Karachi: The story behind the photograph

by Jim McKeague

Illustrated with old photos from Karachi’s own collection, courtesy of his son Horrie Darby and granddaughter Carlene Davidson

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Figure K1.  The famous photograph, taken November 1934.

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The first of the above photographs (figure K1) has been for almost eight decades the most recognised image of the Indian rope trick. Now, in this internet age, it is world famous, yet very little has been published about the man and the boy in the photo or the circumstances surrounding the taking of the photo itself. The magician pictured was Englishman, Arthur Claude Darby, who called himself “The Great Karachi.” He was by far the most interesting of the western magicians who took up performing the Indian rope trick, and this is his remarkable story.

Arthur Claude Darby[1] was born on April 5, 1888, in Birmingham, England. He was the second son of Horace Charles Darby, a watchmaker and jeweller[2], and Horace’s wife, Rebecca. Little is known of his youth, but he probably did an apprenticeship, for Arthur’s son, Horace (Horrie)[3], told me his father was a fitter; and indeed in 1948, when Arthur migrated to Australia, his occupation was given on the ship’s passenger list as “fitter and turner”[4]. Probably this was stated because Australia at the time was seeking skilled migrants.

There is a document from 1907, a Great Western Railway employment record from Birmingham station, which tells us that Arthur Claude Darby, born April 5, 1888, entered service as a cleaner on September 9, 1907 at the rate of two shillings and eight pence (per week? per day? the document does not say).  But this was obviously a temporary job, for Arthur is recorded as leaving the service on November 5 in the same year.

Very early in his life Arthur must have discovered magic as an interest, and the knowledge he had from watching his father at work and from his own apprenticeship would have stood him in good stead for building his own equipment in his later life as a magician.  He had the interest and the tenacity to practise sleight of hand, too, for throughout his life he was admired for his manipulation of playing cards.

As well, Arthur had great artistic talent, and sometimes we find him occupied as a sign writer and as a mural painter.  But primarily, Arthur was a fairground showman, and like all showmen he had occasionally to turn his hand to other occupations in order to survive.

In World War I, Arthur served in the British armed forces in France.  Britain’s World War I military records were largely destroyed in the London Blitz of the 1940s.  The tattered remnants, the so-called “burnt documents,” plus pension records, etc., show that quite a few Arthur Darbys served in that war, but none of the surviving records can be linked convincingly to our Arthur Darby.  His son, Horrie, told me that Arthur, like many war veterans, hardly ever talked about his war service.  Horrie thought that his father had been “in the Dragoon Guards, or something like that.”

The story Arthur told, when speaking or writing about his famous rope trick, was as follows: when serving in France in World War I, he rescued the broken body of a Ghurka soldier from beneath the wheels of a gun carriage.  During the injured man’s last days Arthur spent much time by his bedside, telling him funny stories and entertaining him with conjuring tricks.  The Ghurka laughed at his stories and tricks, and before he died he taught Arthur the secret of the rope trick.

When I suggested to Horrie that this was very likely just a magician’s patter story, Horrie said no, it was the family’s understanding that this story was true.

My own opinion is that the story probably is basically true, but some details are likely to be a showman’s embellishments.  For example, in one newspaperman’s story from 1935 the Ghurka’s name is given as Bowden Din. [5]  This is nothing like a typical Ghurka name, but does bear a surprising likeness to some old family names from south-west England where Arthur was living at the time.  On the other hand, Arthur was later to claim that he was “the only man in the world who actually performs the Indian rope trick (genuine).” [6]  This claim is likely to have stemmed from his own belief that he had been given a genuine Indian secret, whereas other western magicians such as Devant and Goldin, who featured the rope trick on stage, used regular western stage illusion methods.

In November 1919 Arthur and his younger brother Percy applied for a patent for a “holdfast,” a device to secure or hold in position objects such as pipes.  The patent publication date was February 7, 1921, and the U.K. patent number is GB158629.  The illustration shows a U-shaped clip which can be secured by a screw, and a sliding plate which quickly locks into position.

Arthur was a clever inventor, and this is not the only patent which he held.  A family story tells of another invention which was hijacked by a manufacturer even though Arthur had it patented, but lack of money meant he could not assert his patent rights, and all the profits went to others.

Between the two World Wars Arthur disappeared into the world of the travelling showmen, where records are largely non-existent.  He travelled not only in Britain but in Europe also, performing magic, illusions and ventriloquism.[7] He also appeared in London music halls. Before 1934 he worked under the professional name of “Phantom.”  At this time as well, he and his wife were raising their family.  Arthur married Mary Agnes (“Polly”) Bristow.  Curiously, Arthur’s mother, Rebecca, had the maiden name Bristow.  Polly’s marriage to Arthur was her second marriage; Polly’s maiden name was Poole.  Arthur and Polly had seven children, listed for me by Horrie as Iris, Margaret (Peggy), Cyril, Horace, Josephine, Gloria and Olive.  Cyril, born in January 1924, and stage-named Kyder, was the boy who climbed the rope.  Horace, born in 1929, is the last surviving child.  I refer to him as Horrie, as his family does, to identify him amongst the male members of the family, for Arthur’s father had been a Horace, as was Arthur’s older brother.

