The following is the complete text and plates of Chapter XXI of Harry Price's Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter (Putnam, 1936) in which he describes the Indian Rope tricks of English-born savant 'Karachi' that were witnessed in January 1935.
I have seen the Indian Rope Trick. At least, I have seen a clever representation of that great illusion which has intrigued newspaper correspondents for so many years. The performer of the Trick was Karachi, assisted by his diminutive son Kyder, aged eleven.
Before I proceed further, I had better describe the Rope Trick of tradition. There are many versions, but the story which makes its perennial appearance in the Press is more or less as follows: a fakir, dressed in flowing garments, and accompanied by one or more assistants, selects a site for the Trick and proceeds to collect a crowd, which he carefully places. The performer takes a long rope, uncoils it, swings it round his head and lets the free end soar skywards-where it remains. With words which sound like imprecations, he commands a frightened-looking youngster to climb the rope. The boy obeys and disappears into the clouds. With a knife between his teeth the fakir follows the boy, disappears, and a few moments later, to the accompaniment of ear-piercing screams, the horrified spectators see pieces of boy, mutilated and gory, tumbling out of the blue. When the shock of the 'tragedy' is at its height, they are amazed to see the fakir re-coiling his rope, at the same time as the 'victim' is found at the back of the crowd, begging for baksheesh. That is the traditional Rope Trick, stripped of its trimmings.
Has the Rope Trick ever been witnessed in its traditional form? I do not think it has. I have carefully analysed all the accounts of the Trick which have come under my notice, and in each case there was a flaw, such as a faulty memory, in-
correct sequence of events, mal-observation, ignorance of deceptive methods - or sheer lying. There was always something that would not stand up against cold analysis. Certainly, there have been rope tricks in the form of conjuring illusions or stage turns, and I will deal with these later. Also, there have been seen boys balanced on tops of bamboo rods, which travellers termed the Rope Trick. But that was because they could not tell a bamboo from a rope. The mass-hypnosis 'solution' is merely a legend: science will not admit that a number of persons can be hypnotised simultaneously under the conditions imposed by an itinerant showman.
On April 30, 1934, one of the magical societies convened a meeting at the Oxford House Theatre, Marylebone, in order to kill the Rope Trick stone dead and give it a decent funeral. The Trick was rather knocked about, but it survived, as the subsequent correspondence in The Listener proved. I was invited to the obsequies and on the platform with me were the late Lord Ampthill, a former Viceroy of India, and several other distinguished persons who had lived in the East, and who had gone out of their way to see the Trick. But not only did they not see it, but they could find no responsible person who had. They received accounts from travellers who had mistaken the bamboo trick for the genuine article, which rather reminds one of the old lady who, after a tour of India, remarked that the most inspiring spectacle she had seen was 'the sun setting behind the Aga Khan'. I reiterate that there is no scientific evidence for the Rope Trick in its traditional form, and the Oxford House meeting confirmed this view.
The outcome of the Oxford House 'funeral' was a verbal war which, for several months, entertained readers of The Listener. (1) One of the protagonists wrote to the editor and said that he had seen the Rope Trick on the sands at Plymouth. Not only had the Trick been performed, but it had been photographed - and
1. See The Listener from the end of May 1934 until April 1935.
he enclosed the pictures themselves to prove it. The photographs were reproduced (1) and they looked impressive.
There was nothing ambiguous about them. There was the rope, straight up in the air, apparently defying gravity, with Karachi squatting at the base and Kyder, like a monkey, clinging to the top of it, several feet above the ground (see Plate XII).
It can be imagined that The Listener pictures fell like a bombshell among the conjurers - especially those who were so certain that the Rope Trick could not be done, by any means. There were cries of 'Fake!' Of course: the Rope Trick must be a rope fake. As a correspondent in The Listener pointed out, 'What is a trick, if it is not a fake? Is a trick less of a fake for being "genuine", or is a "genuine trick" a trick that is not a trick?' In the Concise Oxford Dictionary (3rd edition, 1934) the meaning of the word 'trick' is as follows: 'Fraudulent device or stratagem; feat of skill or dexterity, knack, precise mode of doing or dealing with a thing', etc. In other words, the Rope Trick is a trick.
But the conjurers would not have it. They admitted that nearly all tricks are tricks, but that the Rope Trick is something else. They said - in effect - 'It is a supernormal trick'! That is, a trick that cannot possibly be done. So they offered any person five hundred guineas if he could do it.
