Last night we moved into the last three weeks of this season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us, and what an episode it was. All of the acts were strong, and Penn and Teller performed a very famous trick for the first time on television. Unfortunately, it was once again pre-empted on some of the East Coast CW channels, this time by a football game, so here is the link for those who missed it.
And, without further ado, onto the performers:
Scott Alexander & Puck: There was a lot to like in this performance. Alexander and Puck have a great chemistry together, and they performed a lovely routine with a climax evocative of Houdini’s walking through a brick wall. In this case, the routine was structured around escaping from Alcatraz by passing through solid metal bars, starting with a bowling ball produced out of nesting suitcases and ending with a handcuffed Puck. In other hands, it is a routine that might have gone the route of dark and dangerous, but Alexander and Puck kept it light and funny, and it was all the stronger for it. It didn’t fool Penn and Teller, but it was a great routine all the same.
Eric Jones: It’s not often that I use the word “masterful” to describe a performer, but I’ve got to do it here. This was a confident performance of astounding and baffling coin magic, and it was indeed masterful. By making the magic with the appearing and disappearing coins happen in the hands of his volunteers, Jones made the routine even more magical and astonishing… and elevated it to the best performance of the night. He even fooled Penn and Teller while he was at it.
Mark Calabrese: The best magicians are the ones whose performance makes knowing the method irrelevant to the enjoyment of the trick, but there are exceptions. I have a pretty good idea of what Calabrese was doing, and this is one case where knowing the method made me like it even more because of its cleverness. It was a great use of marking cards on the fly, and the escalation of finding the selected card among multiple decks, while tossing the rejects into a wood chipper, was gleefully fun. It didn’t fool Penn and Teller, but speaking personally, I have a feeling that if it had been truly baffling, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much.
Paul Vigil: There’s something to be said about how much stage presence matters, and Vigil is an almost perfect example. From the moment he came onto the stage, he projected the mysterious and powerful presence of a man who can read and manipulate your thoughts… perfect for a mentalism act. The routine itself was a good example of how less can be more – it was a simple and direct prediction routine, and it needed nothing else to be a great trick. Penn and Teller weren’t fooled, but it was a routine where that just didn’t matter.
Penn and Teller: “Shadows” was a trick I had heard about a while ago and wanted to see for a very long time. It is haunting, a stark and beautiful act of violence. Teller is malicious, destroying a rose because he can, and then displaying the blood on his hands from the act. It’s a meditation on evil and cruelty, all the more powerful for its silence. Given time, it could become remembered as one of the legendary tricks in magic, and that brings us to today’s commentary.
For over a century, magicians have sought the holy grail of magic. It was known as the Indian Rope Trick, and it was tantalizing and mysterious, a creation of the mystical East and the greatest magic trick any magician could ever perform.
Or so they thought.
In reality, it had begun as a hoax in the Chicago Tribune on August 9, 1890, written by John E. Wilkie (1860-1934), the very man who would one day head up the United States Secret Service. There had been earlier legends – stories of jugglers and fakirs throwing a ball of rope or chain into the air and climbing it appear in a number of sources (most, if not all, of which are set in China). For his own story, Wilkie had quite likely drawn upon Harry Keller’s 1886 book A Magician’s Tour, which described a version of the trick while declaring that anybody who actually believed they had seen it must have been high on hasheesh.
Wilkie’s hoax – an eyewitness account of the rope trick legend – was an attempt to boost readership. It supposedly recounted the travels of Fred S. Ellmore (the middle initial and last name deliberately tipping the actual purpose of the article), who had witnessed a remarkable feat while in India. They had watched a fakir place a rope onto the ground, which rose thirty or forty feet into the air. A young boy climbed the rope and then he and the rope disappeared. Fred and his friend George had been clever, though, the article noted. Fred had used his trusty Kodak camera to photograph it, while George sketched what he had seen. George’s sketch showed a young boy climbing the rope as the fakir sat below. The photo, however, revealed everything – there had never been any rope or boy… just a fakir sitting on the ground. The article claimed triumphantly that the fakir could hypnotize the crowd, but not the camera. When the Tribune was pressed on the matter, it admitted that the story had been a hoax to boost readership. But nobody really read the retraction. It was exactly the right story at the right time to become a legend itself.