It was during the 1920s and 30s that the Indian rope trick became a big talking point around the world.  Travellers’ tales of seeing the illusion outdoors in India were disbelieved by western magicians, who could not think of a way it could be done.  People like Helena Blavatsky had said that the trick was an example of eastern mystic powers.[8]  The London Magic Circle objected to that, and came out fighting via their Occult Committee, whose chairman, Lt. Col. R. H. Elliot, spoke on BBC radio and wrote an article in the BBC’s periodical, The Listener, branding the trick a myth, and publicizing the Committee’s offer of 500 guineas to anyone who would perform it.  The performance had to be outdoors away from trees and buildings, the rope had to be thrown up and defy gravity, and a person had to climb the rope and disappear at the top, in order to win the prize.[9]

Arthur, with a young family to feed, had his eye on that prize and on other rewards which had been offered. He had not performed his Indian rope trick up until now, but he made his preparations, put together new costuming, abandoned the role of “Phantom,” and became “Karachi.”  Young Cyril learnt to climb the rope and became “Kyder.”  It is said that Cyril even learnt to do acrobatics whilst at the top of the rope.[10]

In those days many magicians offered rewards for a performance of the Indian rope trick, ostensibly in an effort to discover whether the story of the feat was factual or just a myth.  In reality, though, these offers were primarily just publicity stunts.  Karachi applied whenever such a reward was publicized, but discovered that his applications were ignored or returned to him unanswered.[11]

This is an important point which I must emphasize.  Those who, in the past, have claimed that the Indian rope trick was just a myth, have regularly referred to the unclaimed rewards offered for a performance as evidence that the trick never existed.  I do not doubt that some reward offers, such as the 500 guineas of the Magic Circle and the 10,000 rupees of The Times of India, were issued in good faith.  But, make no mistake, the majority of the rewards offered by private individuals, usually prominent magicians, were merely the trumpeting of performers seeking publicity for themselves.  Arthur Darby received shabby treatment at their hands, but, as we shall see, he was to rise above it in spectacular fashion.

In late 1934, when the showmen’s caravans were at their winter quarters at Richmond Walk, Devonport, Karachi approached a Plymouth photographer, Mr J. Lewis, and asked if he would like to take some good photos, telling him that he was the only man in the world who could perform the Indian rope trick.  An appointment was made, and either Mr Lewis or his son Reginald, or both, took photos of Karachi levitating a rope in the middle of Richmond Walk with the showmen’s caravans in the background.  The two performers were then driven to Roborough Downs on the edge of Dartmoor where they repeated the rope trick for a photograph with Kyder climbing the rope well away from any trees or buildings.  This is the famous photo which heads this article.  Three of the photos taken, including the famous one, were published for the first time in the Western Morning News (Plymouth, England), of November 22, 1934.  The captions stated that the photographer was Mr J. Lewis, and also that Karachi was prepared to perform the trick with any rope before any public assembly in the city, and he offered to pass around the rope after any demonstration so that it might be cut up or otherwise examined.

The showmen’s newspaper, The World’s Fair, put the photo with Kyder up the rope on its front page in the issue dated December 1, 1934, and accompanied it with a promotional story on page 41.  Again, the photographer’s name was given as Mr J. Lewis.

It cannot be established with certainty whether the photos came from the camera of Lewis senior or that of his photographer son, Reginald.  Wilfred J. Wilcocks of Newquay sent the photos on to The Listener, saying that in the Western Morning News of November 24, the photographer, Mr J. Lewis of Plymouth, declared that the photos were perfectly genuine and that he himself examined the rope that was used.[12]  The Listener published two photos on December 5 with the Wilcocks letter.  Two weeks later, Reginald Lewis had a lengthy letter in The Listener claiming that he had taken the photos and had examined the rope.  His letter implies that he examined the rope at both locations.[13]  A fortnight after that, a Plymouth conjurer, Henry A. Goad, had a letter in The Listener, saying he had been present at the Richmond Walk demonstration though not at Roborough Downs, that the photographer was “Mr Lewis” without specifying father or son, and that the rope was coiled, uncoiled, waved around, but never handed out for examination.[14]  Goad also stated that the day the photos at Richmond Walk were taken was a Sunday in November; whereas the Western Morning News of November 22 made it clear they were taken just the day before, i.e., Wednesday, November 21, 1934.