I became interested in Karachi and his particular Rope Trick, and, through the kindness of Mr. R. S. Lambert, arrangements were made for the performance of the trick in London. Owing to mechanical and spatial difficulties, the Rope Trick, as an illusion, has never been popular as a vaudeville act, and Karachi is to be congratulated upon not only doing the Trick in the open air, but upon performing it before a body of sceptics who made no secret of the fact that they were present to discover the modus operandi. Karachi (his real name is
1. See The Listener for Dec. 5. 1934.
Arthur Claud Darby, and he is English) was invited to London, and I will now give the story of his somewhat protracted visit. After some correspondence, it was arranged that Karachi should be in London on the morning of December 31, 1934, prepared to do the Trick. He duly arrived at our rooms, complete with Kyder and full Eastern regalia. But, like a bolt from the blue, he informed me that he was not going to do the Trick, and that at least four days' preparation of the site was necessary. Also, he had to scour London to find a 'certain rare mineral' which had to be planted in the ground where the Trick was to take place. I informed Karachi that I had selected Mr. C. E. M. Joad's Hampstead garden for the demonstration, and that I was sure Joad would not mind how many rare minerals were planted on his property. I also told Karachi that a distinguished audience was awaiting us at Hampstead, and that he had better make his apologies to them.
At Hampstead we were met by the editor of The Listener and his friends, and I had to break the news to them. They were not only surprised and disappointed, but somewhat hurt at Karachi's not warning them that he required four days in which to prepare the Trick. As some compensation for our trouble and loss of time, Karachi consented to don his Eastern robes and do a few rope-balancing feats, which were quite good. Feeling rather less disgruntled, we took Karachi out to lunch and asked him point-blank what he came to London for. His reply was to the effect that, given time, he was quite willing to do the Trick. He specified one of those wide, open spaces where he could work on the site without being overlooked. We agreed to all his conditions and found him a large field at Wheathampstead, a village a few miles north of Hatfield. He agreed to perform the Trick on the following Monday, January 7, 1935.
I have already described the traditional Rope Trick, which is usually accompanied by a traditional mise-en-scène: blinding
sun, cerulean skies, scorching sands, a - very convenient - hazy horizon, with attendant palm trees and Sons of the Desert. The field at Wheathampstead was not a bit like this: it was a cross between a quagmire and a brickfield. But to compensate for these shortcomings, it was next door to a comfortable inn, 'The Nelson', which was the agreed rendezvous.
We arrived in a cold drizzle, which turned to snow, accompanied by a bitter nor'-easter . We found Karachi and his son in the bar parlour, all blacked up and wearing the robes of their profession: voluminous garments of red and yellow, with skyblue turbans. Kyder had bare feet. In another room of the inn we discovered the remainder of our party, which included the following: Mr. R. S. Lambert; Mrs. Mary Adams, of the Talks Department, B.B.C.; Mr. J. W. Brown, the owner of the field; Professor C. Daryll Forde, the anthropologist, of University College, Aberystwyth; Mr. W. E. Williams, Secretary of the British Institute of Adult Education; Miss Ethel Beenham, Secretary of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation; Mr. Alex. L. Dribbell, a student of the occult, and myself.
Having fortified ourselves within against the elements raging without, we made our way to the field. Karachi had planted his rug on a slight eminence - an ideal pitch for the 'talkie' set-up which had been arranged by Gaumont-British Films. Before the Trick, Karachi did some clever sleight of hand work with a pack of cards which, after three minutes, were sodden with snow. He then very cleverly balanced a six-foot rope horizontally on his hand and vertically on his chin. Then I spoke a few words into the microphone by way of introduction, and Karachi commenced his great Trick, which I cinematographed.
Squatting on his rug like a real fakir, with Kyder by his side, he threw us a thick rope about six feet long. We examined this, and passed it back. It was not prepared in any way. Taking the
Karachi and his son, Kyder, performing the Indian Rope Trick.
rope under a star-spangled velvet cloth which he used as a screen, an end immediately reappeared, pushed up from below with a jerky movement. It was quite rigid, and rose to a height of about five feet; it was then withdrawn. Another rope, about eight feet long and two inches in diameter, was then passed to us. It was unprepared, but very loosely woven. In the same way he placed the second rope beneath his cloth, and again an end appeared and crept upwards with a jerky motion. It was noticed that the rope was now tightly woven and very rigid. When about eight feet of the rope had been paid out, Karachi commanded his son to climb up it - which he did with considerable agility . We had seen the great Rope Trick!
