Exposing magic with the sideshow blade box

Exposing magic with the sideshow blade box
What will you see if you look inside?

A common – and profitable – circus and carnival sideshow illusion was called the Blade Box or Coffin Blade Box. It was profitable because it had developed a unique presentation that relied on exposure rather than secrecy.

It’s earliest forerunner was likely the magical illusion The Hindu Basket Trick, first seen in 1834, where a woman would crouch inside a round wicker basket and the magician would thrust swords through her, sometimes stepping inside the basket to show she’s vanished, and then making her reappear.

Another predecessor was the famous Sawing a Woman in Half illusion, invented in the 1920s by P.T. Selbit. A woman was locked completely inside a box with her hands, feet and neck tied to ropes held by assistants, then cut in half. Rival magician Horace Goldin created the iconic version we know today, where the assistant’s head and feet stick out of the box as she is sawed.

Many magicians copied the trick. In 1924, Billboard, the trade magazine for performers, told of magician La Villette’s Sawing a Woman in Half Mystery, which was vertical rather than horizontal. But instead of sawing, he thrust 17 swords and 16 flat pieces of wood through holes in the box.

In the following years, Billboard magazine noted that many attractions were exposing the methods of the sword box.

Exposing magic with the sideshow blade box
By 1948, blade boxes were advertised for sale
in trade magazines with the headline:
"Never broke if you own an expose."

But why would performers start exposing the trick? Weren’t magicians concerned about secrecy?

They started exposing because they could make more money by exposing.

Here’s how it worked:

A performer had a woman (the girl) stretch out inside the blade box. He shoved in the swords (or rectangular metal blades, or wooden "blades") into the top of the horizontal box until they protruded through the bottom. When he’d inserted all the pieces, he might use a cane to poke inside various holes and rap the bottom of the box.

And he’d talk about what was inside the box that the audience couldn’t see. 

Exposing magic with the sideshow blade box
Magician Marshall Brodein
performs the blade box on stage

He told the audience they could see what was inside the box… if they paid more. In sideshow lingo, this was called the ding or blow-off, an "aftercatch" meant to get the audience to pay extra, and then quickly move them through the attraction and out the doors so a new audience could come in.

If the audience was slow to pay, many times operators would use a stick, (who was a plant – a stooge or shill in the audience who worked for the attraction.) The stick would be the first one to pay to see inside the box, to prime the pump and get the audience moving.

Some blade box operators "worked clean" and told a good story to ding the audience, trying to get entire families to pay to look inside the box.

Others used the sex angle.

The girl might come onstage wrapped in a sheet and get inside the box. The lecturer would remove the sheet. Then he’d have trouble inserting a blade, so he’d make the girl remove a piece of clothing that was "getting in the way."

Other times he’d insert a long pole that went from one end of the box to the other, and a bra or panty would be stuck to the end of the pole after he jammed it through the box.

Of course, any clothing removed was a duplicate. What he tried to sell was that maybe, just maybe, she was actually naked.

Operators might collect all the money beforehand so that nobody would spoil the fact that the exposure was only of the trick, and not of the girl.

So what did you see if you paid to look? (And you were in a line of people, so you only got a quick peek.)

You saw that, despite the size and number of blades or swords inserted in the box, the girl was able to manipulate and contort her body around them.

Exposing magic with the sideshow blade box
Here’s a version of the Blade Box spiel from Wayne Keyser’s Blue Ridge Entertainment site. He sells older 1940-1950 Brill plans for those who want to build their own "Coffin-Type" Blade Box Illusions.

"Sheila is going to step behind the curtain for a moment and remove her costume. We are not doing this to be lewd or crude, but this feat requires her to twist and contort her body so severely that she cannot perform it while hampered by even this small item of clothing (here, honey, just hand out that costume and I’ll fold it up nice for you). And now that she has prepared herself, she will recline in the cabinet, and I’m going open the curtain and close the lid. Notice that the lid has openings for 13 steel blades. I am not going to cut this beautiful young lady, because as I insert each blade she is bending, twisting and contorting her body in and around every one of these blades of steel, just like a snake, just like a rubber band, she can bend her body as these blades threaten to sever the most delicate parts of her body. And now, I’m  going to give the real men in the audience a chance to come up on stage and see for themselves! Sheila invites each and every one of you up here to see how she does it. You’re going to see how her amazing body can twist around these razor-sharp blades, you’re going to see the texture of her skin! But you should know that this lovely and talented little beauty receives no pay for displaying herself to your eyes in this fashion. Sheila feels that exposing her act and her body this way is worth one dollar, because she is paid only through your curiosity and your generosity. Just hand your dollar to the man at the foot of the steps and come up and see this beautiful little girl in the state she is in now, unashamed and waiting for you to view her."

And here’s a talk by Howard Bone, from Joe Nickell’s book Secrets of the Sideshows:

"I now invite you to come up on stage, up these steps to your right. Walk by the box and look inside to get an eyeful of exactly how she is in there, and then walk down the other set of steps. All this for a small donation of one dime, one tenth of a dollar. If you need change, I’ll make it for you. Remember folks, the young lady receives all the money. (A lie.) Someone start it off and the rest will follow. Thank you ma’am, thank you sir… move right along."

Circus and Carnival Ballyhoo: Sideshow Freaks, Jabbers and Blade Box Queens by A. W. Stencell>>

Blue Ridge Entertainment Blade Box Plans>>

Secrets of the Sideshows by Joe Nickell>>

Magic, Incorporated blade box performance video on Myspace>> 

Photo of Wendy in the blade box is from Keith Stickley>>

Videos of blade box performances shot by amateurs, some of which also contain lots of other material:

Jimmy Dixon Pitchman>>
Unknown Key West Florida street performers>>
Marshall Brodien Blade Box on stage>>

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