It started 100 years ago, with a woman in a box. A man had tied her up at the wrists and ankles, fed the ropes through holes at either end of the coffin-like structure, and tied them again outside the box, making movement—let alone escape—seem impossible. The man sealed the container, which was supported on a pair of wooden platforms, and shoved panes of glass and sheets of metal through pre-cut slits and, seemingly, through the woman's body. Then the real work began: He used a large saw to laboriously split the box into two halves. When the sawdust settled, he opened the box and cut the ropes. The woman somehow emerged unharmed.
When you think of mainstream stage magic, odds are good that one iconic illusion comes to mind: the act of sawing a woman in half. The trick was first performed a century ago, at London’s Finsbury Park Empire theater, by a British magician whose stage name was P.T. Selbit. In the decades that followed, it became one of magic’s go-to illusions. A version of the trick even caused a panic in 1956, when BBC viewers thought a magician known as P.C. Sorcar had actually sawn a woman in half on live TV.
It’s not just women who end up on the business end of a magician’s saw. The first time the trick was performed in America by Horace Goldin, the “victim” was a hotel bellboy. In the 1980s, superstar magician David Copperfield sawed himself in half in an elaborate set piece he titled, with trademark subtlety, “The Death Saw.” But when it comes to being bisected on stage, it’s no accident that women are overwhelmingly the victims of choice. When the trick’s creator debuted it in January 1921, he wanted the woman under the saw to be one of the country’s most famous feminist activists.
A New Kind Of Magic
The horrors of World War I had changed the face of popular entertainment, influencing everything from Lon Chaney Sr.’s legendary makeup and prosthetic applications to Paris’s grisly Grand Guignol theater, known for its shockingly violent productions. Stage magic was no exception—after a war that had killed some 40 million people, watching a grown man play with silk handkerchiefs seemed hopelessly quaint. Audiences were primed for something darker, and Selbit gave it to them.
Selbit was already an accomplished illusionist who had made several contributions to the trade. Born Percy Thomas Tibbles in 1881, Selbit discovered stage magic during a youthful apprenticeship to a silversmith who rented out his basement to a magician. According to magic lore, Selbit would sneak away from the shop and pick the basement lock so he could watch the magician practice his craft. He arrived at his stage name by spelling his surname backward and was performing professionally by the time he was 19 years old; he began writing and editing for magic trade journals shortly after. Selbit was the author of a 1907 publication called Conjuring Patter—essentially a compendium of dad jokes for magicians, with subsections like “Water Witticisms” and “Bits About Bottles.” In 1919, he helped stage a séance that managed to fool Arthur Conan Doyle. (Although, in all fairness, Doyle was also tricked by two kids who cut illustrations out of a children’s book, photographed them, and insisted they were real fairies.)
Selbit also had a gift for self-promotion. When it was time to gin up interest in his “Sawing Through a Woman” routine, Selbit had stagehands dump buckets of fake blood into the gutter outside the theater between shows. “Nurses” were stationed in the theater’s lobby, and Selbit hired ambulances to drive around London and advertise his show.
But there was another social phenomenon that buoyed the illusion’s success. Selbit first performed the trick just three years after female British property owners over the age of 30 secured the right to vote. The UK’s suffragettes did not win the vote easily. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 was passed after years of tireless, sometimes militant campaigning by feminist activists. And in 1921, Selbit, ever the master showman, invited one of the movement’s most controversial leaders to be his professional victim.
Christabel Pankhurst was the eldest daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, with whom Christabel and her sister Sylvia founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Sylvia favored a more measured approach to women’s suffrage, but Christabel had no patience for drawn-out political maneuvering. She was jailed for the first time in 1905 after she interrupted a Liberal Party meeting to deliver an impassioned speech about women’s suffrage. Her rough treatment by the police—not to mention her fiery response, which included spitting on two officers and allegedly assaulting one of them—was widely covered by the press, and from that point on Christabel favored militant activism.
She was a polarizing figure, and the cause of much handwringing in early 20th century England. There was even an optical toy called “Elusive Christabel,” produced in 1912, that satirized the police’s inability to find the activist when she was wanted on conspiracy charges. So when Christabel placed ads in newspapers seeking “non-personal employment” and “remunerative, non-political work” just a few days after Selbit debuted his trick in 1921, the illusionist must have seen a golden opportunity to exploit the public’s anxieties about the controversial women’s rights movement.
According to theater historian and magician Dr. Naomi Paxton, Selbit wrote to Pankhurst and offered her “an engagement to take the leading part in [his] performance.” He would pay her £20 per week—an amount equal to about £1000 in today’s market, or more than $1375—if she accepted the job for the entire engagement. “The work is of a non-political nature,” Selbit wrote, “and in addition to such fees, all traveling expenses would be paid.”
Selbit must have made the local press aware of his offer, because it was widely covered in contemporary newspapers. But Pankhurst did not take the bait. The London Daily News reported her terse reply: “The term at the Finsbury Empire is not the sort of work I am looking for.”
According to Paxton and other historians, Selbit’s insistence that the work was “of a non-political nature” was disingenuous; of course there would have been political overtones to a show that involved men restraining and dismembering one of first-wave feminism’s most vocal advocates. Paxton even compares the imagery of Selbit’s sawing illusion to depictions of women being forcibly fed—a brutal practice authorities used on hunger-striking suffragettes—citing a “ghoulish pleasure of seeing a restrained female body in peril.”
Joanna Ebenstein, founder of Morbid Anatomy, seems to share that assessment. As she told Brooklyn Magazine in 2015,“There’s a real connection between anxiety about the changing power of women and wanting to saw them in half in public, to the glee of hundreds of thousands of people.”
A Legacy In Two Parts
The trick was a sensation, but it wasn’t Selbit who popularized it in America. When the British magician arrived in the States to tour his show in the summer of 1921, he found that several illusionists, including Horace Goldin, were already performing their own versions of the trick.
Goldin was especially aggressive about claiming ownership of the illusion. He insisted that he invented it (most historians doubt Goldin’s assertion) and spent years pursuing legal action against other magicians who performed it. Capitalizing on the popularity of such acts, Selbit went on to develop other illusions involving the distortion or destruction of the female body, including 1922’s “Stretching a Girl” and the following year’s “Crushing a Woman,” though he never achieved widespread fame in the United States.
But his signature trick has gone on to become a staple of modern stage magic—and a classic example of magic’s often-problematic treatment of women. As with so many illusions, it’s the one getting cut in half who does most of the work, often contorting herself to partially squeeze into some sort of hidden chamber, while the one who wields the saw gets the applause. Magicians’ assistants, regardless of their gender, are highly skilled performers who often do much of the proverbial heavy lifting while the magician devotes his energy to making dramatic gestures, yet we rarely even learn their names.
For the record, when Selbit first publicly performed the trick, it was a woman named Betty Barker inside the box.