This article on the origins of the “sawing a woman in half” illusion was written by Paul Kieve for Cabinet Arts magazine.
Known for his mischievous sense of humor, Francis White was president of The Magic Circle in London from 1958 until his death 31 years later. Magicians historically possess an eager eye for publicity, but what drove an otherwise dignified man to balance his daughter on what at first appears to be an ironing board and hover a tree saw over her belly on her wedding day is anyone’s guess. Perhaps The Magic Circle had a particularly convincing press officer at the time or, more likely, White and his daughter together imagined (correctly) that it was a unique opportunity to capture this comical, unlikely image.
If White had attempted to complete the act in such a way, it would most certainly have been “for the last time” (as the press caption notes) because he appears to be attempting the act without any kind of special apparatus.
“Sawing Through a Woman” caused a sensation when its inventor, P. T. Selbit (not averse to mutilating his pretty female assistants in the cause of stage magic) first presented it at the Finsbury Park Empire, London, in January 1921.
Selbit enclosed his assistant in a plain coffin-like wooden box. After a preliminary effect of passing glass sheets through the box (and seemingly his assistant), a full size cross-cut saw was employed to rip through the center of the crate. When the splintered box was re-opened, the assistant was seen to be in one piece — the saw having also seemingly passed through the center of her body without causing harm. The box appeared far too small for the assistant to have avoided the saw; and in any case ropes had been tied firmly to her wrists and ankles, threaded through holes in the sides of the box and held firmly in place by audience volunteers throughout the demonstration. It was a sophisticated piece of stage magic, the effect being that a saw had somehow passed completely through her body—hence the title “Sawing Through A Woman.” A later invitation to subject suffragettes Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst to this ordeal was not accepted.
It was the magician Horace Goldin who, inspired by Selbit’s sensational act, later the same year created “A Woman Sawn in Half”, the version that was to enter the public consciousness: the separation of a long box with the head and feet of an assistant visible at either end. Goldin originally presented the illusion using a male assistant, but only when an attractive female became the victim did it surpass the success of Selbit’s invention. To magicians, however, this version seemed less sophisticated because of the large size of the box and the suspicious depth of the tabletop on which it rested. But the payoff—separating and subsequently restoring the two halves of the partially visible lady—proved more satisfying to an audience, perhaps because the illusion was one of visible miraculous restoration rather than the suggested solid-through-solid penetration effect that Selbit had offered. When the divided lady was seen to be “alive at both ends,” as the publicity announced, Goldin was truly presenting before the audience’s eyes a “living miracle” (a title he adopted for a later, more gruesome incarnation of the effect).
By 1963, the illusion and all its successive incarnations had became so iconic that all Francis White needed to do was to grab any old garden saw and (in this case, far from) any old lady in order for the public to understand what he and his daughter were suggesting.