WHAT WE HIDE: PROBLEMS IN ALGERIA, PART TWO

“Andre Malraux said, ‘You are not what you show; you are what you hide.’ This is a blog for magicians who regard the art of magic, and how its history is still an important element of that art.” —Jim

MAY 2022

PROBLEMS IN ALGERIA, PART TWO

(This is a continuation of the previous blog posting.)

5) What was the Light and Heavy Chest?

The Light and Heavy Chest may provide us with one of most artistic and important lessons ever offered by Robert-Houdin. It tells us about the magician’s understanding. It inspires us with his cleverness and creativity. But because of Robert-Houdin’s skills at storytelling, he deliberately offered a misleading account. To many readers, the Light and Heavy Chest has come to represent a story about concealed technology and magic. As the famous science-fiction writer Arthur Clarke later expressed a similar sentiment, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But that story is not accurate.

The Light and Heavy Chest was a standard effect in Robert-Houdin’s theater in Paris, performed in the mid-1840s. The magician wrote about its history in his book (published posthumously) titled The Secrets of Stage Conjuring. A little wooden cashbox with a single handle could be either “light,” or “heavy,” as the magician desired. When it was light, it could be picked up by a little finger through the handle. When the magician commanded the box to be heavy, a spectator could not lift it off the stage. The secret, of course, was an electromagnet, hidden beneath the floorboards of a ramp over the pit in the theater. The electromagnet was connected to a bank of batteries and a switch backstage, in the hands of an assistant. A plate of iron in the bottom of the box, effectively magnetized it to the stage.

Despite the magician’s claim that the trick may have been his most “daringly ingenious,” it was not especially a success in his performances. Perhaps the presentation was stark and uninteresting, actually hinting at the secret. Robert-Houdin recalled his patter:

This chest serves me as a strong box when I have any money to lock up. […] I have only to pass my hand over I, like this, and you may now satisfy yourselves that the strongest man in the world would waste his strength in vain, in the endeavor to remove it from its place… yet, at my command, the chest is no longer heavy….

In those presentations, it was literally a “light and heavy” chest, as if some force seemed to hold it fast to the ground. Public demonstrations of electromagnetism had been prominent from Michael Faraday’s important work in the 1830s, at least a decade before Robert-Houdin’s use of the principle. A sophisticated Parisian audience, interested in scientific novelties, came to suspect the use of the principle: Robert-Houdin admitted this in his writings.

Still, we might notice that the use of electromagnetism would not have mattered to the public. If, instead, an assistant had been concealed beneath the wooden ramp, and the assistant had been given a powerful magnet, it’s possible he could have raised the magnet so that it was attracted to the bottom of the cash box. In other words, to most of the public, “magnetism” was the only secret necessary to explain the Light and Heavy Chest; they didn’t need to understand the novel work of Faraday and the practical uses of wet-cell batteries.

Robert-Houdin wrote in The Secrets of Stage Conjuring:

At a later period, when electro-magnetism had become more generally known, I thought it advisable to make an addition […] in order to throw the public off the scent as to the principle on which the illusion was based.

He added a special mechanical pulley in the ceiling of the theater; the lower half of the wheel, visible to the audience, gave the impression of an ordinary pulley. A rope, running through the pulley, was tied around the box so that it could be lifted in the air. When the magician commanded the box to become heavy again, the special pulley would add a mechanical advantage to the rope: the box would slowly descend to the stage, as if becoming heavy again, picking up several hapless spectators who held onto the rope tightly.

He explained in his book, “This experiment cannot well be performed save in a place […] whose ceiling is not very lofty.”

When the trick was brought to the Algerian theater, it was without the special pulley, which would not have been practical with the “lofty” ceiling of the Bab-Azoun. The trick was described very briefly in the 1857 article:He then told them that it was in his power to deprive them of all strength, and to restore it to them at will, and he produced a small box, so light that a child could lift it with its finger, but it suddenly became so heavy that the strongest men present could not raise it, and the Arabs, who prize physical strength above everything, looked with terror at the great magician. 

In 1857, the story was still in transition. Notice the presentation, that he could “deprive them of all strength,” which was the clever new twist for the trick. But the newspaper description was still being confused with his original Paris presentation: “[the box] suddenly became so heavy.”

A year later, in the Memoirs, the story was artfully and efficiently told, complete with the frustrated exertions of the volunteer.

