The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: the biography of a legend by Peter Lamont

Stairway to heaven or money for old rope?
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The Independent Culture

The Indian rope trick is one of the ultimate magical feats, up there with sawing a woman in half. In fact, it combines the two, since one version has a boy shinning up the rope and vanishing, followed by a man with a sword who cuts him into pieces and chucks down the bits, which reassemble themselves into the living lad. The trick operates at the point where magic meets miracle, dwarfing acts such as starving in a box near Tower Bridge.

In The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick, conjuror and academic Peter Lamont unties the knots in the legend. In the 17th-century Bengali chain trick, a dog, a hog, a panther, a lion and a tiger disappeared into thin air above onlookers' heads. In a later Egyptian variant, a tape provided the stairway to heaven. The sitting-on-air trick involved a hidden metal support.

To rational and scientific 19th-century Britain, the Indian subcontinent was an absurdly fascinating terrain where people believed in paranormal phenomena - or, even more thrillingly, where paranormal phenomena might actually take place. Essex-born conjurers increased their audiences by turning themselves into fake fakirs.

A new strand of the Indian rope trick was woven in 1890, when John E Wilkie of the Chicago Daily Tribune interviewed two Americans who had witnessed a performance at Gaya, 300 miles north-west of Calcutta. One of the men had sketched a fakir throwing a ball of twine in the air so a six-year-old boy could ascend and vanish. But photographs taken by the other American showed a complete absence of string and child: "Mr Fakir had simply hypnotised the entire crowd, but he couldn't hypnotise the camera."

Unlike the non-existent twine, this story took wings, soaring over the US and on to Europe, where it was picked up by the editor of a British weekly, who asked for more details. Wilkie confessed he had made money from old rope. His article about the rope trick being a hoax was itself a hoax. The witnesses did not exist. He apologised for any inconvenience. As usual, the newspapers which repeated the original story had little if any room for a retraction.

This is a highly amusing and engrossing book. Yet in some ways it is rather too intriguing. Lamont declares that the bogus story "launched the greatest legend of the Orient", although the rope trick was known about earlier. He quotes previous references which could have inspired Wilkie's hoax. He also quotes from an Oxford historian, only to reveal that he has made up both quotation and academic.

Most extraordinarily, in a couple of throwaway passages which threw me completely, he seems to describe the rope trick being performed before his very eyes. Maybe Peter Lamont doesn't exist either, which would make the whole yarn even more fascinating.