Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

Modern Magic and the War on Miracles in French Colonial Culture

Graham M. Jonesa1

a1 Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, Princeton University

On 16 September 1856, gentleman illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin embarked from Marseille on the steamship Alexandre bound for the embattled French colony of Algeria. Thirty-six hours later, a detachment of French soldiers met him in the port of Algiers. Recently retired as an entertainer to pursue research in optics and the emerging field of applied electricity, Robert-Houdin was about to return to the stage in a series of magic performances that a French general purportedly called the most important campaign in the pacification of indigenous Algeria (Chavigny 1970: 134).


Acknowledgments: Fred Myers astutely suggested I examine ethnographic representations of ritual marvels. I thank him, along with Abdul Alafrez, Amahl Bishara, Naomi Davidson, Michael Gilsenan, Aaron Glass, Mary Harper, Susan Rogers, Larry Rosen, Sarah Ross, Bambi Schieffelin, Randall Styers, and Val Wang for subsequent guidance and comments. I also received helpful input from participants in the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis seminar and the 2008 Societas Magica conference at the University of Waterloo, and from members of the anthropology departments at MIT and the University of Virginia. The David A. Gardner ‘69 Magic Project and the Committee on Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Princeton University generously funded portions of this research. Special thanks go to Céline Noulin and the Maison de la Magie in Blois for providing access to archival sources. I am immensely grateful to Andrew Shryock and the reviewers at this journal for challenging comments and invaluable recommendations, and to David Akin for his wonderful editorial feedback.