master had a leg broken and an arm dislocated. The two horses were
killed; as for the carriage, only the body remained intact; all the
rest was smashed to atoms. During Torrini’s illness, Houdin, assisted
by Antonio, gave a conjuring performance at the town hall to replete
the exchequer. Houdin succeeded very well in his first attempt, with
the exception that he ruined a gentleman’s chapeau while performing
the trick of the omelet in the hat.

Soon after this Houdin bid adieu to Torrini and returned to his
parents at Blois. He never saw Torrini again in this life. After
following watchmaking at Blois for quite a little while, he proceeded
to Paris, with his wife,—for he had not only taken unto himself
a spouse, but had adopted her name, Houdin, as part of his own
cognomen. He was now Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, master-watchmaker.
His recontre with the Count de l’Escalopier and the result have
already been given.

Houdin completely revolutionized the art of conjuring. Prior to
his time, the tables used by magicians were little else than huge
confederate boxes. Conjuring under such circumstances was child’s
play, as compared with the difficulties to be encountered with the
apparatus of the new school. In addition, Houdin discarded the long,
flowing robes of many of his predecessors, and appeared in evening
dress. Since his time all first-class prestidigitateurs have followed
his example, both as to dress and tables.

Houdin’s center-table was a marvel of mechanical skill and ingenuity.
Concealed in the body were “vertical rods, each arranged to rise
and fall in a tube, according as it was drawn down by a spiral
spring or pulled up by a whip-cord which passed over a pulley at
the top of the tube and so down the table-leg to the hiding-place
of the confederate.” There were “ten of these pistons, and ten
cords passing under the floor of the stage, {138} terminating at a
key-board. Various ingenious automata were actuated by this means of
transmitting motion.”

Houdin’s stage was very handsome. It was a replica in miniature of a
salon of the Louis XV. period—all in white and gold—illuminated by
elegant candelabra and a chandelier. The magic table occupied the
center of the room. This piece of furniture was flanked by little
guéridons. At the sides were consoles, with about five inches of gold
fringe hanging from them, and across the back of the apartment ran
a broad shelf, upon which was displayed the various apparatus to be
used in the séances. “The consoles were nothing more than shallow
wooden boxes with openings through the side-scenes. The tops of the
consoles were perforated with traps. Any object which the wizard
desired to work off secretly to his confederate behind the scenes
was placed on one of these traps and covered with a sheet of paper,
pasteboard cover or a handkerchief. Touching a spring caused the
article to fall noiselessly through the trap upon cotton batting, and
roll into the hand of the conjurer’s concealed assistant.”

[Illustration: HOUDIN’S TRICK-TABLE.]

Now for a few of the tricks of this classic prestidigitateur. His
greatest invention was the “light and heavy chest.” Speaking of this
remarkable experiment he wrote: “I do not think, modesty apart,
that I ever invented anything so daringly ingenious.” The magician
came forward with a little wooden box, {139} to the top of which
was attached a metal handle. He addressed the audience as follows:
“Ladies and gentlemen. I have a cash-box which possesses strange
properties. It becomes heavy or light at will. I place in it some
banknotes for safekeeping and deposit it here on the ‘run-down’ in
sight of all. Will some gentleman test the lightness of the box?”

When the volunteer had satisfied the audience that the box could
be lifted with the little finger, Houdin executed some pretended
mesmeric passes over it, and bade the gentleman lift it a second
time. But try as he might, the volunteer would prove unequal to the
task. At a sign from Houdin the box would be restored to its pristine
lightness. This trick was performed with a powerful electro-magnet
with conducting wires reaching behind the scenes to a battery. At a
signal from the performer an operator turned on the electric current,
and the box, which had an iron plate let into its bottom, covered
with mahogany-colored paper, clung to the magnet with supernatural
attraction. In the year 1845, the phenomena of electro-magnetism were
unknown to the general public, hence the spirit cash-box created
the most extraordinary sensation. When the subject of electricity
became better known, Houdin made an addition to the feat which threw
his spectators off the scent. After first having shown the trick on
the “run-down,” he hooked the box to one end of a cord which passed
over a pulley attached to the ceiling of the hall. A spectator was
requested to take hold of the other end of the cord and keep the
chest suspended.