“Are you quite 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 as a little child.” With all possible gravity, I made an imposing gesture, and solemnly pronounced the words: “Behold! You are now 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 a violent tug, but this time the box resisted, and, in spite of his most vigorous attacks, would not budge an inch.

In the 1857 account, the trick ended there, with a frustrated volunteer. But in the 1858 Memoirs, Robert-Houdin added an account of a special climax:

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 inductive 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. 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 burnoose, as if to hide his disgrace, he rushed through the ranks of the spectators and gained the front entrance.

Again we may appreciate how Robert-Houdin was adjusting his story and finding the most dramatic, appealing elements. Now the Arab’s frustrated cries to Allah (a year earlier, the climax of the gun trick), are assigned to the victim of the Light and Heavy Chest.

Attempting to clarify Robert-Houdin’s brief description of the secret “inductive apparatus,” Professor Hoffmann provided more technical details in the last pages of Modern Magic, explaining the principle of an induction coil, which produces a powerful shock. Today it’s called a spark coil; at the time of Robert-Houdin, it was known as a Ruhmkorff coil, after its inventor.

But how would this spark coil have been combined with the Light and Heavy Chest? The Ruhmkorff coil, and the necessary batteries, were not hidden inside the box, as both the battery and the coil were prohibitively large in 1856. The magician suggested that the apparatus was at “the further end of the stage,” attached through wires, and was turned on and off by an assistant. This meant the box itself would have needed two separate plates, on the bottom, which made electrical contacts through the stage. It would have been a fussy system, working against the easy handling of the electromagnet for the Light and Heavy Chest. Similarly, the use of two separate handles, to deliver a shock, would have been impractical for the electromagnetic elements of the Light and Heavy Chest: the box must be lifted by pulling straight up, using a single handle.

Since the induction coil finale was not described in the 1857 newspaper article, we may wonder whether this really happened, or whether it was an artistic exaggeration later included in the description for magicians. In a 1939 article, French magician J. Joseph-Renaud recalled the anecdotes of a General Devaux, who had known Robert-Houdin in Algeria. Devaux described a special automaton that the magician brought on his travels, one that had never been described by Robert-Houdin in his own books.

He had a metallic mannequin made to represent a French captain, with his hand extended. “When one is a friend of France,” he said, “one can safely shake the hand of this officer. Try! […] But if one is an enemy of my country, here is what happens […] Try now.” This time, a strong electrical current was sent through the mannequin; the Arabs who touched the outstretched hand received a painful shock.

Was this mechanical man included in the performances at the Bab-Azoun Theatre? If General Devaux’s recollection was correct, it suggests that the magician had been experimenting with a Ruhmkorff coil before his visit to Algeria. It also suggests, again, that Robert-Houdin’s good taste as a writer and editor guided his Memoirs. Instead of describing this mechanical soldier—a silly novelty offering a childish, demeaning moral for his Arab audiences—he may have reassigned the climax of this trick, the unexpected shock, as a dramatic fillip to his account of the Light and Heavy Chest.

To conclude the discussion of this famous trick, we should recognize Robert-Houdin’s important lesson. It was not about technology, but presentation. In Paris, the trick had been politely presented as a very special box that could resist being stolen by magically becoming heavy. In Algiers, the magician treated it as an ordinary wooden box, but insisted that he could cast a spell over a man, causing that man to lose all his strength. It was a brilliant example of nuanced presentation.

But, because the magician omitted earlier references to the trick in the Memoirs—the fact that it had been a standard part of his repertoire—many readers have assumed that it was specially devised and constructed for the Arab audience, and that the electromagnet was utilized precisely because it would have been unrecognized by a “primitive” culture and treated as real magic. The use of the Light and Heavy Chest has defined Robert-Houdin’s role as a sophisticated, inventive wizard, apparently using modern science to crush foolish superstition. 

6) What was his mission? Did he present himself as a wizard or as a deceiver?

With the questions about the Light and Heavy Chest, we reach the central problem with Robert-Houdin’s Algerian performances. What was his mission? Did he understand the purpose of it?

In the 1857 article, it was explained that Robert-Houdin had been sent to Algeria, “probably the first time that a conjuror has been called upon to exercise his profession in government employ,” and he was to “destroy the influence exercised among the Arab tribes by the marabouts, an influence that was mischievously applied.” Robert-Houdin was sent to “eclipse their skill.”

