One of the most enduring magic tricks is the one where a woman is apparently sawn in half. Quite a gruesome effect, a murder effected publicly on a theatre’s stage, twice daily, thrice on a Saturday. Of course, this is just an illusion, not a real murder… it would not have achieved this popularity if it were murder. However, the suspicion this illusion may horribly go wrong or that a murder was to be enacted is something that existed in the mind of the audience since the first performance of this illusion, or is it?
This magical effect is not as old as it may seem: while previous performances of apparent dissection of a human being are recorded, the effect as we know was invented by P.T. Selbit only as recently as 1921, and presented on the London stages.
A good biography of Selbit (real name Percy Thomas Tibbles, 1881-1938) compiled by Eric C. Lewis and Peter Warlock was published in 1989 by Magical Publications and it contains an excellent description of the story of the sawing-in-half illusion and of the controversy that followed it. Selbit was a genius of illusions, inventing many effects and principles still used today. One of his inventions was the Million Dollar Mystery illusion, whose international rights Selbit sold to Chefalo (and this caused some “ruffled feathers” in magic circles in later years, but this is not a subject for this post).
I don’t really have, in my collection, many items about Selbit, save for a nice, large copy of the classic photo of the sawing, from John Salisse’s collection, and a nice, ephemeral early item from Selbit’s story. This is the one I want to talk about here. The photo is too big for me to scan and it’s also tucked away safely. A copy of the photo (courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, Australia) is shown at the top of the page.
In a collection of items belonging to a former assistant of Linga Singh (Amar Nath Dutt, 1884-1937) I found five programmes from various London’s variety theatres from 1921. These were originally three-folds and what is left is only the centre panel, showing the theatre’s name (and an art deco image) on one side and the list of acts on the other. One of this programmes, for the Lewisham Hippodrome, lists Selbit and his new “Sawing Thro’ a Woman” as the main attraction: it is dated Monday, June 27 1921.
If we take for granted the date of January 17, 1921 as the first public showing of this effect, this programme refers to a performance only five months later, and the trick is definitely the big finale of the variety bill. Selbit, top of the bill, was performing twice a day: at 6.15 and 8.40 PM.
The text on the programme reads:
10 P. T. SELBIT demonstrates an Amazing Scientific Fact
SAWING THRO’ A WOMAN
While she is held by Four Members of the Audience. A Sensation, Suitable for all the Family to see. YOU may bring your own Saw and conduct the operation at any Performance. The Greatest Riddle of the Age.
How can an ordinary woman walk about the Stage after Members of the Audience have sawn her in half?
If you have a friend who delights in solving mysteries, bring him to see this and let him figure it out; but don’t let him explain it with a saw.
Nothing so extraordinary has ever before been seen.
It is interesting to read how the effect was presented to the audience: a “scientific fact”, “suitable for all the family”. I’m a little dubious about this last claim as I’m not sure I would like my small children to see a woman cut in two. I would however be reassured that this is not mere trickery as I’m allowed to “bring my own saw” and, me myself, “conduct the operation”… I’ve always dreamt of carrying a wood-saw to a theatre and to cut a woman in two. I’m also confident that the woman is an “ordinary” one… not an extraordinary one 🙂
As other commentators have said, Selbit’s version was more of a puzzle than a gruesome effect: this is evident by the fact the illusion is presented as “the greatest riddle of the age” and by inviting along friends “who delights in solving mysteries,” challenging them to intellectually solve the mystery.
The illusion became quickly very popular and this programme is from the first period of the “sawing craze” which would re-define magic in the 1920s and create a new classic illusion which is now a stereotype of magic. The illusion has changed a lot, in method and presentation, since Selbit’s version, but I think that Selbit’s version had something magical in it, something that other versions may have lost.
Years ago, I saw Paul Daniels‘ own version of the Selbit illusion, the box he used to re-create this effect. I had the opportunity to examine it and the mystery remained such. In the video below, you will be able to enjoy Paul Daniels’ re-creation of this Selbit mystery, more than seventy years after the above programme was printed:
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