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The French Magician
Who Squelched A Revolt

By Brad Steiger
Magic was my hobby when I was a teenager. I even performed at local talent shows (my sister was the "complete stranger" who would come up from the audience to assist in the difficult tricks). I very much admired the work of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), a French magician, who is considered the father of the modern style of stage performance. A practical man, Robert-Houdin had studied the art of watchmaking as a means of providing a living until his break came as an apprentice to De Grissi, a well-known conjurer of the day.
Robert-Houdin truly proved that he had mastered the art of legerdemain when Napoleon's III's Second French Empire sent him to Algeria to counter the magic being performed by the Marabouts, who sought to bring about a revolt against the French by their performance of false miracles.
From the time that the French first claimed Algeria as a territory, the unpredictable and impulsive native population meant trouble to those administrating it. Again and again for obscure, sometimes unstated, reasons the wild tribesman erupted in wild orgies of bloodletting.
Before the Arab incursions into North Africa in the eighth century, the inhabitants of the region had been pagan. Under Muslim influence, orthodox Sunni Islam became the faith of the larger number of the population, but within the larger body of Muslims a cult of holy men, Marabouts, developed their own variation of Islam. The Marabouts claimed baraka , divine grace, and the ability to perform miracles. While the more orthodox Sunni were located in the urban centers, the Marabouts were well-established in the rural and mountainous areas of Algeria and other parts of North Africa.
In 1856, the Marabouts, who controlled the will of the tribesmen by dazzling them with feats of magic, had all of Algeria on the brink of revolt. In a wise decision the colonial administration decided to try to beat the Marabouts at their own game and sent for Robert-Houdin, who had been entertaining the courts of Europe and had gained a reputation as the greatest magician in all the continent.
Robert-Houdin was small in stature, but to the Arabs who had seen him perform, his magic was as powerful as any of the Marabouts. The diminutive Frenchman had gained his initial success almost immediately after arriving in Algeria. Disguised as an Arab, he and a native confederate stole into one of the magic-religious ceremonies. His professional eyes quickly saw through the trickery of the Marabouts, and he was convinced that he could easily duplicate anything which they had done in the ceremony.
The next day the colonial administration announced that a "French Marabout" would put the native variety to shame. Curious, nearly every Arab around Algiers turned up for the show.
Even though Robert-Houdin unmasked every Marabout trick which he had witnessed, the Arabs who had gathered to view his performance remained mostly unimpressed. Only when he produced a small box and called on a fiercely anti-French native to assist him did the little magician raise a murmur of curiosity and excitement from the crowd.
"Lift this box," he asked the man. The Marabout follower, who was broad through the shoulders with a thick, muscular torso, had no trouble raising the little metal box over his head.
"Now," said Robert-Houdin, after taking the box from the man, "I will make you as weak as any of your wives,"
He then began an impromptu magic ritual, bringing his hands around the box several times, chanting incantations before placing the little box on the sand at his feet.
"Now, see if you can lift it," the little magician said confidently.
The Arab bent to the sand, grasped the box with both hands, and pulled. It would not budge. Surprised, he threw his strength into it, his strong back and torso straining against the magic box. But as much as he groaned and strained, the box would not budge.
"By the beard of the prophet," the man exclaimed to those who had gathered, "I cannot lift it from the ground."
Then, as if he did not believe what he had said, he tried to lift it again. But when he touched it a howl of pain came from his mouth and his body writhed in agony, as he was unable to release his hold on the little iron box.
The night before, Robert-Houdin had buried a strong electromagnet in the sand, and when the native bent to it the first time, Houdin threw the switch which held the iron box to the ground with enough force to prevent any man from lifting it. The second time Houdin allowed the current to pulse directly through the box, giving the native the first electric shock of his life.
Mercifully the magician released the switch, and the dazed Arab straightened up slowly. When he had recovered the full use of his senses, the man fled in fear from the magic box which had caused him such pain.
