The Conjurer and the Claw: 1840s




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By Anonymous – http://parismuseescollections.paris.fr/fr/musee-carnavalet/oeuvres/theatre-robert-houdin-8-brd-des-italiens-les-spectres-et-le-manoir-du, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3934544

“When [“The King’s Conjurer” Louis] Comte was in the zenith of his success, [Jean-Eugène] Robert-Houdin appeared upon the scene and became the greatest and most original fantaisiste of his time and the founder of a new and unique school of conjuring. He started out as a watchmaker and attracted the attention of the Count de l’Escalopier and a strong friendship grew up between them.

Soon Houdin confided to the count his burning desire to become a great magician. Poverty, however, prevented him from gratifying his desire, and, although the count repeatedly offered to back him in this undertaking, he refused this generous offer. Later he devised an apparatus for detecting the thief who was systematically robbing his friend the count. An account of the capture is thus given:

“While Houdin was placing his apparatus in position, the count frequently expressed his wonderment at the heavy padded glove which the conjurer wore on his right hand.

“’All in good time, my dear count,’ said Houdin. When everything was arranged, the mechanician began his explanation of the working of the secret-detective apparatus.

“’You see, it is like this,’ he remarked; “the thief unlocks the desk, but no sooner does he raise the lid, ever so little, than this claw-like piece of mechanism, attached to a light rod and impelled by a spring, comes sharply down on the back of the hand which holds the key, and at the same time the report of a pistol is heard. The noise is to alarm the household, and …“

“’But the glove you wear!’ interrupted the nobleman.

“‘The glove is to protect me from the operation of the steel claw which tattooes the word Robber on the back of the criminal’s hand.’

“’How is that accomplished? ‘ said De l’Escalopier.

“‘Simplest thing in the world,’ replied Houdin. ‘The claw consists of a number of very short but sharp points, so fixed as to form the word; and these points are shoved through a pad soaked with nitrate of silver, a portion of which is forced by the blow into the punctures, thereby making the scars indelible for life. A fleur-de-lis stamped by an executioner with a red-hot iron could not be more effective.’

“‘But, M. Houdin,’ said the count, horror-stricken at the idea, ‘I have no right to anticipate justice in this way. To brand a fellow-being in such a fashion would forever close the doors of society against him. I could not think of such a thing. Besides, suppose some member of my family, through carelessness or forgetfulness, were to fall a victim to this dreadful apparatus.’

“‘You are right,’ said Houdin. ‘I will alter the mechanism in such a way that no harm can come to any one, save a mere superficial flesh-wound that will easily heal. Give me a few hours.’ . . .

“The count did everything possible to excite the cupidity of the robber. He sent repeatedly for his stock-broker, on which occasions sums of money were ostentatiously passed from hand to hand; he even made a pretense of going away from home for a short time, but the bait proved a failure.

Each day the nobleman reported ‘No result’ to Houdin, and was on the point of giving up in despair. Two weeks elapsed. One morning De l’Escalopier rushed into the watchmaker’s shop, sank breathlessly on a chair, and ejaculated: ‘ I have caught the robber at last.’

“‘Indeed,’ replied Houdin; ‘who is he?’

“’But first let me relate what happened,’ said the count.  ‘I was seated this morning in my library, when the report of a pistol resounded in my sleeping apartment.

“The thief!“ I exclaimed, excitedly. I looked around me for a weapon, but finding nothing at hand, I grasped an ancient battle-axe from a stand of armor nearby, and ran to seize the robber. I pushed open the door of the sleeping-room and saw, to my intense surprise, Bernard, my trusted valet and factotum, a man who has been in my employ for upwards of twenty years. “What are you doing here?” I asked; “what was that noise?”

“‘In the coolest manner he replied: “I came into the room just as you did, sir, at the explosion of the pistol. I saw a man making his escape down the back stairs, but I was so bewildered that I was unable to apprehend him.”

“’I rushed down the back stairs, but, finding the door locked on the inside, knew that no one could have passed that way. A great light broke upon me. “Great God!”  I cried, “can Bernard be the thief?” I returned to the library. My valet was holding his right hand behind him, but I dragged it forward, and saw the imprint of the claw thereon. The wound was bleeding profusely. Finding himself convicted, the wretch fell on his knees and begged for forgiveness.

“’How long have you been robbing me?”’ I asked.

“’For nearly two years,”’ he said.

“’And how much have you taken?”’ I inquired.

“‘Fifteen thousand francs, which I invested in government stock. The scrip is in my desk.”. . .

“’And now,’  said the count to Houdin, ‘ I want you to take these fifteen thousand francs and begin your career as a conjurer; surely you can not refuse to accept as a loan the money your ingenuity has rescued from a robber.’“

Houdin, after much hesitation, accepted the loan and started out upon his career, the crowning event of which was his embassy to Algeria to counteract the influence of the Marabout priests over the Arabs. How well the famous French wizard succeeded is a matter of history.

The Argonaut. Vol. XLII. No. 1090. San Francisco, January 31, 1898.

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Rober-Houdin used the 15,000 francs to open The Théâtre Robert-Houdin, where he performed illusions such as “The Light and Heavy Chest,” and “The Marvelous Orange Tree.”

