The Magician Who Became An Ambassador
[It is not generally known that Robert-Houdin once rendered his
country an important service as special envoy to Algeria. Half a
century ago this colony was an endless source of trouble to France.
Although the rebel Arab chieftain Abd-del-Kader had surrendered in
1847, an irregular warfare was kept up against the French authority
by the native Kabyles, stimulated by their Mohammedan priests, and
particularly through s
-called "miracles," such as recovery from
wounds and burns self-inflicted by the Marabouts and other fanatic
devotees of the Prophet.
Thus in 1856 the hopes of the French Foreign Office rested on
Robert-Houdin. He was requested to exhibit his tricks in the most
impressive form possible, with the idea of proving to the deluded
Arabs that they had been in error in ascribing supernatural powers
to their holy men.]
It was settled that I should reach Algiers by the next 27th of
September, the day on which the great fetes annually offered by the
capital of Algeria to the Arabs would commence.
I must say that I was much influenced in my determination by the
knowledge that my mission to Algeria had a quasi-political
character. I, a simple conjurer, was proud of being able to render
my country a service.
It is known that the majority of revolts which have to be
suppressed in Algeria are excited by intriguers, who say they are
inspired by the Prophet, and are regarded by the Arabs as envoys of
God on earth to deliver them from the oppression of the Roumi
These false prophets and holy Marabouts, who are no more sorcerers
than I am, and indeed even less so, still contrive to influence the
fanaticism of their coreligionists by tricks as primitive as are
the spectators before whom they are performed.
The government was, therefore, anxious to destroy their pernicious
influence, and reckoned on me to do so. They hoped, with reason,
by the aid of my experiments, to prove to the Arabs that the tricks
of their Marabouts were mere child's play, and owing to their
simplicity could not be done by an envoy from Heaven, which also
led us very naturally to show them that we are their superiors in
everything, and, as for sorcerers, there are none like the French.
Presently I will show the success obtained by these skillful
Three months were to elapse between the day of my acceptance and
that of my departure which I employed in arranging a complete
arsenal of my best tricks, and left St. Gervais on the 10th of
I will give no account of my passage, further than to say no sooner
was I at sea than I wished I had arrived, and, after thirty-six
hours' navigation, I greeted the capital of our colony with
On the 28th of October, the day appointed for my first performance
before the Arabs, I reached my post at an early hour, and could
enjoy the sight of their entrance into the theater.
Each goum, drawn up in companies, was introduced separately, and
led in perfect order to the places chosen for it in advance. Then
came the turn of the chiefs, who seated themselves with all the
gravity becoming their character.
 Brigade of native soldiers under French command. It was this
influential native faction that the Foreign Office wished
particularly to impress, through Robert-Houdin's skill.--EDITOR.
Their introduction lasted some time, for these sons of nature could
not understand that they were boxed up thus, side by side, to enjoy
a spectacle, and our comfortable seats, far from seeming so to
them, bothered them strangely. I saw them fidgeting about for some
time, and trying to tuck their legs under them, after the fashion
of European tailors.
The caids, agas, bash-agas, and other titled Arabs, held the places
of honor, for they occupied the orchestra stalls and the dress
In the midst of them were several privileged officers, and, lastly,
the interpreters were mingled among the spectators, to translate my
remarks to them.
I was also told that several curious people, having been unable to
procure tickets, had assumed the Arab burnous, and, binding the
camel's-hair cord round their foreheads, had slipped in among their
This strange medley of spectators was indeed a most curious sight.
The dress circle, more especially, presented an appearance as grand
as it was imposing. Some sixty Arab chiefs, clothed in their red
mantles (the symbol of their submission to France), on which one or
more decorations glistened, gravely awaited my performance with
I have performed before many brilliant assemblies, but never before
one which struck me so much as this. However, the impression I
felt on the rise of the curtain, far from paralyzing me, on the
contrary inspired me with a lively sympathy for the spectators,
whose faces seemed so well prepared to accept the marvels promised
them. As soon as I walked on the stage, I felt quite at my ease,
and enjoyed, in anticipation, the sight I was going to amuse myself
I felt, I confess, rather inclined to laugh at myself and my
audience, for I stepped forth, wand in hand, with all the gravity
of a real Sorcerer. Still, I did not give way, for I was here not
merely to amuse a curious and kind public, I must produce a
startling effect upon coarse minds and prejudices, for I was
enacting the part of a French Marabout.
