Jean Eugene Robert Houdin
Master of magic Robert-Houdin was born Jean Eugène Robert in Blois, France, on 6 December 1805—a day after his autobiography said he was. His father, Prosper Robert, was one of the best watchmakers in Blois. A skillful artisan and hard worker, Prosper Robert’s main ambition was to provide for his family, but he also wanted his children to climb the social ladder. Jean Eugene’s mother, the former Marie-Catherine Guillon, died when Jean was just a young child. At the age of eleven, Prosper sent his son Jean to school thirty-five miles up the Loire to the University of Orléans. At 18, Jean graduated and returned to Blois. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Jean wanted to follow into his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker.
Jean’s penmanship was excellent, and it landed him a job as a clerk for an attorney’s office. Instead of studying law, he tinkered with mechanical gadgets. His employer sent him back to his father. He was told that he was better suited as a watchmaker than a lawyer, but by then, Jean’s father had already retired, so he became an apprentice to his cousin who had a watch-shop. For a short time, Jean worked as a watchmaker. In the mid-1820s, young Jean saved up to buy a copy of a two-volume set of books on clockmaking called Traité de l’horlogerie, or Treatise on Clockmaking, written by Ferdinand Berthoud. When Jean got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, what appeared before his eyes was a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Instead of returning the books, his curiosity got the best of him. From those crude volumes, he learned the rudiments of magic. He practiced at all hours of the day.
From that point when he accidentally received those books on conjuring, Jean Robert became very interested in the art. He was upset that the books he got only revealed how the secrets were done but did not show how to do them. He found that learning from the books available in those days was very difficult due to the lack of detailed explanations provided, but the books piqued his interest in the art. So Jean began taking lessons from a local amateur magician. He paid ten francs for a series of lessons from a man named Maous from Blois who was a podiatrist but also entertained at fairs and fêtes doing magic. He was proficient in sleight of hand, and he taught Jean how to juggle to coordinate his eye and hand. He also taught him rudiments of the cups and balls. He told young Jean that digital dexterity came with repetition, and as a direct result, Jean practiced incessantly.
Magic was his pastime, but meanwhile, his studies in horology continued. When he felt he was ready, he moved to Tours and set up a watchmaking business, doing conjuring on the side. Much of what we know about Robert-Houdin comes from his memoirs—and his writings were meant more to entertain than to chronicle, rendering it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Robert-Houdin would have readers believe that a major turning point in his life came when he became apprenticed to the magician Edmund De Grisi, Count’s son and better known as Torrini.
What is known is that his early performing came from joining an amateur acting troupe. Later, he performed at social parties as a professional magician. It was during this period while at a party that he met the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker, Monsieur Jacques François Houdin, who had also come from Jean Robert’s native Blois. The daughter’s name was Josèphe Cecile Houdin, and Jean fell in love with Cecile at their first meeting. On July 8, 1830, they were married. He hyphenated his own name to hers and became Robert-Houdin. He moved to Paris and worked in his father-in-law’s wholesale shop. Jacques François was among the last of the watchmakers to use the old methods of handcrafting each piece and embraced his new son-in-law’s ambitions for mechanism. While M. Houdin worked in the main shop, Jean was to tinker with mechanical toys and automatic figures. He and Josèphe had eight children, of whom three survived; this was fairly typical for that time period.
With his work in the shop, Jean was still practicing magic. Quite by accident, Robert-Houdin walked into a shop on the Rue Richelieu and discovered it sold magic. He visited the store, which was owned by a Père (Papa) Roujol. There, he met fellow magicians, both amateur and professional, where he engaged in talk about conjuring, and he met an aristocrat by the name of Jules de Rovère, who coined the term “prestidigitation” to describe a major misdirection technique magicians used. At Papa Roujol’s, Robert-Houdin learned the details to many of the mechanical tricks of the time as well as how to improve them. From there, he built his own mechanical figures, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton doing the cups and balls. His most acclaimed automaton was his writing and drawing figure. He displayed this figure before King Louis Philippe and eventually sold it to P. T. Barnum.
On October 19, 1843, Monsieur Robert-Houdin’s beloved wife died, having been ill for months; she died at the age of thirty-two. At her death, she left him with three young children to take care of; to take up the burden, he remarried in August of that year to François Marguerite Olympe Braconnier, a woman ten years younger than himself. The new Madame Robert-Houdin soon took over the household. Robert-Houdin loved to watch the big magic shows that came to Paris. He dreamed about some day opening his own theatre. In the meantime, he was hired by a friend of his by the name of Count de l’Escalopier to perform at private parties.
Now that he had free time, he began constructing equipment for his own use instead of selling it to others. The income from the shop and his new inventions gave him enough money to experiment on new tricks using glass apparatus that would be (or at least appear) free of trickery. He envisioned a stage that would be as elegant as the drawing rooms in which he was hired to perform. He also thought that a magician should be dressed as such by wearing traditional evening clothes. He obtained financial backing from Count de l’Escalopier, who fronted him the 15,000 francs to make his vision into reality. He rented out a suite of rooms above the archways around the gardens of the Palais Royal, which was once owned by Cardinal Richelieu.