From this, it’s not completely clear whether he was to present himself as a genuine French sorcerer—a man with greater magic than the marabouts—or as an expert in scientific deception. If his point had been to impress them, but confess that he used natural means to accomplish his repertoire, Robert-Houdin would have made the point that his trickery was more miraculous than the supposed supernatural powers of the marabout.

Notice that, if Robert-Houdin was pretending to perform real magic—for the first time in his career—it would have been difficult to argue to the Algerians that magical powers did not exist.

This confusion is written into Robert-Houdin’s first description of the mission: “they hoped […] to prove […] that the tricks of the marabouts were mere child’s play, and owing to their simplicity could not be done by an envoy from Heaven.” In other words, he wanted to demonstrate that there was nothing magical about the marabouts’ feats. But Robert-Houdin concluded that very same sentence with a contrary view: “we are their superiors in everything, and, as for sorcerers, there are none like the French.” There he suggested that the point of his sorcery was to be convincingly superior.

According to the Memoirs, his confusion about his role apparently continued throughout the first minutes of his performance:

As soon as I walked on the stage, I felt quite at my ease, and enjoyed, in anticipation, the sight I was going to amuse myself with. I felt, I confess, rather inclined to laugh at myself and my audience, for I stepped forth, wand in hand, with all the gravity of a real sorcerer. Still, I did not give way, for I was here not merely to amuse a curious and kind public, I must produce a startling effect upon coarse minds and prejudices, for I was enacting the part of a French marabout.

And then he quickly changed his mind. Beginning the show in grave silence, which he thought would be staid and threatening, only made the performance uneasy. Instead, he began to address the audience directly, through the translators, soliciting laughter that made the performance more comfortable.

Notice that, if he had intended to demonstrate mere scientific wonders, and then point out that such explainable deceptions made claims for the supernatural superfluous, Robert-Houdin’s original presentation for the Light and Heavy Chest (“At my command, the chest is no longer heavy”) would have been perfectly suitable. Similarly, he would have needed no claim of invulnerability to perform the gun trick, nor any threat for the Arab who joined him onstage to disappear from beneath the cone.

Whatever the intention of his performance, we can recognize that, shortly after the performance, the army officials found it necessary to make a sort of course correction. They made a clear effort to explain that the French marabout was not an actual wonder worker. The magician wrote in the Memoirs:

The blow was struck: henceforth the interpreters and all those who had dealings with the Arabs received orders to make them understand that my pretended miracles were only the result of skill, inspired and guided by an art called prestidigitation, in no way connected with sorcery.

This correction was clearly written in a newspaper article several days after the show. The public would now be “aware of the truth,” and apparent wizards would be exposed:

[None of the festival events could] produce as vivid an impression on the Arabs as Robert-Houdin’s performance. The Marshall’s goal was not simply to provide new entertainment for them. In showing the Arabs a Christian superior to the fake sharifs who have tricked them so often, the Marshall believed he would likewise expose and subvert such trickery, which the public, aware of the truth, could resist in the future. 

In the Memoirs, Robert-Houdin wrote that “the Arabs yielded to these arguments, for henceforth I was on the most friendly terms with them. Each time a chief saw me, he never failed to come up and press my hand.” But as a storyteller, he could not resist contradicting this point and portraying himself as a genuine wizard who inspired fear. Just a page later in his text, he described a ceremony at the governor’s palace, in which he was hosted by a group of the most important chieftains:

I went round the group, offering my hand to each in turn. But my task was remarkably abridged, for the ranks thinned at my approach, as many of the company had not the courage to take the hand of a man they had seriously regarded as a sorcerer or the demon in person.

We can only speculate about the muddled mission. Perhaps de Nevue had not been clear about the desired results. Perhaps Robert-Houdin, an experienced performer and actor, felt extemporaneous inspiration, and “laid it on thick,” as a modern performer might say. After the event, the army officials and the magician tried to make adjustments, but the confusion didn’t inspire trust in the importance of the mission.

 

7) What was the response from his audience?

There’s no question that Robert-Houdin performed these shows, and that they were successful. Although there are only a few contemporaneous accounts verifying the Bab-Azoun performances, they record a positive result. A government report noted:

The skillful prestidigitator’s marvelous tricks made a profound impact on the local imagination; within days, word of them flew from mouth to mouth and they are everywhere the topic of conversation, between townsfolk in the cafes and fellahs in their tents or huts.

