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Sawing a woman in half is a generic name for a number of stage magic tricks in which a person (traditionally a female assistant) is apparently sawn or divided into two or more pieces.
There remains a debate about the origin of sawing illusions, with some sources saying a magician named Torrini may have performed the first version in front of Pope Pius VII in 1809. However it is more likely that the story is a fiction which has its roots in the writings of the famous French magician Jean Robert-Houdin. In his Memoirs, written in 1858, Robert-Houdin described a sawing illusion performed by a magician named Torrini. Modern magic inventor and historian Jim Steinmeyer has concluded that there was probably no real Torrini and the story was merely a way for Robert-Houdin to play with ideas. It was suggested during a court case in 1922 that the trick can be traced back to ancient Egypt, however this claim has not been substantiated. Wherever the idea originated, until the 1920s it remained just an idea for an effect, rather than a practical application of a method.
It is generally accepted that the first public performance of a sawing illusion was achieved by British magician P.T. Selbit in January 1921 at the Finsbury Park Empire theatre in London. In fact Selbit had previously performed the illusion in December 1920 before a select audience of promoters and theatrical agents at the St. George's Hall, London, to try to persuade one of them to book his new act for public shows. His trick, which he billed as "Sawing Through A Woman", was significantly different from what a modern audience would expect. Selbit's assistant was locked inside a closed wooden crate and could not be seen. The impression that she could not evade the saw was created by the confined space in the box and by ropes tied to her hands, feet, and neck, which were held throughout the illusion by spectators from the audience.
The question of who was the first woman to be sawn in half has received much less publicity than the question of which magician first presented the illusion. According to Jim Steinmeyer the woman who participated in the December 1920 demonstration was Jan Glenrose, who was Selbit's main assistant at that time and who was also the partner of magician Fred Culpitt. In the public performance the role of victim was taken by principal assistant, Betty Barker.
Later in 1921, Horace Goldin, a magician working in the United States, presented the first version which might look familiar to modern audiences. Goldin's assistant lay in a box from which her feet, head and hands protruded. Goldin sawed through the middle of the box, inserting metal sheets to cover the cut ends, and then pushed the two halves a little way apart. This process was then reversed, and the assistant released unharmed. Goldin later developed a sawing illusion that dispensed with boxes and used a large buzzsaw. The success of Selbit and then Goldin led to more and more magicians trying to imitate them with copies or improved versions of sawing illusions. By November 1921 the Thayer magic company in America was advertising a version for sale. A complete prop from Thayer would cost $175 or they would sell plans for $5.