Was it the magician’s son floating in the
illusion called "Suspension by Ether"?
(Click to enlarge)
Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805 – 1871) was an influential French magician and inventor of magical illusions and clockwork automata.
William Manning, who was friends with Robert-Houdin and his sons, gave a talk on Robert-Houdin which was later published as a book. This short excerpt describes the performance of one of Robert-Houdin’s famous illusions:
Eugene was the younger son, and appeared at St. James Theatre in the trick known as the "Suspension by Ether," the latter drug being then only recently in vogue as an anesthetic.
Manning’s illustration of the trick
Houdin led his handsome boy by the hand to the footlights to make the most mechanical of bows to his audience. The two slowly retired backwards, when the father fixed an upright rod under each arm of the son, who had ascended three steps for the purpose of raising himself from the stage. The father then expatiated gravely upon the marvels of ether, and pretending to administer it to the youth, a simulated slumber followed, and the steps being suddenly removed, the boy remained supported by the two rods only, his body retaining its vertical position, the feet eighteen inches from the stage. Houdin then very carefully raised the body to the horizontal line without disturbing the slumber of the boy, and to the terror of many a spectator, the father suddenly kicked away rod number two, leaving Eugene’s outstretched body apparently without a support, his right elbow only just in contact with rod number one. My illustration represents a further development of the experiment which appeared to defy the laws of nature. This was always the final trick of the performance, and when the curtain fell, and was raised again in obedience to the recall, [the encore] father and son came walking most gravely forward, and the effect of this slow movement was to make half the world believe that the boy was not flesh and blood at all, but a marvelous automaton!
How clever was Robert-Houdin?
He had invented a secret mechanical device which allowed his own son to seem to be suspended against the laws of gravity, but his ingenuity did not stop there.
He used ether to make the audience believe he was performing a novel and possibly harmful medical experiment.
He then surprised his audience by suddenly kicking away a support, and his son did not fall.
And when the trick was over, he created perverse doubt in his audience. Since his son was moving mechanically, was it possible that he was actually a clockwork automaton the entire time? But if that was true, how did the amazing Robert-Houdin create such a lifelike automaton of his own son?
This illusion is still being done in some form by magicians today, yet I have never seen this illusion performed the way Mr. Manning has described it being performed by Robert-Houdin.
Here’s a version from 1966, attempting a recreation.
You can download the entire book on Robert-Houdin: Two Odd Volumes on Magic & Automata (Electronic Download), Leaf PDX>>