In view of these conflicting reports, it cannot now be established with certainty who took which photographs, nor do we know the exact day they were taken.  There are copyright implications of all this.  The photograph with Kyder up the rope began to be reproduced in many places, and so became famous.  For many years afterwards, Karachi himself used this famous photo in his publicity and autographed it for fans.[15]

In late 1934 Karachi had the idea of performing the rope trick on football grounds or in other public places to raise funds for hospitals and charities, retaining only a reasonable percentage for his living.  He believed perhaps 50,000 pounds could be raised in this way.[16]  But events took a strange turn.

It was at this time that Harry Price entered the scene.  Harry Price was an unusual figure in the magic world.  He was an amateur conjurer, a member of the Magic Circle, and a friend of Lt. Col. Elliot who headed the Magic Circle’s Occult Committee.  But unlike most magicians of his time, Price was prepared to entertain the possibility that some “supernatural” phenomena were genuine.  Price had established a laboratory to test the claims of spiritualists and other claimants to supernormal powers.  Whereas the Magic Circle’s Occult Committee was dedicated to denying all claims of the supernatural, Price approached all claims with an open mind – but also with a scientific eye, and a magician’s knowledge of trickery.

Karachi had never claimed that his rope trick was in any way supernatural, and Harry Price never suggested that it was, either.  But both men saw the possibility of great publicity with the trick.  Karachi as a showman naturally needed publicity, but Price also was always seeking publicity for his laboratory work.  The opportunity was opened for them by the fact that the Occult Committee had rashly declared the Indian rope trick impossible and had offered the 500 guinea reward for its performance.

Price, together with the editor of The Listener, arranged for Karachi and Kyder to come to London and perform their version of the trick in the open air.  Some preliminary feats were performed on December 31, 1934, and some excellent photos exist of Karachi and Kyder in their costumes with the rope erect at Dr C. E. M. Joad’s house at Hampstead.  Joad was a well known philosopher, writer and broadcaster of the time, and also a friend of Price.

Karachi’s complete trick, with Kyder climbing the rope, was performed in an open field at Wheathampstead on January 7, 1935 before a small audience.  On January 16, in an article in The Listener entitled, “I Have Seen the Indian Rope Trick,” [17] Harry Price told how the performers and the spectators put up with appalling weather.  Karachi began with “some clever sleight-of-hand work with a pack of cards which, after three minutes, were sodden with snow.”  After some rope-balancing feats, Karachi sent the rope up into the air about 8 feet and Kyder climbed it.  Photographs taken of this performance were published in Price’s article, but they are of very poor quality.  Gaumont-British Films were present, but the footage they took was not released.  Price himself also took movie footage of the performance, and later donated his film to the British Film Institute when the National Film Library was being established in 1935.[18]  In his article in The Listener, Price expressed his opinion that the rope was held up by a metal rod, for Karachi had asked for access to the field beforehand, during which time he was not to be spied upon.  The article ended, “I congratulated him upon his simulating the Rope Trick so cleverly and, with a little more showmanship, he could make it a convincing spectacle.  In the hands of a Houdini, it would look like a miracle.  But we are not grumbling.  We have seen the Rope Trick – and in a snowstorm!”

The editor of The Listener, R. S. Lambert, who had been present at the performance, was evidently not completely satisfied with Price’s assessment.  Unlike Price, it seems he was not conversant with magicians’ methods, and viewed the demonstration through the eyes of an ordinary spectator.  He added a footnote to Price’s article: “Our readers will note the extremely unfavourable conditions under which the above performance was given.  The field, chosen so that absence of trees might eliminate any possibility of overhead wires, etc., was of heavy clay soil, sodden with recent rains.  The intermittent sleet which swept the ground during the performance must have rendered manipulation of the rope unusually difficult.  Under these conditions, with ‘showmanship’ reduced to a minimum, Karachi’s achievement was remarkable…. Mr Price’s explanation of the method used is no doubt right in principle; but the spectators were left guessing as to the precise details of its application, which seem to require extraordinary dexterity.”

A week later in a letter to the editor of The Listener, Lt. Col. Elliot, who had not been present at the performance, weighed in with this comment: “I also had learnt the secret of Karachi’s trick from a gentleman who witnessed it, but did not reveal it because it is a strict rule with the conjuring profession not to give away each other’s methods … allow me to emphasize the importance of not accepting any of these items of evidence in support of the Rope Trick or of other so-called occult phenomena without the most careful examination beforehand … when the phenomena come under the critical scrutiny of those who are versed in the methods of deception, the whole structure tumbles in ruins about our ears, as it has done in Karachi’s case.” [19]

Like any showman, Karachi would have been pleased with all the publicity, but he would not have been pleased with the dismissal of his feat as a mere showman’s trick with such a simple explanation.  In the next issue of The Listener he pulled off a master stroke. His letter to the editor appeared under the headline, “Karachi Challenges the Magic Circle.”  It began:

“I am delighted with Mr. Harry Price’s guesses as to the principle used in my performance of the Indian Rope Trick.  Kyder is also delighted at these guesses!  I do not wish to be personal – I agree with respectability – but I must say that Kyder, although only eleven years old, knows more about the Indian Rope Trick than these scientists at present.”

