Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick

It's the most wondrous of magic tricks every devised not just in India, but anywhere. A performer pulls out a long rope and with a combination of words and gestures coaxes it to climb high into the open sky without any sign of support. The magician then calls upon his young boy of an assistant, who climbs up the rope so high that he vanishes from view. When the boy doesn't return the magician angrily climbs up after the boy and carries the assisant back down with him to a resounding round of applause from the audience.

Quite an amazing trick, to be sure. The trouble is, it never happened.

Not ever.

Peter Lamont's fun but very informative book details the history of this unusual myth: who invented it, who embellished it, and why so many wanted to believe in it so deeply.

By all accounts the first "hard" reference came from a fabricated eye-witness report that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1890. Although the inventive journalist John Elbert Wilke, a man who would strangely become head of the U.S. Secret Service years later, printed a retraction of his original story by way of a letter to the editor a few months later it didn't make any difference. The story had already captured the attention of readers in the
U.S. and Britain to the level that others claimed to have witnessed the trick themselves.

Pulling in a variety of supporters over the years from
famed mystic Madame Blavatsky to contemporary
journalist John Keel of Moth-man fame, the Indian Rope
Trick became a touchstone reference point for anyone
trying to prove the existence of real magic or psychic
powers. Strange and often sometimes frightening stories developed around the swamis and magi who supposedly performed the trick, and the dangers experienced by those who attempted to discover its secrets.

Professional magicians divided into two camps over the issue. The first emcompassed performers who embraced this image of the Indian; they darkened their skin with greasepaint, put turbans on their heads and made wild claims of mystical powers to fill the seats for
their performances. The second camp saw the Indian Rope Trick as an impossibility, and they went out of there way to disprove all claims. Many explanations were offered: magnetism, hidden wires, drugs, and even mass hypnosis. Unforunately, none of these were able to perfectly duplicate the trick. In the early 1900's a bizarre cabal of magicians in London formed to disprove claims of mystic powers, with the rope trick high on their list. The cabal went so far to offer a substantial reward for anyone who could perform it, but no one ever claimed the prize. In the end the story of the Indian Rope Trick begins and ends with man's love of a good yarn and an unending ability to believe in the impossible.

Amidst all the campy historical facts Lamont manages to develop some interesting conclusions. The late 1800's brought us a huge rise in science and a growing disbelief in superstitions and the spiritual side of life. The educated westerner knew things like faeries and goblins didn't exist, but this story of a crazy, impossible trick fulfilled some need to believe in something that can't be understood. Placing it in the faraway land of India, a place westerners had difficulty dicovering anyway, only added a level of mystique. A fascination with the east began that continues to press on us even today. Lamont wisely makes the point that the stories we tell about others say more about us than about the subject matter of the story.


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