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comparing the two seals. Still, in his impatience to learn the
contents of the parcel, the king quickly tore open the envelope and
soon displayed before the astonished spectators the six handkerchiefs
which, a few moments before, were still on my table.

“This trick gained me lively applause.”

Robert-Houdin never revealed the secret of this remarkable experiment
in natural magic, but the acute reader, especially if he be a student
of legerdemain, will be able to give a pretty shrewd guess as to
the _modus operandi_. The best analysis of this trick has been
lately given by Professor Brander Matthews. He writes as follows
(_Scribner’s Magazine_, May, 1903):

“Nothing more extraordinary was ever performed by any mere conjurer;
indeed, this feat is quite as startling as any of those attributed
to Cagliostro himself, and it has the advantage of being accurately
and precisely narrated by the inventor. Not only is the thing done
a seeming impossibility, but it stands forth the more impressively
because of the spectacular circumstances of its performance,—a
stately palace, a lovely garden, the assembled courtiers, and the
royal family. The magician had to depend on his wits alone, for
he was deprived of all advantages of his own theatre and of all
possibility of aid from a confederate mingled amid the casual
spectators. {147}

“Robert-Houdin was justified in the gentle pride with which he told
how he had thus astonished the King of the French. He refrained
from any explanation of the means whereby he wrought his mystery,
believing that what is unknown is ever the more magnificent. He did
no more than drop a hint or two, telling the reader that he had long
possessed a cast of Cagliostro’s seal, and suggesting slyly that when
the King sent messengers out into the garden to stand guard over the
orange-tree the trick was already done and all precautions were then
futile.

“Yet, although the inventor chose to keep his secret, any one who
has mastered the principles of the art of magic can venture an
explanation. Robert-Houdin has set forth the facts honestly; and
with the facts solidly established, it is possible to reason out the
method employed to accomplish a deed which, at first sight, seems not
only impossible but incomprehensible.

“The first point to be emphasized is that Robert-Houdin was as
dexterous as he was ingenious. He was truly a prestidigitateur,
capable of any sleight of hand. Nothing was simpler for so
accomplished a performer than the substitution of one package for
another, right before the eyes of all the spectators. And it is to
be remembered that although the palace was the King’s the apparatus
on the extemporized stage was the magician’s. Therefore, when he
borrowed six handkerchiefs and went up on the stage and made them up
into a package which remained on a table in sight of everybody, we
can grant without difficulty that the package which remained in sight
did not then contain the borrowed handkerchiefs.

“In fact, we may be sure that the borrowed handkerchiefs had been
conveyed somehow to Robert-Houdin’s son who acted as his assistant.
When the handkerchiefs were once in the possession of the son out of
sight behind the scenery or hangings of the stage, the father would
pick up his package of blank visiting-cards and distribute a dozen of
them or a score, moving to and fro in very leisurely fashion, perhaps
going back to the stage to get pencils which he would also give out
as slowly as possible, filling up the time with playful pleasantry,
until he should again {148} catch sight of his son. Then, and
not until then, would he feel at liberty to collect the cards and
take them over to the King. When the son had got possession of the
handkerchiefs, he would smooth them swiftly, possibly even ironing
them into their folds. Then he would put them into the parchment
packet which he would seal twice with Cagliostro’s seal. Laying this
packet in the bottom of the rusty iron casket, he would put on top
the other parchment which had already been prepared, with its adroit
imitation of Cagliostro’s handwriting. Snapping down the lid of the
casket, the lad would slip out into the corridor and steal into the
garden, going straight to the box of the appointed orange-tree. He
could do this unobserved, because no one was then suspecting him
and because all the spectators were then engaged in thinking up odd
places to which the handkerchiefs might be transported. Already,
in the long morning, probably while the royal household was at its
midday breakfast, the father or the son had loosened one of the
staples in the back of the box in which the designated orange-tree
was growing. The lad now removed this staple and thrust the casket
into the already prepared hole in the center of the roots of the
tree. Then he replaced the staple at the back of the box, feeling
certain that whoever should open the box in front would find the soil
undisturbed. This most difficult part of the task once accomplished,
he returned to the stage, or at least in some way he signified to
his father that he had accomplished his share of the wonder, in the
performance of which he was not supposed to have any part.

