Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) was a French magician. He is considered to be the father of the modern style of conjuring.
Much of what we know about Robert-Houdin comes from his memoires, and his writings were intended to entertain rather than chronicle, thus rendering it difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Robert-Houdin presented himself as a principled man of science and good taste, describing himself as a ‘simple conjurer.’ (p.372) He reformed magic into a respectable bourgeoisie entertainment by purging it of problematic associations with the supernatural.
The Magical Mission
In 1856 Robert-Houdin was asked by the French state to pacify the tribes in French Algeria though the performance of his stage ‘magic.’ Following colonisation, Algeria remained largely anticolonial and actively resistant to French authority. Napoleon was concerned about the social power held by the religious tribe called the Marabouts, who were thought to have magical powers. The French attempted to combat this subversive behaviour by preforming modern European magic, with the intention of proving all Marabout magic to be the product of trickery. Robert-Houdin saw his work in Algeria as a military mission, it was his duty to the state to prove all magic to be false tricks.
Modern illusionism was used as a demonstration of power calculated to both disenchant local modes of religious authority and enchant European dominion. Graham Jones argues that ‘the French used magic as a powerful marker of cultural difference and divergent social evolution.’ (p.71)
In comparison to Robert-Houdin’s magic, the magic of the Algerians was seen as svage and religious.
Robert-Houdin preformed twice weekly, and also gave special performances to the country’s tribal chiefs. His signature trick was The Light and Heavy Chest, where he would use an electromagnet hidden under the floor to make a box immovable. He also preformed the Gun Trick, where he seemed to make a loaded gun fail to discharge by the power of his mind. These tricks were intended to publicly demonstrate Algerian inferiority to the French.
Intended to prove all magic to be the result of trickery, rather than religious sorcery. He wrote, ‘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 kill, inspired and guided by an art call prestidigitation, in no way connected with sorcery.’
Graham M. Jones, ‘Modern Magic and the War on Miracles in French Colonial Culture’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 52:1 (2010), 66-99.
Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author, and Conjurer, R. Shelton Mackenzie (ed.), (1859), 371-419.