Indian Rope Trick Still Obsessing People

Thurston - Indian Rope TrickBack when I first started this blog, I wrote two articles about the Indian Rope Trick. The first, Indian Rope Trick Part I, was about Peter Lamont’s excellent book, The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. It was about how the trick did not actually exist in the form that was reported: magician outside causes a rope to rise, their assistant climbs up it, and disappears as the rope falls back to the ground. The effect was just made up by a lazy newspaper reporter in 1890. The newspaper later printed a retraction, but it was too late: the fake trick fascinated the world.

The second article, Indian Rope Trick Part II, was about an actual trick that was performed by Indian magicians hundreds of years ago. In it, a chain is made to rise after which a pig and other animals scurry up it and disappear. The basis of that article is my long experience of hearing and reading people’s descriptions of magic tricks and how they diverge from what they actually saw. In this particular case, I suspect that some kind of shadowbox effect was used, making the audience think the animal was climbing the change, when it had already been dropped through a trap door.

Since 1890, there have been many magicians who have performed the Indian Rope Trick. In particular, there was Howard Thurston, whose poster you can see above. But I’ve never seen it. And it is hard to talk about exactly how it is done, because there are a number of different ways. I’ve long thought that a hydraulic system would work. But then I saw a guy performing the trick in some Penn & Teller show. The trick here is painfully obvious:

The enormous diameter of the rope and its stuttering climb both point to it being hollow with a steel rod pushing it up from an underground chamber. Once it reaches its full height, the underground assistant secures it so the boy can climb up. Afterward, the rod is released, falling back down into the chamber. Since the hollow rope is stiff, it would fall slower in a natural way. No big surprise there.

What’s more interesting is the following video. When you first watch it, it is hard not to be impressed. But watch it a couple of more times and you will see that it is a hoax:

Notice how the rope rises at 0:16 mark. Does that seem odd? It should! It is being run backwards: we see a rope falling. But it is worse than that. We see the magician in a medium show as he throws a rope in the air. It cuts to the crowd. And then it cuts to a long shot of the reverse footage. This is, rather clearly, completely staged. That includes the audience. But how can I say that?

At 0:33 in the video, as the boy is climbing the rope, you can see a metal rod that is behind it. The rope has simply been attached to the rod in such a way that the camera is fooled. From any other angle, it would clear that there is just an bar that the boy is climbing. Although the film is made to look like documentary footage, it is as staged as any Meg Ryan romantic comedy.

I do understand people’s fascination with the Indian Rope Trick. Just the same, I much prefer little things like Daryl’s Rope Routine, which is actually quite simple, but brilliantly done in his own nerdy way:

8 thoughts on “Indian Rope Trick Still Obsessing People

  1. I love that Daryl clip. My favorite part is such a subtle little joke: he tugs on a knot holding it to his left, then holding it to his right, then with the rope slack! It’s so sly and so quick that it’s easy to miss the gag . . .

    • Michael Close wrote an essay on why he won’t do the trick. Basically: he can’t find a narrative for it; it’s to much, “I place the ball here and it comes out there!” I do, however, think that Ricky Jay makes it quite interesting by going through a fanciful history of the effect. It probably should be the first effect that you teach an aspiring magician, because it teaches everything you need to know about misdirection.

      • I just saw this for the first time last week. I watched it twice, just because I loved the performance aspect of it so much. As if we needed another reason to rewatch “Deadwood.”

        Fancy new look. It’s terrific. I admire the new illustration but I won’t pretend I didn’t think the Lego-style old one was pretty nifty.

        UTC? I can’t tell you how much shit I’ve caught for always including GMT:

        • (Not an example of the shit I’ve caught; that’s in emails from site managers. Only of how my standard gamethread header always includes GMT. Why? I dunno. I like time zones, I guess.)

          • In WordPress, you can set it. Right now, Frankly Curious is UTC-7. But I have to change it twice a year because of daily savings. Ugh.

        • Now that you mention it, I don’t see any posting times. Not that it really matters.

          I wish we got rid of time zones altogether. My top boss is constantly traveling and so setting up Skype times is always a pain.

          I discussed the new look in an article you’ve probably already seen. So I’ll leave it there.

    • PS: it is also a great example of my observation that the vast majority of magic tricks are over before the viewer thinks they have begun.

Leave a Reply