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Sawing a woman in half is a generic name for a number of different stage magic trick in which a person (traditionally a female assistant) is sawn or otherwise divided into two pieces.


There remains a debate about the origin of sawing illusions, with some sources saying a magician named Torrini may have performed the first version in front of Pope Pius VII in 1809.[1] However it is more likely that the story is a fiction which has its roots in the writings of the famous French magician Jean Robert-Houdin. In his Memoirs, written in 1858, Robert-Houdin described a sawing illusion performed by a magician named Torrini. Modern magic inventor and historian Jim Steinmeyer has concluded that there was probably no real Torrini and the story was merely a way for Robert-Houdin to play with ideas.[2] It was suggested during a court case in 1922 that the trick can be traced back to ancient Egypt. However this claim has not been substantiated.[1][3] Wherever the idea originated, until the 1920s it remained just that, an idea for an effect rather than a practical application of a method.

It is generally accepted that the first public performance of a sawing illusion was achieved by British magician P.T. Selbit on January 17th, 1921, at the Finsbury Park Empire theatre in London. In fact Selbit had previously performed the illusion in December 1920 before a select audience of promoters and theatrical agents at the St. George's Hall, London, to try to persuade one of them to book his new act for public shows.[2] His trick, which he billed as "Sawing Through A Woman", was significantly different from what a modern audience would expect. Selbit's assistant was locked inside a closed wooden crate and could not be seen. The impression that she could not evade the saw was created by the confined space in the box and by ropes tied to her hands, feet, and neck, which were held throughout the illusion by spectators from the audience.[1][2]

The question of who was the first woman to be sawn in half has received much less publicity than the question of which magician first presented the illusion. According to Jim Steinmeyer the woman who participated in the December 1920 demonstration was Jan Glenrose, who was Selbit's main assistant at that time and who was also the partner of magician Fred Culpitt.[2] In the public performance the role of victim was taken by principal assistant, Betty Barker.[4]

Later in 1921, Horace Goldin, a magician working in the United States, presented the first version which might look familiar to modern audiences. Goldin's assistant lay in a box from which her feet, head and hands protruded. Goldin sawed through the middle of the box, inserting metal sheets to cover the cut ends, and then pushed the two halves a little way apart. This process was then reversed, and the assistant released unharmed. Goldin later developed a sawing illusion that dispensed with boxes and used a large buzzsaw.[1] The success of Selbit and then Goldin led to more and more magicians trying to imitate them with copies or improved versions of sawing illusions. By November 1921 the Thayer magic company in America was advertising a version for sale. A complete prop from Thayer would cost $175 or they would sell plans for $5.[2]

Effects and variations[]

There are many different sawing tricks with significant differences in their basic effect. In some, the illusion is merely of a blade passing through an assistant's body, while in others the assistant is severed into two pieces that are moved apart. Some so-called "sawing" illusions do not actually involve a saw but instead use plain blades or blunt dividing panels.

One major group of tricks involves an assistant in a box, which conceals his or her body from view while any cutting takes place. This group includes the "Selbit", "Wakeling" and "Thin Model" tricks as well as several versions associated with Horace Goldin. In most "box" sawings, the two halves of the assistant are moved apart as proof that they have been divided in two, although there are versions where the effect is simply that a blade passes through the assistant's body without any separation taking place. In some versions the box completely covers the assistant while in others the assistant's head, hands and feet remain in view during the trick.

The Selbit sawing[]

This was the first version of the illusion, as performed by Selbit and rapidly copied and improved by others. Unlike most other versions of the illusion, it is a "sawing through", rather than a true division illusion.

In this version of the illusion, the assistant is restrained within the box by ropes tied around their neck, wrists and ankles and held by audience members. Sheets of glass are then pushed into slots in the box, and a saw is used to cut through the middle of the box. The halves of the box are then pulled apart slightly to show the torso of the assistant within, and the assistant is then released from the box and shown to be unharmed.

Although much performed in the early days of the illusion, it rapidly fell from favour as new methods for performing the illusion were developed. It is now usually only performed as an illustration of the early history of stage magic and illusion.

Goldin's box sawings[]

Goldin 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.[5] Goldin's sawing differed from Selbit's in the respect that the box used, although similar in size to Selbit's, was shorter and mounted horizontally on wheels. This allowed the assistant's feet, head, and sometimes hands, to project though holes in the ends of the box, keeping them in view throughout the illusion. After the assistant had been restrained within the box, it was sawn through and metal plates were inserted on either side of the saw cut. With the plates inserted, the two halves of the box (and the assistant within) were pulled apart, showing the assistant to be in two pieces. The halves were then pushed back together, the plates removed, and the assistant released from within the box. Goldin's first performance of the illusion was not well received, as he used a male assistant in place of a female one. In later performances, he used a female assistant.