Karachi pointed out the difficult weather conditions he faced on January 7.  He told the story of the Ghurka soldier.  Then he made this intriguing statement:  “I do not claim except as an illusion to perform the second part of the trick, the vanishing of the boy; but I do claim to perform the first part in such a way as is inexplicable to materialistic investigators.  Mr Price, after seeing my trick, thinks he knows how it is done.  But let me see the man who can actually perform such a feat!”

Then Karachi turned his guns on Lt. Col. Elliot, and continued, “the Occult Committee of the Magic Circle … say they have searched far and wide for a performer of the Trick, and have offered five hundred guineas to anyone who can perform it.  Now, Sir, these gentlemen have never faced Karachi, and Karachi will issue them a challenge….let them offer a reward of not five hundred, but of two hundred guineas, and I will perform the first part of the Rope Trick to their satisfaction upon the following terms”.

His terms were straightforward: the sum was to be lodged with a neutral party who would decide whether the performance was satisfactory; the rope would rise to a height of ten feet, Kyder would climb it, and remain at the top for 30 seconds to be photographed; the rope would be supplied by any well-known rope manufacturer, Karachi only specifying that it should have “a good grip”; the open place for performance would be chosen by the neutral party, but Karachi wanted access to it for 48 hours beforehand without being spied upon; and the rope would be handed to him after examination at the commencement of the performance, with the spectators remaining at a distance of not less than 15 yards in front of the carpet which marked out his performing area.

Karachi ended his letter with this astonishing statement: “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 Magic Circle is really seeking enlightenment it will accept my challenge, and this much disputed tradition will become a reality.” [20]

After this, the general public entered the fray.  A letter from Basil Holywell of Eastbourne asked, “Is Karachi a real person?  Or is he in league with the Magic Circle?  Is a paltry five or two hundred guineas going to stand in the way of the truth being finally exposed?  I am sure I speak in the name of many listeners when I say: Get on with it.  Let us have your challenges, your denials, your articles, your photographs, your Karachis, your Magic Circles, brought together and tested at the bar of public evidence.  Let the laws of gravity be defied by Karachi.  Let the Magic Circle be squared.” [21]

Elliot was furious, even to the point where he forgot for a moment the conjurers’ code of ethics.  His next letter fumed: “So far from giving Mr Darby 200 guineas for this trick, we would not give him twenty pence for it.  If he likes to challenge me I will tell your readers exactly how he does it.” [22]

The Magic Circle’s Occult Committee had staged a big meeting on April 30, 1934, where magicians and prominent people with much experience of India thought they had killed the Indian rope trick story stone dead.  That was when the 500 guinea reward was first announced.  But now, nine months later, things were getting out of hand!  Elliot made it clear the original offer still stood, but he wanted a disappearance of the boy at the top of the rope, and his purpose was to destroy the idea that the trick was supernatural.  He was, he said, not interested in Karachi’s rope trick as it was merely “a conjuring trick.”  From Elliot’s point of view, believing the complete trick was impossible, and believing that Blavatsky’s “mystic” theory of it was a foolish superstition, he felt justified in attacking Karachi in true military style.

But the public had little sympathy for Elliot and his Committee.  They sensed that Karachi was being unfairly treated, and the Plymouth showman began to receive enormous support.  In the next issue of The Listener three letters appeared accusing the Committee of cowardice.  Edward Pitt-Arkwright of Melton Mowbray wrote of “the Magic Circle, which, partly out of credulousness, and partly from apparent desire for publicity, has now got itself into the false position of first offering 500 guineas for the performance of a feat which it alleges to be impossible, and then running away from anyone who offers to demonstrate that it is possible.” [23]

P. W. F. Mills of Surbiton wrote: “Is the Magic Circle virtually offering 500 guineas for performance of a miracle?  Anything less is apparently dismissed as ‘a conjuring trick’.  Is it the Magic Circle as a whole, or only its Occult Committee, which has ceased to be interested in conjuring tricks?” [24]

Hugh Morrison of Manchester wrote: “the London conjurers have become suddenly nervous and have refused Karachi’s challenge.  They are afraid.  But in common justice to the Plymouth showman, they should stifle their timidity and give him a chance.  Should Karachi fail to win their award, Colonel Elliot and his friends can hold another meeting and kill the Rope Trick all over again.” [25]

