Real head, fake decapitation

Real head, fake decapitation
"Decapitated Dave" by A.M. Kuchling
A photo taken at the 2002 exhibit
"Magic: The Science
of Illusion" at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Real head, fake decapitation
Here’s another person’s photo, of "Headless Pam."

These real heads are sitting inside a contraption which uses a clever arrangement of mirrors to hide their bodies. To the audience, the trick is "Where’s the person’s body?" The science of optics explains how.

Here’s a visual explanation of a similar illusion used on the cover of the publisher Dover’s reprint of a magic book from 1876, Modern Magic: A practical treatise on the art of conjuring by Professor Hoffman.

Real head, fake decapitation
The "Sphinx" was another headless illusion,
first introduced in 1865.

While the science museum was explaining the optical principles involved, the first Sphinx illusion used theatrical principles to deepen the mystery. The head was disguised as a Sphinx, so the audience did not immediately think it was a real head without a body. They were wondering how a realistic-looking head could speak. To an audience in 1865, discovering the secret to the illusion was not about optics, but about sound and mechanics. How did the head speak? (The telephone wasn’t invented until the 1870s.) And if it was some sort of mechanical automaton, how did all those mechanics fit inside a small chest holding the head that was placed on a table? (I love the type of box the newspaper writer compares to the head box in the following passage.)

Here’s the description from Modern Magic, which quotes a contemporary newspaper account:

…Most intricate is the problem proposed by Colonel Stodare, when, in addition to his admirable feats of ventriloquism and legerdemain, he presents to his patrons a novel illusion called ‘the Sphinx.’ Placing upon an uncovered table a chest similar in size to the cases commonly occupied by stuffed dogs or foxes, he removes the side facing the spectators, and reveals a head attired after the fashion of an Egyptian Sphinx. To avoid the suspicion of ventriloquism, he retires to a distance from the figure supposed to be too great for the practice of that art, taking his position on the borderline of the stalls and the area, while the chest is on the stage. Thus stationed, he calls upon the Sphinx to open its eyes, which it does – to smile, which it does also, though the habitual expression of its countenance is most melancholy, and to make a speech, which it does also, this being the miraculous part of the exhibition. Not only with perspicuity, but with something like eloquence, does it utter some twenty lines of verse; and while its countenance is animated and expressive, the movement of the lips, in which there is nothing mechanical, exactly corresponds to the sounds articulated.

This is certainly one of the most extraordinary illusions ever presented to the public. That the speech is spoken by a human voice there is no doubt but how is a head to be contrived which, being detached from anything like a body, confined in a case, which it completely fills, and placed on a bare-legged table, will accompany a speech, that apparently proceeds from its lips, with a strictly appropriate movement of the mouth, and a play of the countenance that is the reverse of mechanical? Eels, as we all know, can wriggle about after they have been chopped into half-a-dozen pieces; but a head that, like that of the Physician Douban, in the Arabian tales, pursues its eloquence after it bas been severed from its body, scarcely comes within the reach of possibilities, unless, indeed, the old-fashioned assertion that "King Charles walked and talked half-an-hour after his head was cut of" is to be received, not as an illustration of defective punctuation, but as a positive historical statement.

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