Several days after the show, sixteen chieftains presented him with a beautiful scroll of tribute, written in Arabic and translated into French, and then they solemnly affixed their seals to the document. Colonel de Neveu affixed his own seal in the seventeenth spot, suggesting that he had influenced the production of the scroll. Robert-Houdin proudly quoted part of the text:

He has known how to stir our hearts and astonish our minds, by displaying to us the surprising facts of his marvelous science. Our eyes were never before fascinated by such prodigies. What he accomplishes cannot be described. We owe him our gratitude for all the things by which he has delighted our eyes and our minds.

This romantic account has, in recent years, been slightly spoiled by a careful reading of the scroll, which still exists. Robert-Houdin did not quote the other, more ambiguous parts of the document: “Generous and knowledgeable men went to admire the marvels of his science.” A careful translation of the original Arabic demonstrates that he “entertained” or “diverted the thoughts” of his audience. “The overall connotation,” a recent author concluded, “is that Robert-Houdin’s act was seen as a prodigiously amusing curiosity of knowledgeable performance—not terrifying sorcery as the magician’s narration implies.” 

Once again, the muddled mission (did he attempt to be a wizard or a deceiver?) was being reflected in the text of the scroll. Robert-Houdin was admired as an entertainer. He showed the population many marvelous things. But the actual meaning of his tricks was now open to interpretation. Magicians now know, from centuries of exposing fraudulent psychics, that demonstrating similar tricks, accomplished by natural means, does not convince an audience that supernatural magic is impossible. Neither Robert-Houdin nor Colonel de Neveu would have understood this. The first great adventure of magicians challenging psychics, when the Davenport Brothers came to Europe, was still several years in the future.

The 1857 newspaper article concluded, “Thus forward, Houdin was venerated and the marabouts were despised; the object of the French Government was completely attained.” Most certainly, this was not the result of the show. The marabout continued to have influence in Algeria, and Robert-Houdin’s performances figured in no real histories of the colonial government, besides the magician’s own Memoirs.

Robert-Houdin’s good taste caused him to revise this grandiose statement before he published his Memoirs a year later. In the 1858 book, he reported rather modestly, not that the marabouts were ruined, but that an Arab in his audience had expressed the opinion, “Our marabouts must now do very great miracles to astonish us.”

Unfortunately, Robert-Houdin’s Algerian adventure, the last chapters of the Memoirs, is told with the voice of a careless colonial, too often dismissive of native culture and arrogant about his own abilities. But in his conclusions about his performances, the reader is comforted to hear the sweet, eager-to-please voice of the ambitious, slightly neurotic young performer, whom we have come to love from the earliest pages of the Memoirs:

These statements […] were very agreeable to me, for up to that moment I had felt rather uneasy; and although I was certain I had produced a startling impression by my performances, I was enchanted at learning that the object of my mission had been carried out. […] The marshal [assured] me that my performances […] had produced the happiest effect in the minds of the natives.

There is no claim to have stopped a war. Simply that the shows produced “the happiest effect.”

8) Was he challenged to perform the Bullet Catching trick?

Some of the most memorable adventures from Algeria came during Robert-Houdin’s account of his travels inland, after watching a performance of the Aissawa, a group of religious charismatics who specialized in various endurance feats, like eating crushed glass, or running hot irons across their skin.

He was invited to visit Bou Allem’s home near Medeah, about thirty-five miles from Algiers. (Bou Allem appears in the photo above; he is second from the right, seated, wearing white stockings with a dark beard.) There he was asked to entertain about a dozen local dignitaries. The group apparently included a marabout. When the conversation turned to Robert-Houdin’s impressive performance in Algiers, the magician felt an obligation to offer a few tricks. He succeeded in picking the pocket (actually, as it was explained, the sash) of the marabout, taking his watch surreptitiously and exchanging it for a coin. His little sleight-of-hand trick was greeted with a haughty challenge. “I hope you will not fear to repeat here a trick you performed in your theater,” the marabout said, producing two pistols from beneath his burnoose. 

Robert-Houdin convinced the man that he could repeat the gun trick the following morning. Once he retired to his room, he carefully preparing special bullets to carry out his deception. The next morning, the magician stood outside the house and was surrounded by a crowd of people. A gun was loaded and fired at the magician. He succeeded in apparently catching the bullet in his teeth. In turn, he took the second gun and fired at a whitewashed wall. There, a splatter of red blood appeared.

