The Unmasking Of Robert-Houdin
By Harry Houdini

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12 chapters

5 hour read


22 minute read

T HIS book is the natural result of the moulding, dominating influence which the spirit and writings of Robert-Houdin have exerted over my professional career. My interest in conjuring and magic and my enthusiasm for Robert-Houdin came into existence simultaneously. From the moment that I began to study the art, he became my guide and hero. I accepted his writings as my text-book and my gospel. What Blackstone is to the struggling lawyer, Hardee’s “Tactics” to the would-be officer, or Bismarck’s life and writings to the coming statesman, Robert-Houdin’s books were to me. To my unsophisticated mind, his “Memoirs” gave to the profession a dignity worth attaining at the cost of earnest, life-long effort. When it became necessary for me to take a stage-name, and a fellow-player, possessing a veneer of culture, told me that if I would add the letter “i” to Houdin’s name, it would mean, in the...


13 minute read

R OBERT-HOUDIN was born in Blois, France, December 6th, 1805. His real name was Jean-Eugene Robert, and his father was Prosper Robert, a watchmaker in moderate circumstances. His mother’s maiden name was Marie Catherine Guillon. His first wife was Josephe Cecile Eglantine Houdin, whose family name he assumed for business reasons. He was married the second time to Françoise Marguerite Olympe Naconnier. His death, caused by pneumonia, occurred at St. Gervais, France, on June 13th, 1871. enlarge-image Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. Photograph taken—about 1868. From the Harry Houdini Collection. Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. Photograph taken—about 1868. From the Harry Houdini Collection. Barring the above facts, which were gleaned from the register of the civil authorities of St. Gervais, all information regarding his life previous to his first public appearance in 1844 must be drawn from his own works, particularly from his autobiography, published in the form of “Memoirs.” Because of his supreme egotism, his...


29 minute read

R OBERT-HOUDIN, on page 179 of the American edition of his “Memoirs,” thus describes the orange-tree trick, which he claims as his invention: “The next was a mysterious orange-tree, on which flowers and fruit burst into life at the request of the ladies. As the finale, a handkerchief I borrowed was conveyed into an orange purposely left on the tree. This opened and displayed the handkerchief, which two butterflies took by the corners and unfolded before the spectators.” On page 245 of the same volume he presents the programme given at the first public performance in the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, stating: “The performance will be composed of entirely novel Experiments invented by M. Robert-Houdin. Among them being The Orange-Tree, etc.” Now to retrace our steps in the history of magic as set forth in handbills and advertisements of earlier and contemporaneous newspaper clippings describing their inventions. Under the title of “The...


30 minute read

I N his “Memoirs” Robert-Houdin eulogizes the various automata which he claims to have invented. The picturesque fashion in which he describes the tremendous effort put forth ere success crowned his labors would render his arguments most convincing—if stern historical facts did not contradict his every statement. One of the most extraordinary mechanical figures which he exploits as his invention was the writing and drawing figure, which he exhibited at the Quinquennial Exhibition in 1844, but never used in his public performances, though he asserts that he planned to exhibit it between performances at his own theatre. This automaton, he says, laid the foundation of his financial success and opened the way to realizing his dream of appearing as a magician. enlarge-image Writing and drawing figure claimed by Robert-Houdin as his invention. From Manning’s Robert-Houdin brochure. Writing and drawing figure claimed by Robert-Houdin as his invention. From Manning’s Robert-Houdin brochure....


23 minute read

C ONCERNING this trick, which Robert-Houdin claims as his invention, he writes on page 79 of his “Memoirs,” American edition: “The first was a small pastry cook, issuing from his shop door at the word of command, and bringing, according to the spectator’s request, patties and refreshments of every description. At the side of the shop, assistant pastry cooks might be seen rolling paste and putting it in the oven.” By means of handbills, programmes, and newspaper notices of magical and mechanical performances, this trick in various guises can be traced back as far as 1796. Nine reputable magicians offered it as part of their repertoire, and at times two men presented it simultaneously, showing that more than one such automaton existed. The dates of the most notable programmes or handbills selected from my collection are as follows: 1, Haddock, 1797. 2, Garnerin, 1815. 3, Gyngell, 1816 and 1823. 4,...


29 minute read

T O trace here the history of three very common tricks claimed by Robert-Houdin as his own inventions would be sheer waste of time, if the exposure did not prove beyond doubt that in announcing the various tricks of his répertoire as the output of his own brain he was not only flagrant and unscrupulous, but he did not even give his readers credit for enough intelligence to recognize tricks performed repeatedly by his predecessors whom they had seen. Not satisfied with purloining tricks so important that one or two would have been sufficient to establish the reputation of any conjurer or inventor, he must needs lay claim to having invented tricks long the property of mountebanks as well as reputable magicians. The tricks referred to are the obedient card, the cabalistic clock, and the automaton known as Diavolo Antonio or Le Voltigeur au Trapèze. enlarge-image Card trick as featured...


