Robert-Houdin, Jean-Eugène


Robert-Houdin (his birth name was Jean-Eugène Robert) was born in Blois, France. His father, Prosper Robert, was one of the best watchmakers in Blois. A skillful artisan and hard worker, Prosper Robert's main ambition was to provide for his family, but he also wanted his children to climb the social ladder. Jean-Eugene's mother died when he was just a young child. At the age of eleven, Prosper sent his son Jean to school to the University of Orléans. At 18, he graduated and returned to Blois. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Robert-Houdin wanted to follow into his father's footsteps as a watchmaker.

His penmanship was excellent, and it landed him a job as a clerk for an attorney's office. Instead of studying law, he tinkered with mechanical gadgets. His employer sent him back to his father. He was told that he was better suited as a watchmaker than a lawyer, but by then, Jean's father had already retired, so he became an apprentice to his cousin who had a watch-shop. For a short time, Jean worked as a watchmaker.

In the mid-1820s, he saved up to buy a copy of a two-volume set of books on clockmaking called Traité de l'horlogerie, or Treatise on Clockmaking, written by Ferdinand Berthoud.

When he got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, what appeared before his eyes was a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Instead of returning the books, his curiosity got the best of him. From those crude volumes, he learned the rudiments of magic. He practiced at all hours of the day. Then he started to take private lessons in magic.

Magic was his pastime, but meanwhile, his studies in horology continued. Sometime later he moved to Tours and set up a watchmaking business.

Once at a party he met the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker, Monsieur Jacques François Houdin. The daughter's name was Josèphe Cecile Houdin, and Jean fell in love with Cecile at their first meeting. On July 8, 1830, they were married. He hyphenated his own name to hers and became Robert-Houdin.

He moved to Paris and worked in his father-in-law's wholesale shop. Jacques François was among the last of the watchmakers to use the old methods of handcrafting each piece and embraced his new son-in-law's ambitions for mechanism. While M. Houdin worked in the main shop, Jean was to tinker with mechanical toys and automatic figures. He and Josèphe had eight children, of whom three survived; this was fairly typical for that time period.

With his work in the shop, Jean was still practicing magic. Quite by accident, in one of the shops Robert-Houdin met fellow magicians, both amateur and professional, learned the details to many of the mechanical tricks of the time as well as how to improve them. From there, he built his own mechanical figures, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton doing the cups and balls. His most acclaimed automaton was his writing and drawing figure. He displayed this figure before King Louis Philippe and eventually sold it to P. T. Barnum.

On October 19, 1843, Monsieur Robert-Houdin's beloved wife died at the age of thirty-two, he remarried in August to François Marguerite Olympe Braconnier, woman ten years younger than himself. The new Madame Robert-Houdin soon took over the household.

Robert-Houdin loved to watch the big magic shows that came to Paris. He dreamed about someday opening his own theatre. In the meantime, he was hired by a friend of his by the name of Count de l'Escalopier to perform at private parties.

With time, he began constructing equipment and mechanisms for his own use instead of selling it to others. The income from the shop and his new inventions gave him enough money to experiment on new tricks, he rented out a suite of rooms, hired workmen to redesign them into a theatre.

On July 3, 1845, Robert-Houdin premiered his 200-seat theatre in what he called "Soirées Fantastiques". It had been a disaster. He suffered from stage fright that caused him to talk too fast and in a monotone. He said that he did not know what he was saying or doing, and everything was a blur. After the first show, he was about to have a nervous breakdown. He closed the theatre and had every intention to close it for good, however instead of admitting defeat, Robert-Houdin, regained his courage, and persevered in giving the show a long run at his little theatre. Although the forty-year-old magician was unpolished at first, he soon gained the confidence required for the stage.

Relatively few people would come to the little theatre during the summer months, and he struggled to keep it opened. To meet expenses, he sold the three houses that he had inherited from his mother.

Eventually his hard work was rewarded, his program became especially popular. Seats at the Palais Royal were and remained at a premium for many years.

He lived happily in retirement for about fifteen years, until the advent of the Franco Prussian War. His son Eugene was a captain in a Zouave regiment. On August 6, 1870, Robert-Houdin heard news of his son being mortally wounded. Four days later, Robert-Houdin was to find out that his son had died of his wounds. With the stress from that and the war, his health deteriorated, and he contracted pneumonia. On June 13, 1871, he died of his illness, at the age of sixty-five.

Exhibits in the Museum Collection