“Just at present,” remarked the conjurer, “the chest is extremely
light; but as it is about to become, at my command, very heavy, I
must ask five or six other persons to help this gentleman, for fear
the chest should lift him off his feet.”

No sooner was this done than the chest came heavily to the ground,
dragging along and sometimes lifting off their feet all the
spectators who were holding the cord. The explanation is this: On
a casual inspection of the pulley and block everything appears to
indicate that, as usual in such cases, the cord passes straight
over the pulley, in on one side and out on the other; but such is
not really the fact, as will be seen upon tracing the course {140}
of the dotted lines (Fig. 1), which, passing through the block and
through the ceiling, are attached on either side to a double pulley
fixed in the room above. To any one who has the most elementary
acquaintance with the laws of mechanics, it will be obvious that the
strength of the person who holds the handle of the windlass above is
multiplied tenfold, and that he can easily overcome even the combined
resistance of five or six spectators.

[Illustration: Fig. 1.]

[Illustration: Fig. 2. THE TALKING BUST.]

The “Bust of Socrates” was another favorite experiment with Houdin.
In this illusion a living bust with the features of Socrates was
suspended in the middle of the stage without visible support. The
performer, habited as an Athenian noble, addressed questions to the
mutilated philosopher and received replies in stanzas of elegiac
verse. The _mise en scène_ is represented in Fig. 2. Houdin explains
the illusion as follows:

“_A_, _B_, _C_, _D_, (Fig. 3) represent a section of the stage on
which the trick is exhibited. A sheet of silvered glass, _G_, _G_,
occupying the whole width of the stage, is placed in a diagonal
position, extending from the upper part of the stage at the rear,
down to the footlights, so as to form an angle of forty-five degrees
with the floor. In the center of the glass is an opening through
which {141} the actor passes his head and shoulders, as shown in the
figure. It should be further mentioned that the ceiling and the two
sides of the stage are hung with wall-paper of the same pattern, and
are brilliantly illuminated, either by means of footlights at _C_, or
by gas-jets placed behind the border _A_. Such being the condition of
things, the effect is as follows: The ceiling _A_ is reflected in the
mirror, and its reflection appears to the spectators to be the paper
of the wall _B_, _D_, which in reality is hidden by the glass.


“By means of this reflection, of which he is of course unaware, the
spectator is led to believe that he sees three sides of the stage;
and there being nothing to suggest to his mind the presence of the
glass, he is led to believe that the bust is suspended in mid-air and
without any support.”

“Aerial Suspension” was one of Houdin’s inventions. It has been a
favorite trick since his time. In the original illusion Houdin had
one of his young sons, who was dressed as a page, stand on a small
stool. The performer then placed a walking-stick under the extended
right arm of the boy, near the elbow, and one under the left arm.
First the stool was knocked away and the youthful assistant was
suspended in the air, held up only by the two frail sticks, which
were in themselves inadequate to support such a weight. Then the left
stick was removed, but the boy did not fall. To the astonishment of
every one, the youth {142} was placed in a horizontal position. He
remained in a perfectly rigid attitude with his head leaning on his
arm, the top of the cane under his elbow.

This very ingenious trick was suggested to Houdin on reading stories
about the alleged levitation of Hindoo fakirs. The walking-stick that
supported the right arm of the assistant was of iron, painted to
resemble wood. It fitted into a slot in the stage; its top connected
with a bar concealed in the sleeve of the boy. This bar formed part
of a strong steel framework worn under the assistant’s clothing. Thus
was the page suspended in the air.

