One of the cool things about history is that it’s always the 100th anniversary of something. The year 2021 marks a century since Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics, 100 years after Babe Ruth broke his first home run record and the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While we’re celebrating, we might as well recognize that 2021 also marks 10 decades since a magician first sawed someone in half on stage.
Yes, it’s hardly a polite way to entertain a crowd. The victim — usually a woman — climbs into a box and is locked in. The magician — usually a man — grabs a giant saw and begins slicing his way through the box, seemingly separating the woman from her lower half. The two sections are pulled apart as the guy in the tuxedo stands between them and smiles for pictures. Then the box is pushed back together, the lid is unlocked and out steps the smiling lady, seemingly unbothered by the attempted murder.
Audiences have seen this so often it’s hardly novel, but back in 1921, this illusion took American and British vaudeville by storm. Two competing magicians claimed credit for the idea and had slightly differing versions, so they each built multiple copies of the apparatus, trained other performers to present it and sent them to every available variety theatre in order to be the first to saw a woman in half on that stage.
Sometimes the performer would hire an ambulance to park outside the theatre, just to increase the morbid excitement. Within a decade, markets had been so saturated with the trick that magicians took things up a notch and introduced a mechanical buzz saw to do the dirty work. In one infamous moment on television years later, a performer from India ran a buzz saw through his assistant, only to have the station cut to a commercial before the trick ended, right before the woman was revealed to be still attached to her legs. Panicked viewers thought the woman had died and flooded the station with calls.
But one performance of the sawing illusion stands out. It happened during a show one night in 1937. A magician named Rajah Raboid kept being heckled by a man in the audience, so he pulled the man onstage and threatened to saw him in half. The man was put into the box. After Raboid finished sawing, he opened the lid and lifted out the man’s legs, which promptly ran off the stage into the wings. Then the top half of the man shouted, “Where’s the rest of me?” He hopped out of the box and — clearly missing everything below the torso — walked off the stage on his hands.
The audience went into hysterics. Some members fainted. Others threw up. Still others ran screaming for the exits. Panicked men climbed over their dates to get away. No one stayed calm, though I imagine there might have been a couple of stiff-upper-lip British types in the back seats who turned to each other and said, “Now that was a cracking good trick.”
But alas, there were only a few performances. Rajah Raboid realized that the trick was way too strong. Audiences liked being scared, but it would be several years before “shock theatre” found its true medium.
So how was it done? Normally, as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, I would be sworn to secrecy. But every time this story is told, the secret is revealed, mostly as a tribute to the uniquely talented individuals involved.
Johnny Eck was known as a “half-boy.” He was born without the lower half of his torso and spent part of his 79-year life in show business. A magician, sideshow performer, artist, photographer, puppeteer and model-maker, Eck was a man of many talents. In 1932 he appeared in Tod Browning’s film “Freaks,” a movie so controversial it was banned for decades in several countries. Oh, and I should mention that Johnny had a twin brother Bob who was normal height. But from the waist up, he and Johnny looked identical. “Ah, ha!” you say.
Bob was the heckler from the audience. In the confusion of getting onstage, he slipped for a second behind the curtain to be switched for his brother, who was resting on the shoulders of a little person named Frankie Saluto, who, incidentally, spent most of his career as a clown with the Ringling Brothers circus. Frankie was wearing a pair of pants that came up over his head, so with Johnny on top, the two looked exactly like Bob.
The illusion depended on very careful timing and balance until Johnny and Frankie went into the box. Then after it was sawn in half, the two guys came unglued, and so did the audience. It was a wonderfully weird moment in stage history, made possible because of a trick that turns 100 this year.