“On seeing his son, or on receiving the signal that his son had
returned, Robert-Houdin would feel himself at liberty to collect the
cards on which various spectators had written the destinations they
proposed for the package of handkerchiefs which was still in full
sight. He gathered up the cards he had distributed; but as he went
toward the King, he substituted for those written by the spectators
others previously prepared by himself,—a feat of sleight of hand
quite within the reach of any ordinary performer. Of these cards,
prepared by himself, he forced three {149} on the sovereign; and
the forcing of cards upon a kindly monarch would present little
difficulty to a prestidigitateur of Robert-Houdin’s consummate skill.

“When the three cards were once in the King’s hands, the trick was
done, for Robert-Houdin knew Louis Philippe to be a shrewd man in
small matters. Therefore, it was reasonably certain that when the
King had to make a choice out of three places, one near and easy, a
second remote and difficult, and a third both near and difficult,
Louis Philippe would surely select the third which was conveniently
at hand and which seemed to be at least as impossible as either of
the others.

“The event proved that the conjurer’s analysis of the King’s
character was accurate: yet one may venture the opinion that the
magician had taken every needed precaution to avoid failure even if
the monarch had made another selection. Probably Robert-Houdin had
one little parchment packet hidden in advance somewhere in the dome
of the Invalides and another tucked up out of sight in the base of
one of the candelabra on the chimney-piece; and if either of the
other destinations had been chosen, the substitute packet would have
been produced and the magician would then have offered to transport
it also into the box of the orange-tree. And thus the startling
climax of the marvel would have been only a little delayed.

“When so strange a wonder can be wrought under such circumstances by
means so simple, we cannot but feel the force of Dr. Lodge’s warning
that an unwavering scepticism ought to be the attitude of all honest
investigators toward every one who professes to be able to suspend
the operation of a custom of nature. No one of the feats attributed
to Home, the celebrated medium who plied his trade in Paris during
the Second Empire, was more abnormal than this trick of Cagliostro’s
Casket, and no one of them is so well authenticated. It may be that
certain of the customs of nature are not inexorable and that we shall
be able to discover exceptions now and again. But the proof of any
alleged exception, the evidence in favor of any alleged violation of
the custom of nature, ought to be overwhelming.” {150}


V.

The greatest event of Houdin’s life was his embassy to Algeria, “at
the special request of the French Government, which desired to lessen
the influence of the Marabouts, whose conjuring tricks, accepted as
actual magic by the Arabs, gave them too much influence.” He went
to play off his tricks against those of Arab priests, or holy men,
and, by “greater marvels than they could show, destroy the _prestige_
which they had acquired. He so completely succeeded that the Arabs
lost all faith in the miracles of the Marabouts, and thus was
destroyed an influence very dangerous to the French Government.” His
first performance was given at the leading theatre of Algiers, before
a great assemblage of Arabs, who had been summoned to witness the
_soirée magique_, by the mandate of the Marshall-Governor of Algeria.
Houdin’s “Light and Heavy Chest” literally paralyzed the Arabs with
astonishment. He altered the _mise en scène_, and pretended to be
able to make the strongest man so weak that he would be unable to
lift a small box from the floor. He says in his memoirs:

“I advanced with my box in my hand, to the center of the
‘practicable,’ communicating from the stage to the pit; then
addressing the Arabs, I said to them:

“ ‘From what you have witnessed, you will attribute a supernatural
power to me, and you are right. I will give you a new proof of my
marvelous authority, by showing that I can deprive the most powerful
man of his strength and restore it at my will. Any one who thinks
himself strong enough to try the experiment may draw near me.’ (I
spoke slowly, in order to give the interpreter time to translate my
words).

“An Arab of middle height, but well built and muscular, like many of
the Arabs are, came to my side with sufficient assurance.

“ ‘Are you very strong?’ I said to him, measuring him from head to
foot.

“ ‘Oh yes!’ he replied carelessly.

“ ‘Are you sure you will always remain so?’

“ ‘Quite sure.’

“ ‘You are mistaken, for in an instant I will rob you of your
strength, and you shall become like as a little child.’ {151}

“The Arab smiled disdainfully, as a sign of his incredulity.