20 minute read

W HILE Robert-Houdin claims to have invented “The Inexhaustible Bottle” for a special programme designed to create a sensation at the opening of his season of 1848, in the illustrated appendix of the original French edition of his “Memoirs” he states that it had its premier presentation December 1st, 1847. These discrepancies occur with such frequency that it is difficult to refute his claims in chronological order. Perhaps he adopted this method intentionally, to confuse future historians of magic, particularly concerning his own achievements. In order to emphasize the brilliancy of this trick, Robert-Houdin turned boastful in describing it. On page 348 of the American edition of his “Memoirs,” he states that the trick had created such a sensation and was so much exploited in the London newspapers that the fame of his inexhaustible bottle spread to the provinces, and on his appearance in Manchester with the bottle in his...


18 minute read

E VIDENTLY second sight was the foundation-stone of Robert-Houdin’s success. Reading between the lines of his autobiography, one finds that this was the trick which carried him into the salons of fashion and royalty. Before he introduced second sight into his répertoire, his tricks were so commonplace that they did not arouse the interest of the court circle, whose approval furnished the seal of success. This trick of second sight he claims body and soul, as the favorite child of his brain. He even goes as far as to relate a story to prove that the trick came to him in the form of an inspiration. I quote directly from the American edition of his “Memoirs,” page 255: “My two children were playing one day in the drawing-room at a game they had invented for their own amusement; the younger had bandaged his elder brother’s eyes and made him guess...


19 minute read

I N chapters XVI. and XVII. of the American edition of his “Memoirs,” Robert-Houdin states that he closed his theatre during the months of July, August, and September, 1847, and devoted his time to producing new tricks for the coming season. He chronicles as the result of these labors the following additions to his répertoire: “The Crystal Box,” “The Fantastic Portfolio,” “The Trapeze Tumbler,” “The Garde Française,” “The Origin of Flowers,” “The Crystal Balls,” “The Inexhaustible Bottle,” “The Ethereal Suspension,” etc. Had these inventions really been original with the man who claimed them as the result of his own brain-work and handicraft, three years would not have sufficed to bring them to the perfection in which they were presented at that time. It is not always the actual work that makes a trick a success, nor the material from which it is constructed, but it takes time to plan a...


17 minute read

S UPREME egotism and utter disregard for the truth may be traced in all of Robert-Houdin’s writings, but they reached a veritable climax when he indited chapter XVI. of his “Memoirs.” During the course of this chapter he described the so-called invention and first production of the disappearing-handkerchief trick. According to the American edition of his “Memoirs,” page 303, he received a command to appear before Louis Philippe and his family at St. Cloud in November, 1846. During the six days intervening between the official invitation and his appearance before the royal family, he arranged a trick from which, he states, he had every reason to expect excellent results. On page 305 he goes even further in his claims and announces: “All my tricks were favorably received, and the one I had invented for the occasion gained me unbounded applause.” He then gives the following description of the trick and...


30 minute read

S TATEMENTS in Robert-Houdin’s various works on the conjurer’s art corroborate my claim that he was not a master-magician, but a clever purloiner and adapter of the tricks invented and used by his predecessors and contemporaries. Whenever, in these books, he attempts to explain or expose a trick which was not part of his répertoire, he betrays an ignorance which would be impossible in a conjurer versed in the finer and more subtle branches of his art. Neither do these explanations show that he was clever enough as a mechanic to have invented the apparatus which he claimed as his handiwork. He states that practice and still more practice are essential, yet no intelligent performer, amateur or professional, can study my collection of Robert-Houdin programmes, handbills, and press notices without realizing that his répertoire contained little or no trace of what should be the foundation of successful conjuring, sleight-of-hand. Changing...


18 minute read

T HE charm of true memoirs lies far beyond the printed pages, in the depth and breadth of the writer’s soul. The greatest of all autobiographies are those which detail not only the lives of the men who penned them, but which abound in diverting anecdotes and character studies of the men and women among whom the writer moved. They are not autobiographies alone, but vivid, broad-minded pen-pictures of the period in which the writer was a vigorous, respect-compelling figure. Memoirs written with a view to settling old scores seldom live to accomplish their ends. The narrowness and pettiness of the writer, which intelligent reading of history is bound to disclose, destroy all other charms which the book may possess. At personal exploitation Robert-Houdin is a brilliant success. As a writer of memoirs he is a wretched failure. Whenever he writes of himself, his pen seems fairly to scintillate. Whenever...