A Conjurer's Confessions



[Sleight-of-hand theories alone cannot explain the mysteries of

"magic" as practiced by that eminent Frenchman who revolutionized

the entire art, and who was finally called upon to help his

government out of a difficuity--Robert-Houdin. The success of his

most famous performances hung not only on an incredible dexterity,

but also on high ingenuity
nd moral courage, as the following

pages from his "Memoirs" will prove to the reader. The story

begins when the young man of twenty was laboring patiently as

apprentice to a watchmaker.]

In order to aid my progress and afford me relaxation, my master

recommended me to study some treatises on mechanics in general, and

on clockmaking in particular. As this suited my taste exactly, I

gladly assented, and I was devoting myself passionately to this

attractive study, when a circumstance, apparently most simple,

suddenly decided my future life by revealing to me a vocation whose

mysterious resources must open a vast field for my inventive and

fanciful ideas.

One evening I went into a bookseller's shop to buy Berthoud's

"Treatise on Clockmaking," which I knew he had. The tradesman

being engaged at the moment on matters more important, took down

two volumes from the shelves and handed them to me without

ceremony. On returning home I sat down to peruse my treatise

conscientiously, but judge of my surprise when I read on the back

of one of the volumes "SCIENTIFIC AMUSEMENTS." Astonished at

finding such a title on a professional work, I opened it

impatiently, and, on running through the table of contents, my

surprise was doubled on reading these strange phrases:

The way of performing tricks with the cards--How to guess a

person's thoughts--To cut off a pigeon's head, to restore it to

life, etc., etc.

The bookseller had made a mistake. In his haste, he had given me

two volumes of the Encyclopaedia instead of Berthoud. Fascinated,

however, by the announcement of such marvels, I devoured the

mysterious pages, and the further my reading advanced, the more I

saw laid bare before me the secrets of an art for which I was

unconsciously predestined.

I fear I shall be accused of exaggeration, or at least not be

understood by many of my readers, when I say that this discovery

caused me the greatest joy I had ever experienced. At this moment

a secret presentiment warned me that success, perhaps glory, would

one day accrue to me in the apparent realization of the marvelous

and impossible, and fortunately these presentiments did not err.

The resemblance between two books, and the hurry of a bookseller,

were the commonplace causes of the most important event in my life.

It may be urged that different circumstances might have suggested

this profession to me at a later date. It is probable; but then I

should have had no time for it. Would any workman, artisan, or

tradesman give up a certainty, however slight it may be, to yield

to a passion which would be surely regarded as a mania? Hence my

irresistible penchant for the mysterious could only be followed at

this precise period of my life.

How often since have I blessed this providential error, without

which I should have probably vegetated as a country watchmaker! My

life would have been spent in gentle monotony; I should have been

spared many sufferings, emotions, and shocks: but, on the other

hand, what lively sensations, what profound delight would have been


I was eagerly devouring every line of the magic book which

described the astounding tricks; my head was aglow, and I at times

gave way to thoughts which plunged me in ecstasy.

The author gave a very plain explanation of his tricks; still, he

committed the error of supposing his readers possessed of the

necessary skill to perform them. Now, I was entirely deficient in

this skill, and though most desirous of acquiring it, I found

nothing in the book to indicate the means. I was in the position

of a man who attempts to copy a picture without possessing the

slightest notion of drawing and painting.

In the absence of a professor to instruct me, I was compelled to

create the principles of the science I wished to study. In the

first place, I recognized the fundamental principle of sleight-of-

hand, that the organs performing the principal part are the sight

and touch. I saw that, in order to attain any degree of

perfection, the professor must develop these organs to their

fullest extent--for, in his exhibitions, he must be able to see

everything that takes place around him at half a glance, and

execute his deceptions with unfailing dexterity.

I had been often struck by the ease with which pianists can read

and perform at sight the most difficult pieces. I saw that, by

practice, it would be possible to create a certainty of perception

and facility of touch, rendering it easy for the artist to attend

to several things simultaneously, while his hands were busy

employed with some complicated task. This faculty I wished to

acquire and apply to sleight-of-hand; still, as music could not

afford me the necessary elements, I had recourse to the juggler's

art, in which I hoped to meet with an analogous result.

It is well known that the trick with the balls wonderfully improves

the touch, but does it not improve the vision at the same time? In

fact, when a juggler throws into the air four balls crossing each

other in various directions, he requires an extraordinary power of

sight to follow the direction his hands have given to each of the

balls. At this period a corn-cutter resided at Blois, who

possessed the double talent of juggling and extracting corns with a

skill worthy of the lightness of his hands. Still, with both these

qualities, he was not rich, and being aware of that fact, I hoped

to obtain lessons from him at a price suited to my modest finances.

In fact, for ten francs he agreed to initiate me in the juggling


I practiced with so much zeal, and progressed so rapidly, that in

less than a month I had nothing more to learn; at least, I knew as

much as my master, with the exception of corn-cutting, the monopoly

in which I left him. I was able to juggle with four balls at once.

But this did not satisfy my ambition; so I placed a book before me,

and, while the balls were in the air, I accustomed myself to read

without any hesitation.

This will probably seem to my readers very extraordinary; but I

shall surprise them still more, when I say that I have just amused

myself by repeating this curious experiment. Though thirty years

have elapsed since the time of which I am writing, and though I

scarcely once touched the balls during that period, I can still

manage to read with ease while keeping three balls up.

The practice of this trick gave my fingers a remarkable degree of

delicacy and certainty, while my eye was at the same time acquiring

a promptitude of perception that was quite marvelous. Presently I

shall have to speak of the service this rendered me in my

experiment of second sight. After having thus made my hands supple

and docile, I went on straight to sleight-of-hand, and I more

especially devoted myself to the manipulation of cards and


This operation requires a great deal of practice; for, while the

hand is held apparently open, balls, corks, lumps of sugar, coins,

etc., must be held unseen, the fingers remaining perfectly free and


Owing to the little time at my disposal, the difficulties connected

with these new experiments would have been insurmountable had I not

found a mode of practicing without neglecting my business. It was

the fashion in those days to wear coats with large pockets on the

hips, called a la proprietaire, so whenever my hands were not

otherwise engaged they slipped naturally into my pockets, and set

to work with cards, coins, or one of the objects I have mentioned.

It will be easily understood how much time I gained by this. Thus,

for instance, when out on errands my hands could be at work on both

sides; at dinner, I often ate my soup with one hand while I was

learning to sauter la coupe with the other--in short, the slightest

moment of relaxation was devoted to my favorite pursuit.