Unlike Selbit's sawing, Goldin's "big box" sawing has persisted into the modern era of magic. Although not particularly baffling to modern audiences, it's ease of performance for the assistant makes it a popular choice for use with celebrity assistants. It has also provided the basis for a number of other sawing illusions including Mark Wilson's "Train" sawing.

The "Thin Model"[]

The Thin Model sawing is one of the most common variants performed by contemporary magicians. The basic arrangement and sequence of events is similar to that described for the Goldin box sawings. However the box is much shallower in comparison to Goldin's, which was large by modern standards. The ends of the box are initially open when the assistant climbs in. Once the assistant is lying down she is secured in place by having stocks placed over her neck and ankles, leaving her head and feet visible. The stocks form the ends of the box. The shallow box helps to emphasize that the assistant could not possibly find room to evade the saw blade even if she could release herself from the stocks. With the assistant's head and feet in full view of the audience throughout the performance, and the shallow box preventing them from curling up in one half of the box, the Thin Model was the first version in which the assistant actually was divided in two.


The "Wakeling sawing" is a version of the illusion generally credited to American magician Alan Wakeling. In many ways, it is an improvement on the original Selbit sawing illusion that incorporates features of other later sawing illusions such as the Thin Model sawing. Like the Selbit sawing, the assistant is completely enclosed within the boxes covering them, and restrained by ropes fastened around their neck and feet. However, the boxes are similar in thickness to the Thin Model sawing and have doors in the side, as also found on the Thin Model, that allow the assistant to be seen within the boxes. Also, like the Thin Model, once the divider blades have been inserted, the two halves of the assistant are moved apart.

Whilst Wakeling performed this illusion and perfected aspects of it, the general configuration and method have been attributed to an earlier magician, Virgil Harris Mulkey (1900–1989), aka. "The Great Virgil", who first performed it in 1942 and later passed on the idea to Wakeling.[6]

Transparent boxes[]

Crystal Sawing

A magician performing the Crystal Sawing

A further development of the Thin Model-type sawing is the use of boxes with transparent sides (and, usually, a transparent top too). The use of a transparent box allows the audience to see that the assistant within the box has not curled up inside the upper part of the box (as in the "Big Box" sawing), and has indeed been divided in two.

Magician Les Arnold is reported to have been the first to have devised a clear box sawing (known as the "Crystal Sawing") as far back as 1976. Although it was first devised in the 1970s, it was not until the 1990s that it began to be performed publicly. The earliest known televised performance was in December 1995, when Finnish magician Axel Blacksmith performed it on actress Geena Davis during her appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. And it was not until 2010 that Stephen Mulhern performed the UK TV debut on ITV's Magic Numbers, with opera singer Katherine Jenkins as his assistant.[7] In the 1990s, The Pendragons developed and performed a variation called "Clearly Impossible", in which the box used is both particularly slim and also transparent.[8][9] Although disputed by some, the concept of "Clearly Impossible" has been officially and legally credited to Jonathon Pendragon and the major distinguishing feature of The Pendragons' illusion from the Les Arnold concept is that the transparent boxes are never covered.

Double sawing[]

The "double sawing illusion" is a way of adding an extra effect to box-type sawings. It is generally associated with the "thin-model" sawing apparatus. The magician saws two people in half using two sets of apparatus. The people are usually chosen or dressed so as to be clearly distinguishable. For example, they might be in different colored costumes, of different skin colors, or of different genders. After the box halves are separated they are jumbled up and then re-assembled so that the bottom half of one box is matched to the top of the other and vice versa. When the victims emerge, each is seen to have been given the other's lower half.

The creation of this version has been credited to magician Alan Wakeling, who devised it for fellow magician Channing Pollock to perform.[10]

Jig Saw[]

An assistant lies down on a table. A frame is placed over her middle. The magician then presents an electric Jig Saw and proceeds to align the blade into a slot in the frame. The magician switches on the saw and apparently uses it to slice through the assistant's waist, which remains obscured by the frame. The saw emerges from the opposite side of the frame. Once the sawing is finished the frame is removed and the assistant is revealed to be in one piece.

Bow saw[]

This variant begins in a similar way to the jig sawing, with the assistant lying on a table and having a frame fixed over her midriff. The magician then presents a bow saw and proceeds to saw through the assistant, with the blade guided within the frame. Once the blade has apparently passed all the way through the assistant the frame is released and removed. It is then revealed that the assistant is encircled by the handle and blade of the bow saw. Then he/she will have a member of audience come up and look at the props.

Buzz saw[]

The Buzz Saw version of the sawing in half illusion was developed in the late 1920s by American magician Horace Goldin, who marketed it as "a living miracle". It dispensed with the large bulky boxes used in earlier versions of the sawing illusion, and used a large circular saw to cut through an assistant who lay exposed to view throughout the entire performance.

