When you're certain you cannot be fooled, you become easy to fool. Indian street magicians have a repertory of earthy, violent tricks designed for performance outdoors -- very different from polite Victorian parlor and stage magic. So when well-fed British conquerors saw a starving fakir do a trick they couldn't fathom, they reasoned thus: We know the natives are too primitive to fool us; therefore, what we are witnessing must be genuine magic.
This idea of genuine magic in a far-off place filled a void in the West. Physics, biology, geology and archaeology were challenging traditional beliefs, especially religion. Hungering for the unexplainable, but eager to consider themselves enlightened, Americans and Englishmen were turning to spiritualism, which promises ''scientific'' evidence of immortality, while providing satisfying shivers in a darkened seance room. Other new religions, like theosophy, proved their truth by citing the miracles that were supposedly commonplace in India. ''It was from this imagined India, rather than India itself,'' Lamont writes, ''that the legend of the rope trick would emerge.''
Stage magicians, at that time the stars of entertainment, either loved or hated this Orientalism. White conjurors smeared on brown greasepaint to perform under such names as ''The Fakir of Ava, Chief of Staff of Conjurors to His Sublime Greatness the Nanka of Aristaphae!'' Others, in particular John Nevil Maskelyne, the British magician and inventor of the pay toilet, made headlines by railing against fakirs, ''those oily mendicants,'' taking advantage of innocent imperialists.
In 1890 The Chicago Tribune was competing in a cutthroat newspaper market by publishing sensational fiction as fact. The Rope Trick -- as Lamont's detective work reveals -- was one of those fictions. The trick made its debut on August 8, 1890, on the front page of The Tribune's second section. An anonymous, illustrated article told of two Yale graduates, an artist and a photographer, on a visit to India. They saw a street fakir, who took out a ball of gray twine, held the loose end in his teeth and tossed the ball upwards where it unrolled until the other end was out of sight. A small boy, ''about 6 years old,'' then climbed the twine and, when he was 30 or 40 feet in the air, vanished. The artist made a sketch of the event. The photographer took snapshots. When the photos were developed, they showed no twine, no boy, just the fakir sitting on the ground. ''Mr. Fakir had simply hypnotized the entire crowd, but he couldn't hypnotize the camera,'' the writer concluded.
The story's genius is that it allows a reader to wallow in Oriental mystery while maintaining the pose of modernity. Hypnotism was to the Victorians what energy is to the New Age: a catchall explanation for crackpot beliefs. By describing a thrilling, romantic, gravity-defying miracle, then discrediting it as the result of hypnotism -- something equally cryptic, but with a Western, scientific ring -- The Tribune allowed its readers to have their mystery and debunk it, too. Newspapers all over the United States and Britain picked up the item, and it was translated into nearly every European language.
'The Tribune admitted the hoax some four months later, expressing some astonishment that so many people believed it was a true story. After all, they reasoned, the byline was "Fred S. Ellmore." They hadn't reckoned that their audience, many of whom believed in miracles and phrenology and other weird things, wouldn't find this story that hard to accept. The tale, the newspaper confessed, had not been reporting at all, but ''written for the purpose of presenting a theory in an entertaining form. In other words, it was phony. But where the original story had caused an international stir, the retraction attracted little notice.
How did Lamont, a research fellow at Edinburgh University, discover the identity of the story's anonymous author a century later? He found a long-overlooked article in a British weekly, People's Friend, whose editor had written to The Tribune to contact one of the Yale graduates in the newspaper article. In response, the British editor received a personal note from the author: ''I am led to believe,'' the writer admitted, ''that the little story attracted more attention than I dreamed it could, and that many accepted it as perfectly true. I am sorry that anyone should have been deluded.'' The letter was signed, ''sincerely yours, John E. Wilkie.'' It seems fitting that the same John E. Wilkie, then a cub reporter at The Tribune, should later make his mark as a director of the Secret Service renowned for ruthless disinformation and unstoppable self-promotion.
Wilkie's story had remarkable staying power. In 1904, for the first time, a living person claimed to have seen the Rope Trick. A young British gentleman, Sebastian Burchett, reported to the Society for Psychical Research that he recalled having seen the trick a few years earlier. After lengthy cross-examination, the society dismissed his testimony as illustrating ''once more the unreliability of memory.''
But once the possibility of actually seeing the Rope Trick had been established in the press, more people started to ''see'' it. A few months after Burchett's report, an unidentified woman announced that she too had seen the trick, but a much flashier version: after the boy had vanished, ''bits of his apparently mangled remains fell from the sky, first an arm, then a leg, and so on till all his component parts had descended; these the juggler covered with a cloth, mumbled something or other, made a pass or two, and behold! There was the boy smiling and whole before us.'' Sightings reappeared in flurries every few years.
In 1919, The Strand Magazine published a photograph of the miracle in progress with a boy high atop a rope. That was a big hit until the photographer confessed that his picture actually just showed a child balancing on a pole. In 1925, the aptly named Lady Waghorn suddenly remembered witnessing the trick in Madras in 1891, although for 34 years she had somehow thought ''nothing about it.''
