Sawing a Lady in Half (aka Sawing Through a Woman)
Designer: P.T. Selbit
Selbit created the “Sawing Through a Woman” illusion in 1920. Eric Lewis and Peter Warlock (authors of PT Selbit: Magical Innovator) mentioned that Selbit created the illusion in his apartment at 54C High Street, Bloomsbury. The first performance actually took place in the home of his friend Fred Culpitt. It was performed on a kitchen table with a girl named Jan Glenrose. In December of 1920, Selbit performed a special performance at St. George’s Hall for Nevil Maskelyne, George Facer, and a group of agents from the various Moss Empires. The act was considered successful so the booking agents scheduled Selbit to perform in the main Moss Theatres commencing with his first public performance of the illusion on January 17th, 1921 at the Finsbury Park Empire Theatre, north of London.
The illusion originally was performed as follows: Two small wooden platforms supported a long, rectangular wooden box. An assistant was bound with ropes tied about her wrists and ankles. The ropes were fed through holes in the box and then tied with knots preventing her movement inside the box. Three sheets of glass were then shoved into the top of the box, and two metal sheets were shoved into the sides. The woman was unmistakably divided into eight sections. Lastly, a large cross-cut saw was used to saw the box in two. This long saw was real and truly cut the wooden crate in half. It took a while to cut through the thick wood of the box. However, unlike the modern versions, the boxes were never separated. Instead, the blade was left below the two cut boxes. The lid was opened, ropes cut, and the girl would emerge unharmed.
Horace Goldin claimed the idea was his, having appeared to him in a sort of vision in 1906 (according to Steinmeyer’s Art & Artifice). The Great Leon had asked Horace Goldin about sawing a woman in half and actually separating the halves. Goldin lied and told Leon that he own the rights to the trick and began working on it immediately. Leon soon found out about the lie and started working on his own version. Goldin didn’t actually present his version in New York until June 3, 1921, after Selbit’s success in England. Steinmeyer mentions the obvious – that “Goldin’s idea was developed after hearing of Selbit’s success.” Steinmeyer continues in the footnotes with, “Goldin’s premise is that, from 1906 to 1921, he couldn’t find a producer interested in having the illusion constructed! In frustration, he finally had it built himself in 1921, which is supposed to represent his desperation and diligence, but which hardly seems extreme for an original stage illusionist. Carl Rosini claimed that Goldin got the idea from hearing an account of Selbit’s trick (in Robert Olson’s 1966 book Carl Rosini, His Life and His Magic), as did Walter Gibson, in conversations with me.”
The Variety newspaper reported in August of 1921:
P.T. Selbit, English illusionist, has accused Horace Goldin of piracy in relation to “Sawing Through a Woman,” which the latter is using in this country. Selbit took up the matter with the N.V.A. Goldin claims that he invented the trick in 1906, sold it in 1917, gave away drawings of the illusion in 1919, to have built the illusion in 1920, and to have prepared a patent application for it two years ago.
Selbit, replying, says: “If any such claims are true, why did not Mr. Goldin (or someone else) produce the illusion before I did? I produced my illusion in December, 1920, and Mr. Goldin produced what I allege is a copy act five months later. Mr. Goldin’s patent application of two years ago will prove his right to the invention if, on examination, it proves to be similar to mine. I admit the possibility of two minds thinking alike, but I decline to believe that Mr. Goldin invented “Sawing Through a Woman” 15 years ago or at any other time. I claim “Sawing Through a Woman” is entirely original with me. I invented it only two weeks prior to its production by me in December, 1920. I am booked with Messrs. Shubert for 20 weeks starting December 19, 1921, at $800 weekly. If Mr. Goldin can prove that he legitimately anticipated my invention, I will transfer to him my American bookings and not play my illusion in the United States.”
On receipt of the challenge, Goldin sent a cable to the trade press in England accepting the challenge, adding he is sending a letter verifying the cable acceptance in detail. Selbit is reported booked by the Shuberts.
Clearly Goldin never followed up (likely because he couldn’t) and in September of 1921, law suits and injunctions were being thrown about like beads and candy at Mardi Gras. According to the Variety paper, Goldin was trying to stop everyone else from using the illusion and filed legal actions against other competitors (who were also performing knock-offs of Goldin’s version). The Great Leon was also claiming Goldin stole the idea from him.
Later that year on Friday, November 25, 1921, the Variety reported the following information:
Kansas City, Nov. 23
The first legal skirmish between Horace Goldin and P. T. Selbit over the illusion, “Sawing a Woman in Half,” was won by Selbit in the Federal District Court Thursday. Goldin sought a restraining order against Selbit, after the two illusions opposed each other in the local junior Orpheum and Pantages houses.
