Sawing A Woman In Half
Horace Goldin wanted to keep people from stealing the magic trick he invented, so he took out a patent. It worked, but ultimately it cost him a magician’s greatest asset—secrecy.
Is it possible to own a miracle? Horace Goldin, a vaudeville-era stage magician, tried to do just that. He developed a technique for sawing an assistant in half—an illusion as closely associated with magicians as pulling a rabbit out of a hat—and then embarked on an extensive and costly legal campaign to protect his invention from competitors and anyone else who tried to exploit it. Yet the very measure that afforded Goldin’s illusion the most powerful legal protection—a patent—also turned out to be his undoing.
Goldin was born Hyman Goldstein in Lithuania on December 17, 1873. As a boy he exhibited a talent with magic tricks he picked up from a Gypsy performer; he was also a skilled violinist. He emigrated to the United States when he was sixteen, joining the rest of his family in Nashville, Tennessee, where they ran a store. Saddled not only with a heavy accent but also with a speech impediment from a childhood accident, he nonetheless managed to support himself as a salesman, and in 1894 he began a career—part-time at first—as a magician, billing himself as “The Humorous Conjurer” and telling jokes between tricks.
Scathing newspaper reviews led Goldin to redesign his act. Around 1900 he hired several assistants and switched to a rapid-fire trick-aminute routine throughout which he remained silent. As “The Whirlwind Illusionist” he gained an extensive following and traveled on the prestigious Keith vaudeville circuit.
In 1915 Goldin began a lengthy tour of the Far East. Three years later, toward the end of the trip, most of his equipment, as well as a strongbox containing the proceeds of his tour, was in a boat that capsized in a Hawaiian harbor. Goldin was ruined; he returned to the mainland, filed a petition for bankruptcy—and proceeded to invent the most commercially successful illusion in history.
Virtually all stage illusions can be grouped into four categories: production, in which objects appear or disappear; transformation, in which an object changes form or position; levitation; and penetration, the passing of one solid object through another. Sawing and decapitation illusions fall into the last category.
The earliest known account of a magic show is recorded in a document called the Westcar Papyrus, which was written in approximately 2000 B.C. According to it, Cheops, the Egyptian king credited with building the Great Pyramid, summoned a magician named Dedi for a conjuring performance. Dedi was renowned for his ability to sever and restore living creatures’ heads. The king offered the magician a prisoner who had been condemned to death. Dedi refused to perform the illusion with a man; it was forbidden, he said, to use “members of the noble herd” for conjuring purposes. Instead Dedi placed a goose’s head and body at opposite sides of the great hall and delivered a magic incantation. Head and body were restored, and the goose cackled. When the king was not suitably impressed, Dedi repeated the illusion with a pelican and an ox.
The Westcar Papyrus should not be taken too literally; it puts Dedi’s age at 110 years at the time of the performance and says that his daily diet was five hundred loaves of bread, a shoulder of beef, and a hundred jugs of beer. However, it is generally believed that decapitation illusions were among the earliest developed by magicians. A sixteenth-century painting by the elder Pieter Brueghel entitled Fall of the Wizard Hermogenes depicts a decapitation illusion among various contemporary conjurer’s tricks.
A magician named Torrini may have performed the first version of sawing a person in half, in a performance before Pope Pius VII in 1809, but few details are available, and such illusions did not develop into their present form until early in this century. In 1920 a British magician named Percy T. Selbit took London by storm with his illusion of cutting a woman in half, thereby starting the sawing craze of the twenties. In Selbit’s version members of the audience tied ropes to the woman’s neck, wrists, and ankles. She was entirely enclosed in a long, narrow box; the ropes were passed through holes in the box and tied to keep her from escaping. Selbit then inserted several glass and metal sheets through the box and finally sawed it into two separate pieces. The magician’s secret was a concealed razor blade, which permitted the assistant to free herself from the ropes.
Goldin later claimed in sworn testimony that his version of sawing a woman in half had preceded Selbit’s. Indeed, he said, he had been inspired to create the illusion as early as 1906; by 1911 he was performing a similar illusion known as “Vivi Section,” in which he severed and restored various parts of the human body; and by 1919 he had built a working version of his apparatus for sawing a woman in half. But Goldin had professional and legal reasons to make these claims; in all probability he actually developed his illusion in response to Selbit’s out- Standing success. In any event, Goldin first presented his version of the trick publicly the year after his rival’s debut.
Goldin’s version differed from SeIbit’s in a number of ways. Selbit concealed the woman in the box, but Goldin had her head, hands, and feet protruding from the ends, remaining in full view of the audience throughout the performance. Moreover, the methods for accomplishing the illusion were completely different.
