Magicians have been around since a prehistoric man discovered he could grab the attention (and eventually the hearts, minds and possessions) of others by making rocks disappear and reappear. It helped some become feared leaders, others become shamans or other kinds of valued partners of leaders and, when science began taking the mystery out of their techniques, many become entertainers. Magic as entertainment has enjoyed a small renaissance due to televised talent competitions and one popular deception that still pops up is some form of cutting a person in half – or thirds or quarters or more, depending on the skill of the illusionist and the complexity of the equipment. We’ve seen it so often, it’s easy to forget that someone developed it and was the first to baffle audiences with the stage miracle. This week, we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the ‘sawing a woman in half’ illusion by magician P.T. Selbit.
"Unless someone fainted in the audience, they didn't consider it a good performance," he added. "And public taste at that stage - because it was just after the First World War - there was a feeling of fixing people as well... someone being subjected to this horrific thing but that they were alright at the end of it."
Good magicians, like good comedians, know that timing is everything, and Noel Britten, president of a London-based society of magicians called The Magic Circle, explains to Sky News why the timing was perfect for P.T. Selbit. Born in London in 1881 as Percy Thomas Tibbles, Selbit learned magic as a youth, reversed his last name into a stage name, and began performing. He became well known as an inventor of new illusions and once baffled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a séance Doyle described as the real thing.
After the end of World War I, audience tastes changed. They began demanding scarier illusions and, because fashions were changing at the start of the Roaring 20s, women’s clothing became skimpier. Both played a part in Selbit’s first public performance of sawing a woman in half at the Finsbury Park Empire theatre in London on January 17, 1921. Unlike modern versions, the woman’s entire body was placed in the box (no head or feet sticking out) and she was secured inside with ropes. The box was then tipped over and cut in half with a hand saw. (Spoiler alert!) The box was then reopened and she was still alive and tied up.
“This took off and became the most influential and the most famous illusion, in my opinion, that there’s ever been. The magician wasn’t doing this trick to an inanimate object. He was doing it to a human being, which raised it up to a whole new level.”
Magician and historian Mike Caveney who is writing a book on it, describes the impact of the illusion. Besides baffling and frightening audiences (Selbit sometimes dripped fake blood around, hinting that things sometimes went awry), it also changed the role of the magician’s assistant from male or female helper to pretty and scantily-clad female victim. As with most great illusions, other magicians attempted to duplicate it, refine it (head and legs exposed), expand it (separate the halves) and add more danger (power saws). American magician Horace Goldin was sued by Selbit for stealing the trick and the name, but Selbit lost and was forced to change the name of his to "The Divided Woman." Despite that, Selbit is recognized as the originator of the trick that changed stage magic, putting on a path of illusions of greater risks and dangers that continues to this day.
Not to mention the skimpy assistant’s outfits.