From Abracadabra to Zombies
Indian rope trick
In a nutshell: The Indian rope trick is a great magic trick where a magician throws a rope into the air and the rope gets stiff and rises upward. A boy then climbs the rope and maybe disappears into the clouds. Then maybe his body parts come falling from the sky. Then maybe he's put back together by the magician. Or maybe not.
The story of the Indian rope trick begins in China. A storyteller named P'u Sung-ling (1640-1715) wrote a story called "Theft of a Peach." In the story, a man at a spring festival says that "he could invert the order of nature," meaning he could do a trick that went against the natural order of things. The man is then asked to produce some peaches, even though it was still winter. The man says that he guesses there are some peaches "in heaven in the royal Mother's garden." Anyone who eats one of these peaches will live forever. To get to heaven, the man takes a rope from a box and throws one end of it high into the air. The rope stays in the air and the man pushes it upward until it disappears in the clouds. He sends his son up the rope to fetch the peaches. The son climbs "like a spider" up the rope and "in a few moments he is out of sight in the clouds." Soon "a peach as large as a basin" falls from the sky. Then down comes the rope. A minute later the boy's head lands on the ground. "After that, his arms, and legs, and body, all come down in like manner...." The father gathers up the body parts and puts them in his box. After he collects money for funeral expenses, the man raps on his box and says "Pa-pa'rh! why don't you come out and thank the gentlemen?" The boy jumps out of the box and bows.
P'u tells his story as if he had seen the whole thing as a little boy. He also says that he'd heard that the trick could be done "by the White Lily sect," a secret society in China dating back several hundred years to the fourteenth century. It's possible that P'u knew about the fourteenth century Arab, Ibn Batuta (1307-1377), who told a story about Chinese jugglers who "produced a chain fifty cubits in length, and in my presence threw one end of it towards the sky, where it remained, as if fastened to something in the air." The jugglers then had a dog, a hog, a panther, a lion, and a tiger run up the chain and disappear into thin air. The jugglers then took down the chain and put it in a bag, leaving the crowd wondering what happened to the animals.
In 1890, the Chicago Tribune newspaper ran a story that they thought was so silly that nobody would believe it. But the story might grab the attention of many people and help the Tribune sell more newspapers. The author of the story was Fred S. Ellmore. (Fred sell more, get it?) The story told the tale that we now call the Indian rope trick. The Tribune admitted the hoax four months after printing the story. What shocked the folks at the Tribune was that many people believed it was a true story. Here is a summary of their version of the story:
A traveling magician in India did this in front of thousands of people. He threw a rope to the sky, but the rope did not fall back to the ground. Instead it rose until the top of it disappeared into thin air. A young boy then climbed the rope into the clouds until he disappeared into thin air. The magician then pulled out a knife and climbed the rope until he, too, disappeared into thin air. Body parts fell from the sky onto the ground and into a basket next to the base of the rope. The magician then slid down the rope and emptied the basket, and threw a cloth over the scattered body parts. Then the boy jumped out of the basket with all his parts in the right places.
[Note: this film has been removed by You Tube. There is another, less interesting one but still pretty good now available. Click here.] In 1999, an Indian magician named Isha Muddin did a version of the Indian rope trick. Nobody got hurt. Remember: what you are seeing below is a film and films can be edited to make it look like magical things are happening when they aren't.