Compared with the simple tricks of their pretended sorcerers, my
experiments must appear perfect miracles to the Arabs.
I commenced my performance in the most profound, I might almost say
religious, silence, and the attention of the spectators was so
great that they seemed petrified. Their fingers alone moving
nervously, played with the beads of their rosaries, while they
were, doubtless, invoking the protection of the Most High.
This apathetic condition did not suit me, for I had not come to
Algeria to visit a waxwork exhibition. I wanted movement,
animation, life in fact, around me.
I changed my batteries, and, instead of generalizing my remarks, I
addressed them more especially to some of the Arabs, whom I
stimulated by my words, and still more by my actions. The
astonishment then gave way to a more expressive feeling, which was
soon evinced by noisy outbursts.
This was especially the case when I produced cannon balls from a
hat, for my spectators, laying aside their gravity, expressed their
delighted admiration by the strangest and most energetic gestures.
Then came--greeted by the same success--the bouquet of flowers,
produced instantaneously from a hat; the CORNUCOPIA, supplying a
multitude of objects which I distributed, though unable to satisfy
the repeated demands made on all sides, and still more by those who
had their hands full already; the FIVE-FRANC PIECES, sent across
the theater with a crystal box suspended above the spectators.
One trick I should much have liked to perform was the INEXHAUSTIBLE
BOTTLE, so appreciated by the Parisians and the Manchester "hands";
but I could not employ it in this performance, for it is well known
the followers of Mohammed drink no fermented liquor--at least not
publicly. Hence, I substituted the following with considerable
I took a silver cup, like those called "punch bowls" in the
Parisian cafes. I unscrewed the foot, and passing my wand through
it showed that the vessel contained nothing; then, having refitted
the two parts, I went to the center of the pit, when, at my
command, the bowl was MAGICALLY filled with sweetmeats, which were
The sweetmeats exhausted, I turned the bowl over, and proposed to
fill it with excellent coffee; so, gravely passing my hand thrice
over the bowl, a dense vapor immediately issued from it, and
announced the presence of the precious liquid. The bowl was full
of boiling coffee, which I poured into cups, and offered to my
The first cups were only accepted, so to speak, under protest; for
not an Arab would consent to moisten his lips with a beverage which
he thought came straight from Shaitan's kitchen; but, insensibly
seduced by the perfume of their favorite liquor, and urged by the
interpreters, some of the boldest decided on tasting the magic
liquor, and all soon followed their example.
The vessel, rapidly emptied, was repeatedly filled again with equal
rapidity; and it satisfied all demands, like my inexhaustible
bottle, and was borne back to the stage still full.
But it was not enough to amuse my spectators; I must also, in order
to fulfill the object of my mission, startle and even terrify them
by the display of a supernatural power.
My arrangements had all been made for this purpose, and I had
reserved for the end of my performances three tricks, which must
complete my reputation as a sorcerer.
Many of my readers will remember having seen at my performances a
small but solidly built box, which, being handed to the spectators,
becomes heavy or light at my order; a child might raise it with
ease, and yet the most powerful man could not move it from its
I advanced, with my box in my hand, to the center of the
"practicable," communicating from the stage to the pit; then,
addressing the Arabs, I said to them:
"From what you have witnessed, you will attribute a supernatural
power to me, and you are right. I will give you a new proof of my
marvelous authority, by showing that I can deprive the most
powerful man of his strength and restore it at my will. Anyone who
thinks himself strong enough to try the experiment may draw near
me." (I spoke slowly, in order to give the interpreter time to
translate my words.)
