Monday, September 27, 2010

How the Legends Are Born: The Magic Rope.

Apparently, witnesses saw a child climbing to a rope that stands in the air, and then it disappeared... This was, like breaking news, published in a newspaper in 1890, and after that, many have unsuccessfully attempted to perform this amazing magic trick.

For more than a century around the world is orbiting an incredible story about the appearance that originates from India. It is about illusion trick with a rope and a boy who disappears.

The original performance was like this: in the open space, fakir takes a long rope and throws it into the air where it remains standing upright, as if hung on something. Fakir’s assistant, a boy, then climbs the rope, and when he comes to the end, he suddenly disappears. Fakir then calls him to return, but there is no trace of the boy. After a few moments fakir himself climbs up, armed with a knife, and he also disappears. Then from the sky dismembered body parts begin to fall. Fakir however comes down from heaven, pulls the rope, covers the remains of body with canvas and, suddenly, hocus-pocus - here's the boy alive and well.

It would be truly amazing performance” - says Peter Lamont, magic historian and researcher from the University of Edinburgh. “Too bad it was not true. About this performance was first heard in 1890 thanks to the writing of the American newspaper the Chicago Tribune. Journalist John Elbert Wilkie admitted later that it was an ordinary summer canard. What he certainly did not expect was that this canard will gain so much fame.
Wilkie’s article from the Tribune was re-published in many other papers, even overseas, but when the article that was published four months later, in which editorial was refuting the news, came out, everyone else remained quiet. In 1904 even the first alleged witness appeared claiming that he saw with his own eyes the Indian rope trick. His name was Sebastian Burchett. But as soon as the members of the English Society for Psychical Research began to ask him questions, it was immediately clear that he had too vivid imagination. And this was the umpteenth example of "unreliability of memory when it comes to these things," the experts said.

However, this legend, which spoke about the unknown and mysterious India, just in the way the colonial culture of that time seen it, became so famous that she could no longer be forgotten or even destroyed” - explains Lamont. “Thus, some people tried to explain this game with a rope, claiming that it was a case of mass hypnosis. Fakir would lead into a trance all viewers and then they saw what really was not happening. The explanation was so unconvincing that the first photographs have begun to appear in an effort to overturn assumptions about the mass hypnosis.”

"Strand Magazine", a magazine that published the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, was first that, in 1919, delighted readers with a photo of "the most famous magic trick in the world." It was made by certain F. V. Holmes, multi-decorated officer (who is not in any relationship with the famous detective from stories). According to Holmes, the rope was unwounded, thrown into the air and there was left to stand like it was rigid. Then a boy climbed up and remained standing at the top. Just when the officer shot the photo, the boy disappeared. "I do not know how to explain it," was his response.

Therefore, other explanations of this puzzle were offered. In the thirties of last century, a German illusionist said that the rope was, in fact, masked, and that it consisted of sheep bones, stuck one in another, so that it made a kind of a pole on which the boy could climb up. In the fifties yet another interpretation was argued, that the trick was performed in some valley. Wire, as thin as a strand of hair, was torn between two mountains, and the rope was, after being thrown in the air by fakir, attached to this invisible wire with a hidden hook. The performance was showed at night, and the boy was climbing the rope and disappearing into the darkness and smoke of burning fire. Then would the fakir, wearing wide cape, climb to the top of the rope from where he will throw pieces of limbs of a monkey, which he slashed previously, to the ground. Finally, the boy would hide under the cape and come along with a magician so that everything looks like he came out of nowhere.

All these explanations are much more astonishing than the very performance of this story” - says Peter Lamont. “Who could replace sheep bone for a rope? And where did existed a wire, as thin as a hair, that could be crucified between two hills and withstand the weight of two people? All of them had, in fact, tried to clarify a mystery that never existed. Photos like the one Holmes depicted did not show an Indian rope, but something else entirely: keeping the balance on the long stalks of bamboo, which is still active in some parts of India and China. There the acrobat girds himself with a thick rope around his waist, and akimbo a long bamboo pole and elevate it. Along it, then, climbs another guy who, when he reaches the top, is standing on it for a few moments keeping his balance.”

Because of this, Lamont was, as a researcher, interested in how did the various magician witnesses were able to substitute a regular game of balance with an incredible trick with Indian rope. Along with an English psychologist Richard Wiseman, he assumed that there is a connection between a sensationalism of a story and the time that elapsed between events and reports of it. In other words, the researchers started from the fact that telling of a witness becomes more astonishing as time goes on.

They gathered all attestations that they found in books, studies and newspaper articles: total 48 of them. They eliminated all recounting of hearsay, as well as documents which do not indicate year of the event or did not contain detailed descriptions. The remaining evidences - they counted 21 - were divided into five groups, according to the degree of sensationalism. Their conclusion, for the umpteenth time, confirmed the assumption of extreme unreliability of memory regarding the magic performances. Witnesses from the documents that they found had actually seen people standing on a pole, but as the years passed, they added to their description elements from what they had read or heard from stories. And, what a surprise: from the thirties and onwards there was no one who claimed that he saw the climbing a rope trick.

The real secret of the show with an Indian rope is in our head and there it withstands time. Our mind mixes real events we witnessed and legends we heard, creating in this way a compelling story. It never happened, but it is nevertheless convincing and exciting.

There is more ;)

In the late 19th and early 20th century the performance with the Indian rope has become so popular that some magicians began to consider it a threat to their profession. It seemed to them that the Indian illusionists were far more skilled than their colleagues from the West, and the most prominent among them started climbing to discover what the trick is. They even went to India to examine the gurus and fakirs, apparently without success. Then they tried to perform this trick in the theater, with weights that they themselves invented. Unfortunately, no one succeeded: one thing was to hear stories about this art, and completely other to try to perform it in an entirely different environment, such is the stage.

Because of this, for magicians the trick with Indian rope is even today "the greatest illusion ever conceived in the world," though never carried out. Nor it can be grasped, experts in this field say: it is like the Holy Grail in the magician’s world.

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