Application for a temporary injunction was withdrawn during the hearing by Goldin. This move followed the introduction of evidence that the woman sawing trick dated back as far as 1887. A reproduction of hte original biling used by Manchester Music Hall (England) was offered by the English magician. The billing was Professor Hengler’s “Sawing a Lady in Two.”
Hengler’s illusion was brought to light in the official publication of the American Magicians’ Society, edited by Harry Houdini. Mention of this as made two weeks ago in Variety’s editorial, anent the originality of the woman stunt.
No renewal of application for injunction may be made for 30 days. Selbit remained here after his engagement making depositions. It is not believed that the matter will again reach the courts, since showmen appear convinced neither Goldin nor Selbit originated the illusion. The local opinion also is that Selbit was the first to revive the old trick, doing it on the other side, with Goldin later presenting his version over here.
It is likely that the “local opinion” was due to the fact other magicians wanted to also use Selbit’s method for themselves.
Goldin’s “improved” Selbit’s creation and allowed the audience to see the assistant’s hands and feet the entire time. Additionally, Goldin’s version allowed for the boxes to be pulled apart. When Goldin debuted his version in 1921, he used a bellhop (boy) as the assistant. He filed a patent for the illusion on Sept 9, 1921 (patent number 1458575 – granted June 12, 1923). The great Howard Thurston saw and worked out a deal to have his chief mechanic and builder Harry Jansen rework the prop. Harry Jansen (later known as Dante) had his own magic manufacturing shop in Chicago. His company had the building rights to Servais LeRoy’s illusions. Jansen took the Goldin Sawing and added the LeRoy Asrah table base. Mike Caveney’s book The Great Leon says that Leon also used the LeRoy Asrah table but the method was slightly different. However, Goldin took his new and improved illusion and had it patented under his name alone! According to Steinmeyer’s Art & Artifice, by the summer of 1921, Goldin had sent out five “authorized” performers and troupes to perform his “Sawing a Lady in Half.” These performers included Thurston, Dante, and Servais LeRoy.
When Selbit came to America in September of 1921 to present his illusion, he found he had been ripped off. Selbit subsequently sued Goldin and ultimately lost when it was determined Goldin’s version was indeed different. However, it didn’t stop Selbit from sending out magicians with his version of the effect as well. David Price’s book, A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theatre mentions that Houdini stepped into the fray to show a playbill from a London theatre dated back to the 1880s which had the headline “Sawing a Lady in Two”. In PT Selbit: Magical Innovator, the authors mention that during September of 1921, Selbit discovered one of his assistants sold the secret to Goldwyn Ltd. of Hollywood. The assistant was dismissed and Selbit wrote and threatened to sue Goldwyn Ltd. Nothing seemed to happen and Selbit let it slide since he was busy anyway. However, when the film was completed in 1923 and news arrived that it would be shown on both sides of the Atlantic, Selbit sued in order to get an injunction to prevent the movie from being shown. This attempt failed because the judge ruled that Selbit had waited too long and forfeited his rights to sue.
Plans for the illusion were sold in a book for five dollars by November of 1921. The complete apparatus was available for $175.
Goldin ironically spent most of his profits trying to enforce his patent! In the early 1930’s, Goldin filed a lawsuit against the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for using this magic trick in an advertisement and explaining how it worked. According to an article in The New York Times from March 1933, Goldin asserted that the ad had adversely affected his ability to get people to see his shows. He asked for $50,000 in damages. (That’s about $865,000 in today’s dollars.) Steinmeyer mentions that “Many magicians rationalized that the idea was an old one, established in print. … The basis of the trick [being explained] … in Hopkins’ Magic, published in 1897.” Also, this was explained in Houdin’s 1858 Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur. The federal court threw out Mr. Goldin’s claim in 1938, but the damage had already been done. Besides the large legal fees, the news media brought more attention to how the magic trick of sawing a woman in half actually worked — and it was no longer magical.
In Steinmeyer’s Technique and Understanding, he mentions having conversations with Walter Gibson, author of The Book of Secrets, Miracles Ancient and Modern. Gibson was tasked by the publisher to reveal “Sawing a Woman in Half” and while Gibson initially refused, he later decided to publish an inefficient method he saw used by Hal Usher. Steinmeyer says that Gibson was proud of his solution to meet the publisher’s demands until he realized his method was being accepted as a workable alternative! The defendant (Reynolds Tobacco) in Goldin’s court case used Gibson’s work to show that “Sawing a Woman” was already published and thus exposed. The court did not care that the method was different (or unworkable); they merely noted that the secret was published.