Fortean Times - - Contents - Peter La­mont, The Rise of the In­dian Rope Trick: A Bi­og­ra­phy of a Leg­end, Lit­tle, Brown, 2004.


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.


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