Second Sight

[A thousand more trials of patience and perseverance finally

brought to the conjurer a Parisian theater and an appreciative

clientele. But he never ceased to labor and improve the quality of

his marvelous effects.]

The experiment, however, to which I owed my reputation was one

inspired by that fantastic god to whom Pascal attributes all the

discoveries of this sublunary world: it was chance
that led me

straight to the invention of SECOND SIGHT.

My two children were playing one day in the drawing-room at a game

they had invented for their own amusement. The younger had

bandaged his elder brother's eyes, and made him guess the objects

he touched, and when the latter happened to guess right, they

changed places. This simple game suggested to me the most

complicated idea that ever crossed my mind.

Pursued by the notion, I ran and shut myself up in my workroom, and

was fortunately in that happy state when the mind follows easily

the combinations traced by fancy. I rested my hand in my hands,

and, in my excitement, laid down the first principles of second


My readers will remember the experiment suggested to me formerly by

the pianist's dexterity, and the strange faculty I succeeded in

attaining: I could read while juggling with four balls. Thinking

seriously of this, I fancied that this "perception by appreciation"

might be susceptible of equal development, if I applied its

principles to the memory and the mind.

I resolved, therefore, on making some experiments with my son

Emile, and, in order to make my young assistant understand the

nature of the exercise we were going to learn, I took a domino, the

cinq-quatre for instance, and laid it before him. Instead of

letting him count the points of the two numbers, I requested the

boy to tell me the total at once.

"Nine," he said.

Then I added another domino, the quarter-tray.

"That makes sixteen," he said, without any hesitation. I stopped

the first lesson here; the next day we succeeded in counting at a

single glance four dominoes, the day after six, and thus we at

length were enabled to give instantaneously the product of a dozen


This result obtained, we applied ourselves to a far more difficult

task, over which we spent a month. My son and I passed rapidly

before a toy-shop, or any other displaying a variety of wares, and

cast an attentive glance upon it. A few steps farther on we drew

paper and pencil from our pockets, and tried which could describe

the greater number of objects seen in passing. I must own that my

son reached a perfection far greater than mine, for he could often

write down forty objects, while I could scarce reach thirty. Often

feeling vexed at this defeat, I would return to the shop and verify

his statement, but he rarely made a mistake.

My male readers will certainly understand the possibility of this,

but they will recognize the difficulty. As for my lady readers, I

am convinced beforehand they will not be of the same opinion, for

they daily perform far more astounding feats. Thus, for instance,

I can safely assert that a lady seeing another pass at full speed

in a carriage, will have had time to analyze her toilet from her

bonnet to her shoes, and be able to describe not only the fashion

and quality of the stuffs, but also say if the lace be real or only

machine-made. I have known ladies do this.

This natural, or acquired, faculty among ladies, but which my son

and I had only gained by constant practice, was of great service in

my performances, for while I was executing my tricks, I could see

everything that passed around me, and thus prepare to foil any

difficulties presented me. This exercise had given me, so to

speak, the power of following two ideas simultaneously, and nothing

is more favorable in conjuring than to be able to think at the same

time both of what you are saying and of what you are doing. I

eventually acquired such a knack in this that I frequently invented

new tricks while going through my performances. One day, even, I

made a bet I would solve a problem in mechanics while taking my

part in conversation. We were talking of the pleasure of a country

life, and I calculated during this time the quantity of wheels and

pinions, as well as the necessary cogs, to produce certain

revolutions required, without once failing in my reply.

This slight explanation will be sufficient to show what is the

essential basis of second sight, and I will add that a secret and

unnoticeable correspondence[1] existed between my son and myself,

by which I could announce to him the name, nature, and bulk of

objects handed me by spectators.

[1] "Telegraphy."

As none understood my mode of action, they were tempted to believe

in something extraordinary, and, indeed, my son Emile, then aged

twelve, possessed all the essential qualities to produce this

opinion, for his pale, intellectual, and ever thoughtful face

represented the type of a boy gifted with some supernatural power.

