BUILDING A FORTEAN LIBRARY
32. NO GODDAMN’ CAT, NO GODDAMN’ CRADLE
The Indian Rope Trick THE HIEROPHANT’S APPRENTICE
We draw our title from Kurt Vonnegut, whose protagonist in his classic Cat’s Cradle was eternally incensed at the lack of cradle and absence of cat in the children’s trick, deficiencies that coloured his whole outlook upon life. You may feel the same way after reading our selected book here – or even this entry, since it’s full of plot spoilers – though we could wish for a kinder fate. On the other hand, you may feel a certain glow of satisfaction at discovering how rumour colours memory and combines with cultural conceptions to produce a legend. After all, is not forteana an accumulation of legends? And might not the dissection of one legend (replete, as it happens, with the most upright and unimpeachable eye-witnesses) shed some light on the nature of other fortean staples and why we nurse them even without wholly embracing them?
Peter Lamont’s point of entry into the cat’s-cradle world of the Indian Rope Trick is Max Weber’s notion that the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and science made a magical, or enchanted, world view no longer tenable. It is arguable that Weber’s ‘disenchantment’ was largely the property of the respectableVictorian middle classes rather than of the Great Unwashed, but its adoption as the only adequate account of the way things are is demonstrable from the history of education alone, and to upright rationalists was demonstrated emphatically by the extraordinary successes ofVictorian science, industry, and engineering. Most of which was British, although the occasional Eiffel tower, Minot’s Ledge lighthouse and Panama Canal had to be conceded to Johnny Foreigner. All of which proved to minds of such a cast that British imperialism was a Good Thing, bringing progress of various kinds to backward peoples. The narrow presumption of cultural superiority easily slid into a yet narrower presumption of racial superiority.
So, when word of the Indian Rope Trick got about in the 1890s, Western magicians ( viz. stage conjurers) were incensed on two grounds. First, it was unacceptable that Indian ‘jugglers’, as Indian magicians were always known, could outwit their Western counterparts by producing a trick that no one could figure out how to reproduce precisely; and second, the fallback – that the Indians were using some occult or paranormal means to astonish their audiences – was, if anything, even less acceptable to staunchly rational Western illusionists. After all, India was the jewel inVictoria’s imperial crown: it was ours, and such things were all-but illegal within the Empire. At the same time, the Rope Trick appealed enormously to the Western imagination, and not just that of the Great Unwashed. While officially logical and ‘scientific’, European sensibilities still hankered for wonder and mystery, and found it not surprisingly in the distant, unseen Inscrutable Orient, alias the Mysterious East. At home, both nobility and commoners had to be content with manifestations in séance rooms, psychical research, ghost stories, the ramblings of Madame Blavatsky, and other absurdities that exposed the fragility of the disenchanted world. A spot of real magic emanating from ‘our’ India was entirely acceptable, maybe even patriotic, and eagerly embraced.
Magicians had a double-pronged strategy to deal with the conundrum. First, to find reliable witnesses to the Trick, to establish its bona fides. Next, to discover how the Trick was done, and reproduce it on the London, Paris or New York stage. And these two achievements would demonstrate the ascendancy of the Western mind or, to be crude about it, keep the natives in their place. Part of the problem however was that as time went by, the Trick changed, according to accounts received. In essence, the earliest version is as follows. A juggler throws a rope into the air, so high that the end sails out of sight. Then a small boy climbs the now-rigid rope, and he too vanishes. The rope falls to the ground. No sign of the boy, but he suddenly reappears on the ground. Much applause, &c. By the 1930s the Trick had elaborated, due to various confusions and fruitless, frantic hunts for its allegedly ancient origins. In the evolved version: once the boy is out of sight, the juggler grabs a scimitar and follows him up the rope, also to disappear. Shortly thereafter, the limbs, head and trunk of the wee lad bounce on the ground, to gasps of horror, collapse of stout party, &c. The magician reappears, whether out of thin air upon the ground or by shimmying down; the body parts are thrown in a basket, which is closed and then re-opened, whereupon the boy, now happy, smiling, and reassembled, skips out and about. Stout party is presumably resurrected. Accounts seem to be silent about what happens to the rope; at any rate Dr Lamont doesn’t tell us.
In the four decades and more after the Trick was first described in the West, numerous hardy souls had travelled to India and well beyond in the hope of seeing such a performance. Not only did they fail uniformly in this; they could find no one who had even heard of the Trick, least of all jugglers and fakirs, until the 1930s. This despite various rewards being offered locally for information about the Trick – although people who’d been out East (and seen a thing or two) drily pointed out that the average sadhu, fakir or juggler didn’t read the Times of India, or perhaps even read at all. At least one of these legendary rewards – an astonishing £10,000 – had never been offered. This was allegedly put up in 1875 to secure a performance for the visiting Prince of Wales, whose Progress to India cost £60,000, but no mention of this reward is to be found in the royal accounts or the Viceroy’s official diary. This may be explained by the Trick’s being unknown in Britain until the 1890s.
