On January 17, 1921, magic changed forever. Percy Thomas Tibbles, using his less kitten-y nomme de magic P.T. Selbit, came on stage at the Finsbury Park Empire in London, accompanied by a glamorous female assistant, Betty Barker. She stepped into an upright, coffin-like box and her ankles, wrists and neck were bound to it. The box was closed, lowered horizontally, and after thrusting strips of plate glass and steel through slots in it, Selbit proceeded to saw it in half using a large crosscut saw. Then, when he opened the two halves of the door/lid and reached in with some scissors to snip the ropes, out stepped Barker, smiling and unharmed.
The audience went bonkers.
The trick was a phenomenon and was swiftly imitated and built upon, becoming part of the fabric of stage magic. Think of magicians and you think of a few things — inviting someone to pick a card, pulling a rabbit from a hat, dressing phenomenally shittily, tapping things with wands and, inevitably, sawing a woman in half.
Pretty much every famous magician has done their own version of the illusion. Magicians inspired by Selbit added now-familiar elements like keeping the assistant’s head and feet visible throughout the illusion, or covering the sawn ends and wheeling the two sections around the stage, complete with glamorous smile on one and wiggling toes on the other. Later, some ended up doing twists on the formula, like Simon Drake’s version that sees him sawn from crotch to chest by glamorous surgeons (and doesn’t really hold up if you’ve ever seen a human neck) and David Copperfield’s Death Saw, in which an attempt at escapology seemingly goes wrong and sees Copperfield sliced in half. There’s also a version by nu-metal conjurer Criss Angel that both foregoes a saw and is fucking shit.
In an era of YouTube and cynicism it’s reasonably straightforward to figure out how most versions are performed — and why Copperfield is such a fan of big puffy shirts — but the sense of drama and the sheer weirdness of seeing a body seemingly survive being cleaved in two are still powerful things.
However, the options for who gets sawn in half are almost exclusively (a) a pretty, often unnamed assistant; and (b) the millionaire star of the show himself.
Why isn’t it ever, “Yo, I’m gonna saw this dude up now”?
There are two ways of looking at it. The charitable one is to say it just makes sense — a woman in peril is a universal dramatic trope, and women are generally smaller than men, making whatever subterfuge is going on that little bit simpler. Easy!
The less charitable one is, well, magic has a bit of a “well-paid, fully-dressed fella in the middle of the stage not doing a huge amount while a bunch of scantily-clad women assist him” issue. It’s not giving too much away to say that the way the illusion is most frequently performed, generally, the person being sawn in two is doing a fair bit of work. Before Copperfield turned the saw on himself, there was a revolving door of beautiful, unnamed women dangling off him, contorting themselves unimaginably and performing subtle sleight-of-hand in next to nothing while he did a lot of big gestures and had incredible hair. Magicians’ assistants are sometimes referred to as “box-jumpers,” a term that fairly comprehensively dismisses all the skill involved, and are generally employees rather than part of the business.
Magician and escapologist Dorothy Deitrich has spoken about how she was told by agents there would simply be no work for a female magician unless she took her clothes off. When she appeared on Robert Klein’s 1980s talk show to do a riff on the sawing-in-half trick — admittedly a fairly rubbish one involving a retracting blade — the host constantly remarked on her looks and did a “getting hypnotized by them titties” thing. Breaking the Magicians’ Code was half about having some tricks revealed and half about marveling at host Mitch Pileggi’s needlessly horny remarks about the masked magician’s lingerie-clad assistants (“Why would he want to make her disappear when she has a body like that? What an idiot!”).
Anyway, let’s go back to 1921. The timing of the trick was essential to its success. Before about 1900, magicians tended to have male assistants. It took the end of Victorian fashions for any kind of illusion where a woman might have to be able to, say, rotate her torso slightly, to be even vaguely feasible. Trends in vaudeville, burlesque and music-hall entertainment were moving toward a place where a magician could benefit from the distraction a glamorous, high-kicking assistant could provide.
And, as magician and magic historian Jim Steinmeyer notes in his incredible Hiding the Elephant (the source of a lot of the information — but none of the mistakes or conjecture — in this piece), the horrors witnessed by so many people during the First World War changed how easily entertained they might be. In a world that had lost its innocence, seen mustard gas and machine-gunnings, a dapper old man producing a silk handkerchief in an inventive manner just wasn’t going to do it. There was catharsis in this more visceral thrill, influenced by Paris’ Grand Guignol theatre and its more-is-more approach to things like fake blood, piercing screams and general terror.
Steinmeyer writes: “During the war Europe had witnessed the slaughter of a generation — over 10 million killed and 20 million wounded. The veterans returning from the front were disfigured, shell-shocked and burned by mustard gas. The war had not only made the public conscious of technological horrors and death but desensitized them to these subjects. Entertainment in general had become fiercer and nastier.” To drum up excitement outside Selbit’s shows, stagehands would pour buckets of stage blood into the gutters as though cleaning up after a massacre.
That covers the violence part, but there’s a real dick-headed element to the whole thing as well. An enormous societal change that took place in the early 20th century involved the suffragette movement and women finally being given the vote. The nine years preceding the war saw demonstrations, hunger strikes, arson, bombings — anything and everything deemed necessary to get the severity of the message across. Everything went on hold for the war, and as soon as armistice was declared in 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, and (some) women could vote.
By 1921, some men began feeling like enough was enough. Selbit was either one of them or happy to be mistaken for one of them, and employed something of a “what is it with these bitches, am I right guys?” approach to the publicity surrounding his show. As a stunt, he offered Christabel Pankhurst — feminist icon, daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, co-founder of the Women’s Party, hardcore hunger-striker, campaigner for equal pay for equal work and pioneer in discussions of sexual equality — 20 pounds a week to be sawn in half by him. It was a big fuck-you, a moment devoid of subtext, where hatred of women wasn’t inferred but explicit. A leap forward for stage magic, a leap back for people being civil to each other.
Subsequent tricks performed by Selbit included Destroying a Girl, Stretching a Lady and Crushing a Woman.
Thankfully, magic is — if slowly — becoming less of a sausage-fest than it once was. Change takes a long time, and these things are self-perpetuating. The Magic Circle was founded in 1905 and only admitted women in 1991, but is now committed to embracing the future and has an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Fool Us stars Penn & Teller end up getting fooled by women proportionally more often than by men, something Penn Jillette has attributed to female magicians performing with different rhythms, styles and nuances to the umpteen male magicians they’ve seen before.
Magician Jonathan Pendragon — whose variation on the sawing-in-half illusion, Clearly Impossible, performed originally with his former wife Charlotte as The Pendragons, remains extraordinary — has deliberately sought to downplay the violence of it, writing in 2011: “I wanted to remove the misogyny inherent in the effect, which is very difficult. It must be remembered that magicians sawed men in half first, but it wasn’t until a woman was placed in the prop that the illusion became a sensation. That aspect has, in my opinion, always haunted the illusion.”
So things are moving in the right direction, and the innovation and endless invention (and reinvention) that the world of magic eternally produces is something to be celebrated. But this anniversary isn’t. The point of the illusion, surely, is briefly thinking humanity is capable of transcending the physical barriers that limit us. It’s not “Wahey, I get to cut a woman up and not suffer any consequences, aren’t I great?”
This weekend marks a century since magician P.T. Selbit stood up on stage and skilfully missed the point of his own fucking trick like a dumbass.