Sawing a Woman in Half

Magicians have performed the Sawing a Woman in Half illusion for over 100 years. Let's take a sneak peek into a fascinating history of magic's most famous stage illusion.


Illusionists and magicians have been performing variations of the Sawing A Woman in Half or Cut in Half illusion for decades. From the original debut by P.T. Selbit to modern-day versions by Penn & Teller, Criss Angel and Kevin James. Each added their unique take on one of magic's most famous illusions.


Sawing in Half Stories


The history behind the illusion is fascinating. There are a few great Sawing a Woman in Half Stories below, plus watch videos.


Here's my version of the famous Sawing in Half illusion

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Sawing in Half at a glance:

  • Who invented the Sawing In Half Illusion?

  • Introduction to PT Selbit & Horace Goldin

  • Who was the first woman to be "sawn in half?"

  • Sawing in half stories and history

  • Why was Selbit legally prevented from performing this illusion?

  • Magicians cut in half trick revealed?

AND VIDEO CLIPS from modern magicians Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Criss Angel and Kevin James perform unique versions. Watch below.


Sawing someone in half? Magic or murder?

As a kid magician, there couldn't be any illusion more captivating than Cut in Half. I don't remember who was the first magician I saw present it. It most certainly wasn't any of the videos below.


The sawing illusion has evolved over the years, and if you step back and think about the premise, it isn't comforting.

In truth, the idea of splitting someone into two pieces is brutal. How brutal? Being sawed in half is considered one of the worst punishments in humankind's history.

Cue the round of applause.


Thankfully magic dances in a different part of our brain. Wonder and imagination do not exist in the presence of fear. The idea of splitting bodies in two is grotesque at best, but when you add sequents and a smoke machine, it's a $45 ticket.


Don't watch this:


Brief History of the Sawing a Woman in Half Illusion

There appears to be some deception behind the origins of the Sawing in Half illusion. Here's the short version: French magician Jean-Robert Houdin (the man Houdini took his name from) described in his memories in 1858, a magician named Torrini performed a sawing illusion in front of Pope Puis VII in 1809, but there appears no evidence to support this.


Torrini had achieved some level of success, but something went wrong.


Magic tricks went wrong, terribly wrong.


Torrini was a magician from Europe who had a short but successful magic career that ended in tragedy when he shot and killed his son on stage during a performance of the Bullet Catch illusion.

PT Selbit performing the Sawing a woman in half magic trick

The magician P. T. Selbit performed a sawing a woman in half trick. Date1937 | Source: Maskelyne's Book of Magic. David McKay Company | Author: Jasper Maskelyne

This claim by Robert-Houdin has been researched by magic inventor, author and historian Jim Steinmeyer. Jim is a modern-day creator of magic and the mind behind some of magic's most famous modern illusions and magic tricks. He is also the author of Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible.


Steinmeyer concluded it was likely Torrini did not perform this illusion, and Robert-Houdin created the story to play with ideas. Magicians have talked about this illusion for years, and a court case in 1922 attempted to trace the origins back to ancient Egypt, but the claim has never been substantiated.


Jim Steinmeyer and Ryan Joyce
Meeting Jim Steinmeyer in Hollywood, California, with illusion designer Daniel Summers

The first documented performance of the Sawing A Woman in Half Illusion

Originally titled "Sawing through a woman" by P.T. Selbit, the first public illusion performance was in January 1921 at the Finsbury Park Empire theatre in London; however, it is understood that Selbit performed the trick a few months early for promoters and theatre bookers.


Who was the first woman to be sawn in half?

Steinmeyer's research also concluded that the first woman ever to be cut in half on stage was Selbit's principal assistant at the time, a lady names Jan Glenrose.


Selbit's illusion shook up the traditional magic norms. The public was getting bored with the same old rabbit tricks, and his historical timing is credited with a lot of the illusion's success.


Selbit invented the illusion, but major magic drama ensues...


After P.T. Selbit's debut of the illusion, he called "Sawing through a woman," magicians worldwide were inspired. In 1921, an American magician named Horace Goldin presented his version, which he titled "Sawing A Woman in Half"


It was considered an improvement among magicians because the lady's head and feet could be seen during the entire illusion. Selbit's version was a box surrounding the woman inside.


Spot the differences between P.T. Selbit's and Horace Goldin's version of Sawing a Woman in Half


Goldin achieved tremendous success. He partnered with a theatre firm that promoted six additional tours across the United States, headlining magicians in Goldin's place. They used intelligent promotional tactics to gain massive publicity and word of mouth.


Ambulances were parked outside the theatre to sell the risk of serious injury from the Sawing a Woman in Half Illusion.


It was brilliant guerilla marketing, and Goldin made a lot of money. Later in life, he lost most of the proceeds from his inventions in legal battles. He used the lawsuits for both publicity and to protect magic's secrets.


In September 1921, Goldin applied for a patent for the "Sawing a Women in Half" illusion. He was awarded the license two years later, on June 12, 1923.


This is where the magic drama begins.


He was awarded the patent and exclusive monopoly for 17 years against other magicians using his methods. Even Selbit was forbidden from performing his own illusion. Selbit attempted to sue Goldin for stealing his idea but failed, and the action was dismissed after it was ruled Goldin's illusion was sufficiently different.


Selbit returned to Britain and later developed a long list of notable stage illusions, including Girl/Man without a Middle, Through the Eye of a Needle, and The Million Dollar Mystery.


Many of these illusions are still performed today.


It turns out that patenting your ideas exposes a problem for magicians. You must expose the method to patent an illusion or magic trick. These documents are public records, and Goldin gave up patenting his illusions.


He later an illusion with a similar description but a very different appearance.

This "Buzz Saw" version was the second created by Goldin. He never patented this version and kept it. Many stories float around of people passing out in the audience, all hype I can only imagine.


Horace Goldin would have a fantastic Twitter account today. He was an accomplished self-promoter.


Archival Footage of Horace Goldin Performing Magic



Horace Goldin achieved great success, touring internationally with his Sawing Illusion. He even performed for King Edward VII of Britain on four occasions. This earned him the title "Royal Illusionist."


Horace Goldin passed away on August 21, 1939, after a show at the Wood Green Theatre in London. The same stage theatre where magician Chung Ling Soo had been killed performing the Bullet Catch illusion 21 years earlier.


Goldin passed away in his sleep.


Here are some modern variations of magic's famous illusion: Sawing A Woman in Half


Here are some modern variations of magic's famous illusion: Sawing A Woman in Half


David Copperfield's Death Saw Illusion

Kevin James - Saws a Man in Half on America's Got Talent

Conclusions

The complaints today are the complaints from Selbit and Goldin times. The public was bored with typical magic when PT Selbit debuted his sawing illusion. Goldin changed some of the design by exposing the lady's head and feet and debuted his version several months later. He patented the sawing illusion and prevented all magicians from performing it, including Selbit.


Key Takeaway for Magicians: spend time looking to the past for guidance and ideas. Forward momentum means taking risks. Don't steal ideas; make them better.

What will this trick's next evolution of the Sawing a Person in Half Illusion look like?


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