The secret to Goldin’s illusion lies in the construction of his apparatus. The audience watches a stage assistant climb into a large box resting on a platform. What it does not see is that the platform is actually a second box, in which another assistant is concealed. At some point during the illusion, the bottom of the first box, from which the first assistant’s feet protrude, is temporarily hidden, either by rotating the apparatus on stage or by nonchalantly blocking that end of it with a panel or prop. The first assistant takes this opportunity to withdraw her feet and retract her body into the upper half, where built-in footrests ensure that she will remain in one piece. The second assistant then pushes her feet—clad, of course, in an identical pair of shoes—through the vacated holes and scrunches down in the bottom end of the box.
When the performer starts to saw, the audience seems to see the blade penetrate the body of the woman. In fact, it is passing harmlessly between two assistants. Once the sawing is complete and the two halves of the box, after being pulled apart to heighten the illusion, are pushed back together, the substitution process is reversed; the first assistant’s feet are again extended through the lower end of the box, and she is able to emerge in one piece.
Speaking with the benefit of seventy years’ hindsight, James (“The Amazing”) Randi recently observed that “the box that Goldin used was clumsy and far too large to be really convincing.” Goldin’s contemporaries would have disagreed. A 1925 review in Punch described the trick as “alarming” and “most realistic.” The Keith theater circuit hired Goldin and six additional touring companies to display the illusion throughout the United States. Servais Le Roy, a Belgian who had been one of Goldin’s principal rivals, put his illusions in storage to head one of the touring companies. Le Roy dressed his assistants in hospital garb and presented the illusion as a miraculous surgical operation. During his first performance, two spectators fainted.
The illusion earned the Keith circuit more than a million dollars, and Goldin himself sometimes received more than $2,000 per week. The act’s overwhelming popularity derived at least in part from clever promotion. Ambulances bearing a banner that read “We are going to Keith’s in case the saw slips” drove around the towns in which the illusion was playing, and a nurse and stretcher were always on hand in the theater lobby.
Goldin also kept up a steady drumfire of lawsuits. Indeed, he spent almost as much money suing other illusionists as he made from his invention. “The lawyers were the winners in these cases,” he later wrote, “but, though I did not profit much from the damages I obtained, at least I knew that I had been justified, and that my act had received excellent advertisement.”
Most of Goldin’s lawsuits were based on the common-law, or judge-made, doctrine of unfair competition. Unfair competition protects those who legitimately sell a product or service against others who try to profit from the good will or reputation of the originator of that product or service. In Goldin’s case the courts determined that the whole concept of sawing a woman in half was so closely linked with Goldin that it would be unfair to allow others to profit from his creation.
Goldin obtained a number of injunctions against rival magicians. Courts in New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and Kansas entered orders preventing other performers from offering sawing illusions to the public. He even managed to obtain an injunction against Selbit, despite substantial differences between the two illusions and the fact that Selbit’s came first.
But rival magicians were not the only focus of Goldin’s legal campaign. Several companies produced films exposing Goldin’s illusion. These films led to several lawsuits, including Goldin v. Clarion Photoplays , filed in New York in 1922. The list of magicians who testified on Goldin’s behalf is a Who’s Who of magic history. Harry Houdini submitted an affidavit stating that he had never seen the illusion performed by anyone other than Goldin; Le Roy testified that he paid Goldin $250 a week to use the trick and that this was the highest fee ever paid to the inventor of an illusion; a magician named Carl Rosinni said he had been present when Goldin built the original apparatus at Howard Thurston’s machine shop in Whitestone, Queens; and Harry Thurston, Howard’s brother, added that the Thurstons had granted Goldin use of the shop and $2,000 in cash and labor in return for permission to use the illusion.
The trial court denied Goldin’s request for an injunction against the film, finding that Goldin had failed to establish that he was the inventor of the illusion, and thus that the doctrine of unfair competition did not apply. The judge determined that sawing a woman in half dated back to ancient Egypt and, in an apparent reference to Selbit, that it had been done outside the United States before Goldin introduced his version.
Goldin appealed. The Keith chain, hedging its bets, booked the film for a hundred days. The New York Appellate Division reviewed the case. Goldin wrote, “The hours I spent waiting for the [decision] were the most dramatic of my life.” Finally a phone call from Houdini brought the news: The court had reversed the decision and enjoined the defendants from distributing the film.
The Appellate Division determined that Goldin had “satisfactorily established that he is the originator of the illusion in question, which has achieved a great success under the title devised by him of ‘Sawing a Woman in Half … and that his creation of the illusion has been so universally recognized that the title thereof is in the public mind associated with his own name.” Therefore, the court concluded, the film producer’s attempt to copy Goldin’s illusion and its title constituted unfair competition and a violation of Goldin’s rights.
Meanwhile, on September 9, 1921, Horace Goldin had applied for patent protection on his sawing illusion, which he described as “a means for performing an illusion on a stage or elsewhere. Specifically, the invention is an apparatus in the form of a box whereby a person or object can be placed within and the container cut substantially in half, giving the effect to the audience of cutting the person or object in half.” He was awarded U.S. patent number 1,458,575 on June 12, 1923.