Magicians capitalized on the public's belief in the trick. Horace Goldin bragged about risking his life in India to wrest the secret from a fakir, but Goldin later admitted, ''All I cared for was . . . the profit. Having failed to discover anything . . . I decided that the only course left to me was to invent it myself.'' Of course, doing a version of the trick on a stage with overhead rigging and limited viewing angles was a far cry from open-air street performance. But that didn't stop Howard Thurston from advertising the ''World's Most Famous Illusion First Time Out of India'' with a lithograph of Thurston waving his hands at a boy on a rope rising into open sky, while a turbaned man prostrates himself before the miracle.
Other magicians saw the Rope Trick as a dangerous myth that ''gave the appalling impression that Indian jugglers were superior to Western conjurors.'' Members of Britain's magicians' alliance, the Magic Circle, systematically hunted down and discredited eyewitnesses, and even offered a 500-guinea reward for anyone who would actually perform the trick.
Naturally, the nuts emerged. ''His Excellency Dr. Sir Alexander Cannon'' offered to bring over his favorite yogi to perform the trick at the Albert Hall, if the Magic Circle would pay him 50,000 pounds, provide a shipload of genuine Indian sand and heat the Albert Hall to tropical temperatures. Karachi -- the exotic stage persona of a ''lamentable'' Plymouth magician named Arthur Derby -- offered to do the rope part of the trick in the open air, provided he could prepare the grounds 48 hours in advance and keep the audience at least 15 yards away. Karachi declined to make the boy vanish (that being the impossible part).
By 1934, historians were thoroughly confused. Some claimed that Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, had scoured India for the trick in 1875 (he hadn't) and that same year Lord Northbrook had offered 10,000 pounds for a performance (he hadn't). Antecedents of the trick, resembling it about as much as ''Jack and the Beanstalk,'' were found in Australia, Siberia, Germany and China. Researchers in India proudly quoted rope-climbing metaphors in eighth-century philosophical commentaries. But, Lamont argues cogently, though one or the other of these obscure references may have inspired Wilkie, the Indian Rope Trick as we know it did not exist for the world until the hoax of 1890.
The hoax, however, did not appear ex nihilo in the Tribune. It seems likely that someone at the Tribune had a copy of a little story entitled "Theft of the Peach, which appears in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by P'u Sung-ling (1640-1715). This book appeared in translation by Herbert Allen Giles (1845-1935) in 1880 (London, T. De la Rue & Co.).
"Theft of a Peach" tells the story of a man at a Spring festival who says that "he could invert the order of nature." The man was then asked to produce some peaches, even though the winter frost hadn't broken up. The man says that he guesses there are some peaches "in heaven in the royal Mother's garden," which is a reference to a myth about the peach tree of the gods, whose fruit "confers immortality on him who eats it." To get to heaven, the man takes "from his box a cord some tens of feet in length. This he carefully arranged, and then threw one end of it high up into the air, where it remained as if caught by something." He then "paid out the rope" until it disappeared in the clouds. He sends his son up the rope to fetch the peaches. The son climbs "like a spider" up the rope and "in a few moments he was out of sight in the clouds." Soon "a peach as large as a basin" falls from the sky. Then down came the rope. A minute later the boy's head lands on the ground. "After that, his arms, and legs, and body, all came down in like manner...." The father gathers up the body parts and puts them in his box. After he collects money for funeral expenses, the man raps on his box and says "Pa-pa'rh! why don't you come out and thank the gentlemen?" The boy jumps out of the box and bows.
P'u tells the story of this "strange trick" as if he were an eyewitness "as a little boy." He also notes that he had subsequently heard that the trick could be done "by the White Lily sect," a secret society in China whose origin dates to the fourteenth century. Giles, in a footnote at the end of the story, notes that the fourteenth century Arab, Ibn Batuta (1307-1377), tells a story about Chinese jugglers who "produced a chain fifty cubits in length, and in my presence threw one end of it towards the sky, where it remained, as if fastened to something in the air." The jugglers then had a dog, a hog, a panther, a lion, and a tiger run up the chain and disappear in the air. The jugglers then took down the chain and put it into a bag, leaving the crowd wondering what happened to the animals
Lamont relishes the bizarre theories suggested to explain the trick that's never been done. In the 1930's, Erik Jan Hanussen, Hitler's secretly Jewish personal psychic, declared that the rope in the trick was actually a segmented pole made of sheep bones. In 1955 an American journalist, John Keel, went to India and came back with a ''simple explanation'' involving a boy and a fakir hanging on a rope suspended between two hills by means of a thread of human hair, and pretending to argue while the man throws to the ground pieces of dead monkey. In the 1960's, an Indian offered to teach a secret mantra of the trick to any penitent who would avoid eating meat and having sex for three weeks -- and who could prove that was true. In the 1970's, Uri Geller's biographer declared that the Rope Trick was a mass hallucination induced by telepathy. ''One could choose,'' Lamont remarks, ''between the views of a Jewish Nazi clairvoyant or those of an ambassador for psychic aliens, between chopping up a monkey or becoming a vegetarian celibate.''
One question haunts Lamont: did the various ''eyewitnesses'' actually witness anything or were they simply lying? He offers a plausible middle ground. Indian street repertory includes pole balancing and simulated child mutilation. Lamont detects a pattern in the eyewitness narratives: ''The longer the period between when the trick had been seen and when it had been reported, the more impressive the account of it.'' So, he speculates, perhaps the true secret of the Indian Rope Trick is the way the supple human memory combines events we've really seen with legends we've only heard, and shapes them into the best possible story to tell our grandchildren.