Arrived back in the more congenial atmosphere of the bar parlour, Karachi was about to tell me exactly how it was done. But I stopped him. No one needed telling how the Trick was done. It was obvious to every intelligent person within a radius of fifty yards that the showman had used a certain method of performing the illusion, and the effect was very good indeed. It would not be fair to give away his secret. His son, Kyder, did not disappear when he reached the top of the rope, but Karachi informed me (and explained the method) that even that classical ending of the Trick could be arranged. I congratulated him upon doing the Rope Trick so cleverly, and under such wretched conditions. I told him that, with a little more showmanship, he could make it even more convincing. In the hands of a Houdini, it would look like a miracle. But we did not grumble. We had seen the Rope Trick - and in a snowstorm!
My report on Karachi's achievement was duly published (with photographs) in The Listener, (1) and that started the ball rolling again. The conjurers said that the Rope Trick Karachi did was not the Rope Trick, but just a rope trick (without capitals). They said that the Rope Trick was not really a rope trick, it was a ..., but I will not weary the reader with what
1. See The Listener for Jan. 16, 1935.
they did say, because we have been through it all before. But they tenaciously clung to their five hundred guineas.
Another bombshell was in store for the conjurers: Karachi sent them a challenge, which was published in The Listener. (1) The terms were as follows: '(1) The conjurers to deposit the sum of two hundred guineas with a neutral party, who is to decide whether I have performed the Trick satisfactorily or not; (2) the rope is to rise up through my hands, while I am in a sitting posture, to a height of ten feet from the carpet on which I sit. It is to remain there erect while my son Kyder climbs up it, and remians with his hands at the top for at least thirty seconds while he can be photographed; (3) the rope shall be an ordinary thick rope with a good grip, which shall be supplied by any well-known rope manufacturer on a specification as to length and girth which shall be agreed between myself and the conjurers; (4) the place shall be any open place chosen by the neutral party, provided that its conditions are not dissimilar to those which obtain in India. This Trick ought to be performed as nearly as possible under natural Indian conditions. The neutral judge or judges should be satisfied that these conditions are fair to me. Furthermore, I am to be allowed access to this place for at least forty-eight hours previous to the performance, and during that access I must not be spied upon. This is in accord with what the Indians do, for they always perform the Trick on native ground, and never in the white man's private enclosure; (5) the rope shall be handed to me after examination at the commencement of the performance. The spectators shall be anywhere in front of my carpet at a distance of not less than fifteen yards.
'I will add that I am able to perform all my Rope Tricks on a table which can be examined beforehand. This disposes of the suggestion of bamboo, canes, telescopic rods, etc. Now, Sir, these are fair conditions, and if the conjurers are really seeking
1. See The Listener for Jan. 30, 1935.
enlightenment they will accept my challenge, and this much-disputed tradition will become a reality.' The conjurers refused to accept Karachi's challenge.
The question now arises, has the Rope Trick ever been seen in the East, in any form? I am certain that it has. The evidence for its performance is much too strong for us to deny that the Trick itself is a complete myth. But I believe that what travellers have seen is just a conjuring illusion, very skilfully produced. I not only believe this, but I have first-hand evidence that such is the case. I make no apology for quoting this evidence in extenso, as I believe it solves the mystery of the classic Rope Trick.
A few years ago I came across an account, in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, (1) of an account of the Rope Trick by the late Erik Jan Hanussen, the occultist. I knew Hanussen slightly (I had met him in Berlin) and I am certain that he wrote a true story of what he saw. The illusion was witnessed by Hanussen and his friends at a place called Hillah, an Arab village near the ruins of Babylon. I have made a translation of Hanussen's story, and here it is:
'The chief performer was Abu Nasser, an enormously tall Arab with a long white beard, dressed in a flowing garment (Haik) of dazzling white, and wearing white sandals. His assistants were two Arab men and a diminutive, thin Arab boy. They had brought with them an enormous basket and a carefully rolled up rope.
'We were placed in an exceedingly small roped-in enclosure and had to promise faithfully not to leave this on any account, as it would break the magic. I was at once struck by the fact that we were obliged to face the sun, and felt certain that this was not arranged by chance.
1. 'Das Fakirwunder des geheimnisvollen Seils', by 'Erik Jan Hanussen' (i.e. Hermann Steinschneider), in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Berlin, Oct. 31, 1930.