This second performance of the gun trick, the result of a direct challenge by a marabout, served as an effective magical climax to the book. It’s the only place in the Memoirs where the author actually explains the secret of one of his tricks. (Even his description in of the Light and Heavy Chest in that book simply explained it as an electrical trick, and didn’t include the word “electromagnet.”) But here the author carefully explained how he prepared for the trick by casting the hollow wax bullets for it, filling one with blood drawn from his thumb.

These details of storytelling naturally belie the silliness of the story. Robert-Houdin apparently had been brought to the home of a chieftain, treated hospitably as an honored guest, but discovered a marabout among the visitors. A coin trick, an obvious bit of sleight-of-hand, inspired a deadly challenge to stop a bullet from his pistol. The marabout conveniently had secreted not one, but two pistols on his person, for Robert-Houdin’s presentation, the next day, required two different loaded pistols.

Once again, the tale was complicated by the confused mission of the magician. The improbability seemed to have been recognized by the author, who explained:

Bou Allem, being aware that my tricks were only the result of skill, was angry that his guest should be so pestered; hence he began reproaching the marabout. I stopped him, however, for an idea had occurred to me, which would save me from my dilemma, at least temporarily.

Of course, there was no dilemma to be solved. Robert-Houdin was not a real sorcerer, and was not being introduced that way. Having made this point on behalf of the army, he could have easily laughed off the challenge. Still, if we are to believe the story as written in the Memoirs, he demonstrated the bullet catching trick for reasons of personal pride.

9) Did Robert-Houdin meet a marabout?

The gun trick suggests an interesting question.

There is no record that any marabouts were invited to the performance, or that the magic was intended for them. It’s clear that Robert-Houdin was not challenging the marabouts directly. Instead, he had been brought to demonstrate French magic for the chieftains, who had been influenced by the marabouts. It was a slightly complicated formula—a duel with someone who wasn’t necessarily there. 

While the two different descriptions of the gun trick were perfectly believable, the inclusion of the marabout spectators, the first pushing his way through the crowd and the second disrupting a private group to threaten the magician, sound like suspiciously dramatic bogey men. Robert-Houdin’s travelogue in Algeria included a careful description of the pumpkin soup he was served, the veranda of the hotel, the visitors he witnessed and the Arabian process of sharing tobacco. But there was no physical description of a marabout, and nothing to distinguish these obvious villains within the story.

Once we understand the luxurious nature of the Bab-Azoun performance, we might doubt the appearance the marabout in that setting. Could a madman have pushed his way through the crowd, picked up a gun and snarled, “I will kill you,” in front of the Governor-General and his family in the theater boxes? Could a marabout have been invited to Bou Allem’s home, and respond to Robert-Houdin’s coin trick by revealing two guns and challenging him to catch a bullet?

Because his marabout villains appeared and disappeared in such convenient ways (the magician changed his mind about marabout volunteers between his 1857 and 1858 descriptions), we may ask if Robert-Houdin ever had any real interactions with this religious group. They may have been the objects of his mission, but still never figured in the adventures. Did any marabout serve as his opponent? Did he actually meet one?

10) How has the Algerian show influenced magic?

The answer is disappointing, but I’d suggest that Robert-Houdin’s storytelling prowess was only partly to blame. He concluded that his performances had “the happiest effect” on the native population. Subsequent magic histories have burnished the legend to a perfectly unrealistic glow; for the last century, we have read that the Father of Modern Magic “destroyed an influence very dangerous to the French Government” (Mahatma magazine) or persuaded “the Algerians [to give] up their continual fighting”  or “did the most for the pacification of Algeria” or was personally summoned “by Louis Napoleon” so that he could present a “display of French supernatural power” and “the rebellion was put down,” miraculously “avoiding a war in Algeria.” 

Let me end with a different conclusion, not about colonial soldiers or native uprisings, wizardry or fakery, but about a book.

Robert-Houdin should not have been criticized for writing a literate, inspiring and slightly exaggerated autobiography. It’s a shame that, in the subsequent century and a half of magic, fifty other magicians have not written autobiographies that were similarly literate, inspiring and slightly exaggerated. These books would have taught all of us to be not only appreciative of different kinds of magic, but to be genuinely discriminating about its history.

As it turned out, the Memoirs of Robert-Houdin taught a thirteen-year old magician, Erich Weiss that magicians could aspire to be artistic and important. The book convinced him that a magician could be inventive, insightful and even politically astute. Later, when he was famous as Harry Houdini and made his first trip to Europe, those same Memoirs taught that same magician, before he had turned thirty years old, that history is written. Even more important, Houdini learned a useful corollary: that people choose to write history.

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