Local history: Lewes’s twin town magician who gave name to Harry Houdini

Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin pictured before a trio of graphic posters advertising his magic shows at various French venues in the mid 19th Century. Robert-Houdin was hailed as 'The Father of Modern Magic' and part of his surname was adopted in tribute by the ace escapologist Harry Houdini.
Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin pictured before a trio of graphic posters advertising his magic shows at various French venues in the mid 19th Century. Robert-Houdin was hailed as 'The Father of Modern Magic' and part of his surname was adopted in tribute by the ace escapologist Harry Houdini.

Many Sussex towns are twinned with communities in Europe and even farther afield. For Lewes one such twin is Blois on the River Loire in France.

This week’s column highlights a fascinating figure from the world of magic who was a native of that French city. Jean-Eugene Robert was born in Blois in December 1805, soon after the Battle of Trafalgar. His father was a watchmaker who wanted his son to become a lawyer but Jean-Eugene much preferred to tinker with mechanical gadgets. When his father would not take him into the family business he joined a cousin’s rival horological concern.

Picturesque Blois sits on the banks of the River Loire and was the birthplace of Robert-Houdin. The city is twinned with Lewes. The magician's former home is today a museum dedicated to his life, illusions and magic.

Picturesque Blois sits on the banks of the River Loire and was the birthplace of Robert-Houdin. The city is twinned with Lewes. The magician's former home is today a museum dedicated to his life, illusions and magic.

Jean-Eugene accidentally acquired two volumes entitled “Scientific Amusements” that contained the basics of working magic. Smitten by the subject, he took lessons from a local amateur magician who taught him sleight of hand and the absolute importance of incessant practice. Jean-Eugene would later say that to be a great magician you needed three essential skills; firstly dexterity, secondly dexterity, thirdly dexterity.

He joined an amateur dramatics group to help him build a stage persona. In homage to showmanship he would write: “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” While still quite young Jean-Eugene turned professional and performed magic and conjuring at the parties of wealthy Europeans and even joined a tour to the United States.

In July 1830 he married the love of his life, Blois-born Josephe Cecile Houdin, daughter of another watchmaker. Jean-Eugene decided to hyphenate his surname so it became Robert-Houdin. He went to work in his father-in-law’s shop in Paris where he was able to further hone his conjuring techniques and skills in mechanical trickery.

Over time the magician built up a formidable portfolio of illusions, some of which employed powerful electromagnets that he could turn off and on at will to make objects at first easily lifted become immoveable. His eldest son joined him in a sensational “mind-reading” turn called “Second Sight”. Later another son featured in a mind-boggling demonstration of levitation.

Jean-Eugene’s talent and skills would eventually have him hailed as “The Father of Modern Magic”. In 1848 he visited England where he performed for the amusement of Queen Victoria. It is believed he brought his show to several Sussex resorts.

In 1856 King Louis-Napoleon asked the magician to go to Algeria and demonstrate his powers to tribal leaders who were challenging French colonial rule. He successfully staged his “light and now heavy” stunt that employed the electromagnets and also demonstrated the ability to pluck bullets out of the air with his teeth. The baffled chiefs were suitably impressed and a rebellion was averted.

Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin retired relatively young and died near Blois in 1871. Today his boyhood home in the city is a museum.

Twenty years after the Frenchman’s death an up and coming American magician and escapologist called Ehrich Weiss read Robert-Houdin’s autobiography and was deeply impressed by it. Indeed, as a tribute to his new-found hero Weiss changed his name to … Harry Houdini.

However, as Houdini’s own fame and fortune grew, for some reason his early respect for the master magician faded. In 1908 he published “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin”, a book founded in Houdini’s growing suspicions that much of Jean-Eugene’s reputation was down to exploiting the work of others.

Houdini’s change of mind puzzles me. Robert-Houdin was certainly the first magician to harness electricity within his illusions. Mindreading was a long-established magic trick but the Frenchman took “thought transference” to another level through ingenious signaling methods. He also never claimed that his tricks were “supernatural” but were wholly technical in concept and execution.

Contrary to Houdini’s later belief, there is considerable evidence that Robert-Houdin’s magic was itself pirated. One of his most trusted stage aides, Le Grand, was arrested and charged with making duplicate illusions. He was accused of selling these on to rival magicians such as the German Carl “Compars” Herrmann. The latter had regularly attended Robert-Houdin’s performances and had befriended the magician.

The friendship did not deter Herrmann from paying for the Frenchman’s stage secrets. Following a show at the Haymarket Theatre in 1848, “The Illustrated London News” praised Herrmann particularly for an illusion called the “Inexhaustible Bottle” that seemingly produced an endless quantity of varying beverages from a single small container. The trick had actually been invented by Robert-Houdin.

The last straw for the Frenchman came when Herrmann appropriated the name of “Premier Prestidigitateur”, a title meaning “top conjuror” that was first coined by Robert-Houdin. When challenged Herrmann dropped his claim to the name but held on to the grander-sounding “First Professor of Magic in the World”.

Another apparent beneficiary of Robert-Houdin’s secrets via Le Grand was John Henry Anderson, dubbed “The Great Wizard of the North” by Sir Walter Scott. Anderson died in 1874 and was buried in Aberdeen. This was the same year that saw the birth of Harry Houdini and, as with Robert-Houdin, Anderson came to be revered as an inspiration by the American. In 1909 Houdini arranged for Anderson’s unkempt grave to be repaired and renovated.

Next week’s column continues the “magic” theme as I explore Houdini’s connections with Sussex literary doyen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and discover a Brighton-based escapologist “The Great Omani” whose last request in life was for a trapdoor to be incorporated in the floor of his coffin!