In Algiers, two years after Robert-Houdin
began his magic career, the rebel Arab chief Abd-del-Kader
surrendered to the French
. However, the native Kabyles
, led by Mohammedan priests, continued to war against the French authorities. Many of these leaders, particularly a group called the Marabout
s, claimed invincibility and other supernatural powers. The Arabs regarded them "as envoys
on earth to deliver them from the oppression of the Roumi (Christians)," under guidance from the Prophet (memoirs).
In 1856 the French Foreign Office asked Robert-Houdin to travel to Algiers and give a special performance which would discredit the miraculous powers of the rebel-leaders. Houdin was honored by the request and opportunity to serve his country. He assembled his strongest effects for the occasion, where he was met by an audience of Arab chieftains and religious-rebel leaders. Houdin pulled cannonballs from his hat, had bouquets of flowers that seemed to grow as the audience watched, and did other tricks for the entertainment of his audience, but he had prepared three pieces in particular to undermine the perceived powers of the Marabout.
Houdin had a simple wooden box with brass handles on the stage. It was light enough to be lifted by a child, but he claimed the power to drain the strength from the strongest man so that he would not be able to lift it. A confident and well-built Arab accepted the challenge. Houdin made some magical gesture and pronounced the Arab weak. Still confident despite the magicians words, he tried to lift the box but was unable. He became frustrated and tugged on it violently, but the box would not move. On a third effort, the audience saw him contract violently, fall to the ground, then rush out through the nearest entrance. Murmurs ran through the crowd. Although the audience did not know it, the innocent box had a metal bottom, and on command Houdin turned on an electromagnet underneath the stage, which made it impossible to lift. When the magnet was not activated, he could lift it easily. The muscle contractions of the poor volunteer were a result of a brief electric shock given through the brass handles.
The next effect Houdin did was meant to thoroughly discredit the Marabouts. One of their stunts of invincibility involved fixing a gun so that it would not fire (by stopping up the vent), so that it looked like weapons failed when aimed at the Marabout. One of the Marabout in the audience eagerly scrambled to the stage as a volunteer, and said "I will kill you!" Upon further questioning he confirmed that he was quite serious and would feel no regret in killing Houdin. He carefully inspected the gun and found it was not prepared or tricked. Houdin gave the man the bullet and had him mark it with his knife and then load the gun. Standing a few paces away, the magician held an apple which he claimed to be a talisman on the tip of a knife, and, holding it in front of him, instructed his volunteer to aim at the heart. The gun exploded and the bullet lodged in the apple. Upon inspection, it was found to be the marked bullet.
Houdin's final piece called for another volunteer. A Moor was persuaded to come on stage and stand on an isolated table in the center of the stage. The magician and his assistant covered him with a cone of cloth and then carried the covered Moor to the front of the stage, where the cone was discovered to be empty. The man inside had disappeared, and his comrades in the audience were so upset by his disappearance that they panicked, rose en masse, and fled. The next evening Houdin performed the same show again, for a different group, with similar effect.
After the performances, the interpreters and others who worked with the Arabs were instructed to tell them that Houdin's tricks were based on skill, not supernatural powers. The performance had the desired effect; the leaders of the rebellion were discredited, and Houdin reported that the Arabs he met afterward were always very friendly toward him. The French government felt that Houdin had single-handedly prevented a rebellion; they offered him 10,000 francs as a reward for his services, but he declined the money because he felt he had done it all in service to his country.