Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin

(* 7 December 1805 in Blois, France – † 13 June 1871 in Saint-Gervais near Blois)

Photo: Unknown (Created: between 1850 and 1870)

Jean-Eugène Robert was born in 1805 in the French town of Blois. At the age of twenty-four, he married the daughter of a well-known Parisian watchmaker. He got his later name Robert-Houdin by combining it with the family name of his wife Cécile Églantine Houdin.

He is considered the father of modern magic and was the first magician to use electricity in his performances. It was Robert-Houdin who took the art of magic from the fairs to the grand theatre, where the magician dressed with the same elegance as members of high society and the audience could afford to buy a ticket.

Robert-Houdin went to Paris after his school days in Orleans and studied the craft of watchmaking, as well as electricity and the manufacture of automata. After accidentally getting hold of a book on magic from the collection of a market crier who denounced mountebankism, he began taking lessons from a local amateur magician. His interest in the art grew rapidly. Later, he moved to Tours and founded a watchmaking factory there. He met the magician De Grisi here and became his student. This phase was an important turning point in his life.

In his memoirs, he describes an interesting and influential experience with the Arabs in Algeria. Rebels wanted to start an uprising against the French colonialists with the help of “false miracles” by the religious leaders. Robert-Houdin was sent to Algeria in 1856 by the French government under Napoleon III. His sensational tricks were intended to break the influence of the rebels. One of the tricks passed down was for an Arab to shoot Robert-Houdin with a marked bullet. Instead of killing him, he caught the bullet with his teeth. Of course, this was only a trick, but it shows how effective proper presentation, preparation and execution are in a pre-constructed setting. This feat was so convincing that the Arabs believed Robert-Houdin could really perform miracles. Through this presentation and a subsequent vote, the uprising was crushed and Robert-Houdin successfully returned to France.

The trick of using a freshly fired pistol bullet and catching it in the mouth was popularised by Robert-Houdin. Many other magicians imitated this trick.

The American escape artist Harry Houdini chose his stage name “Houdini” in honour of Robert-Houdin.

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