“ ‘Stay,’ I continued; ‘lift up this box.’

“The Arab stooped, lifted up the box, and said to me, ‘Is this all?’

“ ‘Wait ⸺!’ I replied.

“Then with all possible gravity, I made an imposing gesture and
solemnly pronounced the words:

“ ‘Behold! you are weaker than a woman; now, try to lift the box.’

“The Hercules, quite cool as to my conjuration, seized the box once
again by the handle, and gave it a violent tug, but this time the box
resisted, and spite of his most vigorous attacks, would not budge an
inch.

“The Arab vainly expended on this unlucky box a strength which would
have raised an enormous weight, until at length exhausted, panting,
and red with anger, he stopped, became thoughtful, and began to
comprehend the influences of magic.

“He was on the point of withdrawing; but that would be allowing his
weakness, and that he, hitherto respected for his vigor, had become
as a little child. This thought rendered him almost mad.

“Deriving fresh strength from the encouragements his friends offered
him by word and deed, he turned a glance around them, which seemed to
say, ‘You will see what a son of the desert can do.’

“He bent once again over the box: his nervous hands twined around the
handle, and his legs, placed on either side like two bronze columns,
served as a support for the final effort.

“But, wonder of wonders! this Hercules, a moment since so strong and
proud, now bows his head; his arms, riveted to the box, undergo a
violent muscular contraction; his legs give way, and he falls on his
knees with a yell of agony.

“An electric shock, produced by an induction apparatus, had been
passed, on a signal from me, from the further end of the stage into
the handle of the box. Hence the contortions of the poor Arab!

“It would have been cruelty to prolong this scene. {152}

“I gave a second signal, and the electric current was immediately
intercepted. My athlete, disengaged from his terrible bondage, raised
his hands over his head.

“ ‘Allah! Allah’ he exclaimed, full of terror; then, wrapping himself
up quickly in the folds of his burnous, as if to hide his disgrace,
he rushed through the ranks of the spectators and gained the front
entrance.

“With the exception of the dignitaries occupying the stage boxes and
the privileged spectators, in the body of the house, who seemed to
take great pleasure in this great experiment, my audience had become
grave and silent, and I heard the words ‘_Shaitan!_’ ‘_Djenoum!_’
passing in a murmur round the circle of credulous men, who, while
gazing on me, seemed astonished that I possessed none of the physical
qualities attributed to the angel of darkness.”

The Marabout priests constantly boasted of their invulnerability.
They were reputed to be possessed of powerful talismans which
caused loaded weapons to flash in the pan when fired at them.
Houdin counteracted these claims by performing his celebrated
bullet-catching feat, in which a marked bullet apparently shot from a
gun is caught by the magician in a plate or between his teeth. There
are two ways of accomplishing this trick. One is by substituting
a bullet of hollow wax for the real leaden bullet. The explosion
scatters the wax into minute fragments which fly in all directions
and do not come in contact with the person shot at; provided he
stands at a respectable distance from the individual who handles the
pistol or gun. The second method is to insert into the barrel of the
weapon a small tube open at one end. Into this receptacle the bullet
falls, and the tube is withdrawn from the gun in the act of ramming
it, forming as it were a part of the ramrod. The performer, once in
possession of the little tube, secretly extracts the marked bullet
and produces it at the proper time. Houdin had recourse to both ways
of performing this startling trick. Sometimes he filled the wax
bullet with blood, extracted from his thumb. When the bullet smashed
against a white wall it left a red splash. Houdin, after traveling
into the interior of Algeria, visiting many prominent chieftains,
returned to France, and settled down at St. Gervais, a suburb {153}
of Blois. He relinquished his theatre to his brother-in-law, Pierre
Chocat (M. Hamilton), and devoted himself to scientific work, and
writing his _Confidences_ and other works on natural magic.


VI.

Houdin called his villa at St. Gervais the “Priory,” a rather
monastic title. It was a veritable palace of enchantments. Electrical
devices played an important part in its construction, as well
as automata. The Pepper ghost illusion was rigged up in a small
pavilion on the grounds. A mechanical hermit welcomed guests to a
grotto: Houdin’s friends jestingly called the place “_L’Abbaye de
l’Attrape_ (_la Trappe_),” or “Catch’em Abbey.” The pun is almost
untranslatable. “_Attrape_” is a trap, in French. You have a Trappist
Monastery. I need say no more. During the Franco-Prussian War,
Houdin’s neighbors brought their valuables to him to be concealed. He
had a hiding place built which defied detection. But the Prussians
never bothered him.

