Split in Two: Magicians Celebrate 100 Years of Sawing in Two | Magic

One hundred years ago the next weekend, an English magician named Percy Thomas Tibbles literally and painstakingly sawed through a sealed wooden box that contained a woman.

It was a sensation and has since become one of the most well-known magic tricks, performed with all sorts of tools and in varying degrees of blood – always involving someone being cut in half and almost always with them miraculously reassembled.

On Sunday January 17, the magic circle will mark the centenary of sawing someone in half, an illusion as iconic, said its chairman Noel Britten, 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 were perhaps not the noblest. Suffrage was the hot topic of her day, so was it “for every person who thought it was good for women to get the vote, there were other people who thought it was good for a woman to be put in a box and sawn in half?”

Magician PT Selbit performing the sawing trick. Photography: Jasper Maskelyne/ David McKay Company

The illusion was invented by Tibbles, who naturally went by the stage name PT Selbitand was first performed at Finsbury Park Empire in North London on January 17, 1921.

Since then, it has been interpreted by countless magicians in different ways. “It’s a very simple and 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 sharpness about it and has huge scope for development and reinvention.”

Houstoun said Selbit’s original illusion did not have the woman’s head and feet sticking out of the box, which would become tradition. The sawing was also real and slow. “It would have been quite a long process… I suspect the attention span 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 program featuring the Grand Sorcar cutting a young woman in half with a circular saw.

Because the show was live and out of time, presenter Richard Dimbleby stepped in to say goodbye before the woman came back to life. “The switchboard was packed with people thinking they had just witnessed a murder,” Britten said.

Simon Drake in Secret Cabaret.
Simon Drake in Secret Cabaret. Photo: Channel 4

Houston said one of the most memorable versions for him was that of Simon Drake on the 1990s late night Channel 4 show Secret Cabaret. This involved medical personnel sawing Drake from his crotch down 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.

American magician David Copperfield will give a tour of his museum of magic in Las Vegas and talk about his interpretation, using a huge “death saw” that cut through him after he failed to escape from the table.

Naomi Paxton, academic and interpreter and Head of Equality and Diversity of the Cerclewill explore the links of illusion to suffrage and reveal how Selbit boldly invited militant suffragette Christabel Pankhurst to be part of his act by being the sawn-in-two woman.

It came after Pankhurst had advertised his services in a newspaper for “paying, apolitical work” and while it was Selbit’s entrepreneurship to offer, it was also “grossly disrespectful”, Paxton said. Unsurprisingly, she said no.

The evening will also see Debbie McGee, the late Paul Daniels’ partner on stage and in life, recount her experiences of being regularly dismembered. “Debbie has been sliced, diced, cremated, crushed, split and decapitated more than most, so she has a great story to tell,” Britten said.

Details on how to watch the event streamed on Facebook will be on the Magic Circle Facebook Page Unlocked.

Brian L. Hartfield