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How to Prevent a War Using Ordinary Household Objects - Jean Robert-Houdin and the Marabouts

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Jean Robert-Houdin, the French Marabout.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
– Clarke's Third Law

As the saying goes, everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects. Those who doubt the wisdom of this aphorism should look in their email inbox. As Terry Jones pointed out in his series Ancient Inventions, humans are not appreciably brighter now than they were 35,000 years ago. They just know more facts – sometimes.

It is perfectly clear to any student of 19th-Century history that the European 'scramble for Africa' caused dissatisfaction among citizens of that continent who didn't appreciate being colonised. It should also be perfectly clear that rebellions cause considerable collateral damage. Innocent bystanders get hurt. In 1856, a patriotic Frenchman helped his country to avert some of that collateral damage by using his hard-won skills, his scientific know-how, and an incomparable sense of showmanship. Grateful local people even gave him a testimonial, which he appreciated, even though he lacked the knowledge to read it. Although he outwitted his opponents with 'western' knowledge, this hero was not trying to fool the people he aimed to protect. He was trying to prevent bloodshed and free some of his fellow-Earthlings from the bondage of ignorance and superstition. By all accounts, he was pretty successful at it.

This is the story of how Jean Robert-Houdin defeated the Marabouts of Algeria in mortal combat... using stage magic.

The Marabout Revolt

In 19th-Century Algeria, Islamic faith was mixed with earlier traditions involving ritual magic. Resistance to French rule often took the form of uprisings organised by Marabouts, or 'holy men'. These leaders claimed to have supernatural powers. French administrators suspected they were using the sort of parlour tricks humans have been using for at least 5,000 years. Whether sleight-of-hand or genuine magic, though, an appearance of invulnerability was a massive recruitment tool for the Marabout army. Marabouts chewed broken glass, let people run swords through them, and ate poisonous herbs.

Magic as a tool of anti-colonialism was not unique to the Marabouts. The Haitian Revolution of 1791 began with a Vodou ceremony. Later, in 1890s China, the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, aka the Boxers, claimed such remarkable skills as the ability to fly and render themselves invulnerable to bullets. Belief in magical protection – particularly if 'backed up' by a good demonstration – could go a long way toward convincing men to join the cause. To combat the Marabouts, the French colonial officials intended, of course, to use their not inconsiderable military power. To keep the conflicts local, and win the public relations battle, they thought it would be a good idea if they convinced Algerians that French magic, like everything else French, was far superior to the homegrown variety.

This is why they sent to Paris for a magician of their own.

Jean Robert-Houdin

Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) was a watchmaker by trade. He was also a specialist in cutting-edge technology, a builder of electric clocks, and the father of modern stage magic. Robert-Houdin took the art of what a contemporary called 'prestidigitation' (ie quick fingers) away from the carnival and party scene, and put it in the theatre. His Théâtre Robert-Houdin wowed audiences in Paris with mind-reading, disappearing ladies, and other wonders. (Of course, the Parisians knew all this was science, not magic1.) Robert-Houdin made this sort of flimflam respectable. He is responsible for introducing evening dress as the magician's uniform: all those tail-coats on stage are his fault.

Robert-Houdin's magic show was quite successful. In 1853, he stopped giving public performances and left the theatre to new management, retiring to his all-electric villa to experiment and write. His quiet life was interrupted by the call to give a command performance in Algiers. Robert-Houdin packed the tools of his trade and took ship for an exotic adventure.

Signs and Wonders

The idea of the French administrators was for Robert-Houdin to convince Algerians that French magic, being western and modern, was much better than that of the Marabouts. To that end, they gave Robert-Houdin a theatre to perform in, and advertised him as the 'French Marabout'.

Robert-Houdin's idea was to get everybody to understand that what he was doing was science, not magic. Before he could do that, he needed to do what the authorities wanted – impress his audience. Robert-Houdin studied reports of Marabout tricks, and observed them if possible. He quickly saw through their methods, and organised his own show to go one better. After all, he was a consummate performer.

According to all accounts, Robert-Houdin's Algiers magic show was a howling success. The description that follows is taken from his memoirs.

After making his audience comfortable – a bit tricky, as they were suspicious, and besides, nobody in the southern or eastern Mediterranean at that time was comfortable sitting on chairs – Robert-Houdin showed a trick that was very popular in Paris: a sort of cornucopia, or never-ending supply of liquor. Of course, Robert-Houdin realised that alcohol wasn't the right sort of thing to offer his Muslim audience, so he substituted sweetmeats (a big hit) and coffee. The coffee wasn't such a big hit: it was hot, and the Algerians suspected it was brewed in Shaitan's kitchen. On the whole, this trick, along with producing a cannonball from his hat and a lot of five-franc pieces from the air, was going a long way toward winning the confidence of the Algerians that they were looking at a top-flight sort of conjurer, a real Marabout. Now for the propaganda part.

Robert-Houdin was under orders to impress upon the Marabouts that they didn't want to mess with the French, who would best them in any fight, even if they used supernatural trickery. To undermine the idea that Algerian strength and courage had a fighting chance against French colonial know-how, he adapted a successful trick involving a magic box. Invited to lift the empty box on stage, a strong warrior did so easily. Then Robert-Houdin applied what Sir Terry Pratchett calls 'headology':

'Are you very strong?' I said to him, measuring him from head to foot.
'Oh yes!' He replied carelessly.
'Are you sure you will always remain so?'
'Quite sure.'
'You are mistaken, for in an instant I will rob you of your strength, and you shall become as a little child.'
—Memoirs of Robert-Houdin

Thereupon the magician made the obligatory cabalistic passes, and the poor man was unable to lift the box because the bottom of the box had an iron plate in it, and Robert-Houdin had turned on the electromagnet under the floor.