Harry Blackstone, Sr. was performing this effect in the United States in the 1930s, and it gained great fame while being performed by his son, Harry Blackstone, Jr. in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Impossible Sawing[]

The Impossible Sawing is the latest version of the sawing illusion, and takes the concept of the transparent box sawings one stage further by eliminating the boxes altogether and dividing the assistant without any coverings at all. In some versions of the illusion, a buzz saw is used to divide the assistant, while others use a large scimitar-style sword, or simply the insertion of divider blades.

The Death Saw[]

The Death Saw is usually presented as an escape gone wrong. Its best known performer is David Copperfield, who claims exclusive rights to the illusion, although these claims have been disputed by others.[11][12]

Having been secured to a table by a number of restraints very similar to those used in the Buzz Saw illusion, the performer or assistant is enclosed by a box and a large saw begins to descend towards the middle of the box. The stated aim of the illusion is for the performer or assistant to escape before the saw cuts through the box. However, just as it seems like they are going to succeed, the saw suddenly drops and cuts them in half. Their halves are then pulled apart, showing them to be in two pieces, before the process is reversed and they are restored into one piece.

Modern Art[]

Although not generally classified as a "sawing" illusion, Modern Art is sometimes billed as an "upright dividing the lady in two". This illusion uses a tall cabinet which is divided into two sections, to top section being arranged to slide sideways onto a table attached to the side of the cabinet. The assistant enters the cabinet via a door in the side, and places their face, right hand and feet through holes in the front. A blade is then inserted in a slot on the top edge of the table and the upper section of the box is slid sideways past the blade and onto the table. Doors are then opened in the front of the box halves, showing the assistant's torso and legs within. The effect and method are credited to designer Jim Steinmeyer.[13]

Criss Angel's pulling a woman apart[]

Criss Angel performed a trick in which he appeared to pull a woman in half with his hands during an outdoor performance and half of her crawled away.[14][15] The trick involved a woman with sacral agenesis and a contortionist. Magician and historian Ricky Jay has written that a version of this trick was previously performed by another magician.[16] The magician that inspired Criss Angel's trick was Rajah Raboid, who performed this trick with "Half-Boy" Johnny Eck and his full-bodied twin brother, Robert, in 1937.

Audience Dismember[]

Vertical sawings[]

Famous performances[]

A number of performances of sawing illusions have achieved particular fame or notoriety.

  • P.T. Selbit's original performances in London in January 1921 were special because the effect was new and shocking to audiences of the time. Such was the impact of Selbit's creation that for decades afterwards other magicians would continue trying to emulate and improve on what he had done, thus affecting the course of stage magic history.[17]
  • Sorcar Buzzsaw

    Sorcar performing the Buzz Saw.

    In 1956, Indian illusionist P. C. Sorcar used a buzzsaw to cut his wife in two during a televised performance. Just when he had divided her the host quickly signed off and the show ended. This caused horrified viewers to believe she had accidentally been killed. In reality, it was a live broadcast and time had run out.[18]
  • Live performances by Peruvian magician Richiardi Jr are often cited as the most horrific presentations of a sawing illusion. Richiardi used a buzzsaw prop similar to that employed by Sorcar but he greatly added to the shock value by incorporating fake blood and entrails, which were sprayed over the stage (and sometimes beyond it) as the saw went to work.
  • As a teenager Dorothy Dietrich became "distinguished as the first woman to saw a man in half" as reported in the New York Times,[19] and in an article in the Weekly World News entitled Dorothy Dietrich, The First Lady of Magic.[20] She continues to do this routine with jig saws, bow saws, swords, chain saws on TV (Tom Snyder Show) and with celebrities such as Robert Klein, and in live performances including at The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which she founded.
  • David Copperfield's performance of Clearly Impossible has often been described as one of the most baffling sawings in the history of the illusion. In his version of the illusion, he sawed his then-wife, German supermodel Claudia Schiffer, in half while an audience member held on to her feet to prevent her moving out of the way of the saw.