Two months were incessantly employed in erecting the scaffolding of

our tricks, and when we were quite confident of being able to

contend against the difficulties of such an undertaking, we

announced the first representation of second sight. On the 12th of

February, 1846, I printed in the center of my bill the following

singular announcement:

"In this performance M. Robert-Houdin's son, who is gifted with a

marvelous second sight, after his eyes have been covered with a

thick bandage, will designate every object presented to him by the


I cannot say whether this announcement attracted any spectators,

for my room was constantly crowded, still I may affirm, what may

seem very extraordinary, that the experiment of second sight, which

afterwards became so fashionable, produced no effect on the first

performance. I am inclined to believe that the spectators fancied

themselves the dupes of accomplices, but I was much annoyed by the

result, as I had built on the surprise I should produce; still,

having no reason to doubt its ultimate success, I was tempted to

make a second trial, which turned out well.

The next evening I noticed in my room several persons who had been

present on the previous night, and I felt they had come a second

time to assure themselves of the reality of the experiment. It

seems they were convinced, for my success was complete, and amply

compensated for my former disappointment.

I especially remember a mark of singular approval with which one of

my pit audience favored me. My son had named to him several

objects he offered in succession; but not feeling satisfied, my

incredulous friend, rising, as if to give more importance to the

difficulty he was about to present, handed me an instrument

peculiar to cloth merchants, and employed to count the number of

threads. Acquiescing in his wish, I said to my boy, "What do I

hold in my hand?"

"It is an instrument to judge the fineness of cloth, and called a

thread counter."

"By Jove!" my spectator said, energetically, "it is marvelous. If

I had paid ten francs to see it, I should not begrudge them."

From this moment my room was much too small, and was crowded every


Still, success is not entirely rose-colored, and I could easily

narrate many disagreeable scenes produced by the reputation I had

of being a sorcerer; but I will only mention one, which forms a

resume of all I pass over:

A young lady of elegant manners paid me a visit one day, and

although her face was hidden by a thick veil, my practiced eyes

perfectly distinguished her features. She was very pretty.

My incognita would not consent to sit down till she was assured we

were alone, and that I was the real Robert-Houdin. I also seated

myself, and assuming the attitude of a man prepared to listen, I

bent slightly to my visitor, as if awaiting her pleasure to explain

to me the object of her mysterious visit. To my great surprise,

the young lady, whose manner betrayed extreme emotion, maintained

the most profound silence, and I began to find the visit very

strange, and was on the point of forcing an explanation, at any

hazard, when the fair unknown timidly ventured these words:

"Good Heavens! sir, I know not how you will interpret my visit."

Here she stopped, and let her eyes sink with a very embarrassed

air; then, making a violent effort, she continued:

"What I have to ask of you, sir, is very difficult to explain."

"Speak, madam, I beg," I said, politely, "and I will try to guess

what you cannot explain to me."

And I began asking myself what this reserve meant.

"In the first place," the young lady said, in a low voice, and

looking round her, "I must tell you confidentially that I loved, my

love was returned, and I--I am betrayed."

At the last word the lady raised her head, overcame the timidity

she felt, and said, in a firm and assured voice:

"Yes, sir--yes, I am betrayed, and for that reason I have come to


"Really, madam," I said, much surprised at this strange confession,

"I do not see how I can help you in such a matter."

"Oh, sir, I entreat you," said my fair visitor, clasping her hands--

"I implore you not to abandon me!"

I had great difficulty in keeping my countenance, and yet I felt an

extreme curiosity to know the history concealed behind this


"Calm yourself, madam," I remarked, in a tone of tender sympathy;

"tell me what you would of me, and if it be in my power--"

"If it be in your power!" the young lady said, quickly; "why,

nothing is more easy, sir."

"Explain yourself, madam."

"Well, sir, I wish to be avenged."

"In what way?"

"How, you know better than I, sir; must I teach you? You have in

your power means to--"

"I, madam?"

"Yes, sir, you! for you are a sorcerer, and cannot deny it."

At this word sorcerer, I was much inclined to laugh; but I was

restrained by the incognita's evident emotion. Still, wishing to

put an end to a scene which was growing ridiculous, I said, in a

politely ironical tone:

"Unfortunately, madam, you give me a title I never possessed."

"How, sir!" the young woman exclaimed, in a quick tone, "you will

not allow you are--"

"A sorcerer, madam? Oh, no, I will not."

"You will not?"

"No, a thousand times no, madam."

At these words my visitor rose hastily, muttered a few incoherent

words, appeared suffering from terrible emotion, and then drawing

near me with flaming eyes and passionate gestures, repeated:

"Ah, you will not! Very good; I now know what I have to do."

Stupefied by such an outbreak, I looked at her fixedly, and began

to suspect the cause of her extraordinary conduct.

"There are two modes of acting," she said, with terrible

volubility, "toward people who devote themselves to magic arts--

entreaty and menaces. You would not yield to the first of these

means, hence, I must employ the second. Stay," she added, "perhaps

this will induce you to speak."

And, lifting up her cloak, she laid her hand on the hilt of a

dagger passed through her girdle. At the same time she suddenly

threw back her veil, and displayed features in which all the signs

of rage and madness could be traced. No longer having a doubt as

to the person I had to deal with, my first movement was to rise and

stand on my guard; but this first feeling overcome, I repented the

thought of a struggle with the unhappy woman, and determined on

employing a method almost always successful with those deprived of

reason. I pretended to accede to her wishes.

"If it be so, madam, I yield to your request. Tell me what you


"I have told you, sir; I wish for vengeance, and there is only one

method to--"

Here there was a fresh interruption, and the young lady, calmed by

my apparent submission, as well as embarrassed by the request she

had to make of me, became again timid and confused.

"Well, madam?"

"Well, sir, I know not how to tell you--how to explain to you--but

I fancy there are certain means--certain spells--which render it

impossible--impossible for a man to be--unfaithful."

"I now understand what you wish, madam. It is a certain magic

practice employed in the middle ages. Nothing is easier, and I

will satisfy you."

Decided on playing the farce to the end, I took down the largest

book I could find in my library, turned over the leaves, stopped at

a page which I pretended to scan with profound attention, and then

addressing the lady, who followed all my movements anxiously,

"Madam," I said confidentially, "the spell I am going to perform

renders it necessary for me to know the name of the person; have

the kindness, then, to tell it me."

"Julian!" she said, in a faint voice.

With all the gravity of a real sorcerer, I solemnly thrust a pin

through a lighted candle, and pronounced some cabalistic words.

After which, blowing out the candle, and turning to the poor

creature, I said:

"Madam, it is done; your wish is accomplished."

"Oh, thank you, sir," she replied, with the expression of the

profoundest gratitude; and at the same moment she laid a purse on

the table and rushed away. I ordered my servant to follow her to

her house, and obtain all the information he could about her, and I

learned she had been a widow for a short time, and that the loss of

an adored husband had disturbed her reason. The next day I visited

her relatives, and, returning them the purse, I told them the scene

the details of which the reader has just perused.

This scene, with some others that preceded and followed it,

compelled me to take measures to guard myself against bores of

every description. I could not dream, as formerly, of exiling

myself in the country, but I employed a similar resource: this was

to shut myself up in my workroom, and organize around me a system

of defense against those whom I called, in my ill-temper, thieves

of time.

I daily received visits from persons who were utter strangers to

me; some were worth knowing, but the majority, gaining an

introduction under the most futile pretexts, only came to kill a

portion of their leisure time with me. It was necessary to

distinguish the tares from the wheat, and this is the arrangement I


When one of these gentlemen rang at my door, an electric

communication struck a bell in my workroom; I was thus warned and

put on my guard. My servant opened the door, and, as is customary,

inquired the visitor's name, while I, for my part, laid my ear to a

tube, arranged for the purpose, which conveyed to me every word.

If, according to his reply, I thought it as well not to receive

him, I pressed a button, and a white mark that appeared in a

certain part of the hall announced I was not at home to him. My

servant then stated I was out, and begged the visitor to apply to

the manager.

Sometimes it happened that I erred in my judgment, and regretted

having granted an audience; but I had another mode of shortening a

bore's visit. I had placed behind the sofa on which I sat an

electric spring, communicating with a bell my servant could hear.

In case of need, and while talking, I threw my arm carelessly over

the back of the sofa, touching the spring, and the bell rang. Then

my servant, playing a little farce, opened the front door, rang the

bell, which could be heard from the room where I sat, and came to

tell me that M. X--- (a name invented for the occasion) wished to

speak to me. I ordered M. X--- to be shown into an adjoining room,

and it was very rare that my bore did not raise the siege. No one

can form an idea how much time I gained by this happy arrangement,

or how many times I blessed my imagination and the celebrated

savant to whom the discovery of galvanism is due!

This feeling can be easily explained, for my time was of

inestimable value. I husbanded it like a treasure, and never

sacrificed it, unless the sacrifice might help me to discover new

experiments destined to stimulate public curiosity.

To support my determination in making my researches, I had ever

before me this maxim:


And this other, an apparent corollary of the preceding:



Nothing increases a professional man's merit so much as the

possession of an independent fortune; this truth may be coarse, but

it is indubitable. Not only was I convinced of these principles of

high economy, but I also knew that a man must strive to profit by

the fickle favor of the public, which equally descends if it does

not rise. Hence I worked my reputation as much as I could. In

spite of my numerous engagements, I found means to give

performances in all the principal theaters, though great

difficulties frequently arose, as my performance did not end till

half-past ten, and I could only fulfill my other engagements after

that hour.

Eleven o'clock was generally the hour fixed for my appearance on a

strange stage, and my readers may judge of the speed required to

proceed to the theater in so short a time and make my preparations.

It is true that the moments were as well counted as employed, and

my curtain had hardly fallen than, rushing toward the stairs, I got

before my audience, and jumped into a vehicle that bore me off at

full speed.

But this fatigue was as nothing compared to the emotion

occasionally produced by an error in the time that was to elapse

between my two performances. I remember that, one night, having to

wind up the performances at the Vaudeville, the stage manager

miscalculated the time the pieces would take in performing, and

found himself much in advance. He sent off an express to warn me

that the curtain had fallen, and I was anxiously expected. Can my

readers comprehend my wretchedness? My experiments, of which I

could omit none, would occupy another quarter of an hour; but

instead of indulging in useless recriminations, I resigned myself

and continued my performance, though I was a prey to frightful

anxiety. While speaking, I fancied I could hear that cadenced yell

of the public to which the famous song, "Des lampions, des

lampions," was set. Thus, either through preoccupation or a desire

to end sooner, I found when my performance was over I had gained

five minutes out of the quarter of an hour. Assuredly, it might he

called the quarter of an hour's grace.

To jump into a carriage and drive to the Place de la Bourse was the

affair of an instant; still, twenty minutes had elapsed since the

curtain fell, and that was an enormous time. My son Emile and I

proceeded up the actors' stairs at full speed, but on the first

step we had heard the cries, whistling, and stamping of the

impatient audience. What a prospect! I knew that frequently,

either right or wrong, the public treated an artiste, no matter

whom, very harshly, to remind him of punctuality. That sovereign

always appears to have on its lips the words of another monarch: "I

was obliged to wait." However, we hurried up the steps leading to

the stage.

The stage manager, who had been watching, on hearing our hurried

steps, cried from the landing:

"Is that you, M. Houdin?"

"Yes, sir--yes."

"Raise the curtain!" the same voice shouted.

"Wait, wait, it is imp--"

My breath would not allow me to finish my objection; I fell on a

chair, unable to move.

"Come, M. Houdin," the manager said, "DO go on the stage, the

curtain is up, and the public are so impatient."

The door at the back of the stage was open, but I could not pass

through it; fatigue and emotion nailed me to the spot. Still, an

idea occurred to me, which saved me from the popular wrath.

"Go on to the stage, my boy," I said to my son, "and prepare all

that is wanting for the second-sight trick."

The public allowed themselves to be disarmed by this youth, whose

face inspired a sympathizing interest; and my son, after gravely

bowing to the audience, quietly made his slight preparations, that

is to say, he carried an ottoman to the front of the stage, and

placed on a neighboring table a slate, some chalk, a pack of cards,

and a bandage.

This slight delay enabled me to recover my breath and calm my

nerves, and I advanced in my turn with an attempt to assume the

stereotyped smile, in which I signally failed, as I was so

agitated. The audience at first remained silent, then their faces

gradually unwrinkled, and soon, one or two claps having been

ventured, they were carried away and peace was made. I was well

rewarded, however, for this terrible ordeal, as my "second-sight"

never gained a more brilliant triumph.

An incident greatly enlivened the termination of my performance.

A spectator, who had evidently come on purpose to embarrass us, had

tried in vain for some minutes to baffle my son's clairvoyance,

when, turning to me, he said, laying marked stress on his words:

"As your son is a soothsayer, of course he can guess the number of

my stall?"

The importunate spectator doubtless hoped to force us into a

confession of our impotence, for he covered his number, and the

adjacent seats being occupied, it was apparently impossible to read

the numbers. But I was on my guard against all surprises, and my

reply was ready. Still, in order to profit as much as possible by

the situation, I feigned to draw back.

"You know, sir," I said, feigning an embarrassed air, "that my son

is neither sorcerer nor diviner; he reads through my eyes, and

hence I have given this experiment the name of second sight. As I

cannot see the number of your stall, and the seats close to you are

occupied, my son cannot tell it you."

"Ah! I was certain of it," my persecutor said, in triumph, and

turning to his neighbors: "I told you I would pin him."

"Oh, sir! you are not generous in your victory," I said, in my

turn, in a tone of mockery. "Take care; if you pique my son's

vanity too sharply, he may solve your problem, though it is so


"I defy him," said the spectator, leaning firmly against the back

of his seat, to hide the number better--"yes, yes--I defy him!"

"You believe it to be difficult, then?"

"I will grant more: it is impossible."

"Well, then, sir, that is a stronger reason for us to try it. You

will not be angry if we triumph in our turn?" I added, with a

petulant smile.

"Come, sir; we understand evasions of that sort. I repeat it--I

challenge you both."

The public found great amusement in this debate, and patiently

awaited its issue.

"Emile," I said to my son, "prove to this gentleman that nothing

can escape your second sight."

"It is number sixty-nine," the boy answered, immediately.

Noisy and hearty applause rose from every part of the theater, in

which our opponent joined, for, confessing his defeat, he

exclaimed, as he clapped his hands, "It is astounding--


The way I succeeded in finding out the number of the stall was

this: I knew beforehand that in all theaters where the stalls are

divided down the center by a passage, the uneven numbers are on the

right, and the even on the left. As at the Vaudeville each row was

composed of ten stalls, it followed that on the right hand the

several rows must begin with one, twenty-one, forty-one, and so on,

increasing by twenty each. Guided by this, I had no difficulty in

discovering that my opponent was seated in number sixty-nine,

representing the fifth stall in the fourth row. I had prolonged

the conversation for the double purpose of giving more brilliancy

to my experiment, and gaining time to make my researches. Thus I

applied my process of two simultaneous thoughts, to which I have

already alluded.

As I am now explaining matters, I may as well tell my readers some

of the artifices that added material brilliancy to the second

sight. I have already said this experiment was the result of a

material communication between myself and my son which no one could

detect. Its combinations enabled us to describe any conceivable

object; but, though this was a splendid result, I saw that I should

soon encounter unheard-of difficulties in executing it.

The experiment of second sight always formed the termination of my

performance. Each evening I saw unbelievers arrive with all sorts

of articles to triumph over a secret which they could not unravel.

Before going to see Robert-Houdin's son a council was held, in

which an object that must embarrass the father was chosen. Among

these were half-effaced antique medals, minerals, books printed in

characters of every description (living and dead languages), coats-

of-arms, microscopic objects, etc.

But what caused me the greatest difficulty was in finding out the

contents of parcels, often tied with a string, or even sealed up.

But I had managed to contend successfully against all these

attempts to embarrass me. I opened boxes, purses, pocketbooks,

etc., with great ease, and unnoticed, while appearing to be engaged

on something quite different. Were a sealed parcel offered me, I

cut a small slit in the paper with the nail of my left thumb, which

I always purposely kept very long and sharp, and thus discovered

what it contained. One essential condition was excellent sight,

and that I possessed to perfection. I owed it originally to my old

trade, and practice daily improved it. An equally indispensable

necessity was to know the name of every object offered me. It was

not enough to say, for instance, "It is a coin"; but my son must

give its technical name, its value, the country in which it was

current, and the year in which it was struck. Thus, for instance,

if an English crown were handed me, my son was expected to state

that it was struck in the reign of George IV, and had an intrinsic

value of six francs eighteen centimes.

Aided by an excellent memory, we had managed to classify in our

heads the name and value of all foreign money. We could also

describe a coat-of-arms in heraldic terms. Thus, on the arms of

the house of X--- being handed me, my son would reply: "Field

gules, with two croziers argent in pale." This knowledge was very

useful to us in the salons of the Faubourg Saint Germain, where we

were frequently summoned.

I had also learned the characters--though unable to translate a

word--of an infinity of languages, such as Chinese, Russian,

Turkish Greek, Hebrew, etc. We knew, too, the names of all

surgical instruments, so that a surgical pocketbook, however

complicated it might be, could not embarrass us. Lastly, I had a

very sufficient knowledge of mineralogy, precious stones,

antiquities, and curiosities; but I had at my command every

possible resource for acquiring these studies, as one of my dearest

and best friends, Aristide le Carpentier, a learned antiquary, and

uncle of the talented composer of the same name, had, and still

has, a cabinet of antique curiosities, which makes the keepers of

the imperial museums fierce with envy. My son and I spent many

long days in learning here names and dates of which we afterwards

made a learned display. Le Carpentier taught me many things, and,

among others, he described various signs by which to recognize old

coins when the die is worn off. Thus, a Trajan, a Tiberius, or a

Marcus Aurelius became as familiar to me as a five-franc piece.

Owing to my old trade, I could open a watch with ease, and do it

with one hand, so as to be able to read the maker's name without

the public suspecting it: then I shut up the watch again and the

trick was ready; my son managed the rest of the business.

But that power of memory which my son possessed in an eminent

degree certainly did us the greatest service. When we went to

private houses, he needed only a very rapid inspection in order to

know all the objects in a room, as well as the various ornaments

worn by the spectators, such as chatelaines, pins, eyeglasses,

fans, brooches, rings, bouquets, etc. He thus could describe these

objects with the greatest ease, when I pointed them out to him by

our secret communication. Here is an instance:

One evening, at a house in the Chaussee d'Antin, and at the end of

a performance which had been as successful as it was loudly

applauded, I remembered that, while passing through the next room

to the one we were now in, I had begged my son to cast a glance at

a library and remember the titles of some of the books, as well as

the order they were arranged in. No one had noticed this rapid


"To end the second-sight experiment, sir," I said to the master of

the house, "I will prove to you that my son can read through a

wall. Will you lend me a book?"

I was naturally conducted to the library in question, which I

pretended now to see for the first time, and I laid my finger on a


"Emile," I said to my son, "what is the name of this work?"

"It is Buffon," he replied quickly.

"And the one by its side?" an incredulous spectator hastened to


"On the right or left?" my son asked.

"On the right," the speaker said, having a good reason for choosing

this book, for the lettering was very small.

"The Travels of Anacharsis the Younger," the boy replied. "But,"

he added, "had you asked the name of the book on the left, sir, I

should have said Lamartine's Poetry. A little to the right of this

row, I see Crebillon's works; below, two volumes of Fleury's

Memoirs"; and my son thus named a dozen books before he stopped.

The spectators had not said a word during this description, as they

felt so amazed; but when the experiment had ended, all complimented

us by clapping their hands.