Of course, Lt. Col. Elliot had his supporters, such as A. Levey of Deptford who wrote: “it is little short of impudence on the part of Karachi’s supporters to take up this challenge and so to distort its meaning as to make it cover Karachi’s performance.” [26]

But most interesting was a second letter from Manchester’s Hugh Morrison, who was evidently a member of the Magic Circle, or at any rate had access to the Circle’s exclusive periodical, The Magic Circular.  He wrote again to The Listener with a quote from the Circle’s publication, and commented: “It is obvious that many members of the Magic Circle expect Karachi’s challenge to be accepted, and will be disappointed if it is not.” [27]

Karachi’s challenge was never accepted, but he had reaped months of free publicity, and his fame was greater at this point than at any other time in his life.  To this day, not only some members of the Magic Circle, but magicians generally, have cause to regret that his challenge was never taken up.  What he said he would do, on a raised table, out of doors, away from trees and buildings, would have been quite incredible.  He would not have made this very public challenge if he could not deliver the goods.

The pretend dispute in the pages of The Listener between Karachi and Harry Price over how the trick was done is shown in a different light by Harry Price’s biographer, Paul Tabori.  After Price’s death in 1948, Tabori was the administrator of Price’s literary estate, and so had full access to all Price’s correspondence.  In his biography of Price, Tabori wrote: “When he staged the demonstration of the Indian Rope Trick with the conjurer Karachi, he took every care to have the interest of his fellow magicians protected.  Harry Price emphasized throughout the experiment that it was a ‘trick’ and not some supernatural achievement.  Karachi wrote to him after the demonstration: ‘I agree it was a poor show, but you are a man of common sense and quite know the difficult condition.  It was actually snowing at the time …’  Surely, a poor setting for an Indian rope trickster!  Karachi, however, challenged the world to do better – and no one took up the challenge.  Harry Price a little later, invented a mechanical rope for the rope trick. ‘This would make a good rope for the trick,’ he wrote to Karachi, ‘and I may make a short piece as a specimen.’  Karachi, in turn, told him the principle on which he based his trick, though he gave no details.  Nine months later he offered Harry Price the secret for £50, but the offer was gently and politely refused.” [28]

The two men had obviously become good friends, and had milked the situation for all they could get, resulting in splendid publicity for them both.

With fame came some changes to Karachi’s act.  From now on the Indian rope trick would be the great feature of his performance.  It defined him as a magician.  He became not just Karachi, but “The Great Karachi.”  He appeared before royalty (probably King George V, although this is not certain  –  three kings occupied the throne of England in rapid succession in 1936, George V, Edward VIII, and George VI).  Thereafter, Karachi’s advertising included the line, “Under Royal Patronage.”

World War II brought enormous changes to all in Britain, and Arthur Darby and his family were not exempt.  For a time before the war Arthur owned a cafe in Southampton, but this was bombed and destroyed.[29]  Kyder, or “Boy Kyder” as he was sometimes called, was growing up, and outgrowing his role as climber of the rope.  Cyril, to give him his real name, began work as a hotel page boy, but joined the Royal Navy in World War II.  He was in the landing craft during the invasions of Sicily and France. [30] 

Karachi himself performed with ENSA, the organization which sent shows to entertain the troops.  He performed before allied troops in England, France, Belgium and Germany, and his rope trick was seen by thousands of wounded American and British troops in those countries. [31]

In 1944, Karachi built up an ambitious full evening variety show and took it on tour.  An advertisement in the theatrical paper, The Stage, announced: Under Royal Patronage, “The Box Office Attraction” – THE GREAT KARACHI – KING OF MAGICIANS, The only man in the world who performs the Indian Rope Trick, with his BIG ROAD SHOW and his All Star Variety Artists.[32]  This would have been an excellent show, for he was supported by some of the top artists of the day: Jack Strand, a well known comedian, eccentric dancer and producer; Billy Newman, a comedian who had done much work with ENSA; Edna Graham, no, not the famous New Zealand-born soprano but a brilliant and glamorous xylophonist; and Will Ray and Partner, a veteran British comedy juggling duo; plus quite a few others.  The show played in the Midlands in that year, appearing at the Mechanics’ Theatre, Bradford (“All Records Broken” according to the theatre’s operator, Eric Martin, though admittedly he was fond of saying that!), and at the King’s Theatre, Gainsborough on November 6.  The show’s manager was Jack Humphrey. [33]

After the war, in 1947 Cyril migrated to Australia, settling in Perth, W.A.  He worked as a machinist for G. G. Martins Electrical Engineering firm.  Cyril must have given a very favourable picture of opportunities in a new land, for on December 10, 1948, Arthur and Polly, together with their three youngest daughters, Josephine, Gloria and Olive, left England on the migrant ship, M. V. Dorsetshire, bound for Western Australia.  Cyril was their sponsor.  Horrie was still in the army in Egypt, but met up with them briefly at Port Said.  He was to follow them to Australia later.  During the voyage Arthur performed his rope trick for the passengers and crew, although no one climbed the rope on board ship.

