Robert-Houdin, the “father of modern magic,” even silenced a revolution with his tricks

Stefan Andrews
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Each century has introduced at least one exceptional magician. The name Nicholas Flamel takes us back to 13th century Paris, where he penned several manuscripts that, after years of study, people realized were significant works of alchemy. Flamel supposedly produced the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical object that transforms lead into gold. The story has its echo in the first volume of the Harry Potter series.

During the reign of Elizabeth I of England, seers John Dee and Edward Kelley rose to fame, a twosome who took seriously the task of talking to angels and demons. Dee, a scholar, also served the queen as an adviser, helping her select the day of her coronation. Kelley was the one with more necromancy know-how and promised he was capable of contacting otherworldly souls.

There are many more such historical figures connected with practicing magic or other occult activities, but one name that stands above the rest is Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. Raised in a French family that owned a clock-making business, Houdin rose to fame in magic in the 19th century.

Nicolas Flamel

He was born in 1805 in the town of Blois in central France. Houdin was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and work in the family business. However, he would be remembered as a showman who delivered perfect magic-show performances, dressed in formal garb. People called him “the father of modern magic.”

Robert-Houdin came to run a successful theater that hosted magic shows in Paris from 1845 to 1855. His devotion to this occupation sparked when he came across two books that contained everything about performing magic tricks, purely by accident.

Edward Kelley

As the story goes, he purchased two sets of books on clock-making, authored by Ferdinand Berthoud and entitled Treatise on Clockmaking. But a surprise awaiting him as soon as he unwrapped the books. Instead of the volumes on clock-making, inside was a two-volume set on magic, Scientific Amusements.

Houdin soaked in the book contents. While continuing to hone his clock-making abilities, he also tried new things he had picked up from the Scientific Amusements volumes. By his mid-twenties, he had become acquainted with other people who practice magical skills. He’d also married Cécile-Églantine Houdin, the daughter of a prominent clockmaker based in Paris, and subsequently, the pair would move to the French capital.

Jean Eugène Robert Houdin

In Paris, Houdin started working at the workshop of his father-in-law, but the city proved fertile ground for his love of illusion. He found many people who shared his interest in magic. He would learn from them as well as visit the Parisian shops that had the latest gadgetry and equipment for magicians.

Applying his knowledge of mechanics, skills honed from the clock-producing work, Houdin started coming up with new inventions. One of these designs changed his fortunes for good.

Statue in front of Robert-Houdin’s home in Blois. Author: Carcharoth CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1844 Houdin devised an automaton for writing, which he exhibited at the Universal Exposition at the Champs-Élysées. An American circus director showed an avid interest in Houdin’s gadget, and he paid the Frenchman 7,000 francs for it.

The money was useful to Houdin because he now had enough to invest in developing several more mechanical devices, all of which were later presented and used in his own theater for magic shows in Paris.

This is the public “dragons” display at Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s house in Blois, which has been turned into a museum. Author: Carcharoth CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1845, Robert-Houdin started hosting his Soirées Fantastiques, a set of performances that demonstrated various magic tricks on the stage. The more shows he delivered, the better he became, and it wasn’t long before he made a name for himself all over Paris.

Robert-Houdin introduced several novelties to the world of magicians. For instance, he would opt for formal wear instead of wizard’s robes, as was the case before. He influenced others to dress the way he did. His influence extended beyond the borders of France, and he toured much of the European continent, entertaining vast audiences from everywhere.

Commemorative plaque, 11 rue de Valois in Paris, where one could experience the Fantastic Evenings of Robert-Houdin. Author: Wikimedia Commons / Mu CC BY-SA 3.0

He carried out his last tour of Europe in 1855, after which he eventually retreated to a more peaceful life, moving back to the countryside of his hometown, Blois. Which is when Robert-Houdin’s career took a startling turn.

In 1856, French government officials, aware of his magical reputation, invited him to Algeria, at that time a colony of France, to help silence a revolution that was brewing among the various chiefs of the Algerian tribes.

The mutiny among the Algerians was instigated by a group of holy men dubbed the Marabouts. Muslim by religion, the Marabouts influenced the local Algerians with their magical skills. They knew how to do glass eating and fire walking, among other tricks.

The Conjuring of a Woman at  the Robert Houdin Theater, 1896

The French officials hoped that using the same approach could influence the chiefs, and they asked Robert-Houdin to fight magic with magic. The maestro commenced his show in front of the Algerian leaders one autumn day in 1856, and the more magic he did, the more he dazzled his guests. The dissidents were no longer in sway to the revolutionary magicians. A revolution was averted.

Read another story from us: Jasper Maskelyne: A career magician used his craft to help the Allies during WWII

Robert-Houdin would live to old age, passing away of pneumonia in 1871. His legend continued. In fact, when a Budapest-born American magician named Ehrich Weiss decided to take a stage name, he picked “Harry Houdini” in honor of the Frenchman.

The Robert-Houdin House of Magic in Paris, a museum dedicated to the art of illusion, is a favorite among visitors. The building was given to the city by the descendants of “the father of magic.”