Says William Manning (_Recollections of Robert-Houdin_, London, 1891):

“Robert-Houdin’s employment of electricity, not only as a moving
power for the performance of his illusions, but for domestic
purposes, was long in advance of his time. The electric bell, so
common to us now, was in every-day use _for years_ in his own house,
before its value was recognized by the public.

“He had a favorite horse, named Fanny, for which he entertained great
affection, and christened her ‘the friend of the family.’ She was
of gentle disposition and was growing old in his service; so he was
anxious to allow her every indulgence, especially punctuality at
meals and full allowance of fodder.

“Such being the case, it was a matter of great surprise that Fanny
grew daily thinner and thinner, till it was discovered that her groom
had a great fancy for the art formerly practised by her master and
converted her hay into five-franc pieces! So Houdin dismissed the
groom and secured a more honest lad, but to provide against further
contingencies and neglect of duty he had {154} a clock placed in
his study, which with the aid of an electrical wire worked a food
supply in the stable, a distance of fifty yards from the house.
The distributing apparatus was a square funnel-shaped box which
discharged the provender in prearranged quantities. No one could
steal the oats from the horse after they had fallen, as the electric
trigger could not act unless the stable door was locked. The lock was
outside, and if any one entered before the horse finished eating his
oats, a bell would immediately ring in the house.

“This same clock in his study also transmitted the time to two large
clock-faces, placed one on the top of the house, the other on the
gardener’s lodge, the former for the benefit of the villagers.

“In his bell-tower he had a clockwork arrangement of sufficient power
to lift the hammer at the proper moment. The daily winding of the
clock was performed automatically by communication with a swing-door
in his kitchen, and the winding-up apparatus of the clock in the
clock-tower was so arranged that the servants in passing backward and
forward on their domestic duties unconsciously wound up the striking
movement of the clock.”

The Priory is now a partial ruin. It has passed out of his family.
Houdin died there June 13, 1871, after an illness of ten days.
His death was caused by pneumonia. The following is an extract of
the notice of his decease, taken from the registers of the civil
authorities of St. Gervais:

“June 14, 1871. Notice of the death of Robert-Houdin, Jean-Eugène,
died at St. Gervais, June 13, 1871, at 10 P. M., sixty-five years of
age. Son of the defunct Prosper Robert and Marie Catherine Guillon;
widower of his first wife Josephe Cecile Eglantine Houdin; married
the second time to Françoise Marguerite Olympe Naconnier; Court House
of St. Gervais, signed—The Mayor.” The signature is illegible.

William Manning was an intimate friend of Houdin. When the famous
conjurer went to London to exhibit, he lodged at the house of
Manning’s father. William was a young man at the time and deeply
enamored with conjuring exhibitions. {155} Houdin showed him many
favors and presented him with a number of souvenirs, among them being
a magic clock, a harlequin-in-the-box, etc., also a photograph of
himself, a copy of which Mr. Manning sent to me a few years ago,
during the course of a correspondence I had with him concerning
Houdin. Up to the time of his death the great conjurer exchanged
letters with his friend, then a grown man. Houdin’s closing years
were saddened by the tragic death of his son, Eugène, who was killed
at Reichshoffen in the Franco-Prussian War. He was a sub-lieutenant
in the French army and a graduate of the military school at St. Cyr.
He assisted his father on the stage, but abandoned conjuring for a
military career. In a letter to William Manning, dated September 11,
1870, Houdin describes the affair at Reichshoffen: . . . . “My son
was 33 years old; he was captain since 1866; he belonged to the 1st
Zouaves and was considered one of the bravest in that brave corps.
You can judge of it by the following extract from an article in the
_Figaro_, of Sept. 3, entitled ‘An episode of Reichshoffen,’ an
extract from a private letter. This letter was undoubtedly written
by a soldier in my son’s company; it is signed with an X. I omit the
harrowing incidents which preceded this sad retreat. . . . ‘The line
had received orders to break up and were defeated, 35,000 against
140,000! My company (1st Zouaves) was drawn up on the battle-field,
to be used as sharp-shooters, alone, without artillery; we were
to resist the retreat. Upon the order of Captain Robert-Houdin,
Lieutenant Girard advanced with two men to reconnoitre the enemy. He
took three steps, and fell, crying: ’_Do not give up the Coucou_,
(a familiar expression applied to the flag). We carried him away
and the Captain shouted ‘Fire!’ The order to retreat came, but we
did not hear it, and continued to beat against a wall of fire which
illuminated our ranks. Soon our Captain fell, saying: ‘Tell them
. . . _that I fell facing the enemy_.’ A bullet had pierced his
breast. He was taken in the ambulance to Reichshoffen where he died,
four days later, from his wound.”

