One hundred years ago next weekend, an English magician called Percy Thomas Tibbles literally and laboriously sawed through a sealed wooden box that contained a woman.
It was a sensation and has since become one of the best known magic tricks, performed with all manner of tools and varying degrees of blood – always involving someone cut in half and nearly always with them miraculously put back together.
On Sunday 17 January, the Magic Circle will mark the centenary of sawing someone in half, an illusion as iconic, its president Noel Britten said, as pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
It has a “rich and fascinating” history, Britten said, although the reasons for its almost instant popularity in 1921 may not be the noblest. Suffrage was the hot topic of its day so was it “for every person who thought it was great that women were getting the vote there were other people who thought it great that a woman was being put in a box and sawn in half?”
The illusion was invented by Tibbles, who understandably went by the stage name of PT Selbit, and was first performed at the Finsbury Park Empire in north London on 17 January 1921.
Since then it has been performed by countless magicians in many different ways. “It is a very simple, clear idea and is easily understandable as impossible,” said Will Houstoun, magician in residence at Imperial College’s department of surgery. “As an effect it has a neatness about it and has a huge amount of scope for development and reinvention.”
Houstoun said Selbit’s original illusion did not have the woman’s head and feet sticking out the box, which would become the tradition. The sawing was also real and slow. “It would have been quite a lengthy process … I suspect attention spans would be slightly different today.”
The Magic Circle is planning an evening of online events around the history of the illusion telling stories such as how the BBC shocked the British nation in 1956, broadcasting a Panorama programme that featured the Great Sorcar slicing a young woman in half with a circular saw.
Because the show was live and out of time, the presenter Richard Dimbleby stepped in to say goodbye before the woman came back to life. “The switchboard was jammed with people thinking they had just witnessed a murder,” said Britten.
Houston said one of the most memorable versions for him was by Simon Drake in the late night 1990s Channel 4 show Secret Cabaret. It involved medical staff sawing through Drake from his crotch up to his chest and Drake not waking up. “You don’t forget it,” said Houstoun who was too young to watch it in the first place.
The US magician David Copperfield will show viewers round his magic museum in Las Vegas and talk about his interpretation, using a huge “death saw” which cut through him after he failed to escape the table.
Naomi Paxton, an academic and performer and the Circle’s equality and diversity officer, will explore the illusion’s links to suffrage and reveal how Selbit audaciously invited the militant suffragette Christabel Pankhurst to become part of his act by being the woman sawn in two.
It came after Pankhurst had advertised her services in a newspaper for “remunerative, non-political work” and while it was entrepreneurial of Selbit to offer, it was also “hugely disrespectful,” said Paxton. Unsurprisingly, she said no.
The evening will also see Debbie McGee, the partner of the late Paul Daniels on stage and in life, recounting her experiences of being regularly dismembered. “Debbie has been sliced, diced, cremated, crushed, divided and decapitated more than most so has a great story to tell,” said Britten.
Details of how to watch the Facebook streamed event will be on the Magic Circle Unlocked Facebook page.