Sawing-in-half trick reaches century since first show in Finsbury Park

Norvil & Josephine

The Norvil & Josephine magic show. - Credit: Eric Richmond

An iconic magic trick, which was first performed in Finsbury Park, has turned 100 years old. 

The illusion of sawing a woman in half was first performed by P.T Selbit at Islington’s Finsbury Park Empire on January 17, 1921.

"There have been so many variations developed since the debut of this effect," said Christopher Howell, an Islington resident and member of the prestigious Magic Circle. "Like in all magic effects, there is never just one way to do something."

The illusion Christopher uses in his vaudeville-inspired magic variety show, Norvil & Josephine, is a standing-up variation with a comic 21st century twist that turns the trick on its head.

Norvil & Josephine

Christopher uses the sawing-in-half trick in his variety show Norvil & Josephine. - Credit: Eric Richmond

"The more unfortunate reason why it endured has to do with the context of women's suffrage which was not a popular idea in many circles [when] P.T. Selbit debuted the first version,” said Christopher. "So it's not coincidental that the women were the ones people wanted to see in the boxes."

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In Christopher's show, Josephine is sawn in half against her wishes, setting her off on a mission to get her revenge for the rest of the performance.

"We present a vintage-looking magic couple and use the illusion to challenge gender stereotypes. We hope by adding this twist it keeps this 100-year-old idea fresh for audiences watching it today," he said.

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Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist David Penn put a different spin on things, and says he was the first magician in the UK to be granted the rights to perform the trick using a clear box.

He has performed the trick on a variety of people, from champion jockeys on A Question of Sport, to Tulisa – assisted by Jedward – on The Xtra Factor.

"I was always a fan of the sawing in half illusion, it always seemed to captivate an audience like no other," he said.

However, Christopher admits that few versions create the same level of excitement as when the trick is performed on a member of the audience.

"When you get an audience member on stage who is unrehearsed, and you get to see their friends videoing on their phones… and their legs separating from their body, for me, that’s what makes it great," he said. "The energy you can create from that fun and excitement."

Not unlike magicians today, the illusionists of the early 20th century would go to similar lengths to convince audiences to suspend their disbelief.

When Selbit performed the trick, he would have an ambulance parked outside the theatre and, as a new crowd began to queue, would have a stagehand throw a bucket of fake blood into the gutter.

"I think when you look at the original version, it is incredible that it fooled anybody," said David. "[But] what you’re not seeing is the full presentation."

The trick’s centenary comes amid a third Covid-19 lockdown, when the visceral performances of Selbit’s time have been all but replaced and magic has moved from stages to screens.

"These days, with the Covid situation, I’ve been performing more on Zoom shows. I do magic sort of through the screen with people interacting on the other end," said Christopher.

He says it proves magicians can still rise to the challenge of finding new ways to reach audiences.

"People really, on a profound level, want to be able to experience wonder and mystery," he said. "Part of the fun magicians have is maybe making the audience believe that it’s being done in a certain way and then pulling the rug out from under the audience to give them that thrill."

David also believes that the limits of magic have not yet been reached.

"I can’t think of one plot in magic that’s ever just stayed the same because you always get new individuals coming forward going, 'I want to take it further,'” he said. “I wouldn’t be naïve enough to say we’ve stopped evolving."

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