The Algerian adventure called for all of Robert-Houdin’s ingenuity. The Marabouts were a religious group using magic to incite the Arab tribes to break with the French in Algeria. Robert-Houdin was sent by Napoleon III to demonstrate that the magic of the French was superior. Here is Mrs Daffodil’s favourite trick performed in the course of his mission, as the result of a unexpected challenge. Robert-Houdin had performed a variety of tricks and a Marabout, whose watch the conjurer had taken during his act, said:

 “I now believe in your supernatural power,” he said, “you are a real sorcerer; hence, I hope you will not fear to repeat here a trick you performed in your theatre;’ and offering me two pistols he held concealed beneath his burnous, he added, “Come, choose one of these pistols; we will load it, and I will fire at you. You have nothing to fear, as you can ward off all blows.”

I confess I was for a moment staggered; I sought a subterfuge and found none. All eyes were fixed upon me, and a reply was anxiously awaited.

The Marabout was triumphant. 

Bou-Allem, being aware that my tricks were only the result of skill, was angry that his guest should be so pestered; hence he began reproaching the Marabout. I stopped him, however, for an idea had occurred to me which would save me from my dilemma, at least temporarily ; then, addressing my adversary:

“You are aware,” I said, with assurance, “that I require a talisman in order to be invulnerable, and, unfortunately, I have left mine at Algiers.”

The Marabout began laughing with an incredulous air.

“Still,” I continued, “I can, by remaining six hours at prayers, do without the talisman, and defy your weapon. To-morrow morning, at eight o’clock, I will allow you to fire at me in the presence of these Arabs, who were witnesses of your challenge.”

Bou-Allem, astonished at such a promise, asked me once again if this offer were serious, and if he should invite the company for the appointed hour. On my affirmative, they agreed to meet…

I did not spend my night at prayers, as may be supposed, but I employed about two hours in ensuring my invulnerability; then, satisfied with the result, I slept soundly, for I was terribly tired.

By eight the next morning we had breakfasted, our horses were saddled, and our escort was awaiting the signal for our departure, which would take place after the famous experiment.

None of the guests were absent, and, indeed, a great number of Arabs came in to swell the crowd.

The pistols were handed me; I called attention to the fact that the vents were clear, and the Marabout put in a fair charge of powder and drove the wad home. Among the bullets produced, I chose one which I openly put in the pistol, and which was then also covered with paper.

The Arab watched all these movements, for his honor was at stake.

We went through the same process with the second pistol and the solemn moment arrived. Solemn, indeed, it seemed to everybody—to the spectators who were uncertain of the issue, to Madame Houdin, who had in vain besought me to give up this trick, for she feared the result—and solemn also to me, for as my new trick did not depend on any of the arrangements made at Algiers, I feared an error, an act of treachery—I knew not what.

Still I posted myself at fifteen paces from the sheik, without evincing the slightest emotion.

The Marabout immediately seized one of the pistols, and, on my giving the signal, took a deliberate aim at me. The pistol went off, and the ball appeared between my teeth. 

More angry than ever, my rival tried to seize the other pistol, but I succeeded in reaching it before him.

“You could not injure me,” I said to him, “but you shall now see that my aim is more dangerous than yours. Look at that wall.”

I pulled the trigger, and on the newly whitewashed wall appeared a large patch of blood, exactly at the spot where I had aimed.

The Marabout went up to it, dipped his finger in the blood, and, raising it to his mouth, convinced himself of the reality. When he acquired this certainty, his arms fell, and his head was bowed on his chest, as if he were annihilated…

The spectators raised their eyes to heaven, muttered prayers, and regarded me with a species of terror.

This scene was a triumphant termination to my performance. I therefore retired, leaving the audience under the impression that I produced. We took leave of BouAllem and his son, and set off at a gallop.

The trick I have just described, though so curious, is easily prepared. I will give a description of it, while explaining the trouble it took me.

As soon as I was alone in my room, I took out of my pistol-case—without which I never travel—a bullet mould.

I took a card, bent up the four edges, and thus made a sort of trough, in which I placed a piece of wax taken from one of the candles. When it was melted, I mixed with it a little lamp-black I had obtained by putting the blade of a knife over the candle, and then ran this composition in the bullet-mould. 

Had I allowed the liquid to get quite cold, the ball would have been full and solid; but in about ten seconds I turned the mould over, and the portions of the wax not yet set ran out, leaving a hollow ball in the mould. This operation is the same as that used in making tapers, the thickness of the outside depending on the time the liquid has been left in the mould.

I wanted a second ball, which I made rather more solid than the other; and this I filled with blood, and covered the orifice with a lump of wax. An Irishman had once taught me the way to draw blood from the thumb, without feeling any pain, and I employed it on this occasion to fill my bullet. 

Bullets thus prepared bear an extraordinary resemblance to lead, and are easily mistaken for that metal when seen at a short distance off.

With this explanation, the trick will be easily understood. After showing the leaden bullet to the spectators, I changed it for my hollow ball, and openly put the latter into the pistol. By pressing the wad tightly down, the wax broke into small pieces, and could not touch me at the distance I stood.

At the moment the pistol was fired, I opened my mouth to display the lead bullet I held between my teeth, while the other pistol contained the bullet filled with blood, which bursting against the wall, left its imprint, though the wax had flown to atoms.

The Memoirs of Robert Houdin: The Great Wizard, Celebrated French Conjurer, Author, and Ambassador, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, Translated from the French, with a Copious Index, by Dr. R. Shelton Mackenzie,1859: pp. 410-413

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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