He hired workmen to redesign the old assembly room into a theatre. They painted it white with gold trim. Tasteful drapes were hung, chic candelabras were placed throughout, and the stage furniture was set in the style of Louis XV. On July 3, 1845, Robert-Houdin premiered his 200-seat theatre in what he called “Soirées Fantastiques”. No critics covered Robert-Houdin’s debut, and in his memoirs, Robert-Houdin said that the show had been a disaster. He suffered from stage fright that caused him to talk too fast and in a monotone. He said that he did not know what he was saying or doing, and everything was a blur. He believed that a magician should not present a trick until it was mechanically perfected to be certain of avoiding failure, and this caused him to over-rehearse.
After the first show, he was about to have a nervous breakdown. He closed the theatre and had every intention to close it for good, until a friend agreed that the venture was a silly idea. Instead of admitting defeat, Robert-Houdin, irked at the friend’s affrontery, used this insult to regain his courage, and persevered in giving the show a long run at his little theatre. Although the forty-year-old magician was unpolished at first, he soon gained the confidence required for the stage. With each performance, Robert-Houdin got better, and he began to receive critical acclaim. Le Charivari and L’Illustration both said that his mechanical marvels and artistic magic was comparable to those of his predecessors like Philippe and Bosco. Even with all of this, still relatively few people would come to the little theatre during the summer months, and he struggled to keep it opened. To meet expenses, he sold the three houses that he had inherited from his mother. The following year, he added a new trick to his program that became especially popular. Seats at the Palais Royal were at a premium. This new marvel was called Second Sight. Second Sight drew the audiences into the little theatre. Once there, they saw the other creations Robert-Houdin had to offer.
The Arabs of Algeria were said to be excited to rebel against French colonialists by miracles performed by their religious leaders. In 1856, Napoleon III’s Second French Empire brought Robert-Houdin out of retirement to Algeria, hoping that he might perform tricks that were far more impressive, thereby dissolving the excitement of the rebels. Robert-Houdin’s tricks, it is said, succeeded in breaking up the influence of the mullahs. Moreover, the Arabs became afraid of Robert-Houdin. In one trick, he allowed an Arab to shoot at him with a marked bullet, but instead of killing him, the bullet was found between his teeth. After that, they believed he could do anything. Robert-Houdin was not the first illusionist to perform the bullet catch, and many since him have adapted their own version of the effect.
He used another famous trick to prove that French magic was stronger than local shamanism techniques: he presented an empty box with an iron bottom that anyone could lift. By turning on an electro-magnet hidden under the floor, he made it immovable, “proving” that through will power, he could make it impossible to lift for the strongest Algerian warriors. He found the trick was more impressive not when he claimed that he could make the trunk heavy, but when he claimed he could make the strong man too weak to lift a trunk that even a small child could lift. Robert-Houdin is often credited as being “the father of modern magic”. Before him, magicians performed in marketplaces and fairs, but Robert-Houdin performed magic in theatres and private parties. He also chose to wear formal clothes, like those of his audiences. Many magicians today mimic this by wearing tail-coats.
When Robert-Houdin first opened his theatre, it was sparsely attended and he realized that he needed something more extraordinary that would bring the public to his theatre. So he came upon the idea of doing a two-person mind-reading act, concocting a silly story about how his son Emile had created a game of hot and cold that resulted in Robert-Houdin using it for the stage. He named the trick “Second Sight”, a title that was already used by magicians such as John Henry Anderson, but the effect was entirely different. Anderson had a box into which items were inserted. The medium would then describe the contents inside. In Robert-Houdin’s version, he walked into the audience and touched items that the audience held up, and his blindfolded assistant, played by his son, described each one in detail. It caused a sensation and brought the throng to see his shows.
Eventually. Robert-Houdin changed the method, so instead of asking his son what was in his hands, he simply rang a bell. This stunned those that suspected a spoken code. He would even set the bell off to the side and remain silent, and his son still described every object handed to his father. Robert-Houdin even made the test difficult. He placed a glass of water into his son’s hands, and Emile proceeded to drink from it. He was able to perceive the taste of the liquids that spectators from the audience merely thought of. Even then, the audiences were not entirely convinced, they tried to trip up Emile by bringing in books written in Greek, or odd tools such as a thread counter.
During Robert-Houdin’s time, all of Paris was enthusiastically talking about the mysterious uses of “ether”. He took advantage of this by presenting an illusion that appeared to use the pungent liquid. He told the audience that he discovered a marvelous new property of ether. “If one has a living person inhale this liquid when it is at its highest degree of concentration, the body of the patient for a few moments becomes as light as a balloon,” Robert-Houdin claimed. He proceeded to prove just that. He placed three stools on a wooden bench. His youngest son Eugène stood on the middle one. With the instructions from his father, he extended his arms. Robert-Houdin placed two canes on top of the stools and positioned them under his son’s arms.