Houdin’s trick of the “orange-tree” was a capital one. The tree
blossomed and bore fruit at the command of the conjurer. All the
oranges were distributed among the spectators except one on the
topmost branch of the tree. In this orange the magician caused a
handkerchief to appear, which had been previously borrowed. The
handkerchief was made to vanish from the hands of the performer.
“Hey, presto!” the orange fell apart in four sections, whereupon two
butterflies sprang out and fluttered upward with the handkerchief.
The explanation of this beautiful trick is as follows: The tree
was a clever piece of mechanism, so closely fashioned to resemble
a plant that it was impossible to detect the difference. The
blossoms, constructed of white silk, were pushed up through the
hollow branches by pistons rising in the table and operating upon
similar rods contained in the tree. When these pedals were relaxed
the blossoms disappeared, and the fruit was slowly developed. Real
oranges were stuck on iron spikes protruding from the branches of
the tree, and were concealed from the spectators by hemispherical
wire screens painted green. The screens were also partly hidden by
the artificial foliage. By means of cords running down through the
branches of the tree and off behind the scenes, an assistant caused
the screens to make a half-turn, thereby developing the fruit. The
borrowed handkerchief was exchanged for a dummy belonging to the
conjurer, and passed to an assistant who placed it in the mechanical
orange. The tree was now brought forward. After the real fruit had
been distributed, the magician called attention to the orange on the
top (the mechanical one). By {143} means of sleight of hand the
handkerchief was made to vanish, to be discovered in the orange. The
butterflies, which were fastened by wires to the stalk and fixed on
delicate spiral springs, invisible at a little distance, flew out of
the orange of their own accord, carrying with them the handkerchief,
as soon as the fruit fell apart.


In the year 1846 Houdin was summoned to the Palace of Saint-Cloud to
give a performance before Louis Philippe and his Court, whereupon he
invented his remarkable trick of the enchanted casket, which created
great excitement in the Parisian journals, and gained him no little
fame. He had six days to prepare for the _séance magique_. Early on
the appointed morning a van from the royal stables came to convey him
and his son, together with the magic paraphernalia, to the palace
of the king. A stage had been erected in one of the handsome salons
of St. Cloud, the windows of which opened out on an orangery lined
with double rows of orange-trees, “each growing in its square box on
wheels. A sentry was placed at the door to see that the conjurer was
not disturbed in his preparations. The King himself dropped in once
to ask the entertainer if he had everything necessary.”

At four o’clock in the afternoon, a brilliant company assembled in
the hall to witness the performance. The _pièce de résistance_ of the
séance was Cagliostro’s casket, the effect of which is best described
in Houdin’s own words:

“I borrowed from my noble spectators several handkerchiefs, which
I made into a parcel, and laid on the table. Then, at my request,
different persons wrote on blank cards the names of places whither
they desired their handkerchiefs to be invisibly transported.

“When this had been done, I begged the King to take three of the
cards at hazard, and choose from them the place he might consider
most suitable.

“ ‘Let us see,’ Louis Philippe said, ‘what this one says: “I desire
the handkerchiefs to be found beneath one of the {144} candelabra on
the mantelpiece.” That is too easy for a sorcerer; so we will pass to
the next card: “The handkerchiefs are to be transported to the dome
of the Invalides.” That would suit me, but it is much too far, not
for the handkerchiefs, but for us, ‘Ah, ah!’ the King added, looking
at the last card, ‘I am afraid, Monsieur Robert-Houdin, I am about to
embarrass you. Do you know what this card proposes?’

“ ‘Will your majesty deign to inform me?’

“ ‘It is desired that you should send the handkerchiefs into the
chest of the last orange-tree on the right of the avenue.’

“ ‘Only that, sir? Deign to order, and I will obey.’

“ ‘Very good, then; I should like to see such a magic act: I,
therefore, choose the orange-tree chest.’

