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100 Years of the Sawing in Half Illusion: A Magical Legacy

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Hold on to your seats as we take you on a thrilling journey through the captivating world of one of magic's most iconic illusions - the Sawing in Half trick!


For over a century, this mesmerizing act has left audiences spellbound, questioning the limits of the human body and the nature of reality itself.


A vintage photo of a magician sawing a person in half while surrounded by people
▲ P.T. Selbit debuts "Sawing Through a Women"

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Sawing in Half: A Time-Honored Trick Through the Ages


Astonishing audiences for over a century, the Sawing in Half trick remains one of the most iconic illusions in the world of magic.


This mesmerizing act has captivated countless spectators, challenging their perceptions of reality and the limits of the human body.


The Cut in Half illusion dates back to 1921 when PT Selbit was the first magician to perform "Sawing Through A Woman." We'll share who the first woman was sawn in half and how a legal battle with another magician prevented him from performing his own trick.


Since its debut, countless versions and variations have been performed by some of the world's greatest magicians.


Here is a variation of the sawing in half illusion by yours truly.



Join us on this magical journey and discover how the Sawing in Half trick continues to defy logic, captivate imaginations, and stand the test of time.


 

Brief History of the Sawing a Woman in Half Illusion

The first several years after the first public performance is riddled with legal magician drama. But here's an early reference to a sawing illusion worth noting.


French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin described, from his memories, that in 1858, a magician named Torrini performed a sawing illusion in front of Pope Puis VII in 1809.


Still, there appears to be no evidence to support this.


This claim of Torrini performing this Sawing illusion has been researched by Jim Steinmeyer. Jim is a magician, historian, author and magic inventor behind several famous illusions and magic tricks. He is also the author of Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and many other books.


Steinmeyer concluded Torrini likely did not perform this illusion, and Robert-Houdin created the story to play with ideas.


 

The First Performer

The magician credited with introducing the Sawing in Half trick is the innovative British illusionist P.T. Selbit.


In January 1921, Selbit unveiled his new sawing illusion at the Finsbury Park Empire Theatre in London. The act was an immediate sensation, garnering widespread acclaim and propelling Selbit to fame.


The Sawing in Half trick rapidly became a staple in magic shows worldwide, inspiring numerous magicians to incorporate the illusion into their acts.


A portrait of PT Selbit and image of him 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

 

The First Person to be Cut in Half


The first assistant to participate in the Sawing in Half illusion was a woman named Jan Glenrose.


As Selbit's trusted confidante and stage partner, Glenrose played a crucial role in the trick's success.


The assistant's job was to convincingly portray the act of being sawed in half and ensure the seamless execution of the illusion. Barker's skill and commitment to the performance helped to cement the Sawing in Half trick as a classic in the world of magic.


 


"Sawing Through a Women" vs "Sawing in Half"


The public was getting bored with the same old same old rabbit tricks, and his historical timing is credited with a lot of the success of the illusion.


Selbit's debut illusion shook up the traditional magic norms.


The success of the Sawing in Half illusion inevitably led to controversy and rivalry within the magic community.


In 1921, an American magician, Horace Goldin, presented his version titled "Sawing A Woman in Half" illusion. It was considered an improvement because the lady's head and feet were seen. In Selbit's version, the box surrounded his assistant entirely.


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.


The Difference Between Selbit and Goldin's Sawing Illusion


Here is a side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the trick, P.T. Selbit's "Sawing Through a Women" and Horace Goldin's "Sawing a Woman in Half"


A side--by-side comparison of PT Selbit's "Sawing Through a Women" and Horace Goldin's "Sawing a Woman in Half"
A side--by-side comparison of PT Selbit's "Sawing Through a Women" and Horace Goldin's "Sawing a Woman in Half"


FUN FACT: Promoters would have ambulances parked outside the theatre to sell the risk of serious injury from the Sawing a Woman in Half Illusion. It was a marketing stunt that got a lot of attention.


Patenting Magic Tricks: Sawing In Half Ugly Legal Battle


In September 1921, Goldin applied for a patent for the "Sawing a Women in Half" illusion.


On June 12, 1923, Goldin was awarded the Sawing a Women in Half illusion patent and given an 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 home to Britain and later created a wealth of other 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.


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 become public records, and Goldin gave up patenting his illusions.


He later created an alternative version of the illusion-- but with a very different appearance.


Horace Goldin Created a Second Variation of the Illusion


Here's a look at Horace Goldin's other version of the saw in half trick that he called "Buzz Saw." The grimacing image of a 3-4 foot circular saw going through a person was shocking.


Many stories float around of people passing out in the audience, all hype I can only imagine.


A portrait of magician Horace Goldin and an image collage of his alternative version the sawing in half trick that used a large 3 foot circular saw.
This "Buzz Saw" was an alternative variation to the "Sawing in Half" created by Goldin.

 

Video of Horace Goldin Performing


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."


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


Here is archived footage of Horace Goldin performing in the 1930s.






 

The Evolution of the Sawing-In-Half Illusion


Over the years, the Sawing in Half illusion has evolved and taken many forms.


Magicians have developed various methods and techniques to perform the trick, each adding their unique spin to the classic act.


Some of the most famous variations include the "Thin Model Sawing," the "Buzz Saw," and the "Clearly Impossible" versions of the trick.


Despite the numerous iterations of the Sawing in Half illusion, the core concept remains: a person is seemingly cut in half, only to be miraculously restored to their original state.


Here are alternatives to the classic illusion.


David Copperfield's Death Saw Illusion


David Copperfield, one of the most renowned magicians of our time, has taken the Sawing in Half trick to new heights with his breathtaking Death Saw Illusion.


This modern adaptation of the classic illusion combines suspense, danger, and Copperfield's signature showmanship to create a truly unforgettable experience.



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


Kevin James performs a remarkable unique cutting in half.



 

Conclusions


The Sawing in Half trick is a testament to the enduring appeal of magic and the power of human ingenuity.


It's a story in magic's history that began with unbelievable drama.


From its humble beginnings in a London theatre to its continued prominence on stages worldwide, the Sawing in Half illusion has captivated the hearts and minds of audiences for over a century.


As the legacy of this remarkable trick lives on, we can only marvel at the artistry, skill, and imagination that have made the Sawing in Half one of the most unforgettable acts in the history of magic.


 

That's It!


If you enjoyed learning about the Sawing in Half illusion history, hit the ♥️ and leave a comment or question below!


We recommend you check out these other articles from Magician Masterclass!


 

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