Peter Lamont has written a fun little book called The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. If you know this magic trick, you will get the punning title (if you are like me, you won’t know quite how you feel about that.). If you don’t know the trick, let me explain.
A magician — but one with a turban, not a top hat — takes a length of rope and causes it to (magically) rise into the air. Then, his assistant climbs up the rope and (magically) disappears. The rope falls back to the ground. The crowd goes wild! You can imagine, just look at the photograph on the right.
Now, admittedly, you don’t see the boy disappear in the photo. In fact, he never does disappear (unless you want to imagine it in your mind). This picture is of The Great Karachi doing the Indian Rope Trick. Karachi was one of the great Indian magician — except that he was actually from Plymouth in the Southwest corner of the United Kingdom. And his name was Arthur Derbyh. But he looks pretty Indian, don’t you think?
The problem with the Indian Rope Trick is that it was invented by an American. His name was John Elbert Wilkie. A great magician? No. A so-so journalist? Yes. He just made it up for an article he was writing. I understand this. I’ve been a journalist, and I know that you normally get paid by the article: poorly; the more you pump out, the more money you make. It’s not like anyone’s going to check, unless your name is Jayson Blair, or, as in the case of Mr. Wilkie, you are dead.
What is interesting about all of this is that the article took off. People believed it and the story spread to (God help us all) Victorian England. And in Victorian England, the people knew they were the best; and yet, no one could actually do this trick. Okay, sure: Karachi/Derbyh: Rope rises, kid climbs up, kid climbs down. No big deal. Even Howard Thurston (who was a total hack) could do that. It’s the disappearing that was the key (and outside; don’t forget that — you can do anything in a theater).
Of course, after Wilkie first “reported” on the Indian Rope Trick, it ran wild. Numerous variations appeared. Here’s my favorite: rope up, boy climbs, magician climbs after him with sword, and cuts him up: arms, legs, torso, and head fall to the ground; magician climbs down; he assembles the parts again, and the boy gets up and dances a gig — or the Indian equivalent of it. Gruesome, yes; but surprisingly easy to do; a lot easier than that disappearing thing.
Anyway, we get a lot of Victorians hunting around India looking for the trick (that doesn’t exist because it only ever existed in Wilkie’s mind, and by now, he is with the United State Secret Service — I kid you not). And there is lots of waving of hands and all that, mostly because the British magicians cannot accept that there is anything that Indian conjurers can do that they cannot (and they’re right). There is, as with just about anything having to do with Victorians, much hilarity. Truly, the only thing that isn’t ridiculous about this period is Oscar Wilde — who was also hilarious but for completely different reasons.
It turns out that there was a magic trick that Indian conjurers did that was similar to the Indian Rope Trick. In it, a chain was thrown in the air where it stuck. Then, a pig, and a dog, and other assorted beasts climbed up the chain and disappeared. I’m pretty sure I know how this was done and in part 2 of this article I am going to explain it. (And it is almost certainly not what you are thinking.)
But don’t pass up on Peter Lamont‘s book. It is a lot of fun — excellent summer reading.
Check out Part II of this Article.
15 November 2013: I removed the CCNA Chennai video embed (see comment below) because it has been removed and I can’t locate it now.