The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History by Peter Lamont
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2005)
Some things are common knowledge: the stuff we know to be true just because, well, we know it. Thus when Peter Lamont took the podium at the 2003 Los Angeles Conference on Magic History to trace the origins of the legendary Indian Rope Trick, the attendees nodded our heads in our collective knowing. Of course we all knew that the trick is a myth, which no one ever saw in the land of its origins but which was reported in stories that certainly went back centuries, and probably millennia, in Indian legend.
But as my friend Todd Robbins, who eats light bulbs for a living, likes to say, "Sometimes common knowledge is just a whole lot of bunk," a fact of which we were collectively reminded when Peter Lamont explained that the Indian Rope Trick was a simple hoax, first reported in The Chicago Daily Tribune in 1890, and concocted by a journalist named John E. Wilkie. Mr. Lamont explained that no accounts of the Indian Rope Trick precede the newspaper story which, four months later, the newspaper publicly admitted was a hoax, "written for the purpose of presenting a theory in an entertaining form." Oh, and by the way, Mr. Wilkie eventually went on to become head of the United States Secret Service but that, as they say, is another story, albeit one about which further details are included in Mr. Lamont's book.
Peter Lamont has a checkered résumé, including credentials as historian, parapsychologist, magician, psychic, and co-author (with Richard Wiseman) of Magic in Theory (reviewed in January 2000 Genii). In many ways The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick is actually a meditation of sorts on the very nature of history, a subject the author addresses initially in his Author's Note, commenting that "There is some confusion about what history it is ... history is not the past, only the historian's interpretation of a very small part of it." He offers that while history should be true, it is never the whole truth. And to put that in perspective, the author throughout makes it clear that he is indeed interpreting the story as he sees it, and yet at the same time fulfilling the important requirements of history by making certain that the story is accurate, thorough, and can be substantiated (assisted by 24 pages of footnotes).
Many will resist abandoning their romantic surety that the legend of the rope trick must date back through the ages, just as it was clear at the history conference that many were disappointed by Mr. Lamont's succinct debunking. The details of the story reveal that certain elements do precede the 1890 newspaper hoax, but by clearly defining what comprises the specific legend of the "Indian rope trick," the author proves the case that the version we regard as the standard is not ancient by any means, and indeed, long had no association with India. And even though it has been repeated as common currency that the trick has existed for centuries, there is no report of an eyewitness account—none—until the twentieth century! This fact will come as a surprise to anyone who has read the standard texts on magic history, such as Sydney Clarke's Annals of Magic, for as Mr. Lamont explains, "For magic historians had gone in search of the roots of the rope trick legend, and had found evidence that it had been around before 1890. Some claimed that in 1875 a huge reward had been offered throughout India for a single performance. Others pointed out that it had been reported by travelers as far back as the fourteenth century. And one man concluded that there was clearly a popular belief in the rope trick at least 3500 years ago. They were not entirely wrong, but they were certainly not entirely right, and their conclusions led to a history in which the Indian rope trick was not Indian and did not use a rope, and which completely ignored John E. Wilkie. How this happened is a curious lesson in the construction of history ..." And thus the author returns us to his theme.
The enlargement and perpetuation of the Indian rope trick legend is a complex story, comprised partially of individuals like John E. Wilkie, and further includes the likes of John Nevil Maskelyne, Madame Blavatasky, Harry Kellar, Erik Jan Hanussen, and one Lieutenant F.W. Holmes, who claimed not only to be an eyewitness to the trick (the first, in fact), but whose photographs of the feat appeared in* The Strand *magazine in 1919. (He later admitted to never having seen the trick.) As for John Wilkie, one of the most notable facts about his connection to the case was not only that had confabulated the tale, but that his contribution would so promptly be forgotten. By the time of his death, "At the end of a remarkable life of secrets, his most unusual secret was safe." But the success of the tale also owes responsibility to larger cultural forces, including British colonialism, notions about India and its purported mysteries, and jealousies of the British magic community, led by the "imperial forces" of The Magic Circle, and miffed at the implication that Indian conjurors might be able to accomplish a feat unknown to British magicians, who in turn might be judged inferior to their Far East competitors. Curiouser and curiouser, one can't help but think, as we follow our guide deeper and deeper down this rabbit hole. And as he tells it, "So it was that a legend born of an American hoax, and reified by a British lie, fooled experts in deception into searching all over India for a secret that was not there."
The author declares that his "history is intended, first and foremost, to be an entertaining story." This it no doubt is, even if at times the author reaches too far for a joke that merely becomes more distracting than amusing, and occasionally undercuts the seriousness of his task. At times his unrestrained biases run amuck, as with a dismissive and rather nasty characterization of John Nevil Maskelyne; even the spirit medium Daniel Dunglas Home is dealt with more fairly, perhaps because the author is at work on a Home biography planned for release next year.
In his conclusions, Mr. Lamont observes that "The rise of the Indian rope trick is a victory of imagination over reality." And further, that "The legend of the rope trick was born in the West, and was fed not by the Oriental imagination, but by how the West imagined the Orient. In a modern West that had disenchanted itself in the name of science and progress, a magical East was required to satisfy the deeper human need for wonder. The West needed the Indian rope trick, and perhaps it still does. After all, the image of the mystic East is still with us, and as long as the human imagination is capable of transforming the mundane into something more wonderful, the world will continue to be enchanted, and legends will never die."