“The king gave some orders in a low voice, and I directly saw several
persons run to the orange-tree, in order to watch it and prevent any

“I was delighted at this precaution, which must add to the effect of
my experiment, for the trick was already arranged, and the precaution
hence too late.

“I had now to send the handkerchiefs on their travels, so I placed
them beneath a bell of opaque glass, and, taking my wand, I ordered
my invisible travelers to proceed to the spot the king had chosen.

“I raised the bell; the little parcel was no longer there, and a
white turtle-dove had taken its place.

“The King then walked quickly to the door, whence he looked in the
direction of the orange-tree, to assure himself that the guards were
at their post; when this was done, he began to smile and shrug his

“ ‘Ah! Monsieur Houdin,’ he said, somewhat ironically, ‘I much fear
for the virtue of your magic staff.’ Then he added, as he returned
to the end of the room, where several servants were standing,
‘Tell William to open immediately the last chest at the end of the
avenue, and bring me carefully what he finds there—if he _does_ find

“William soon proceeded to the orange-tree, and though much
astonished at the orders given him, he began to carry them out. {145}

“He carefully removed one of the sides of the chest, thrust his
hand in, and almost touched the roots of the tree before he found
anything. All at once he uttered a cry of surprise, as he drew out a
small iron coffer eaten by rust.

“This curious ‘find,’ after having been cleansed of the mould, was
brought in and placed on a small ottoman by the king’s side.

“ ‘Well, Monsieur Robert-Houdin,’ Louis Philippe said to me, with a
movement of impatient curiosity, ‘here is a box; am I to conclude it
contains the handkerchiefs?’

“ ‘Yes, sire,’ I replied, with assurance, ‘and they have been there,
too, for a long period.’

“ ‘How can that be? the handkerchiefs were lent you scarce a quarter
of an hour ago.’

“ ‘I cannot deny it, sire; but what would my magic powers avail me
if I could not perform incomprehensible tricks? Your Majesty will
doubtless be still more surprised, when I prove to your satisfaction
that this coffer, as well as its contents, was deposited in the chest
of the orange-tree sixty years ago.’

“ ‘I should like to believe your statement,’ the King replied, with a
smile; ‘but that is impossible, and I must, therefore, ask for proofs
of your assertion.’

“ ‘If Your Majesty will be kind enough to open this casket they will
be supplied.’

“ ‘Certainly; but I shall require a key for that.’

“ ‘It only depends on yourself, sire, to have one. Deign to remove it
from the neck of this turtle-dove, which has just brought it to you.’

“Louis Philippe unfastened a ribbon that held a small rusty key, with
which he hastened to unlock the coffer.

“The first thing that caught the King’s eye was a parchment on which
he read the following statement:

“ ‘This day, the 6th June, 1786,
This iron box, containing six handkerchiefs, was placed
among the roots of an orange-tree by me, Balsamo, Count
of Cagliostro, to serve in performing an act of magic,
which will be executed on the same day sixty years hence
before Louis Philippe of Orleans and his family.’


“ ‘There is decidedly witchcraft about this,’ the king said, more and
more amazed. ‘Nothing is wanting, for the seal and signature of the
celebrated sorcerer are placed at the foot of this statement, which,
Heaven pardon me, smells strongly of sulphur.’

“At this jest the audience began to laugh.

“ ‘But,’ the king added, taking out of the box a carefully sealed
packet, ‘can the handkerchiefs by possibility be in this?’

“ ‘Indeed, sire, they are; but, before opening the parcel, I would
request your majesty to notice that it also bears the impression of
Cagliostro’s seal.’

“This seal once rendered so famous by being placed on the celebrated
alchemist’s bottles of elixir and liquid gold, I had obtained from
Torrini, who had been an old friend of Cagliostro’s.

“ ‘It is certainly the same,’ my royal spectator answered, after

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Online LibraryHenry Ridgely EvansThe Old and the New Magic → online text (page 13 of 28)