An Arab of middle height, but well built and muscular, like many of
the Arabs are, came to my side with sufficient assurance.
"Are you very strong?" I said to him, measuring him from head to
"Oh, yes!" he replied carelessly.
"Are you sure you will always remain so?"
"You are mistaken, for in an instant I will rob you of your
strength, and you shall become as a little child."
The Arab smiled disdainfully as a sign of his incredulity.
"Stay," I continued; "lift up this box."
The Arab stooped, lifted up the box, and said to me, coldly, "Is
"Wait--!" I replied.
Then, with all possible gravity, I made an imposing gesture, and
solemnly pronounced the words:
"Behold! you are weaker than a woman; now, try to lift the box."
The Hercules, quite cool as to my conjuration, seized the box once
again by the handle, and gave it a violent tug, but this time the
box resisted, and, spite of his most vigorous attacks, would not
budge an inch.
The Arab vainly expended on this unlucky box a strength which would
have raised an enormous weight, until, at length, exhausted,
panting, and red with anger, he stopped, became thoughtful, and
began to comprehend the influences of magic.
He was on the point of withdrawing; but that would be allowing his
weakness, and that he, hitherto respected for his vigor, had become
as a little child. This thought rendered him almost mad.
Deriving fresh strength from the encouragements his friends offered
him by word and deed, he turned a glance round them, which seemed
to say: "You will see what a son of the desert can do."
He bent once again over the box: his nervous hands twined round the
handle, and his legs, placed on either side like two bronze
columns, served as a support for the final effort.
But, wonder of wonders! this Hercules, a moment since so strong and
proud, now bows his head; his arms, riveted to the box, undergo a
violent muscular contraction; his legs give way, and he falls on
his knees with a yell of agony!
An electric shock, produced by an inductive apparatus, had been
passed, on a signal from me, from the further end of the stage into
the handle of the box. Hence the contortions of the poor Arab!
It would have been cruelty to prolong this scene.
I gave a second signal, and the electric current was immediately
intercepted. My athlete, disengaged from his terrible bondage,
raised his hands over his head.
"Allah! Allah!" he exclaimed, full of terror; then wrapping himself
up quickly in the folds of his burnous, as if to hide his disgrace,
he rushed through the ranks of the spectators and gained the front
With the exception of my stage boxes and the privileged spectators
who appeared to take great pleasure in this experiment, my audience
had become grave and silent, and I heard the words "Shaitan!"
"Djenoum!" passing in murmur round the circle of credulous men,
who, while gazing on me, seemed astonished that I possessed none of
the physical qualities attributed to the angel of darkness.
I allowed my public a few moments to recover from the emotion
produced by my experiment and the flight of the herculean Arab.
One of the means employed by the Marabouts to gain influence in the
eyes of the Arabs is by causing a belief in their invulnerability.
One of them, for instance, ordered a gun to be loaded and fired at
him from a short distance, but in vain did the flint produce a
shower of sparks; the Marabout pronounced some cabalistic words,
and the gun did not explode.
The mystery was simple enough; the gun did not go off because the
Marabout had skillfully stopped up the vent.
Colonel de Neven explained to me the importance of discrediting
such a miracle by opposing to it a sleight-of-hand trick far
superior to it, and I had the very article.
I informed the Arabs that I possessed a talisman rendering me
invulnerable, and I defied the best marksman in Algeria to hit me.
I had hardly uttered the words when an Arab, who had attracted my
notice by the attention he had paid to my tricks, jumped over four
rows of seats, and disdaining the use of the "practicable," crossed
the orchestra, upsetting flutes, clarionets, and violins, escaladed
the stage, while burning himself at the footlights, and then said,
in excellent French:
"I will kill you!"
An immense burst of laughter greeted both the Arab's picturesque
ascent and his murderous intentions, while an interpreter who stood
near me told me I had to deal with a Marabout.