The patent strengthened Goldin’s ability to protect his invention in several ways. It granted him an exclusive seventeen-year monopoly to make, use, and sell the apparatus. With the patent in hand, Goldin no longer needed to prove over and over that he was the originator of the illusion (the patent established this as a matter of law), nor did he need to demonstrate that he was publicly associated with it. To prevail against a competitor, he merely needed to demonstrate that the individual had made, used, or sold his sawing apparatus. But the patent proved to be a double-edged sword: to obtain the patent, he was required to disclose the workings of his invention, which ultimately undercut his efforts.
Although no one may use a patented device without the inventor’s permission, anyone can find out how it works simply by obtaining a copy of the patent. (In fact, the word patent means “open.”) With most inventions this provision is no problem. Consumers of a new steel-rolling process or potato chip will not appreciate the product any less for knowing how it was made; indeed, a clever new technique is often a major selling point. With magic, however, secrecy is part of the product; if the audience knows how a trick is done, it largely loses its appeal. Thus, by ensuring his right to keep others from using his invention, Goldin forfeited the equally important right to keep its workings secret.
This disclosure worked against Goldin in the early 1930s. The trouble came from an unlikely source—the cigarette industry. Camel had been the nation’s most popular brand since World War I, but in the mid-1920s the makers of Lucky Strike began an advertising blitz. One selling point was Lucky Strike’s use of “toasted” tobacco, which was supposedly milder than that found in other brands. In fact, all tobacco is heated in processing, but the slogan “It’s Toasted” (along with others) proved quite effective. By the early 1930s Lucky Strike had overtaken Camel in sales.
R. J. Reynolds, the maker of Camels, responded with a lighthearted advertising campaign about deception. Under the heading “It’s Fun to Be Fooled … It’s More Fun to Know,” Reynolds’s ads revealed the tricks behind various famous mysteries, then proceeded in similar vein to debunk its competitor’s so-called special process. In 1933, as part of this series, Reynolds produced an ad with a picture of a magician sawing a woman in half and a brief explanation of how the trick worked.
Goldin’s attorneys promptly sued Reynolds in federal court. The New York Times described the suit as a “determined legal action … against the ancient menace that has plagued [conjuring] from time immemorial—the telling of ‘how it is done.’” In January 1938 the court dismissed Goldin’s suit on the ground that by obtaining a patent for his invention, Goldin had “abandoned his secret to the public.” Thus R. J. Reynolds had every right to expose the secret, though the patent prevented others from making, using, or selling the device itself.
Like many court decisions, this opinion did not rest solely on legal grounds. While the New York court had observed in 1922 that the success of Goldin’s illusion “depends upon the inability of the average audience to grasp by observation the method employed by the performer,” the federal court was not similarly impressed, asserting that “the average person would know that one way of performing the illusion would be to use two girls.” Viewed from this perspective, printing the explanation was “but to state the obvious.” The defeat marked the end of Goldin’s litigation over the sawing illusion.
Thus, while Goldin’s patent afforded him increased protection against magicians or filmmakers who used his sawing apparatus, it also left him open to exposure of his secret. In retrospect this legal miscalculation seems glaring: Goldin had successfully defended his illusion by relying on unfair competition, so the patent appears to have been superfluous. Then again, Goldin’s attorneys were focusing on use of the illusion by competitors, and they did not anticipate that anyone would want simply to expose his secret.
In his autobiography Goldin did not comment on his loss to R. J. Reynolds. This omission may have been the result of a publication deadline: his autobiography was published in 1938, the same year that Goldin v. R. J. Reynolds was dismissed. Indeed, in an ironic tribute to this defeat, Goldin named his autobiography It’s Fun to Be Fooled .
The exposure of his secret forced Goldin to abandon his sawing illusion. In its place he developed “The Living Miracle,” in which an assistant is cut in half by a giant circular saw. Unlike his original sawing illusion, however, the assistant is not enclosed in a box; rather, the sawing is performed in full view of the audience. The method used to accomplish the illusion, which was never patented, is still known only to a select few.
On August 21, 1939, Goldin appeared at the Wood Green Empire Theatre in London, where twenty-one years earlier a magician named Chung Ling Soo had been killed while performing a bullet-catching illusion. Goldin performed the same illusion, then died in his sleep that night. Today his sawing apparatus remains a staple of stage magicians around the globe, while the circular-saw illusion is used only by top performers, such as David Copperfield and Harry Blackstone, Jr.
Audiences may not know Horace Goldin’s name, but among magicians he will always be remembered as the man who created one of the profession’s sturdiest illusions and failed in attempting to protect it. In so doing he made clear both the power and the limits of America’s patent system. For a while that system served Goldin well, as it has many other inventors. In the end, however, he asked it to do something it simply was not designed for, and like any human contrivance similarly misused, the system did not respond the way he wanted.