'Abu Nasser and his assistants then threw themselves down and began incantations and prayers. This was kept up for fully over an hour. I immediately realised that this was solely done for the purpose of wearing us out, tightly squeezed together as we were in that small enclosure in the blazing sun, and thus prepare us for the illusion. Indeed, a few of the spectators felt ill.
'Then the actual performance started. As I had always suspected, the "rope" was not a rope in the real sense of the word. The extremely careful manner in which it was rolled up made it at once clear to me that it was a cleverly constructed apparatus, cut from the bones of sheep's (rams') vertebræ and skilfully covered with sailing cord. If one understands how to link the numerous pieces of these together by cleverly twisting the "rope", the at first flexible material is turned into a solid stick which, without anything else, just like a bamboo stick, can support the weight of a heavy man. Abu Nasser and his assistants took the rope, holding it at the ends and in the middle, and then, with a sudden jerk which was really marvellous, they threw it into the air, where it actually remained. The lower end, however, as I immediately noticed, stuck to a depth of at least one and a half metres in the desert sand. It is more than probable that it was also held below the ground by another helper, or even two, who were secretly concealed in a previously cleverly constructed pit. Moreover, the rope was, of course, held by the two assistants above ground. These two stood with their backs turned to us, their hands spread out in an imploring manner so as to create the impression that the rope was being kept in the air by some secret formula. In reality, however, the rope was fixed through the belts of the two men and thus held by their bodies. It was highly interesting to see how the illusion arose that the rope was reaching high up into the skies. The explanation is that our eyes, through the long staring into the glaring light of the sun, were inflamed, tired and dazzled. The
end of the rope ran out to a point, and, although the rope was really not so very long, it gave one the impression that it was of enormous length, reaching right into the clouds.
'The little boy, who was clad in a tight black knitted garment, was first to climb the rope. He did this with the agility of a monkey. Then Abu Nasser, a knife between his teeth, followed him. Suddenly - I could hardly trust my eyes - both had actually vanished. My friend and I looked at each other amazed, and might still be standing there struck, if a penetrating smell had not caused us to cough, when we also noticed that Abu Nasser and the boy had surrounded themselves with "clouds" by means of some "smoke"-producing preparation not known to us. This, together with the dazzling skies, the blinding sun in our eyes, and the hazy horizon, created the illusion bf complete disappearance. The whole had barely lasted a few seconds, when we heard terrible screams from above and the terrified spectators saw pieces being thrown down into the basket. First a pair of arms, then the legs, then the trunk, and finally the head, all blood-stained.
'During this time I had snapped pictures with my "Ika" camera, which I had carefully concealed in my belt, and the enlargements I made later on proved that the "limbs" were only stuffed rags which had been stained with animal blood.
'The next moment, it was clear to me what really had happened above, for when Abu Nasser was again visible and, holding the blood-stained knife between his teeth, climbed down, I could see that the little boy was concealed under his master's Haik, where probably the imitation '''limbs'' had previously been hidden.
'When Abu Nasser was about half-way down the rope he jumped into the basket, stamping like mad on the pieces of the "murdered" boy. A few of the ladies present screamed. Then Abu Nasser stepped out of the basket and sat down murmuring prayers. With his hands he made imploring movements over
the basket and thus brought the poor child back to life. Sound and merry the young son of the desert jumped out of the basket, and went to collect his baksheesh (tip) as quickly as possible, whilst the minds of the spectators were still filled with horror and sympathy.
'The whole thing was now quite clear. When Abu Nasser jumped into the basket with the boy still hanging on to him under his Haik, the youngster, protected from view by the high walls of the basket, crawled out, hiding the "pieces" in the basket under his master's garments. This done, Abu Nasser stepped out of the basket, knelt down and prayed. During, this time the "underground" helpers drew the "pieces" down into the sand (protected by Abu Nasser's garment) and by the time Abu Nasser rose, there was no trace of anything left. He could show the empty basket, and, furthermore, take off his garments (which he actually did) to prove that no contrivance of any kind was concealed therein.'
Though I commenced this chapter by stating that, in my opinion, the Rope Trick has never been seen in its traditional form, (1) I will conclude by saying that I am equally convinced that the Trick itself has been witnessed as a conjuring illusion, accounts of which have been distorted and exaggerated by credulous travellers who were completely ignorant of the deceptive methods employed by the itinerant Eastern magician.
1. As this work goes to press, the author has been informed by General Sir Ivor Maxse, K.C.B., that he saw the Indian Rope Trick when a subaltern in India. It was performed in the traditional manner, and Sir Ivor thinks that the audience must have been hypnotised.
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