How 5 Classic Magic Tricks Work

  • Sawing magic trick explained
Sawing magic trick explained
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Madison Hunt

As far back as the first millennium BCE, ancient Mesopotamians relied on the concept of magic as a guiding principle. They used magic in rituals to ward off evil demons, and as an explanation for perplexing natural phenomena. Over many millennia, as our scientific understanding of the world advanced, “magic” evolved into a form of entertainment, popularized by legendary sleight-of-hand artists and illusionists such as Harry Houdini. Today, your typical magic show leaves the audience feeling awe-inspired and wondering how the tricks are done. Well, wonder no more — this is how five classic magic tricks actually work.

Sawing a Person in Half

It’s impossible to know for certain when a magician first sawed their assistant in half, but one of the earliest recorded instances of the trick was performed by British magician and inventor P.T. Selbit in London in 1920. He debuted the trick to the shock of onlookers, as he seemingly sawed a woman in a box in half and then put her back together, allowing her to leave the box unharmed. In the summer of 1921, Selbit toured the trick throughout the United States, where he encountered pushback from other illusionists claiming to have invented the trick. 

While there are several variations of this illusion, depending on the magician’s personal style, one of the most common methods involves two assistants — one that the audience sees and another hidden inside the box. The trick begins by unveiling a long, thin box, with an assistant already hidden inside, tucked away and contorted at the end where the other person’s feet will be. Then the magician opens the box and invites the other assistant to climb inside and lay down. Once they do, they also contort themselves in a way that leaves an empty middle section to cut through. At this point the magician closes the box, and one assistant pops their head out while the hidden assistant pops their feet out.

Credit: Illustration courtesy of Madison Hunt

With the two safely separated, the magician takes a saw and cuts through the middle of the box, seemingly slicing their assistant in half. The magician then separates the halves of the box while the head and feet continue to move for added effect.

Credit: Illustration courtesy of Madison Hunt

To end the trick, the magician wheels the boxes back together, says a few magic words, opens the lid, and allows one assistant to climb out unscathed while the other pulls their feet back in and remains hidden inside the box.

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