Like most people on Earth in 1856, the audience didn't know what an electromagnet was, so they were impressed with the magic. They were even more impressed when Robert-Houdin switched on the battery attached to the brass handles of the box. When the frustrated Marabout grasped the handles for leverage, he got an electric shock that seemed to him (and the audience) to come from an otherworldly power. As soon as Robert-Houdin switched off the current, the would-be strong man fled the theatre in terror. Score one for the French Marabout.

Robert-Houdin's handlers had told him to deal with the invulnerability issue, so the brave magician now offered to let a Marabout from the audience shoot him. After catechising his volunteer (Are you sure you want to commit murder? Won't you hate yourself in the morning?), he had him mark the bullet, then presented himself as a target while holding an apple on the point of a knife.

Of course he didn't die. If he had, this story would have been shorter. What happened was that the bullet miraculously failed to kill Robert-Houdin, who had 'transferred' the marked bullet to the inside of the apple. (Did you wonder what the knife was for?) The assassin, foiled, stole the apple, thinking to deprive the rival Marabout of his magic talisman. (Remember this detail, it will be important later.) The audience was thrilled, as they said in the newspapers back then. After Robert-Houdin made another unhappy fellow disappear – he turned up on the steps outside the theatre, where the audience stumbled over him in their mad rush to escape this foreign menace – the evening was pronounced a success. Better yet, it could all be repeated, and was, for the rest of the theatrical run.

Amazed and pleased at the wonders Robert-Houdin showed them, friendly Algerian chieftains presented the French 'sorcerer' with a testimonial scroll praising him in Arabic verse. Robert-Houdin regretted that he knew so little Arabic, but when it was translated, he was moved to tears, and declared the scroll 'the most precious souvenir of my professional career'. The chiefs were no doubt grateful that maybe there wouldn't be a war this year.

The French Marabout Faces Real Danger

Remember the apple? Here's where it comes in.

After his success in Algiers, Robert-Houdin was invited to make a journey into the interior to show off his talents to a friendly chieftain. This he was glad to do, taking his wife along. Robert-Houdin enjoyed the visit, and appreciated just about everything about the Algerians except for their cooking. He really didn't like couscous, and he and his wife used well-practised sleight-of-hand to return unwanted tidbits to the communal bowl. That wasn't the life-threatening part, though.

After dinner at the chieftain's home, one of the Marabouts, angry that Robert-Houdin had replaced his watch with a five-franc piece – the line between legerdemain and pickpocketing is a fine one – challenged him to repeat his invulnerability demonstration. The Marabout proposed to shoot him, then and there. Robert-Houdin thought fast... and remembered the apple.

'You are aware,' said Robert-Houdin, 'that I require a talisman to be invulnerable, and, unfortunately, I have left mine at Algiers.' Aha. The French Marabout then requested that the duel be set for the next morning, so that he could spend the night 'at prayers'. This was granted.

What Robert-Houdin spent the night doing was pouring bullets. He needed a wax bullet coloured with lampblack. He needed a hollow lead bullet with blood in it (his own). He claims he didn't do any praying, but slept soundly and put his faith in science. There were a lot of variables involved, though, and Robert-Houdin was about to put his life on the line to prevent the Marabout revolt from succeeding.

The next morning, everybody met in an open area. Pistols were checked, bullets were marked. The Arab Marabout had the first shot... collective breath was held. At this range, he couldn't miss...

When the smoke cleared, the French Marabout was still standing. And he was grinning – or it looked like it. In his teeth, he held the marked bullet. Robert-Houdin's opponent was terrified, because the Frenchman had yet to shoot. Robert-Houdin raised his pistol... and fired into the wall beside him. Astounded onlookers noted the dent made by the pistol ball – and the mysterious bloodstain on the wall... Needless to say, everybody was impressed.

How did he do it? Although magicians hate to give up their tricks, Robert-Houdin was kind enough to let us in on the secret. The marked bullet he palmed, and later placed between his teeth in the confusion. The one that the rival Marabout got was made of wax, which saved Robert-Houdin's life – when the assailant fired the pistol, the faux bullet shattered inside the gun, and all that came out was powder. The bullet the Frenchman shot into the wall was hollow and contained a sample of his own blood. It's simple when you know the answer.

Science: 1 Superstition: 0

Robert-Houdin had accomplished what he had been asked to do: he won a major propaganda victory for the French. That done, he instructed all the Arabic interpreters in Algeria to explain to everyone who would listen that his feats had nothing to do with magic, that this was science, pure and simple. Science that anyone could learn and use.

The job done, Robert-Houdin went back home to Paris. He had some more experimenting to do.

For Further Reading

Robert-Houdin's feat in Algeria was noted in newspapers abroad. This is a somewhat embellished (and rather imperialist) account.

Those interested in learning more about the career of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin may want to read his memoirs. Aspiring magicians may pick up a few tricks, as well.

1We assume most of the French knew that this was science. Robert-Houdin's memoirs contain the story of a Parisian lady who forced him to perform a love spell for her – at gunpoint. Robert-Houdin returned the 'fee' for this service to her relatives. It turned out the woman had mental problems. But if someone pulls a gun in your living room and demands Love Potion Number 9, the wisest course is to give it to them and discuss epistemology later.

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