For an increasingly secular and rational West, it was a welcome bit of wonder from the exotic India in which mystery still thrived. For Western magicians, it was a direct and tantalizing challenge, something to be sought out and sometimes even condemned. After all, the Indian fakirs could not possibly be as sophisticated as modern Western conjurers… who could not wait to reproduce the trick and make it their own.
Part of the allure was its perceived impossibility. Levitation effects were not unknown, but they were very difficult. Most of the time, they required an apparatus on the ceiling of the theatre with a multitude of invisible wires to suspend the assistant. To do it outdoors in the open air was an almost insurmountable challenge.
The early reaction from magicians was two-fold. The Magic Circle in England tried to debunk it, offering 500 guineas in 1934 to anybody who could perform the authentic Indian Rope Trick. Others saw it as a trick of immense antiquity, aided by the publication of a number of stories of Eastern miracles. It did not help that in the mid-late 19th century there was another “Indian Rope Trick” being performed – an escape from being tied up with rope.
European magicians flooded into India, looking for any fakir who could perform the Indian Rope Trick. The main effect of this was to drive the fakirs of India crazy – not only had they never performed it, they had never even heard of it. The closest they came was pole balancing, photographs of which were sent back to European newspapers as proof that the trick was indeed performed in India (even though it was obvious that no rope was involved). This didn’t stop European magicians from inventing their own methods, usually requiring a proper theatre, and sometimes even donning makeup to present themselves as fakirs (with most of these fake fakirs having never even been to India). Before long, versions of the Indian Rope Trick were being performed by magicians across the Western world, with performers like Howard Thurston (1869-1936) and Horace Goldin (1873-1939) billing it on their posters.
The longer the trick was sought out, the more its legend grew, to the point that even the search for the trick became legendary. Writers began to claim that in 1875 the Viceroy of India, Lord Northbrook, had issued a proclamation across India offering £10,000 to any conjurer who could present the trick to the Prince of Wales during his visit – a proclamation that is notably absent from any of the records of that time. As India began to lay its own claim to it, with Indian newspapers declaring the trick a long-held tradition of the fakirs, the description of the trick became more bloody and horrifying. No longer did the boy simply climb the rope and disappear – the fakir now climbed after him, carrying a sharp knife and vanishing in turn. Then the dismembered pieces of the boy fell to the ground, followed by the fakir climbing back down the rope. The fakir would put the body parts into a basket, from which the boy would rise, unharmed.
Today, the Indian Rope Trick is generally accepted as a myth, its origins in the Chicago Tribune understood. But, by the middle of the 20th century, it was not only the most famous trick in magic, it was an illusion that had come to embody the mystery of the East. It became magic’s Holy Grail, and when magicians could not find it in India, they created it themselves.
In 1997, an Indian street performer named Ishamuddin Khan performed at the Gily Gily Convention in Udupi, India, just south of Mumbai. In front of 25,000 people, including several Western magicians, he caused a rope to rise 19 feet into the air. A small boy climbed two thirds of the way up the rope, posed for photographs, and climbed back down. The rope then collapsed. It was his second attempt at the trick (his first had been in 1995, and the rope had only risen about six feet), and it may have been the first time in history that a proper version of the Indian Rope Trick was performed by a fakir in India. After all, in the end it was just too good a trick not to bring into reality.
Author’s Note: Since this is a feature about magic, we must ask for discretion when it comes to discussing methods in the forums. For the sake of preserving the mystery for those who do not want to know how the tricks are done, as well as to avoid accidentally exposing the hard work of some very talented magicians, please avoid revealing methods in the discussion threads. If you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.
Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf’s Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf’s Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.