Arthur, Polly and the three girls arrived in Fremantle in January 1949, and the Perth newspapers were quickly made aware that the famous Indian rope trick performer had arrived.  The West Australian of January 18, 1949, was the first to announce he was in town, and mentioned he had been performing the trick for 15 years in England.[34]  The Daily News of January 22 carried good publicity, saying that Arthur was looking for “a small boy, a monkey, or a cockatoo to climb the rope when he performs the Indian rope trick.”  The story also stated that Arthur offered 500 pounds to any charity if any person could prove that the rope had any connection or any material in it to make it rigid. [35]

Then on January 25, The West Australian carried a letter signed “Len Flood” objecting to Arthur’s claims that the trick was “genuine” and that he was the only man in the world who could do it.  Mr Flood considered the claims “a publicity stunt,” insisted the Indian rope trick was a myth, and challenged Arthur to perform it.  “A rope cannot remain suspended in mid-air without aid of some kind” he wrote. [36]

Arthur’s spirited reply appeared in the newspaper’s correspondence column the following Monday: “May I state that he does not know what the rope trick is.  Where does he get his information?  I don’t talk about it; I perform it.” [37]

This exchange looks very much like a publicity stunt arranged by the two letter writers, and is reminiscent of the Harry Price – Karachi exchange in The Listener in England years earlier.  Digging down into old documents, magician and journalist Jamie Bentley, who had been a member of the West Australian Society of Magicians (WASM) in the 1950s, uncovered some old lists of members which contained the two names, A. Darby and L. Flood.  This certainly seemed to add weight to the idea that this exchange of letters was a conspiracy. [38]  Yet, when I questioned them, the more senior members of WASM could not remember Karachi attending any club functions, although some did remember Karachi’s performances in Perth.

Further enquiries revealed the astonishing truth: the A. Darby listed as a member of WASM in the 1950s turned out to be another man entirely.  He was Alvin Darby, who called himself “The Great Alvini.”  Like Arthur, he was a magician, a ventriloquist and an artist. [39]

But Karachi was a loner in the magic world.  He was very secretive, not a joiner of magic societies, and always suspicious that other magicians were trying to delve into his secrets, and especially into the secret of his rope trick.  Perhaps his experiences in England with the pretended “rewards” offered by prominent magicians for a performance of the rope trick affected his opinion of other magicians permanently.

Cyril was now too big to climb the rope, but Arthur’s daughters, Josephine and Gloria, were perfect as assistants for his illusions.  Karachi built and performed the standard illusions of the 40s and 50s.  These included the Dagger Box, where a girl’s head was penetrated by a number of knives and then vanished; the Head on the Sword, where a disembodied head was balanced on a sword placed across the arms of an impressive throne; and the Levitation, where 16 year old Gloria floated in mid air.  But the Indian rope trick was, and always would be, his great feature act.  Karachi now built up a travelling tent show with which to tour Australia.  He painted his own vivid signs, his “flash” as he called it, with an illustration of an oriental magician on a magic carpet and the rope rising like a giant cobra, and signage which proclaimed him as “King of Magicians” and “The Man Who Challenged the Magic Circle.”

Before the year was out, Arthur received a terrible blow.  His beloved Polly died suddenly at home on December 8, 1949.  She was only 50 years of age.  In the heat of a Perth summer, she was laid to rest the very next day in the Karrakatta cemetery. [40]

Towards the end of 1950, Karachi was advertising and promoting his magic in a Perth newspaper: “THE Great Karachi King of Magicians, under Royal Patronage, Illusionist, Hypnotist, Ventriloquist, Society entertainer, including Indian rope trick. Terms moderate.” [41]

A story with pictures appeared in the Australian magazine, PEOPLE, telling of the Cottesloe Rope Trick Expert “who also claims to cure and prophesy.”  It seems Arthur also dabbled in mentalism and curative hypnosis. [42]

My enquiries in Perth unearthed several people who witnessed Karachi’s rope trick at the Perth Royal Show in the early 1950s.  By far the best description came from Mike Roeger, who is not a magician, but has always been fascinated by magic, and whose memory of what he saw as a ten year old boy is remarkable:

