Even when you know it can’t really be taking place, it’s hard not to gasp when the magician begins to saw through the box and edges toward the trapped woman’s abdomen.
One of the most sensational and popular of illusions, it was first performed in 1921 by P. T. Selbit, an English magician and inventor, and then by the outstanding illusionist Horace Goldin.
The stunt is designed so that a woman appears to be lying full length in a box that rests on a table. Her hands, feet, and head protrude through holes in the ends of the box, and in some versions of the trick, her wrists and ankles are tied with ropes, which come through the sides.
The magician (perhaps with a helper) then proceeds to saw the box in half, using either a two man crosscut saw or a rotary power saw. The two halves are then separated, but you can’t see inside because metal sheets have slid down over the cut ends of the box. Finally, the two halves are pushed together again, the sheets of metal removed, and miraculously the woman is whole and very much alive.
If it weren’t for skeptical audiences, magicians might consider using fake limbs or a fake head, but members of the audience are frequently invited to come up on stage and hold the woman’s hands and feet.
The fact is, the illusion involves two women. When the props are brought onto the stage, one woman is already hidden in the table. The tabletop appears to be thin, but the underside angles downward sufficiently to make space for one person. As the woman on stage climbs into the box, the one who is hidden climbs up into the box through a trap in the table and pokes her feet out the end.
She curls up, with her head bent forward between her knees; the other woman draws her knees up to her chin. Only an empty space then lies in the pathway of the descending saw.