Sawing a Woman in Half

Updated: May 10, 2021

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. Since it's original debut by P.T. Selbit to modern-day versions by Penn & Teller, Criss Angel and Kevin James. Each added their own 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


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 Selbit was legally prevent 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's kind of disturbing.

In truth, the idea of splitting someone into two pieces is brutal. How brutal? Actually 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 quick version: French magicians 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 performing 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 man 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. Not picture is another well-known 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 performance of the illusion was in January 1921 at the Finsbury Park Empire theatre in London; however, its understood 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 to ever 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 same old rabbit tricks and his historical timing is credited with a lot of the illusions 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 all over the world were inspired. In 1921, an American-magician named Horace Goldin presented his version which he titled "Sawing A Woman in Half"

It was considered by an improvement because both the head and feet of the lady could be seen during the entire illusion. Selbit's version was a box completely 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 huge success. He partnered with a theatre firm that promoted six additional tours across the United States with headlining magicians in Goldin's place. They used smart 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 of 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 given exclusive monopoly for 17 years against other magicians using his methods. Even Selbit was forbidden from performing his own illusion. Selbit attempted suing Goldin for stealing his idea, but failed and the action was dismissed after it was ruled Goldin's illusion was sufficiently different.

Selbit returned home to Britain and later developed a long list of noteable 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.

Turns out patenting your ideas exposes a problem for magicians. To patent an illusion or magic trick, you have to expose the method. These documents are public record, and Goldin gave up patenting his illusions.

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

This "Buzz Saw" version was actually 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

Penn & Teller

David Copperfield's Death Saw Illusion

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


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 over magicians from performing it. Including Selbit.

Magician takeaway: spend time looking to the past for guidance and ideas. Forward momentum means taking risks. Don't steal ideas, make them better.

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

Leave a comment. If you are a magician, you might also like some of these articles.

What is your favourite version of the Sawing in Half illusion?

#sawinhalf #illusionist #magictrick

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