Robert-Houdin was no stranger to the use of electricity in his magician"s act. His first and greatest ambition in life was to be an inventor, though the things which he contrived were not well received by the public. He had, in fact, designed a crude model of the telephone almost fifty years before Alexander Graham Bell perfected the idea, but the world was simply not ready for Robert-Houdin"s invention.
Discouraged, he went on to construct automated toys and clocks, using his basic knowledge of electricity to great advantage. But he could not be satisfied with this profession, and when he accidentally came across a book of magic, Robert-Houdin quickly mastered every trick between its covers and began impressing his friends with his dexterity with a deck of cards.
While still a very young man Robert-Houdin, fell in with a traveling mountebank named Torrini. This man impressed upon the young magician the difference between an exhibitionist and a showman. Torrini also taught Robert-Houdin the trick which was destined to make him famous.
Tonini had his apprentice mark a bullet with a scratch mark, then he apparently loaded a pistol with it and had Robert-Houdin fire at him from point blank range. To the young man's surprise, the bullet appeared between Tonini's teeth, easily identifiable by the scratch mark which had been etched into it. The older magician had switched hullets, substituting a metallic ball which shattered on contact with anything solid and had palmed the original marked bullet into his mouth.
After leaving Torrini, Robert-Houdin, always restless and impatient, moved around France. He taught himself to be a good showman, using all his mechanical ingenuity to construct tricks which are still used to this day. Among magicians Robert-Houdin is known as the father of modern magic, so profound an effect did he have on the profession.
The Marabouts had responded as hoped to Robert-Houdin's first performances in Algiers, but the core of the rebellion, forever moving across the desert sands, had not been present to become impressed by the demonstration.
Robert-Houdin resolved that he would seek out the most powerful of the Marabouts and discredit them with superior feats of magic. To this end he began a trek across the desert. traveling without a military escort, putting on shows wherever enough Arabs would gather.
For several weeks Robert-Houdin moved over the sands, finding only a few scattered groups of Marabouts to dazzle with his magical brilliance. Then, through an informant, he learned where the main force of the rebellion had gathered.
Traveling to the obscure desert oasis, Robert-Houdin was greeted by the chief magician of this particular Marabout group, who waved a pistol in his face.
"You will die tonight," was the hostile man's promise.
The little Frenchman seemed unperturbed. But the entire Arab camp had come under the power of this magician, and Robert-Houdin knew that he had little chance to escape alive if he failed to impress them.
Forever a showman, Robert-Houdin did not let his confidence slide. When he was threatened with the pistol again, he told the Marabout to remove the bullet then to give him the pistol.
Morbidly curious, the man complied, watching carefully as Robert-Houdin began going through a magic ritual, waving his hands over the pistol.
"Now put a mark on the bullet and shoot me if you must," he commanded the Arab magician. Once again the Marabout complied, claiming the pistol immediately after the Frenchman had dropped the bullet down the barrel.
"Now you will die," the Marabout repeated his promise.
He pointed the gun at Robert-Houdin and discharged it at point blank range.
Blood spurted from the magician's chest, and Robert-Houdin staggered, nearly falling. Then, miraculously, he regained his balance and spat the marked bullet from his mouth, so that it landed at the feet of one of the most important sheiks. The desert chief picked up the ball and found the mark which the Marabout had scratched into its side.
''This is real magic," the sheik told the Marabout contemptuously.
With the Marabouts discredited, the rebellion in Algeria fell apart. Robert-Houdin had received the recognition he craved by doing his former master, Torrini, one better. He had loaded the hollow metallic cartridge with blood so it would splatter when it hit his chest. To the Arabs, the "French Marabout" had powers which exceeded any of their own.
Certain aspects of Robert-Houdin's life inspired the excellent motion picture, The Illusionist (2006), starring Edward Norton. But long before that, somewhere around 1890, Robert-Houdin inspired a young magician named Ehrich Weiss to change his name to Harry Houdini.
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