Widely considered the father of modern magic, French performer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–1871) discovered his deep-rooted love for these tricks at a young age. Robert-Houdin would attend his famous friends’ magic shows, making sure to pay close attention to any mistakes or mishaps they made along the way in case he ever took his tricks to the big leagues.
By day, Robert-Houdin spent his time building clocks for his family’s business. With this experience, he branched out and created other devices, including a small automaton that was later bought by circus legend P.T. Barnum. Robert-Houdin even built a theater he could call his own at the old Palais Royal in Paris. He was a natural on stage, and the fact that he wore regular evening attire rather than elaborate robes while performing caught the eyes of his colleagues and audience members.
How It Began
His biggest feat of all wasn’t just building his own theater — although that’s surely impressive enough. In 1856, French Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte III requested Robert-Houdin’s help in acquiring the French colony of Algeria after a rebellion of Algerian natives struck concern.
The emperor wanted to keep control of the colony and stop the religious holy men of the region, also known as marabouts, from encouraging rebellion, which they did through performing illusions. Some examples of these acts by marabouts were fire walking and snake charming. These performances would help convince their people that the mission (a.k.a. rebellion) was approved by Allah.
To avoid a battle of bloodshed, Napoleon III sought to simply prove French magic could outdo Algerian magic. There was hope that this tactic would catch the rebels by surprise and weaken their excitement to rebel and take back the colony.
How It Went Down
Robert-Houdin met local leaders at a theater and performed a variety of tricks, including pulling a seemingly impossible number of objects from a hat. He also allowed a rebel to shoot a marked bullet at him voluntarily. By a miracle (or should we say, by magic), he caught the bullet between his teeth!
As if that wasn’t wild enough, he then proceeded to prove to the marabouts how weak they were — literally. Robert-Houdin placed a small box with a handle on the ground and asked their strongest warrior to come lift the box. The muscular fellow did so the first time around with little to no effort.
But following a wave of Robert-Houdin’s magic wand and some clever words, the rebel warrior found he could no longer move the box. After several minutes of struggling, the defeated man let out a scream and fled from stage. The magician’s secret? An electromagnet underneath the floor to hold the box down, plus an electric shock to surprise the volunteer and send him running.
His performance not only broke the influence of the holy men but frightened them of what else Robert-Houdin was capable of. They realized their guns were merely useless and would never be as powerful as those of the French militia. Algeria remained a French colony for another year.
Whether or not that was a direct result of Robert-Houdin’s performance is difficult to say. However, his influence on future magicians is indisputable — just ask the man who named himself after the Frenchman: Harry Houdini.
By Sam McCormack, contributor for Ripleys.com
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