Magicians celebrate 100 years of sawing a woman in half.
Image from Islington Libraries Facebook page.
If you were asked to think of a magic trick you would probably either think of pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half, and it is the latter that is celebrating its one hundredth birthday today.
On the 15th January 1921 illusionist P.T. Selbit put a woman in a box on the stage of London's Finsbury Park Empire and sawed right through the wood, and seemingly through her too, for the very first time and in the process created a classic of magic that has been repeated and refined by magicians throughout the world ever since.
Penn & Teller perform their version of Sawing a Woman in Half
There remains a debate as to the exact origins of the idea, with some suggesting the idea can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Modern magic inventor Jim Steinmeyer wrote that a description of the illusion was published by the great French magician Jean Robert-Houdin in 1858, but Robert-Houdin's idea remained just that, an idea. And was never actually performed.
So Selbit is generally recognised as the first magician to perform such a trick on a public stage, which is supposed to have happened on the 15th January 1921. However, Selbit had actually performed the illusion a month early, in December 1920 before a select audience of promoters and theatrical agents at the St. George's Hall to try to persuade one of them to book him to perform it.
In Selbit's version; a female assistant got into a wooden box that was similar in proportion to a coffin but slightly larger. She was secured by ropes around her wrists, ankles and neck. The box was then closed, obscuring her from view.
After the box was placed in a horizontal position, Selbit proceeded to saw through the middle of it with a large hand saw. The impression given to the audience was that, because of the restraints and limited room in the box, the assistant's waist must have been in the path of the saw and she would surely have been cut through. Finally the box was opened and the assistant, still with ropes firmly attached in place, was revealed as unharmed.
The trick was so successful that within months of Selbit's premier American magician, Horace Goldin, presented a version of the trick where the assistant's head, hands and feet were in full view of the audience throughout the trick.
Goldin was aggressive in the use of legal measures to try to prevent anyone from competing with him. So much so, that when Selbit arrived in America to tour with his sawing illusion he found that Goldin had registered almost all possible titles for the act with the Vaudeville Managers' Protective Agency. Selbit was thus forced to bill his act as "The Divided Woman", which had less dramatic impact than the idea of sawing through a woman. Selbit tried to sue Goldin for stealing his idea but the action failed when it was ruled that Goldin's illusion was sufficiently different.
Over the years magicians have continued to come up with new and interesting ways of mutilating women in front of a live, paying audience (why this fetish remains so popular with magicians is beyond the scope of this blog).
That is until David Copperfield presented his version of the sawing in half illusion - But rather than sawing a woman in half, as all others had done before him, he decided to saw himself in half. This is thought to be the best version currently created.
David Copperfield performs his version of the sawing in half illusion.