Critical responses and twists[]

Jim Steinmeyer has argued that Selbit's introduction of the sawing illusion was a turning point in the history of magic after which gentler styles represented by the likes of John Nevil Maskelyne were in irreversible decline to be replaced by more sensationalist presentations that owed something to the shock effect of Grand Guignol theatre. In particular, Steinmeyer identifies the sawing illusion as the beginning of a fashion for magic featuring female assistants in the role of victim. He says the cliche of "pretty ladies teased and tortured by magicians" was not a cliche prior to Selbit's illusion. Male assistants were common in magic history and in the Victorian era; the cumbersome clothes imposed on women by the fashions of the time made it impractical for them to squeeze into confined spaces required by some tricks. Changing fashions in the early 20th century made Selbit's choice of a female victim a practical proposition. It was also true that an illusion designed for a lithe woman might be more compact and deceptive than one tailored to fit a man. However, more controversially, a combination of the emancipation of women and a population desensitized by war and exposed to new entertainment phenomena meant Selbit's choice struck a chord in the public imagination. In Steinmeyer's words: "beyond the practical concerns, the image of the woman in peril became a specific fashion in entertainment".[2]

Along with other "box-and-blade" type illusions involving a female assistant, Sawing a woman... has been criticised by feminists as misogynist. Modern magicians, including female performers, have responded by placing a male performer in the role originally filled by the woman. Magician Dorothy Dietrich, who established herself as a leading magician as a teenager has been called the "First Woman to saw a man in half." This was reported early on in Weekly World News entitled First Lady of Magic, The New York Times, as well as in many other publications.[19][20]

Australian magician Sue-Anne Webster performs a variation on the "thin model" sawing in which she saws husband Tim Ellis in two with a chainsaw.[21]

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Brown, Gary R. "Sawing a Woman in Half". AmericanHeritage.com. http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1994/3/1994_3_34.shtml. Retrieved 2007-03-29. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Steinmeyer, Jim (2003). Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible. William Heinemann/Random House. pp. 277–295. ISBN 0434013250. 
  3. Goldin v. Clarion Photoplays, New York (Dec 1922) Yale Law Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2, p.201
  4. Steinmeyer, Jim; Neil Gaiman (October 2006). Art and Artifice: And Other Essays of Illusion. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0786718061. 
  5. "US Patent 1,458,575". United States Patent and Trademark Office. http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-bool.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&co1=AND&d=PALL&s1=1,458,575.PN.&OS=PN/1,458,575&RS=PN/1,458,575. Retrieved 2007-04-03. 
  6. Charvet, David and Julie (1991). The Great Virgil. Charvet Studios. pp. 78–79. http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/search_post.php?topic=153378&forum=7&post=5066417 
  7. Video of performance.
  8. "Press Release: "Best of the Best" return for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's Annual Tribute to Illusion". Cincinnati Playhouse. 7 June 2004. Archived from the original on 20 February 2008. http://web.archive.org/web/20080220112653/http://www.cincyplay.com/news/2004-2005/060704.php. Retrieved 17 June 2008. 
  9. The Pendragons performing Clearly Impossible in Cincinnati 1998 PBS TV Special [1]
  10. Lawton, Joan (January 2005). "Web Extra: Alan Wakeling". Magic magazine. http://www.magicmagazine.com/january05/january05extra.html. Retrieved 2007-06-14 
  11. Rakshit, B. (March 1965). "Rakshit's version of sawing through woman". The Linking Ring (International Brotherhood of Magicians): 78–79 
  12. "The Magic of Japan". Genii Magazine (The Genii Corporation). September 1969 
  13. "Illusion Hotline: Who Owns The Rights". magicauction.com. http://www.magicauction.com/IllusionHotline/Illusion_Rights.htm. Retrieved 2008-06-03. 
  14. "Criss Angel and Half a Woman Video". http://www.metacafe.com/watch/152624/criss_angel_and_half_a_woman/. Retrieved 2007-03-28. 
  15. "Pulled Apart". http://www.snopes.com/photos/people/pullapart.asp. Retrieved 2007-04-02. 
  16. Jay, Ricky (October 1998). Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women. Noonday Press. ISBN 0374525705. 
  17. This performance was recreated in the final episode of the six-part BBC television documentary series Magic, originally broadcast in 2004. See Magic at the Internet Movie Database
  18. Dawes, A. E., et al. Making Magic. London: Multimedia Books, Ltd, 1993.
  19. 19.0 19.1 The New York Times "HOUDINI—THE GREATEST SHOWMAN OF ALL?". New York Times. 1 November. http://www.intervalmagic.com/houdinimuseum.org/articles/1981_11.01.html. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 Weekly World News Dorothy Dietrich First Lady of Magic. Weekly World News. 20 January. http://books.google.com/books?id=X-8DAAAAMBAJ&pg=PT18. 
  21. The topic of assistants portrayed as victims in violent illusions was featured in "Violent magic" the final episode of the six-part BBC television documentary series Magic in 2004, see "UK Magic News". Magicweek.co.uk. 20 November 2004. http://www.magicweek.co.uk/backissues_0200-0249/0230.htm. Retrieved 2007-04-03. 

Further reading[]

  • Jim Steinmeyer, Art and Artifice: And other essays of illusion. Carroll & Graf, September 2006. ISBN 0786718064. (Includes essays on Selbit and Goldin and their sawing illusions.)