Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) was a famed magician and illusionist in Paris.
One of his tricks was called the Ethereal Suspension. A big part of the illusion relied on the use of scent. Robert-Houdin claimed inhaling highly concentrated ether (which was frequently used as anesthesia but also was trendy as a recreational drug) would temporarily make a subject lighter than air.
In the act, Robert-Houdin’s youngest son would come on stage and stand on a stool placed there. The magician placed a cane under each of son’s arms, then he held an empty vial of ether under his son’s nose. The audience recognized the sweet odor as it began to permeate the theatre, and Robert-Houdin’s little son would limp. This part of the illusion was done with the help of another son, who would put real ether on a hot shovel while standing off-stage to create the scent.
The next steps are a little difficult to understand (for me, anyway). Here is how it’s captured in the magician’s 1860 memoirs:
“Robert-Houdin took the stool away from his son’s feet, and he just hung limp as a rag. He took away one of the canes, so he was dangling by one arm, and carefully placed his head against his upraised hand. This was startling enough.
“What he did next was stunning. He lifted his boy upright in a horizontal position by his little finger and then let go until he was suspended in mid air. Robert-Houdin stepped away to leave his son in that suspended state, balanced only by his right elbow and no other support. When it was apparent that the drug was wearing off, Robert-Houdin returned his son to his upright position. When he woke up, he seemed no worse for wear.”
Around 1894, American magician and escape artist Ehrich Weiss began using the stage name Harry Houdini in honor of Robert-Houdin. By 1908, Houdini was rethinking that admiration of the French magician.
Houdini is shown here with his book, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, in which he derided Robert-Houdin as someone who took credit for other magician’s tricks. To be fair, I’ll note this isn’t a proven claim. Other people claim Robert-Houdin was the victim of other magicians stealing his material.
Houdini amassed a tremendous library about spiritualism and magic. He also edited and wrote much of a monthly magazine called Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine. His new-found skepticism about Robert-Houdin bothered him a great deal, and a large part of the first issue was dedicated to his realization that his former hero was, in fact, nothing special.
“No doubt all this material regarding Robert Houdin, will cause a great deal of controversy, but let it be known that at one time, years ago, on first reading his “Memoirs,” I firmly believed everything in them, even as if I had been an actual witness of each deed and action.” Houdini cited some respected magicians, saying, “The combined opinion of these men was that Houdin was not original, and that he was only a little above the average entertainer.”
In the introduction to A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini wrote, “During the last thirty years I’ve read every single piece of literature on the subject of Spiritualism I could. I have accumulated one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits…Nothing I ever read concerning the so-called Spiritualistic phenomena impressed me as being genuine.”