Born in France in 1805, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin began his career as a watchmaker before pursuing his passion for magic. His innovative use of contraptions and electricity in his performances, as well his attire and flair for performance, have earned him the name "the father of modern magic." He ran a successful magical theater in Paris from 1845 to 1855 before retiring, and was even employed by the French government to use his tricks to quell a revolution in Algeria. He died of pneumonia in 1871.
Birth of a Conjurer
Jean-Eugène Robert was born in the town of Blois, in central France, on December 6, 1805. His father, Prosper, was a watchmaker; his mother, Marie-Catherine, died when he was young. From 1816 to 1823 Robert attended school at the University of Orléans, where he studied law. However, after his graduation, he returned home to follow in his father’s footsteps and became a watchmaker.
Yet fate had a different path in mind for the young Robert, who after purchasing a set of books on clockmaking returned home to discover that the shop clerk had mistakenly given him a package containing a two-volume book of magic. Intrigued, Robert not only kept the books but pored over them and spent hour upon hour teaching himself the fundamentals of magic.
Invention and Illusion
As Robert’s passion for magic deepened, he sought instruction from a local magician who helped expand his talents to the point that he began to perform professionally. At one such event, he met Cécile-Églantine Houdin, the daughter of a renowned clockmaker. The two fell quickly for each other and were married in July 1830, with Robert adding her name to his own to become Robert-Houdin from then on. The newlyweds moved to Paris, where Robert-Houdin worked in his father-in-law’s shop as he continued his career in horology.
While living in Paris, Robert-Houdin began to fuse his interests. He sought the company of other magicians and visited magic shops to learn the latest tricks and gadgets, while also employing his mechanical expertise to build new inventions, some of which he would later incorporate in his performances. One of his creations was a writing automaton that was ultimately purchased by American showman P. T. Barnum. The money he received from the sale, along with a grant from a wealthy benefactor, would allow Robert-Houdin to realize an ambition that would fulfill his destiny.
After Cécile’s death in 1843, Robert-Houdin married Françoise Braconnier. In 1845, he opened a new magical theater in the 200-seat Palais Royal. His first in a long-running series of performances known as Soirées Fantastiques took place at the venue in July of that year. Though well attended, the shows failed to win him much notoriety. However, with each subsequent performance, Robert-Houdin refined his craft, developing a gift for presentation and introducing tricks and contraptions that won over the audiences that soon packed the theater.
Robert-Houdin’s innovations included the perfection of “mind reading” tricks such as his “Second Sight.” He also developed a contraption that made his son appear to float off the ground, which he called his “Suspension by Ether.” In perhaps his most-famous illusion, “The Marvelous Orange Tree,” fruit appeared to grow on a small tree before the audience’s eyes. Robert-Houdin also became the first magician to use electricity in his act and eschewed the customary wizard’s robes for the formal evening attire of the day, eventually earning him the sobriquet “the father of modern magic.”
International Man of Magic
As Robert-Houdin’s fame spread, he traveled throughout Europe, astonishing crowds wherever he went and performing for such notable persons as King Louis Philippe and Queen Victoria. Completing his final tour in 1855, he decided to retire from his career as a conjurer, returning to France and moving to a farm outside of Blois.
However, in September of 1856, the French government persuaded Robert-Houdin to come out retirement for one final performance—this time in the service of the state. He was sent to Algeria where tribal holy men were using tricks such as fire walking and snake charming to demonstrate their power and incite a revolution against the French colonial government. In an October performance attended by tribal leaders, Robert-Houdin gave a performance that began with innocuous feats such as pulling objects from a hat before moving on to more involved tricks such as stealing a man’s strength and making an audience member disappear. The tribesman were so terrified by his “sorcery” that they ran from the tent in fear. They later honored Robert-Houdin with the gift of an illuminated manuscript and swore their allegiance to France.
Once he was back home, Robert-Houdin devoted the remainder of his life to writing his memoirs and books on magic. He also continued his work as an inventor. But the strain of the Franco-Prussian War, which took the life of one of his sons, soon took its toll on the aging magician. He died of pneumonia on June 13, 1871, at age 65.
Since his passing, Robert-Houdin’s innovations have inspired countless magicians. Certainly the most notable example is Ehrich Weiss, who eventually took the name Harry Houdini in his honor and went on the become the most famous magician in history. Robert-Houdin’s house in Blois now serves as a museum devoted to his legacy.
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