“I saw his performance several times at the Perth Royal Show around 1953.  He had a rope about 6-metres long and about 10cms thick.  He (he was always dressed like an Indian sultan with a jewelled turban) started by laying the rope full length across the front of the performing area then ‘whipping’ the end to send waves through the length of the rope.  This showed us that the rope was quite flexible and limp.  He then knelt at one end of the rope and starting with the end worked the length through his hands all the while making a hissing noise at the rope … As the rope passed through his hands it became stiff so he could direct it up until the end touched the top of the tent … he seemed to twist at the rope as he passed it through his hands … When he had stood holding the rope now erect and touching the tent he suddenly gave it a shake and it fell to the ground, limp as before … he could return the rope to its flexible state so quickly … He did another demonstration with the rope; very similar.  He manhandled the rope into the shape of a cobra about to strike.  Then shook it loose as before.  Nobody at any point climbed the rope or disappeared and the rope never moved of its own accord.” [43]

Jamie Bentley also has a distinct memory of Karachi hissing at the rope which lay in a coil.  The showman would take a deep breath, then hiss loudly as he sent up each coil, until the end of the rope almost touched the top of the tent about 12 feet above the ground.  Both witnesses thought the hissing was simply showmanship, and not an effort to cover up some other sound.  Both thought it very effective and memorable.  Jamie remembers the trick being performed in the centre of the tent with an audience standing all around.  Mike, on the other hand, saw performances where there was a stage on which Karachi performed illusions and his card manipulations (which were his best feats, Mike thought).  But when it came time to do the rope trick, Karachi stepped down onto the grass in front of the stage, and the keen-eyed Mike, in the front row of seats, was only about one and a half metres from the spectacle of the rope rising and collapsing.

This, then, seems to be the version of the trick with which Karachi toured around Australia.  In 1952 he worked with the promoters, Greenhalgh and Jackson, who ran many sideshows in the “sideshow alleys” of the Royal Agricultural Shows.  These Shows ran consecutively around the entire country.  This was the “show circuit” which had showmen working for much of the year.  Several excellent magicians worked this circuit very profitably in those days.  Sadly, today, the entertainers are gone, and the sideshows only have games and rides.  Newspaper advertisements from 1952 indicate that Karachi appeared in Sydney in April of that year, Cairns in July, Brisbane in August, and Adelaide in September, and of course many smaller towns in between.  Yet, surprisingly, I have found no magicians in the eastern states who remember him.  This really underscores his secrecy and unwillingness to mix with other magicians.

Things changed for Arthur in the late 1950s.  His family had grown up and moved on to live their own lives, and Arthur toured less and went to board with a widow in Perth named Beatrice Barlow Joyce.  The companionship must have suited them both, for he lived with Beatrice for many years in Wellington Street, East Perth.  He painted the front of her weatherboard house with murals which made it quite a local attraction for a long time.  Beatrice’s granddaughter, Maureen Roberts, remembers him as “Uncle Arthur,” and as a wonderful artist.  Maureen’s parents had a beautiful lake scene painted by Arthur over the fireplace in their home, and the neighbours next door had a mural of white swans on a lake.  Arthur also painted murals in public places around Perth, signing them “A .C. Darby,” but none seem to remain today.

At this time Arthur was still performing his rope trick, which Maureen remembers seeing both in the tent and at parties in her parents’ house.  She gives a very different description of the indoor trick which she saw more than once.  Arthur placed the rope into a basket about the size of an ottoman footstool.  It had a hinged lid which was closed.  Then Arthur played upon a flute, the basket lid moved and fell open, and the rope, untouched by Arthur, rose up out of the basket to the music, wavering at first like a snake.  Then it rose straight up as high as the ceiling.  At the end, the rope just collapsed, dropping to the floor. [44]

To magicians it is evident that Arthur had several different methods for performing his rope trick.  I do not doubt that he obtained a method in his early years which he regarded as a “genuine Indian method.”  But his inventiveness, and his adoption of the trick as his signature piece, meant that he developed the Indian rope trick to a greater extent than any other 20th century magician until the time of the Indian performer, Ishamuddin, in the 1990s.

Even in his earliest days of performing the trick, Arthur had different versions of it.  In January 1935, W. Ingles Rogers, the editor of the showmen’s newspaper, The World’s Fair, wrote to The Listener quoting a letter he had received from Karachi describing the effect of his performance: “I will take a thick rope, one usually used in a tug-of-war, manipulate this rope so that it will stand on its end on the ground, will then produce coloured fires, without any wires or batteries, and then what appears to be a small boy or monkey will slither up the rope and disappear.” [45]

Maureen Roberts remembers her Uncle Arthur as a snappy dresser, and always well groomed.  She also remembers another curious fact.  It seems Karachi soaked his ropes before a show.  Maureen remembers the ropes soaking in some solution in the cement troughs in the laundry.  It sometimes caused trouble with the womenfolk when they wanted to wash!  He was fastidious about appearances, so was he simply washing his ropes?  Or did he impregnate the rope with some “solution” which made it rigid or slack as he required?  Today’s magicians know of no such product.  But if there was such a substance, it could well explain how he could make his 500 pound guarantee that there was no mechanism inside the rope, and nothing attached to the rope to draw it upwards; and the rope really could be examined and cut up afterwards without revealing any secret mechanism.  Personally, I think he was just washing his ropes, but who knows?

