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Indian rope trick
This alleged trick, reportedly witnessed by thousands of people, involves an Indian fakir who throws a rope to the sky, but the rope does not fall back to the ground. Instead it mysteriously rises until the top of it disappears into thin air, the darkness, the mist, whatever. Now, that would be trick enough for most people, but this one allegedly goes on. A young boy climbs the unsupported rope, which miraculously supports him until he disappears into thin air, the mist, the darkness, whatever. That, too, would be trick enough for most of us, but this one continues. The fakir then pulls out a knife, sword, scimitar, whatever and climbs the rope until he, too, disappears into thin air, mist, darkness, whatever. Again, this would a great trick even if it stopped here. But, no. It continues.
Body parts fall from the sky onto the ground, into a basket next to the base of the rope, whatever. Now, that's quite common in some neighborhoods and would not count as much of a trick. But the fakir allegedly then slides down the rope and empties the basket, throws a cloth over the scattered body parts, whatever, and the boy miraculously reappears with all his parts in the right places. That would be a great trick, especially since it must be done in the open without the use of engineers, technicians, electronics, satellite feeds, television cameras, whatever.
Actually, the only thing needed for this trick is human gullibility. According to Peter Lamont, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh and a former president of the Magic Circle in Edinburgh, the Indian rope trick was a hoax played by the Chicago Tribune in 1890. Lamont claims the newspaper was trying to increase circulation by publishing this ridiculous story as if there were eyewitnesses to the event. 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.
Lamont has been researching the Indian rope trick for years. At one point he and Richard Wiseman wrote in Nature that the results of their investigation supported the notion that belief in the trick was due to the 'exaggeration effect': the greater the time between seeing something and telling a story about it, the more a person tends to exaggerate the impressiveness of the event.* Harry Price, a psychical researcher in the 1930s and 1940s, claims to have seen a version of the trick performed in London by a magician called Karachi. He writes about it in his 1936 book Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter. The Karachi trick has been filmed and is not very impressive. The rope, probably attacked to a pole, only extend a few feet into the air and a young boy climbs to the top. A similar version was filmed in India and allegedly witnessed by a number of British soldiers. A film analysis revealed the pole behind the rope and the use of reverse photography to make it appear that a flimsy rope was thrown into the air and became rigid. (See video below, which includes footage of a modern Indian magician who does the simplified version—i.e., no body parts—but won't reveal his secret, though he admits there is nothing supernatural about the feat.)
Of course, there are other possibilities, most of which have been offered in an attempt to explain how the trick is done: mass hypnosis, levitation, a magic trick involving mirrors or an invisible rope hanging above which the thrown rope hooks onto somehow, shaved monkey limbs for body parts, twins, whatever. Of the various explanations, the hoax seems most plausible.
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 in my edition of his translation,* 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.
Giles says in a footnote that a Mr. Maskelyne, "the prince of all black-artists, ancient or modern," thought that the Chinese did this trick with concave mirrors. (Giles may be referring to John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917), who, in 1865, aided by George A. Cooke, exposed the Davenport Brothers as fraudulent spiritualists.)
The Chinese may have used mirrors but the story most likely emerged from what they were smoking.
Video of the Indian Rope Trick
See also frauds and hoaxes.
books and articles
P'u Sung-ling, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Translated by Herbert Allen Giles, second edition, revised, Taiwan, 1978. The introduction by Giles is dated July 1908 and written at Cambridge. "Theft of the Peach" appears on pages 374-376. The stories were completed in 1679 (p. xvi).
Lamont, Peter (2005).
The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History.
Thunder's Mouth Press. (review)
note: this book is available from Amazon.co.uk under the title The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: The Biography of a Legend.
Lamont, Peter and Richard Wiseman. Magic in Theory (University of Hertfordshire Press, 1999).
Karl S. Kruszelnicki's "Great Moments in Science" page (a hoot with instructions on how to perform the trick with shaved monkey parts; claims it's actually a Chinese trick observed by a 14th century Arab).
Rise and fall of the Indian rope trick by Andrew Buncombe