Throughout history all arts, all human acts, have had their ups and downs. Painting, music, literature… all arts evolved and reached new heights no one would have imagined before thanks to the genius of people who devoted their lives to taking something that already existed, revolutionize it and set it on a new path. In the art of magic, one of these people was, without a doubt, Jean Eugène Robert Houdin, considered the father of modern magic.
Jean Eugène was born in Blois, France, on the 6th of December 1805, son of one of the best clockmakers of Blois, Prosper Robert, and of Marie-Catherine Guillon, who died when our protagonist (Robert Houdin) was still a child. It is known that Jean Eugène completed higher education in the University of Orleans and, as opposed to what most people may think, magic was not a part of his childhood. Actually, it was the opposite; Jean Eugène began earning a living by making clocks, following the family’s tradition. In fact, he obtained the name by which he ended up being known in history, Robert Houdin, as the result of his getting married to a clockmaker’s daughter, Cecile Eglastine Houdin.
Magic entered Jean Eugène’s life in the most unexpected way. In the mid 1820s, young Jean Eugène had been saving money to buy a two-volume clockmaking treatise written by Ferdinand Berthoud, however, the seller made a mistake when choosing the volumes from the shelf. Thus, when he got home, the young clockmaker realized that what he had in front of him were two magic books called Scientific Amusements. This casual fact marked a turning point, not only in Jean Eugène’s life, but in the whole history of magic from his lifetime until today.
The young clockmaker was delighted with the mistake and showed a great interest in magic, but he was disappointed when seeing that most books those days about magic only uncovered the secrets but didn’t teach the correct way to do the effects. That’s why Jean Eugène started taking magic lessons taught by a local amateur called Mous, who taught him the rudiments of sleight of hands and initiated him into the mysteries of the cups and balls. From then onwards Jean Eugène started practicing incessantly to acquire the necessary skills.
It was a few years later, after moving to Paris to work in his father-in-law’s clock shop, when he accidentally found a shop on Richeliu Street owned by Père Roujol where they used to sell magic items. There he met professional magicians, as well as amateurs, including the aristocratic Jules de Rovère, who would coin the term prestidigitation. In that establishment Robert Houdin learned the mechanics of the magic of that era, and started improving them. His skills in clockmaking helped him to create numerous mechanical and automatic illusions. The most famous were an automaton which performed the cups and balls effect and another one that could draw and write. The last one was even shown to Louis Philippe I by himself.
In October 1843 his beloved wife died at the age of thirty-two years old, after a lengthy illness. They had had eight children, but only three had survived. In order to be able to provide a home for them, Robert Houdin saw himself obliged to marry again, this time to François Marguerite Olympe Braconnier, a woman who at age 38 was ten years younger than he.
When he turned 40 years old, Robert Houdin was able to make his dream come true -to create his own theatre and perform his illusionism shows there. He obtained a 15,000-franc loan that allowed him to rent a series of rooms that had been owned by Cardinal Richelieu, and transformed them into a theatre which could seat two hundred spectators. No critic attended his debut on the 3rd of July 1845. In his memoirs, Robert Houdin wrote that he wasn’t satisfied with his first performance, as he was a victim of stage fright and acted hurriedly and in a monotonous way. This bad first impression almost made him leave magic and close the theatre. However, offended by an affront from one of his friends about his first show, his pride was wounded and he started doing more performances, in which he polished his stage showmanship and, in the process, his show and as a result, gained confidence very quickly. Every performance was making him a better magician and his show started to get good reviews.
One of the greatest contributions by Robert Houdin to magic was to transform it into a stage art. Magicians of the era used to perform in markets and fairs and used to dress in extravagant costumes. Robert Houdin tried to break with this by creating his smart and distinguished theatre, attracting members
of the upper class to his shows. He dressed smartly himself, just like he did in public. His illusions, such as The Ethereal Suspension, Second Sight, The Light and Heavy Box andThe Marvelous Orange Tree, were instrumental in his becoming an essential part of the history of magic. Among his many exploits was his helping to avoid a potential revolt by the Arabs in Algeria in 1856. The illusionist was called to show the locals that French magic was superior to that of the Arab conjurers. Robert Houdin confirmed that he could steal the strongest man’s strength; hence he could lift a wooden box that no other Arab could lift. He also asked an Arab to shoot him a marked bullet. The illusionist, to everyone’s amazement, caught the bullet mid-air with his teeth. Such effects discouraged the rebels and propelled Robert Houdin to the peak of his career.
At the end of his life, Robert Houdin moved to a farm near his native Blois, where he applied his knowledge of mechanics to the creation of automatic systems for the feeding of animals or for opening and closing doors in the same way. He died of pneumonia when he was 65, on the 13th of June of 1871. His legacy consisted of several magic books -Memoirs, The Secrets of a prestidigitator (in two volumes, 1858) or Secrets and Revelations (1868). The father of modern magic also left us his theatre, which kept offering magic shows until 1920. Almost 100 years later, his life keeps inspiring many people and, of course, magicians all around the world.