Those most interested in squashing the heresy of super-smart, or occult, Indian jugglery, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and the Magic Circle, were faced with further exasperations. The latter did put up a 500-guinea reward for anyone who could perform the Trick, only to be met by such persons as “His Excellency Dr Sir Alexander Cannon, KCGB, MD, D.Sc, Ph.D, D.Litt., DPM, MA [twice] … FRSA, FRSM, FRGS, FACP, FRSTM…”, who said he lived in the fourth dimension, and would require not 500 guineas but £50,000 to fill the Royal Albert Hall with “a shipload of sand” and to heat that mighty chamber to tropical temperature; he would also supply an appropriate yogi for the performance. Strangely, the Occult Committee of the Magic Circle did no more than thank Dr Cannon for his attendance. Various stage magicians – Dr Lamont provides many brilliant cameo portraits of them – created various feeble versions of the Trick, but still no one could do it in the open air. Possibly more vexing was the emergence over the years of people who claimed to have seen the Trick themselves, and yet more who had had an account of it from a friend or a friend of a friend. These stories tended to fall apart upon interrogation, although that didn’t silence the ‘eyewitnesses’ (it never does).
At various points, photographs of the Trick being performed were published, and these were either admitted, or duly revealed, to be hoaxes or, more accurately, faked. And sundry implausible ‘revelations’ as to how the Trick was performed were trundled out from time to time. A favourite went thus: two stalwarts of the military or the professions saw the Trick performed, and one of them took photographs at each stage. When the photographs were developed, they showed nothing more than the juggler basking in the sun. Yet both men had seen it all. How could this be? Mass hypnosis, was the popular answer. While all expert opinion pronounced this to be impossible, the ‘explanation’ was still doing the rounds in print decades later and stuck in the folk memory until the 1950s at least. Christian missionaries denounced the Trick as the work of the Devil, which at best was only half an explanation. Others, less concerned with hellfire, suggested the ‘rope’ was actually a jointed bamboo pole, carefully unfolded as the infant ascended. Another suggested that it was rams’ vertebræ covered with sailing cord: twist it, and the bones would lock together. Then there were the smoke-but-no-mirrors accounts, which had the juggler misdirect the audience by setting an end of the rope on fire and thrusting it into his mouth, while assistants in nearby houses hauled the other end (attached to a ‘slender line’) into the sky; the whole obscured by yet more smoke. And then: “Amid much noise, and a great deal of smoke, a second heavy rope is lowered and attached with a metal catch to the first rope, which is hauled up, along with the wailing fakir, by his assistants on top of the nearby roof.” As Dr Lamont remarks, this elucidation proceeded from “an imagination unrestricted by any practical knowledge of conjuring”. Another smoky account had the braziers “burning mysterious compounds”, and these “cunning preparations” might contain “brainstealers”, from which it may be inferred a version of the mass-hypnosis explanation was, so to speak, clouding the air.
None other than John Keel claimed to have been given the secret of the Trick in 1955, by an old man whom he met on the top of a hill, and whose name was Vadaramakrishna. Instead of thin ropes operated by assistants on the top of buildings, this version had thin ropes crisscrossing a valley and anchored on the tops of nearby hills. The performance was always held at dusk, with lanterns on the ground, thus obscuring what happened at the top of the rope. The boy’s dismembered parts (for this was the full-blown Trick) were those of a previously-butchered large monkey. The boy hid in the juggler’s baggy clothes for the return journey to the ground and was there presented miraculously alive and in rude health. How the monkey parts were hidden or disposed of, we’re not told. Keel was rash enough to try to demonstrate the method, although
sans monkey and boy, in front of some 50 journalists, but honest and self-deprecating enough to describe how a monsoon arrived to turn his show into an utter shambles. So it goes, as Vonnegut would have said.
After all these failures, faked photos, and phoney stories, where, we may ask, did the Indian Rope Trick come from? Was it ever in fact performed? Similar kinds of trick have been reported down the ages, and some of these accounts may well have informed the original description – which appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune in August 1890, written uncredited by one John E Wilkie, who later, as it happens, became the head of the US Secret Service. The tale, which credited the Trick to mass hypnosis, spread across America and throughout Europe, and apparently stirred some controversy, for eventually a professor and advocate of the hypnotic tendency demanded that the Tribune provide “an assurance of the truth”. The paper was obliged to admit the story was a hoax, printing the retraction in December 1890. Shortly thereafter the editor of the People’s Friend, Andrew Stewart, had a signed confession from Wilkie. But by then the legend had legs of its own, and kept on running, and growing new legs too. Wilkie’s name was forgotten in all the excitement, along with the Tribune’s withdrawal of the story.
And so it goes, too, with legends. Dr Lamont’s book is an object lesson in discerning how such fables arise and grow and refuse to die. It is also full of sly humour, and nuggets of curious information, such as who invented the penny-in-a-slot lock for public lavatories. No fortean library should be without it.
“IF THERE’S A BOOK THAT YOU WANT TO READ, BUT IT HASN’T BEEN WRITTEN YET, THEN YOU MUST WRITE IT.” Toni Morrison