The Indian Rope Trick

I would imagine everyone has heard of the famous, or perhaps it might be more appropriate to call it the infamous, Indian Rope Trick. I was certainly intrigued by it as a youngster and to this day it remains a fascination to me. I was so pleased when I found it within the pages of Magic Trick Secrets Revealed.

It conjures up a certain mystique and romance as performed by mystics of the East. As a child I had a preconceived view as to what the trick was all about, as do many people who have no more than a passing interest in things magic.

I soon became aware that this concept was misplaced when as a ten year old I discovered what the trick actually entailed and the stories behind its history.

Supposedly stage magic at its best, the trick involves the magician, a rope and one or more boys. As a very young boy I was aware of the version where the magician throws up a rope into the air.

The rope stands upright and the boy ascends the rope to the top and then descends again. I soon became aware that there was a rather different version that was recorded for posterity. In this version the rope rose high into the sky, the boy climbing the rope disappeared from view.

The magician on hearing no response when calling the boy, is wild with anger. He arms himself with a blade of some description and ascends the rope after the boy. The audience would hear an argument taking place out of sight at the top of the rope.

Blood curdling cries would probably be added for effect at this stage to create the impression that the boy was being hacked to pieces. Body parts would fall to the ground.

The magician then descended the rope into view of the audience and gathers the parts in a basket. Some sort of cloth would then be used to cover the basket. A short time later the boy would emerge in one piece totally unscathed by the ordeal. Quite a harrowing illusion!!

There are early accounts of travelers as far back as the 13th century who claim to have seen the trick performed. Marco Polo (1254-1324) is often reported to have witnessed it and Ibn Batuta(1304- 1378), a Moslem traveler, described a similar trick from his travels through China in 1346.

It is interesting to note that the trick apparently wasn't first witnessed in India. Variations of the trick have been reported ever since and apparently similar illusions were performed in India from the 16th century onwards.

So just exactly how is it or was it done? Mass hypnosis and levitation have been offered as suggestions. Perhaps a wire was suspended somehow above the magician. When the rope was thrown upwards it somehow attached itself to the wire.

Of course the wire would probably be visible if it were strong enough to support people climbing up it. Could it be that the trick was performed as the sun went down so the wire was hard to see? No one seemed able to reproduce the trick to any great effect, indeed The Magic Circle once offered one hundred guineas to anyone who could perform it.

More recently in his book "The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick", the author Peter Lamont laid claim that the whole thing was a hoax. Apparently in 1890, John Elbert Wilkie, while working at the Chicago Tribune, wrote about the trick and gained much interest from the public.

He wrote a fictitious account of two American travelers who had witnessed the trick whilst in the Orient. However some months later the Tribune printed a retraction and stated the story was a hoax. However it seems like the tale had grown so big in the public imagination because just about every other publication had printed further stories and so the myth was born.

Not many saw the retraction or took it seriously. Indeed people started coming forward making claims to have witnessed the trick decades earlier. Not one of these stories were proven but the more people who came forward with such claims the more the story was believed.

Apparently there is no reference to the trick that can be found prior to the Tribune story. The reference to Marco Polo is unproven and indeed was only made after 1890. The trick reported by Ibn Batuta is actually recorded from the 14th century but apparently the trick involved a chain, not a rope and is quite different from the traditional rope trick.

So there you have it, I like the romance and mystique surrounding the stories and part of me will always tip my hat to the trick as being the one illusion I would like to see.....even if it wasn't an illusion and it never really existed in the far east.


  • Gould, Rupert T. The Stargazer Talks. Reprinted as More Oddities and Enigmas. New Hyde Park, NY. : University Books, 1973
  • Keel, John A. Jadoo. London, 1958
  • Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993
  • Wikipedia: Indian Rope Trick
  • Michael Holland: Give 'em enough rope: Observer Newspaper Dec 2003



  • Mike Dash, Borderlands: The ultimate Exploration of the Unknown; Overlook Press, 2000
  • Peter Lamont, The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became a History
  • Dr. Karl Shuker, The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide To The World's Natural And Paranormal Mysteries (Carlton: London, 1996)