The Indian rope trick is stage magic 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 western magicians to be a hoax perpetrated in 1890 by John Elbert Wilkie of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. It was claimed there were no known references to the trick predating 1890, and later stage magic performances of the trick were inspired by Wilkie's account. But this claim redefines what the Indian rope trick is. For many decades, previous commentators had accepted that accounts from the 9th century (by Adi Shankara), the 14th century (Ibn Battuta), and the 17th century (Mughal Emperor Jahangir), were versions of the trick, but this was now being denied. See explanation below.
Although diverse accounts of the trick have appeared in print it remains essentially the same. There are three basic variants, which differ in the degree of theatricality displayed by the magician and his helper:
- In the simplest version, a long piece of rope would be left in a basket and placed in an open field, usually by a fakir. The rope would levitate, with no external support. His boy assistant, a jamoora, would climb the rope and then descend.
- A more elaborate version would find the magician (or his assistant) disappearing after reaching the top of the rope, then reappearing at ground level.
- The "classic" version, however, was much more detailed: the rope would seem to rise high into the skies, disappearing from view. The boy would climb the rope and be lost to view. The magician would call back his boy assistant, and, on getting no response, become furious. The magician would then arm himself with a knife or sword, climb the rope, and vanish as well. An argument would be heard, and then limbs would start falling, presumably cut from the assistant by the magician. When all the parts of the body, including the torso, landed on the ground, the magician would climb down the rope. He would collect the limbs and put them in a basket, or collect the limbs in one place and cover them with a cape or blanket. Soon the boy would appear, restored.
Lt Col 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."
There are various explanations of the trick as stage magic. The trick was performed between two trees or similarly placed objects, and at night. A strong, narrow wire was placed between the trees, and when the rope was thrown above, it got hooked up with the string. This allowed the boy to climb, though not to vanish or be dismembered.
However, in his book on the topic, Peter Lamont claimed the story of the trick resulted from a hoax created by John Elbert Wilkie while working at the Chicago Tribune. Under the name "Fred S. Ellmore" ("Fred Sell More") Wilkie wrote of the trick in 1890, gaining the Tribune wide publicity. About four months later, the Tribune printed a retraction and proclaimed the story a hoax. However, the retraction received little attention, and in the following years many claimed to remember having seen the trick as far back as the 1850s. According to Lamont, none of these stories proved credible, but with every repetition the story became more ingrained and was really only a myth.
Lamont also claimed that no mention appears in writings before the 1890 article. He argued that Ibn Battuta did report a magic trick with a thong, and Jahangir with a chain, not a rope, and the tricks they described are different from the "classic" Indian rope trick. He said that the descriptions of the trick in Yule's editions (1870s) of Marco Polo's book are not in the body of the work, but in a footnote by Yule, and only refer to these non-classic accounts.
Lamont's popular but controversial work dismissed important accounts such as Shankara's and Melton's as irrelevant to his theme. This is because his book is not really about the trick itself, but about what he called the 20th century legend of it being Indian, the fame of the trick, which peaked in the 1930s. It is this fame, chapter 8 of his book claimed, which originated from Wilkie's hoax.
Penn & Teller followed Lamont's work and examined the trick while filming their three-part CBC mini-series, Penn & Teller's Magic and Mystery Tour. The tour travelled the world investigating historical tricks, and while in India they travelled to Agra where they recreated the trick.
Penn and Teller invited two British tourists shopping nearby to see what they claimed was a fakir performing the trick. As they walked back, an assistant ran up and claimed the fakir was in the midst of the trick, so they rushed the rest of the way so they wouldn't miss it. As the witnesses neared the room they dropped a thick rope from a balcony. The witnesses saw what they thought was the end of the trick, the rope falling as if it had been in mid-air seconds before. A sheet was then removed from a boy with fake blood at his neck and shoulders, hinting that his limbs and head had been reattached to his torso. According to their account, the rumour that a British couple had witnessed the trick was heard a few weeks later in England.