Big box sawing

A magician performing the Big Box sawing.

The Big Box sawing is an early version of the illusion of sawing a woman in half. Unlike the original Selbit sawing, the "Big Box" sawing has survived into modern performances, although largely superseded by later versions that use smaller boxes that make the illusion more puzzling.


Following the initial performances by P.T. Selbit of his version of the sawing illusion, many magicians rushed to develop their own improved version of the illusion. The first to get their version to the stage was American magician Horace Goldin, who presented several sawing illusions that involved a box. To audiences they all appeared largely similar but they involved differing methods, which were steadily improved as time went on and as earlier methods were exposed.[1] His first performance was at the Society of American Magicians annual banquet at the McAlpin Hotel, New York, on 3 June 1921. On that occasion the trick was not well received. The box he used was large and not very deceptive and instead of an attractive woman he employed a bellboy as an assistant. The impression given was that he was clumsily and hurriedly trying to cash in on Selbit's success in Britain. However fellow magician Howard Thurston, who was in the audience, realised the potential of the trick and persuaded Goldin to let him help in its development. Thurston employed an established magician and prop builder named Harry Jansen to perfect the illusion. Jansen's improved version of the apparatus featured a smaller box from which the victim's head and feet would protrude during the sawing. Goldin, Thurston and various other magicians employed by Goldin toured the United States performing this trick with great success at theatres belonging to the Keith-Orpheum group.[2] Goldin had great promotional acumen and was fond of resorting to legal action to block anyone else, including Selbit, from competing with him in the USA. As a result Goldin was sometimes wrongly credited as the originator of the sawing illusion.[3][4]


Orson Welles Big Box

Orson Welles performs the Big Box sawing.

The basic form of Goldin's box sawings was as follows. The magician presents a box which is similar in size and proportion to that used in the Selbit sawing but which is already in a horizontal position. An assistant climbs into the box and lies down. In the process her head and hands are seen to emerge from holes in one end of the box and her feet from the other. The box is closed and then sawn through across the middle. Dividers are placed into the box either side of the cut and it is then pulled apart so the sections can be seen clearly separated. The assistant's head and hands are seen sticking out of one section and her feet out of the other. The box is then pushed together again and opened and the assistant emerges unharmed.

One problem with the Goldin-style sawing is that the size of the boxes makes the method used comparatively easy to figure out, and this quickly led to the development of other versions using much smaller boxes such as the Thin Model sawing. It's ease of performance does however make it a popular choice for use with guest celebrity assistants, who may not be able to meet the physical demands placed on them by other more recent sawing illusions.

Notable performances

  • The "Train" sawing devised and performed by magician Mark Wilson is a variant of the Big Box sawing.
  • The illusion appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode The Sorcerer's Apprentice, in which actress Diana Dors was buzz-sawed in half in a Big Box illusion.
  • Burke's Law - Sawing a Lady in Half

    Burke's Law - Sawing a Lady in Half

    Big Box sawing of Jill St. John in Burke's Law.

    In the original 1963 version of the TV detective show Burke's Law, the season 2 episode Who Killed Merlin the Great includes magician's assistant Pinky Likewise, played by actress Jill St. John, being interviewed while at the same time being sawed in half in this illusion.
  • When she appeared on The Andy Williams Show, actress Jane Wyman was sawed in half in a Big Box illusion by the show's host and fellow guest Ernest Borgnine. The illusion was provided and supervised by magician Carl Ballantine.
  • In the movie Desperately Seeking Susan, the character played by actress Rosanna Arquette takes part in a Big Box sawing, which is partially revealed as she is being released from the box after the performance is interrupted.
  • In the 2000 movie Magicians, the character of Lydia, played by Claire Forlani is sawed in half in a Big Box sawing.


  1. "US Patent 1,458,575". United States Patent and Trademark Office.,458,575.PN.&OS=PN/1,458,575&RS=PN/1,458,575. Retrieved 2007-04-03. 
  2. Steinmeyer, Jim (2003). Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible. William Heinemann/Random House. pp. 277–295. ISBN 0434013250. 
  3. Brown, Gary R. "Sawing a Woman in Half". Retrieved 2007-03-29. 
  4. Goldin v. Clarion Photoplays, New York (Dec 1922) Yale Law Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2, p.201
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