Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, The Father of Modern Magic Who Stopped a Revolt with His Abilities
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was a French magician who lived during the 19th century. Amongst other things, Robert-Houdin is commonly regarded today as the originator of the modern style of conjuring (the performance of magical tricks), and has even been dubbed by some as the ‘father of modern magic’. Robert-Houdin was a very successful magician during his lifetime, and some of his acts have even become classics.
His reputation was so great that he was requested during the 1850s by the French government to help put down a tribal rebellion in Algeria using his skills. This is surely a feat that not many magicians can boast about.
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was born on December 6th / 7th, 1805 in the central French city of Blois. His father was a clockmaker, and the young Robert-Houdin was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the family business when he grew up. After receiving his education at the University of Orleans, however, Robert-Houdin became fascinated by magic. Nevertheless, at this point of time, magic was treated by Robert-Houdin as just a hobby.
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, pioneer of modern magical entertainment. ( Public Domain )
In the meantime, Robert-Houdin continued his career as a clockmaker. At the age of 24, he married Cécile-Églantine Houdin, the daughter of a renowned Parisian clockmaker. Incidentally, it was during one of Robert-Houdin’s professional performances (Robert-Houdin had received help from a local magician to hone his skills to the point that he was able to perform professionally) that the pair met each other. The newly-wedded couple then moved to Paris, where Robert-Houdin worked in his father-in-law’s shop.
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Whilst in Paris, Robert-Houdin continued to improve his skills as a magician by attending the performances of fellow magicians, and by visiting magic shops to learn about the latest tricks and gadgets.
In addition, Robert-Houdin’s expertise as a clockmaker also came in handy in his endeavors as a magician. Using his mechanical expertise, Robert-Houdin was able to build new inventions, some of which would later be incorporated into his performances.
One of the mechanical inventions that Robert-Houdin built was a writing automaton, which was built in 1844 for the Universal Exposition. This automaton caught the eye of an American circus impresario by the name of P. T. Barnum, who paid Robert-Houdin 7000 francs for the device. This was a felicitous event for Robert-Houdin, as the money allowed him to finish a number of mechanical pieces he was building for the magical theater that he was going to open in Paris.
An example of Maillardet's automaton drawing a picture.
The year 1845 saw the debut of Robert-Houdin’s ‘Soirées Fantastiques’, a series of magical performance staged at his new magical theater in the Palais Royal. With each performance, Robert-Houdin refined his presentation, and soon became well-known throughout the French capital. Incidentally, subsequent magicians may have Robert-Houdin to thank / blame for the way they dress during performances. During Robert-Houdin’s time, it was customary for magicians to dress in wizard’s robes. Robert-Houdin, however, decided to break away from this tradition, and wore formal evening attire instead.
Commemorative plaque, 11 rue de Valois in Paris, where one could experience the Soirées fantastiques of Robert-Houdin. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Magical Mission
Over time, Robert-Houdin’s fame spread beyond France, and he travelled around Europe to perform his magic. In 1855, he completed his final tour, returned to France, retired from his career as a magician, and settled on a farm outside Blois.
However, in 1856, Robert-Houdin was called out of retirement to help France with his magic skills. Over in Algeria, a French colony at that time, the local population was being incited to rebellion by Muslim holy men known as Marabouts. The Marabouts were gaining supporters amongst the local tribes in Algeria due to their “magical” abilities. These included snake charming, fire walking, and glass eating. The French authorities therefore decided to fight magic with magic, and sent Robert-Houdin to show the Algerians that French ‘magic’ was greater than that performed by the Marabouts.
This is the public "dragons" display at Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin's house in Blois. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
On October 28, 1856, 60 Algerian chieftains and their retinue were invited (or forced, rather) to attend Robert-Houdin’s magic performance. This performance began with a few entertaining tricks, such as pulling cannonballs and flowers out of a hat, and filling an empty silver punch bowl with hot coffee. Of course, Robert-Houdin’s show was not merely to amuse the chiefs, but also to terrify them into submission, as desired by the French colonialists. Thus, one of the tricks he used is known as the ‘Light and Heavy Chest’.