BRIEF HISTORY OF SAWING IN HALF
A hundred years ago, a magician named P.T. Selbit (Percy Thomas Tibbles) introduced the world to a shocking, seemingly impossible stage illusion involving a beautiful assistant, a wooden box- and a saw. Magic was changed forever.
The illusion was originally called "Sawing Through a Woman". Selbit debuted his effect at the Finsbury Park Empire, in north London, on January 17th, 1921. The original routine involved a closed wooden box with the assistant tied down inside, out of view from the audience. The ropes emerged from the ends of the box, and were held throughout the routine by members of the audience. The idea was that in this manner the assistant could not possibly escape the saw blade.
The audiences went wild for this new illusion. "Sawing" created such a sensation that within a month, magician Horace Goldin was performing his own version, allowing the audience to view the head and feet of the assistant during the entire routine. Goldin's version proved even more successful than Selbit's, and is the version we are most familiar with today.
Incredibly, by November 1921 the illusion was so famous that Thayer Magic Company was selling the illusion plans for $5, and the finished illusion box for $175.
Of course, this meant that many, many magicians were performing the same trick, so the race was on to come up with unique ways to present the illusion. Unlike the Levitation, there was nothing graceful or pretty about the "Sawing" routine. So the logical way to go was to increase the shock value.
Many magicians with smaller budgets relied on boosting the audience reaction using "plants" and visual cues. Some magicians paid members of the audience to shout and scream when the sawblade was passing through the box. Others dressed their assistants as doctors and nurses, placing them on either side of the box during the routine.
Horace Goldin stepped up his game immediately. Though he was the first to use the fully visible head and feet method, that was not shocking enough. Goldin changed the simple sawblade into a giant motorized buzz saw, a metal monster that was intentionally built with rubbing metal parts so it would have a deafening screech and shredding grinding sound throughout the performance.
Blackstone Sr., and subsequently Blackstone Jr. used the buzz saw method as a feature in their shows for many years. Since their shows were more lighthearted than Goldin's, the Blackstones tempered their presentation with a bit of humor. At the end of the buzz saw routine, the curtains would quickly close. Blackstone would come through the curtains, looking solemn, and tell the audience "Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement." The audience would hold their breath- did something go wrong with the illusion?? And then Blackstone would grin and say "It's intermission!"
In 1937, magician and hypnotist Rajah Raboid (Ray Boyd) recruited brothers Johnny and Robert Eck for his "Miracles of 1937" show. The brothers were identical twins, except Johnny was born with a truncated torso due to sacral agenesis. In his words, he looked as though he was "snapped off at the waist". Johnny Eck had developed an amazing body strength that allowed him to "run" using his arms and hands, and had been in show business since the age of 12. In fact, he was one of the stars of Tod Browning's movie "Freaks" in 1932. Rajah Raboid used the brothers in his "Sawing" routine. Robert, the full-sized twin, would heckle the magician from the audience. Raboid would ask Robert to join him on stage, and would invite him to get into the "Sawing" box. Secretly, Robert would switch out for Johnny in the top half of the box, and another little person assistant in the bottom half. Raboid would proceed to saw "Robert" in half. After being sawed in half, "Robert's" legs would suddenly jump out of the box and start running away, prompting Johnny to jump off the table and start chasing his legs around the stage. Screaming, "Come back!" "I want my legs back!" he even chased the legs into the audience. The audience reaction to a "half man" alive and bounding up the aisle right past them was amazing. People would scream and sometimes even flee the theater in terror. As Johnny described it, "The men were more frightened than the women – the women couldn't move because the men were walking across their laps, headed for the exit." The illusion would end with stage hands plucking up Johnny and setting him atop his "legs" and then twirling him off-stage to be replaced by his twin Robert, who would run back onstage, loudly threatening to sue Raboid, and storm out of the theater. By the end of the routine, the shock always turned to laughter and thunderous applause. It must have been something to see!
Sometimes the shock of the performance was unintentional. In 1956, the BBC was broadcasting the live performance of the Indian illusionist Sorcar slicing his assistant in half with a buzz saw. Because the show was live and out of time, its host, Richard Dimbleby, stepped in to say goodbye before the illusion was completed and the assistant was "brought back to life". The last thing the audience saw before the program ended was the buzz saw bisecting the woman. Of course, the BBC switchboard was jammed with calls from people thinking they had just witnessed a murder.
And sometimes the shock was very intentional. Live performances by Peruvian magician Richiardi Jr are often cited as the most horrific presentations of a sawing illusion. Richiardi Jr used a buzz saw similar to that employed by Sorcar, but he greatly added to the shock value by using fake blood and entrails to stunning and unforgettable visual advantage. He set up a white backdrop behind him, he dressed in a white doctor's outfit, and he got to work with the buzz saw. the buzz saw screeched and the blood and guts sprayed like crazy! In his version, the buzz saw went through the assistant- and then stopped. The entire backdrop, and stage floor, and Richiardi Jr himself were COVERED in dripping blood and guts. And then the curtain closed with the buzz saw still embedded in the motionless assistant. That was the end of the show!
In 1992 the English program "Secret Cabaret" featured magician Simon Drake being sawed in half lengthwise. Horrific and bloody. You can see the routine on YouTube, but I suggest you don't.
The "Sawing In Half" illusion has come to represent the sinister side of magic for many audiences. No one used that to better effect than Alfred Hitchcock. The plot of the 1962 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode called "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" centered around this famous illusion.Written by Robert Bloch, author of PSYCHO, the NBC Television Network and sponsor Revlon determined the episode was too shocking and chose not to air it. But you can watch the whole episode right from this page!
So enjoy these famous versions of P.T. Selbit's "Sawing a Woman"!
PENDRAGONS PERFORM THEIR SAWING IN HALF ILLUSION
ANDRE KOLE PERFORMS THE WALK-THRU SAWING
SILVAN PERFORMS HIS SAWING IN HALF ILLUSION
DAVID COPPERFIELD PERFORMS HIS SAWING IN HALF ILLUSION
PENN AND TELLER PERFORM THEIR SAWING IN HALF ILLUSION
BANNED EPISODE: ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS