Marabout nightmares

In 1856, Napoléon III asked the magician and illusionist Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin to travel to French Algeria to undertake a special mission. As Wikipedia tells it, ‘the Marabouts were able to control their tribe with their faux magical abilities. They advised their leaders to break ranks with the French. Napoleon wanted Robert-Houdin to show that French magic was stronger.’ Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte enlisted Robert-Houdin to hold a series of shows at the Bab Azoun Theatre, deploying his full armory of innovative tricks like ‘The Light and Heavy Chest’. At the time, ‘Robert-Houdin wrote that [the French] feared that Algerian magicians who could eat glass and apparently heal wounds would encourage the Algerians to rise up and fight the French soldiers. They wanted Robert-Houdin to perform for the Algerians, hoping to convince them that the French magician had even greater power.’ The story is told in Raymond Teller’s 1999 NYT article, ‘Witchcraft As Statecraft‘:

Having tantalized the audience with humor, Houdin began the psychological assault. He brought out a strongbox with a ring for a handle, and placed it on the floor. He asked for a muscular volunteer to come up onstage and lift the chest. A volunteer, a particularly burly man, did so easily.

Then Houdin waved his wand at the volunteer and said, ”Voil! You are weaker than a woman; now, try to lift the box.” With a disdainful swagger, the volunteer seized the handle again, but though he sweated and strained, though his compatriots cheered him on, he could not move the chest. After a few minutes he suddenly screamed, fell to his knees, tore his hands from the ring and fled, crying for Allah to save him.

Houdin followed this trick by catching a marked bullet in an apple, and by making a member of the audience vanish. By the end of the show, the chieftains were exclaiming, ”Shaitan!” (the Arabic equivalent of ”Satan”) as they ran for the exits in terror.

See also, a Short Description and History of an Unusual and Rare Mystery Clock, and the dragon-infested Maison de la Magie in Blois.

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