Magicians have been sawing women in half since 1921. Basically everything else about the history of this illusion is up for debate, from questions of invention and intellectual property to ownership and method. At the very least, the magic world mostly agrees that English magician P.T. Selbit was the first to perform Sawing Through a Woman for the public at a London performance in 1921. In the nearly 100 years since that first performance, Sawing a Woman in Half has become one of the most popular stage illusions around the world. It’s immediately recognizable and has been analyzed to death, but somehow, sawings still thrill audiences with a sense of danger and impossible feats of disembodiment.

Arguments have been made that sawing illusions existed before the time of P.T. Selbit; that it played a role in the time of ancient Egypt, for example, or that French magician Jean Robert-Houdin described a similar illusion in 1858. Some believe an Italian magician named Torrini first performed the illusion for Pope Pius VII in 1809, or that circus performers named the Hanlon Brothers performed some kind of sawing in Paris in 1878. But most of these alleged performances are unrecorded word-of-mouth tales, and Robert-Houdin’s description is dismissed as merely a written idea and not a live performance. Overwhelmingly, Selbit remains credited as the singular individual who brought Sawing a Woman in Half to the public on the stages of London.

Born Percy Thomas Tibbles (P.T. Selbit backwards and only slightly tweaked), Selbit started out touring the music halls of England as a solo illusionist. Selbit’s December 1920 presentation of “Sawing Through a Woman” was an invitation-only performance played for London promoters and agents in the hopes that someone would book his act. From the success of that sneak peek, Selbit took Sawing Through a Woman to the Finsbury Park Empire theatre in January 1921 where the illusion had its first public performance on record.

Selbit’s version became a runaway hit thanks to its timing as much as to its quality as a first-of-its-kind magical effect. Jim Steinmeyer, renowned illusion designer, writer, and historian, described in his book Hiding the Elephant the early 1920s world in which Selbit’s sawing took off as one traumatized by World War I and dizzied by the rapid pace of social and technological changes. What’s more, the role of the magician’s assistant was traditionally played by men.

Today, we’re used to seeing beautiful women in sexy outfits performing as magician’s assistants, jumping in and out of boxes, and, generally speaking, doing all the hard work. But the fashions of Victorian England, not to mention the social limitations that kept women from positions of power and opportunity, made it completely impractical for women to play magician’s assistants. Petticoats, cage crinolines, and backside bustles all made it impossible for women to fit into the tight spaces of the box effects and stage illusions presented at the time.

By the 1890s, the inflexible fashions of the Victorian Era had been abandoned. As dresses became less cumbersome, women joined the ranks of men as magician’s assistants, and soon after became the predominant choice for the role. In 1918, women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote throughout the United Kingdom. Is it a coincidence that as women became more visible in English public life, so did the image of threatening women with mutilation and mortal danger on stage? “Beyond practical concerns, the image of the woman in peril became a specific fashion in entertainment,” wrote Steinmeyer in “Hiding the Elephant”.

It’s worth mentioning that in the early 1900s, Selbit was billing his act as a puzzle, not a violent drama. “A sensation, suitable for all the family to see,” read the literature, and “the greatest riddle of the age”. Here is a video of the legendary Paul Daniels performing his tribute to the original Selbit sawing:

It didn’t take long for other magicians to jump on the bandwagon of sawing a woman in half. In June 1921, mere months after Selbit’s first London performance, American magician Horace Goldin presented his own version of the trick that left his assistant’s head, hands, and feet visible from start to finish. Howard Thurston was in the audience at the Society of American Magicians gathering where Goldin first presented his sawing, a lucky coincidence considering Goldin’s first attempt needed work. Goldin was widely criticized for rushing to capitalize on Selbit’s UK success; that is, until Thurston saw the potential of the act and signed on to help improve it.

Goldin’s legal strategy flavored his contribution to the legacy of “Sawing Through a Woman” over time. Goldin registered a range of titles with the Vaudeville Managers’ Protective Agency, so even Selbit was forced to change the name of his act to “The Divided Woman” when he arrived to tour the US. Selbit sued Goldin for stealing his idea, albeit unsuccessfully, and Goldin sued basically everyone who came after him. Goldin’s legal team served cease and desist orders to magicians across the country who dared perform virtually any kind of sawing, claiming that the trick was exclusively his invention, and furthermore, his property. But Goldin’s legal aggression was perhaps matched only by his efforts in self-promotion, which served to solidify the Sawing Through a Woman illusion more generally in the hearts and minds of the American theater-going public.

Technically, Goldin’s version of Sawing Through a Woman began with his box in a horizontal position, as opposed to Selbit’s vertical presentation. Many of the sawing illusions in use today follow this tradition of presenting the illusion in horizontally from start to finish. Alan Wakeling’s famous version of the sawing centers around this horizontal presentation, focusing on the horizontal assistant instead of a horizontal box. In the Wakeling sawing, an assistant is secured to a rectangular table with restraints at the neck and ankles, and has two halves of a box placed over her and locked into place. One of the trademarks of the Wakeling sawing was sliding apart the two separate halves of the divided women to show that they were completely disconnected, although, of course, the origins of this element are contested.

The basic handsaw was traded in for a buzzsaw thanks to the likes of Harry Blackstone in the 1930s. Later, the buzzsaw became a jigsaw and the full-body box abandoned. Magicians introduced extra saws, and even extra boxes to mismatch the top and bottom halves of two separate assistants when putting them together again after the sawing. The glass plates that divided the woman in the 1900s were swapped for metal blades. Boxes got smaller, tables increasingly surgical. These adaptations to the original turn of the century sawing played with prop, presentation, and method, but all played a role in ushering the illusion into the modern day. Watch Mark Kalin and Jinger Leigh perform what many magicians praise as a world class example of today’s modern sawings:

As time passed, many illusionists have played up the threat of death either for laughs or for attention. One of the first sawings that left audiences believing a woman had died took place in 1956 thanks to nothing more than poor timing; Magician P.C. Sorcar performed a sawing on a live BBC television broadcast, and just as Sorcar’s blade passed through his hypnotized, completely exposed, seventeen-year-old assistant, the show’s host stepped in to say goodnight. A TV-obsessed British audience enchanted by Sorcar’s “exotic” act was left to wonder whether they had witnessed a murder, when really, the sawing was the grand finale of a program running up against its end time. Richiardi’s 1960 sawing made a more serious drama of the same macabre ending, alleging to audiences (night after night) that something really had gone terribly wrong. Recently, videos labeled “sawings gone wrong” abound on our beloved YouTube, and Penn & Teller famously perform a blood and guts version that presumes to give away the trick, and ends in a messy pool of entrails. If anything, this approach proves that even intelligent audiences who know that the assistant on stage is perfectly safe are still susceptible to the thrill of danger when that buzzsaw starts crashing down.

Magic changes with the times we inhabit. Dorothy Dietrich is credited as the first woman to saw a man in half. Instead of a beautiful female assistant, David Copperfield saws himself in half in Death Saw, his take on a sawing gone wrong. And, over the years, classic illusions like Sawing a Woman in Half have fallen victim to exposure on shows like Breaking the Magician’s Code. With that said, magic continues to change with the times. No matter what you think you know, illusionists, inventors, and incredible assistants demonstrate time and time again that in the right hands, classic illusions remain classics for a reason.