"You wish to kill me!" I replied, imitating his accent and the
inflection of his voice. "Well, I reply, that though you are a
sorcerer, I am still a greater one, and you will not kill me."
I held a cavalry pistol in my hand, which I presented to him.
"Here, take this weapon, and assure yourself it has undergone no
The Arab breathed several times down the barrel, then through the
nipple, to assure himself there was a communication between them,
and after carefully examining the pistol, said:
"The weapon is good, and I will kill you."
"As you are determined, and for more certainty, put in a double
charge of powder, and a wad on the top."
"It is done."
"Now, here is a leaden ball; mark it with your knife, so as to be
able to recognize it, and put it in the pistol, with a second wad."
"It is done."
"Now that you are quite sure your pistol is loaded, and that it
will explode, tell me, do you feel no remorse, no scruple about
killing me thus, although I authorize you to do so?"
"No, for I wish to kill you," the Arab repeated coldly.
Without replying, I put an apple on the point of a knife, and,
standing a few yards from the Marabout, ordered him to fire.
"Aim straight at the heart," I said to him.
My opponent aimed immediately, without the slightest hesitation.
The pistol exploded, and the bullet lodged in the center of the
I carried the talisman to the Marabout, who recognized the ball he
I could not say that this trick produced greater stupefaction than
the ones preceding it: at any rate, my spectators, palsied by
surprise and terror, looked round in silence, seeming to think,
"Where the deuce have we got to here!"
A pleasant scene, however, soon unwrinkled many of their faces.
The Marabout, though stupefied by his defeat, had not lost his
wits; so, profiting by the moment when he returned me the pistol,
he seized the apple, thrust it into his waist belt, and could not
be induced to return it, persuaded as he was that he possessed in
it an incomparable talisman.
For the last trick in my performance I required the assistance of
At the request of several interpreters, a young Moor, about twenty
years of age, tall, well built, and richly dressed, consented to
come on the stage. Bolder and more civilized, doubtless, than his
comrades of the plains, he walked firmly up to me.
I drew him toward the table that was in the center of the stage,
and pointed out to him and to the other spectators that it was
slightly built and perfectly isolated. After which, without
further preface, I told him to mount upon it, and covered him with
an enormous cloth cone, open at the top.
Then, drawing the cone and its contents on to a plank, the ends of
which were held by my servant and myself, we walked to the
footlights with our heavy burden, and upset it. The Moor had
disappeared--the cone was perfectly empty!
Immediately there began a spectacle which I shall never forget.
The Arabs were so affected by this last trick, that, impelled by an
irresistible feeling of terror, they rose in all parts of the
house, and yielded to the influence of a general panic. To tell
the truth, the crowd of fugitives was densest at the door of the
dress circle, and it could be seen, from the agility and confusion
of these high dignitaries, that they were the first to wish to
leave the house.
Vainly did one of them, the Caid of the Beni-Salah, more courageous
than his colleagues, try to restrain them by his words:
"Stay! stay! we cannot thus lose one of our coreligionists. Surely
we must know what has become of him, or what has been done to him.
But the coreligionists only ran away the faster, and soon the
courageous caid, led away by their example, followed them.
They little knew what awaited them at the door of the theater; but
they had scarce gone down the steps when they found themselves face
to face with the "resuscitated Moor."
The first movement of terror overcome, they surrounded the man,
felt and cross-questioned him; but, annoyed by these repeated
questions, he had no better recourse than to escape at full speed.
The next evening the second performance took place, and produced
nearly the same effect as the previous one.
The blow was struck: henceforth the interpreters and all those who
had dealings with the Arabs received orders to make them understand
that my pretended miracles were only the result of skill, inspired
and guided by an art called prestidigitation, in no way connected
The Arabs doubtless yielded to these arguments, for henceforth I
was on the most friendly terms with them. Each time a chief saw
me, he never failed to come up and press my hand. And, even more,
these men whom I had so terrified, when they became my friends,
gave me a precious testimony of their esteem--I may say, too, of
their admiration, for that is their own expression.