He took a vial of ether and opened it. The audience smelled it wafting through the theatre. He placed the vial under his son’s nose, and he went limp. In reality, the vial was empty, with the odour being produced by his son Emile pouring real ether on a hot iron shovel. Robert-Houdin took the stool away from his son’s feet, and he just hung limp as a rag. He took away one of the canes, so he was dangling by one arm, and carefully placed his head against his upraised hand. This was startling enough. What he did next was stunning. He lifted his boy upright in a horizontal position by his little finger and then let go until he was suspended in mid air. Robert-Houdin stepped away to leave his son in that suspended state, balanced only by his right elbow and no other support.
When it was apparent that the drug was wearing off, Robert-Houdin returned his son to his upright position. When he woke up, he seemed no worse for wear. Robert-Houdin built up the surprise of spectators until, “… by gradually heightening it up to the moment when, so to speak, it exploded.” This brought letters of protest against Robert-Houdin, thinking he was putting his son’s health in jeopardy, although the ether had nothing to do with the trick. Robert-Houdin was not the first to perform the Levitation Illusion. The first in Europe was Ching Lau Lauro in 1832 or 1833.
The amount of tricks he invented for his theatre was extensive, but his most remarkable one was the Light and Heavy Chest. He took advantage of the infancy of the usage of electricity, especially the then-novelty of Hans Christian Oersted’s discovery of electromagnetism, to his advantage. Robert-Houdin brought on a small wooden box about a foot wide. He said that he had found a way to protect it from thieves. He asked a spectator to lift it, usually a small child. The child lifted it with ease. Then, he brought an adult male up from the audience and asked ‘him’ to lift the same box. The adult male was unable to lift the box.
After Robert-Houdin retired, he devoted himself to his inventions with electricity and his writings. His home, le Prieuré (the Priory), was a marvel in advancement. His home was run entirely by electricity. In 1856, he was asked by Louis-Napoleon to pacify the tribes in French Algeria. During this period, the French Army commanders maintained order in the newly pacified region. They supervised local Muslim administrations and the bureaux arabes. These areas were closed off to colonization by the Europeans. Napoleon III was worried about a religious tribe called the Marabouts. The Marabouts were able to control their tribe with their faux magical abilities. They advised their leaders to break ranks with the French. Napoleon wanted Robert-Houdin to show that French magic was stronger.
The magical mission began with an informal show at the Bab Azoun Theatre in Algeria, where he would give performances twice weekly. He also gave many special galas before the country’s tribal chiefs. He used The Light and Heavy Chest during these performances, but instead of playing it for comedy as he had in Paris, here he played it straight. Robert-Houdin once invited the strongest tribesman on stage and asked the Arabian to pick up the wooden chest placed on stage. The Arabian picked it up with no problem. Then Robert-Houdin announced that he was going to sap his strength. He waved his wand and declared, “Contemplez! Maintenant vous êtes plus faible qu’une femme; essayez de soulever la boîte.” (“Behold! Now you are weaker than a woman; try to lift the box.”) The Arabian pulled on the handle of the chest, but it would not budge. He tried and tried until he tried to rip it apart. Instead, he screamed in pain, as Robert-Houdin had rigged the box to give the Arabian an electrical shock if he tried to rip the handles off. The Arabian let go of the handle, ran off into the aisle, and ran screaming out of the theatre.
After his performances were done, he gave a special presentation for several chief men of their tribe. He was invited to the home of the head of the tribe of the desert interior, Bou-Allem. In dawn of the Arab desert, Robert-Houdin was challenged to do a special trick. He obliged by inviting one of the rebels to shoot at him with a marked bullet, which he caught between his teeth. He was given a certificate from Bou-Allem, who wore a red robe symbolizing his loyalty to France. With this scroll praising his mysterious manifestations, Robert-Houdin went back to France with the mission accomplished.
“The blow was struck,” Robert-Houdin said, “…henceforth the interpreters and all those who had dealings with the Arabs received orders to make them understand that my pretended miracles were only the result of skill, inspired and guided by an art called prestidigitation, in no way connected with sorcery.” He went on to say, “The Arabs doubtless yielded to these arguments, for henceforth I was on the most friendly terms with them.” He was rewarded for his services of the French government by suppressing any possible rebellion.
After his mission in Algeria was completed, Robert-Houdin gave his last public performance at the Grand Théâtre in Marseille, then returned to his home in Saint-Gervais, near his native Blois, where he wrote his memoirs, Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur. He also wrote several books on the art of magic. He lived happily in retirement for about fifteen years, until the advent of the Franco Prussian War. His son Eugene was a captain in a Zouave regiment. On August 6, 1870, Robert-Houdin heard news of his son being mortally wounded at the Battle of Worth. Meanwhile, Hessian Soldiers captured Paris, and Robert-Houdin hid his family in a cave near his property. The Hessian soldiers were very rude, according to Robert-Houdin, but he found the Polish soldiers to be a lot kinder. Four days later, Robert-Houdin was to find out that his son had died of his wounds. With the stress from that and the war, his health deteriorated, and he contracted pneumonia. On June 13, 1871, he died of his illness, at the age of sixty-five.
- December, 07, 1805
- Blois, France
- June, 13, 1871
- Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt, France
Cause of Death