“My dear Manning, would you believe it, my brave son, mortally
wounded as he was, had the heroic courage amidst {156} flying shot to
take from his pocket a pencil and a card and to write these words:
‘Dear father, _I am wounded, but be reassured, it is only a trifle_.’
He could not sign this. The card and the envelope are stained with
his blood. This precious relic was sent to me from Reichshoffen after
my son’s death.”

[Illustration: LITHOGRAPHED INVITATION-TICKET DESIGNED BY HOUDIN.

(The signatures are those of Houdin and Hamilton.)]

Emile, the elder son who distinguished himself in the “Second-Sight
Trick,” as soon as his father retired from the stage, became a
watchmaker. He published a work on horology to which his father wrote
the following preface:

“I have often been asked why my son did not follow the career I had
opened for him in prestidigitation, but preferred instead the study
of horology. My answer to the question may be used fitly as a preface
to this pamphlet.

“If you believe in hereditary vocations, here is a case for their
just application. My son’s maternal great-grandfather, Nicolas
Houdin, was a watchmaker of great merit in the last century. J. F.
Houdin, his son, has gained, as is well known, a prominent place
among the most distinguished watchmakers of his time. A certain
modesty, which you will understand, prevents me from praising
my father as highly; I shall only say {157} that he was a very
skilful and ingenious watchmaker. Before devoting myself to the art
of conjuring, based on mechanism, I, too, was for a long time a
watchmaker and achieved some success.

[Illustration]

“With such genealogy, should one not be predestined to horology?
Therefore my son was irresistibly drawn to his {158} vocation, and
he took up the art which Berthoud and Bréguet have made famous. It
was from the latter of the two celebrated masters that he learned the
elements of the profession of his forefathers.”

Emile was subsequently induced to take up the magic wand, and in
conjunction with Professor Brannet gave many clever entertainments.
During his management the old theatre[22] in the Palais Royal was
abandoned, and a new theatre erected on the Boulevard des Italiens.
He held this property until his decease in 1883. The theatre was
partly destroyed by fire, January 30, 1901, but was rebuilt.

[22] Houdin’s original theatre in the _Galerie de Valois_
of the Palais Royal has long ago been swallowed up in the
alterations made in the building. M. Trewey, in the spring
of 1905, met an old man, a former employee of the Palais,
who remembered seeing Houdin perform in 1845–46, but he
could not even locate the little theatre. How soon are
the glories of the past forgotten by a fickle public. The
theatre has been divided into two or three shops.

The only surviving members of the family are Madame Emile
Robert-Houdin, widow of the elder son, and a daughter who is married
to M. Lemaitre Robert-Houdin, a municipal officer of Blois, who has
adopted the name of Houdin. Robert-Houdin is interred in the cemetery
of Blois. A handsome monument marks his grave.

At the Paris Exhibition of 1844, Houdin was awarded a medal for the
ingenious construction of automata; at the Exhibition of 1855 he
received a gold medal for his scientific application of electricity
to clocks. He invented an ophthalmoscope to enable the operator to
examine the interior of his own eye. From important papers in the
possession of M. Lemaitre it seems more than probable that Houdin had
worked out the secret of the modern telephone before it had been made
known to the world at large.

Houdin has been considered of such importance and interest in France
that in Didot’s _Nouvelle Biographie Générale_ a whole page is


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Online LibraryHenry Ridgely EvansThe Old and the New Magic → online text (page 14 of 28)