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How do magicians pull a rabbit out of a hat?

How 5 Classic magic tricks work

As far back as the first millennium BCE, ancient Mesopotamians relied on the concept of magic as a guiding principle. They used magic in rituals to ward off evil demons, and as an explanation for perplexing natural phenomena. Over many millennia, as our scientific understanding of the world advanced, “magic” evolved into a form of entertainment, popularized by legendary sleight-of-hand artists and illusionists such as Harry Houdini. Today, your typical magic show leaves the audience feeling awe-inspired and wondering how the tricks are done. Well, wonder no more — this is how five classic magic tricks actually work.

Sawing a person in half

It’s impossible to know for certain when a magician first sawed their assistant in half, but one of the earliest recorded instances of the trick was performed by British magician and inventor P.T. Selbit in London in 1920. He debuted the trick to the shock of onlookers, as he seemingly sawed a woman in a box in half and then put her back together, allowing her to leave the box unharmed. In the summer of 1921, Selbit toured the trick throughout the United States, where he encountered pushback from other illusionists claiming to have invented the trick. 

While there are several variations of this illusion, depending on the magician’s personal style, one of the most common methods involves two assistants — one that the audience sees and another hidden inside the box. The trick begins by unveiling a long, thin box, with an assistant already hidden inside, tucked away and contorted at the end where the other person’s feet will be. Then the magician opens the box and invites the other assistant to climb inside and lay down. Once they do, they also contort themselves in a way that leaves an empty middle section to cut through. At this point the magician closes the box, and one assistant pops their head out while the hidden assistant pops their feet out.

With the two safely separated, the magician takes a saw and cuts through the middle of the box, seemingly slicing their assistant in half. The magician then separates the halves of the box while the head and feet continue to move for added effect.

To end the trick, the magician wheels the boxes back together, says a few magic words, opens the lid, and allows one assistant to climb out unscathed while the other pulls their feet back in and remains hidden inside the box.

Pulling a rabbit out of a hat

The origins of this iconic trick are also murky. One theory points to a Swiss magician in the late 1800s named Louis Apollinaire Christien Emmanuel Comte, known as the “King’s Conjurer.” He performed magic in the courts of three kings of France: Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe. The rabbit trick was also popularized by Scottish magician John Henry Anderson, who performed the illusion in theatrical spectacles in the 19th century.

The trick is simple in concept, but requires tremendous skill nonetheless, especially when working with an unpredictable live animal. The simplest way to perform the illusion is with a top hat and table, both of which contain a secret hidden compartment that the magician can reach through. A rabbit is hidden inside a container and placed underneath the table, behind a tablecloth, before the act begins.

To perform the trick, the magician simply places the top hat on the table with the open side facing upward, reaches through both secret compartments, and “magically” pulls out his hand holding a live rabbit.

Performers who are more talented with sleight of hand can also complete this without a gimmicked (altered) top hat or surface. This allows the audience to inspect the hat beforehand to make sure it’s authentic. Magicians performing the trick this way will  secretly hide a rabbit on their person, either in their pocket or up their sleeve. Then in the blink of an eye, they tip the hat toward themselves, slide the rabbit in, and pull it out for all to see

Linking rings

In this trick, a magician manages to link multiple metal rings together, despite each individual ring being seemingly impenetrable. Some claim that the trick originated in ancient China, though those claims lack hard evidence. Among the earliest confirmed performers of the trick are an 18th-century French magician known as Philippe, as well as a Chinese magician named Ching Ling Foo who toured America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This trick is usually done with four rings, three of which are gimmicked. One ring is your standard metal ring, one has a small gap that’s imperceptible to the audience, and the remaining two rings are actually pre-interlocked.

Using a series of quick sleight of hand motions, the magician takes all four rings in their hand and counts them out in front of the audience, making sure to obscure the fact that any are gimmicked or already linked together. Then they take one of the loose rings and tap it against the interlocked rings several times. In a quick motion, they drop one of the interlocked rings so that it hangs, making it appear like they just linked those two rings together.

Next, they take the ring with the hidden gap in it and forcefully link it with the two rings that were already interlocked, thus linking three rings together.

Lastly, they take the normal ring and tap it against the ring with a gap in it before locking those rings together in one quick and fluid motion. At that point, all of the rings are locked together.

Cups and balls

Many formative musicians considered the cups and balls trick to be one of the most basic yet essential components of any magic routine. In his book Modern Magic, Professor Hoffman (the pseudonym of English author Angelo John Lewis) called the trick “the groundwork of all legerdemain,” a word referring to the act of skillfully using one’s hands. 

Essentially, this illusion makes it appear as if balls are “magically” passing through solid cups onto the table. The trick requires three cups and four balls; three balls are visible to the audience and one remains hidden the entire time. It doesn’t matter what kind of cups or balls are used, though sleek metal cups and colorful balls are often preferred by professional magicians for their visual appeal. 

The magician begins the trick by placing three balls on the table, equally spaced apart, as well as a stack of all three cups with the open ends facing upward. What the audience doesn’t know is that the secret fourth ball is hidden between the top and middle cups.

The performer then takes the cups and places one behind each ball. They place the first cup behind the leftmost ball, then the middle cup — which contains the hidden ball — behind the middle ball. When doing this, the magician brings the open end toward their torso and keeps it hidden so that the audience doesn’t see that there’s a ball inside. Finally, they place the last cup behind the rightmost ball.

Once the cups are placed, they take one of the balls atop the middle cup (which has a secret ball underneath) and stack the other cups on top. They snap their fingers, lift the cups, and reveal the hidden ball as if it had passed through the cup.

They then repeat this exact process another time to reveal two balls underneath, and a final time to reveal three balls underneath. All the while, a single ball always stays hidden within the stack of cups.

Metamorphosis

Harry Houdini achieved global popularity thanks in no small part to one of the most popular tricks in his routine, Metamorphosis, which he performed with his wife Bess. However, the trick was actually created by English magician John Nevil Maskelyne, who built a special trunk in the mid-1800s to perform it. The trick involves a magician placing their restrained assistant inside the box and then standing on top of the box. Two other assistants then pull up a cloth to obscure the box, and the magician and assistant magically swap places. But how is it done?

First, a solid wooden crate is wheeled out on stage, and the magician bangs on all of the sides to show the audience it’s real and durable. The magician presents their assistant, asks the assistant to climb inside a large bag, and securely ties the bag at the top.

The bagged assistant is then placed inside the crate and the lid is placed on top. The entire box is finally secured with ropes or chains with the assistant inside.

While this happens, the assistant secretly opens a hidden zipper at the bottom end of the bag, allowing them to escape inside the box. They then pull on the rope through a secret hole in the bottom of the box, which makes the visible rope taut and makes it appear as if the box is securely fastened, even though there’s actually quite a bit of slack on the rope.

As the magician climbs atop the crate, a curtain is raised up by other assistants to shield the entire scene. While the curtain is raised, the magician climbs off the box, the lid is slid open, the freed assistant climbs out, the magician climbs in, and the lid is once again placed on top of the box.

With the two having swapped places, the curtain is dropped as the assistant dances about the stage, distracting the audience. While this happens, the magician zips themselves into the bag in the box, which is then opened by the two other assistants. They untie the bag, revealing the magician inside.

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