Indian rope trick

Advertisement for a reproduction of the trick by stage magician Howard Thurston.

The Indian rope trick is a magic trick said to have been performed in and around India during the 19th century. Sometimes described as "the world’s greatest illusion", it reputedly involved a magician, a length of rope, and one or more boy assistants.

In the 1990s the trick was said by some historians to be a hoax perpetrated in 1890 by John Wilkie of the Chicago Tribune newspaper.[1] Peter Lamont has argued that there are no accurate references to the trick predating 1890, and later stage magic performances of the trick were inspired by Wilkie's account.[2]

There are old accounts from the 9th century (by Adi Shankara), the 14th century (by Ibn Battuta), and the 17th century (by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir), of versions of the trick, but this is denied by Lamont as the accounts described are different from the "classic" Indian rope trick.[3]

The trick

There are three variants of the trick, which differ in the degree of theatricality displayed by the magician and his helper:

  • In the simplest version, a long piece of rope is left in a basket and placed in an open field, usually by a fakir. The rope levitates, with no external support. A boy assistant, a jamoora, climbs the rope and then descends.
  • A more elaborate version has the magician (or his assistant) disappearing after reaching the top of the rope, then reappearing at ground level.
  • The "classic" version was much more detailed: the rope seems to rise high into the sky, disappearing from view. The boy climbs the rope and is lost to view. The magician calls to the boy, and feigns anger upon receiving no response. The magician arms himself with a knife or sword, climbs the rope, and vanishes as well. An argument is heard, and then human limbs fall, presumably cut from the assistant's body by the magician. When all the parts of the body, including the torso, land on the ground, the magician climbs down the rope. He collects the limbs and puts them in a basket or covers them with a cape or blanket. The boy reappears, uninjured.

Robert Elliot of the London Magic Circle, when offering a substantial reward in the 1930s for an outdoor performance, found it necessary to define the trick. He demanded that "the rope must be thrown into the air and defy the force of gravity, while someone climbs it and disappears."[4]