Magic Month: Robert-Houdin and the Marabout Uprising

October 12, 2012


In case you haven’t heard, October is Magic Month (!) and throughout the month, we’re going to be talking magic at corporate events, weddings and private parties. But we’re also going to talk a little about the history of Magic outside of events and no discussion of the history of magic is complete without a little something about the man often referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Magic’, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. In particular, we’re looking at a curious passage of the great conjurors life – when he quelled an uprising in Algeria through the power of Magic.

The Natives Become Restless

In 1856, Robert-Houdin was asked to cut short his retirement for a very unusual performance. Louis Napoleon’s army held control of French Algeria, but had become concerned by the growing influence of a religious tribe known to the French as the Marabouts. The Marabouts claimed the ability to perform miracles and influenced local tribes with fortune telling and other magical feats. To quote Robert-Houdin, “[they were] regarded by the Arabs as envoys of God on earth to deliver them from the oppression of the Roumi (Christians)” and their presence began to cause unrest in rural areas.

The French government were anxious to “destroy their pernicious influence” on the local tribes and tasked Robert-Houdin with proving to the natives that the tricks of the Marabouts “were mere child’s play... to show them that we are their superiors in everything, and, as for sorcerers, there are none like the French.” Locals were not so much invited to Robert-Houdin’s performance as forced, the French sent out a Military summons demanding the locals’ attendance at the show – not something you want to have to resort to for most events.

The Light and Heavy Chest

Robert-Houdin dazzled into a stunned silence as he performed his show; “Compared with the simple tricks of their pretend sorcerers, my experiments must appear perfect miracles to the Arabs” he later wrote. The magician produced cannon balls and flowers from his hat, made sweetmeats, coffee and then liquor appear in a seemingly empty bowl and even made a member of the audience disappear under a cone before reappearing outside the theatre. But Robert-Houdin’s goal was not to merely entertain his audience, his mission was to “startle and even terrify them by a display of supernatural power”.

That supernatural display came in the form of his trick “The Light and Heavy Chest” in which Robert-Houdin invited a member of the audience up on stage and tasked them with lifting a small chest. In the trick, the chest appears light at first and the participant lifts it with ease - but when magician asks him/her to lift the chest again, it becomes too heavy to move. But in order to terrify the locals that little bit further, Robert-Houdin’s version of the trick added an extra flourish of colonial cruelty; on attempting to lift the box a second time, the audience member received a searing jolt of pain and collapsed to the ground convulsing.

The Light/Heavy effect was achieved by flipping the switch on a hidden electromagnet that held the chest firmly in place when the power was on. The device had been rigged to deliver a shock to the audience member who, having never encountered electricity before, naturally assumed it was some kind of supernatural force.

The Bullet Catch

 One of the more impressive powers that the Marabouts claimed to possess was invulnerability. To prove it they would challenge locals to load and fire a pistol at them whereupon the Marabout would “pronounce some cabalistic words” and the gun would fail discharge. The Marabout in question had, of course, tampered with the firearm in advance and stopped up the vent to make sure it didn’t fire.

As you might expect, the French and Robert-Houdin were eager to one-up this display of invincibility and did so with a performance of the infamous “Bullet Catch”. Robert-Houdin declared that he possessed a talisman that made him invulnerable and challenged the audience’s best marksman to come forth and take his best shot. A man emerged from the audience shouting “I will kill you!” and, like any good magician Robert Houdin immediately handed him a cavalry pistol.

After checking that the gun had not been tampered with, the local declared “The weapon is good and I will kill you!” Robert-Houdin asked the man to mark bullet with a knife. He then placed an apple on the knife and held it out in front of his heart, inviting the marksman to take his shot. Unlike the Marabout version of the trick, the gun went off and the marked bullet became lodged in the apple.  On seeing his mark on the bullet, the marksman grabbed the apple from the magician, believing he “possessed in it an incomparable talisman” and could not be persuaded to give it up.  

From that point forward, the French were clear to point out that Robert Houdin possessed no supernatural powers and his ‘miracles’ were purely a result of his skill in the art of ‘prestidigitation’. Once word that he was not a demon was out, Robert-Houdin found himself on good terms with many of the locals and the influence of the Marabouts gradually diminished in the area.

Robert-Houdin and the Events Industry

So how does all this pertain to Corporate Events and Weddings? Can a magician be brought in to subdue a boardroom uprising? Can a card trick a cure a groom’s cold feet?... We wouldn’t discourage you from trying, but it’s doubtful. What it does show is the illustrative power of magic; rather than trying to convince the locals through speeches or force, the French chose to use entertainment to get their point across. Perhaps a little more subtly than this paragraph is doing. (Book some entertainment!)

If you’d like to find out more about his time in Algeria, Robert-Houdin’s memoirs are available as an eBook (and if you’re a fan of casual colonial racism, you’re in for a real treat). And for more info on booking a magician for a wedding or corporate event, head over to our contact page and get in touch.