P.T. Selbit (1881-1938) was the first magician to saw a woman in half. His actual name was Perry Thomas Tibbles (he arrived at his stage name by spelling that backwards and taking out a “b”). A native of England, he became interested in magic as a boy when the great magician Charles Morritt leased the basement of the silversmith shop where he was apprenticed. According to Milbourne Christopher, young Tibbles picked the lock on his room so he could sneak in and learn Morritt’s secrets. Whether or not that was the case, suffice it that Tibbles paid very close attention. He began by manipulating coins and cards. From 1902 through 1908 he appeared in English music halls dressed from head to toe in the garb and make-up of an Egyptian, billed as Joad Heteb. From 1905-1910, under his own name, he edited a magic magazine called The Wizard (which would sometimes cover Heteb’s work!)
He is associated with many amazing illusions starting in the ninteen-tens, some he purchased, some of which he devised. In “Spirit Paintings” (1910) paintings would magically appear on blank canvases in any style named by an audience member. In “The Mighty Cheese” audience members would be challenged to tip over an enormous wheel of cheese (which was rigged with a gyroscope which made it impossble). Around 1912, he added American vaudeville to his tour schedule, performing illusions such as “Window of a Haunted House” and “Walking Through a Wall”.
It was around 1920 that he first introduced sawing a man in half to audiences, and the trick took England by storm. However, the version as we know it was created by American Horace Goldin, who worked his improvements shortly thereafter (it was Goldin who allowed us to see that assistant’s extremities sticking out of the box). By the time Selbit was ready to bring the trick to the U.S., Goldin had already blocked his progress, having copyrighted most useful combinations of the phrase “sawing a woman in half” thus making it very difficult for Selbit to advertise. The legal battles went on for years.
At the same time, though, Selbit introduced many other amazing tricks which would be emulated by other magicians over the years” “The Indestructible Girl, or The Living Pincushion”, “The Elastic Lady”, “The Fourth Dimension”, “Through the Eye of a Needle”, “Man Without a Middle”, “Seeing Through a Soldier”, the “Mummy Mystery”, the “Million Dollar Mystery”, the “Mile a Minute Mystery”, and “Broadcasting a Girl.”
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.