You’ve all heard of the Indian Rope Trick, I’m sure. That’s the one where a magician hurls a rope into the air where it catches on some invisible force and hangs, as if descending of its own volition from the sky. The Magician’s boy climbs the rope and disappears. In some versions, the boy reappears from another place, such as a basket in full view of the audience, sometimes he does not return at all.
A more gruesome variation involves the Magician chasing the boy up the rope with a giant knife and them both disappearing, followed shortly thereafter by screams and the boy’s severed limbs and body parts falling piece by piece back down to earth. The Magician descends, tosses the body parts in a basket, says an incantation and the boy reappears from the basket, unharmed.
It truly is a marvelous trick. Or would be, except that the whole story is a hoax. Peter Lamot, in his book, The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became a History, details the intricate web of stories, myths and hoaxes that surround this infamous trick, and how it has never been preformed, only told by people who know someone who know someone who saw it happen years ago, or maybe it was a story their uncle told them when they were a child.
The myth surrounding the trick is even more interesting than the trick itself. Teller (the silent part of Penn and) wrote a fascinating acount of the hoax and it’s history:
In 1890 The Chicago Tribune was competing in a cutthroat newspaper market by publishing sensational fiction as fact. The Rope Trick — as Lamont’s detective work reveals — was one of those fictions. The trick made its debut on Aug. 8, 1890, on the front page of The Tribune’s second section. An anonymous, illustrated article told of two Yale graduates, an artist and a photographer, on a visit to India. They saw a street fakir, who took out a ball of gray twine, held the loose end in his teeth and tossed the ball upwards where it unrolled until the other end was out of sight. A small boy, ”about 6 years old,” then climbed the twine and, when he was 30 or 40 feet in the air, vanished. The artist made a sketch of the event. The photographer took snapshots. When the photos were developed, they showed no twine, no boy, just the fakir sitting on the ground. ”Mr. Fakir had simply hypnotized the entire crowd, but he couldn’t hypnotize the camera,” the writer concluded.
The story’s genius is that it allows a reader to wallow in Oriental mystery while maintaining the pose of modernity. Hypnotism was to the Victorians what energy is to the New Age: a catchall explanation for crackpot beliefs. By describing a thrilling, romantic, gravity-defying miracle, then discrediting it as the result of hypnotism — something equally cryptic, but with a Western, scientific ring — The Tribune allowed its readers to have their mystery and debunk it, too. Newspapers all over the United States and Britain picked up the item, and it was translated into nearly every European language.
Other explanations form eyewitnesses eventually reveal that they only ever saw the end of the trick. One popular account tells of a British couple traveling in India. They visit the bizarre where they meet a Fakir’s assistant who tells them to hurry along and come and see the Indian Rope trick being preformed, right now. They reach the place in time to see the rope fall to the ground and several enthusiastic onlookers applaud the fakir and throw him money (which he very likely paid them to throw). The imagination of the couple convinces them that they saw the trick preformed, even though all they saw was a rope tossed by an assistant from a balcony. They simply imagine the parts they missed.