Arthur’s son, Horrie, still has two of his father’s ropes, just ordinary manila ropes about as thick as a man’s arm.  Horrie told me how sometimes when travelling an emergency would arise where a vehicle had to be towed.  Karachi would bring out the Indian ropes, and they would be used as towropes.  This story seems to negate the theories of those who postulate some ingenious or delicate mechanism inside the rope.

The tendency towards secrecy has come down in the family.  When I first spoke to Horrie, one of the first things he said to me was, “I don’t know how the rope trick was done, and if I did know I wouldn’t tell you!”  Karachi’s granddaughter, Carlene, told me that her mother, Gloria, knew how the trick was done but would not tell her children.  She said a magician’s secrets should die with him, and the old showman’s grandchildren accepted that.  Carlene says, “In fact, it is nice we don’t know as it then can’t be exploited and it keeps the mystery alive.”  Karachi would be delighted that his secrets are still secure!

Maureen Roberts told me that when Arthur was staying with her grandmother Beatrice he would sometimes disappear for weeks or months and they never knew where he went.  My public requests for information in the “Can You Help?” columns in The West Australian brought me the following letter from Peter Thorpe which shows that the old magician never lost his attachment to his wandering showman’s style of life:

“In the late 50s or early 60s Mr Gan Leuba brought a character home from Perth.  His name was known as Karachi – a magician and artist.  The town was Perenjori, a wheat farming area 220 miles north of Perth.  Karachi, known as ‘The Great Karachi,’ stayed in our home for several months.  At our Agriculture Show, Gan organised a shed at the show grounds and he performed his tricks.  I think entrance was 10 pence.  If memory serves me correct he was not a wealthy man and arrived with only a small suitcase, including magician’s tricks.  For board he did odd jobs for Gan (who owned our house) and painted a mural on our kitchen wall about 8 ft high and 4 ft wide.  I think it might have displayed the Taj Mahal (only guessing).  However it was very impressive.  He certainly had talent.  We left Perenjori in late 60s and the house was pulled down.  I do not know about the painting as the walls were asbestos.  I do not know where he went after that but this man was definitely ‘The Great Karachi.’” [46]

It is interesting to note that in the electoral roll of 1949 when he first arrived in Perth, and again later in 1968, Arthur gave his occupation as “artist.”  But in between, in 1958, he gave it as “showman.”

Arthur Darby, “The Great Karachi,” died suddenly on July 17, 1970 aged 82.  He is buried in Perth’s Karrakatta cemetery with his wife Polly and a grandson, Arthur John Hendry, who was accidentally killed on November 13, 1971, at the age of 22 years. [47

Cyril, who had been “Boy Kyder,” married, but he and his wife Lillian had no children.  Cyril died on April 1, 1987, aged 63, and is buried in the Lakes Memorial Park Cemetery in Mandurah, W.A. [48]

But as long as magic enthusiasts discuss the Indian rope trick, this father and son will never be forgotten.  Their robed figures against the background of the Devon moorlands form THE enduring image of the most famous of all magic’s illusions.

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By the same author:

“Documents Concerning Marie-Anne Lenormand: The True History of a Fortune-Teller”

These revealing documents, many translated from 19th century French originals, uncover the real personality of the celebrated prophetess, and expose her devious methods of predicting the future.

Free for all to read at:  http://jimmckeague.wordpress.com

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References:

[1] The name Arthur Claude Darby is often misspelled in magicians’ literature and other documents.  The spelling I give here is in accordance with his birth certificate, his tombstone, and family usage.

[2] “Watchmaker and jeweller” is from the 1911 census.  In other places Horace is described as a “jeweller (notem)” or as a “journeyman jeweller.”

[3] I first interviewed Horrie Darby by phone on January 22, 2013.

[4] Passenger list for M.V. “Dorsetshire” of the Orient Line, voyage departing Liverpool December 10, 1948.

[5] Originally from an unnamed English source, this story was retold in the Mirror (Perth, W.A.), Saturday, June 15, 1935, page 9; and also in the Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, N.S.W.), Saturday, July 13, 1935, page 6.

[6] Advertisement in The Stage (London, England), Thursday, November 9, 1944, page 5.

[7] The World’s Fair (England), Saturday, December 1, 1934, page 41.

[8] Blavatsky, H.P., Isis Unveiled (Bouton, N.Y., 1877), Part I, chapter 13.

[9] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, May 16, 1934, page 843.

[10] Western Morning News (Plymouth, England), Friday, November 23, 1934, page 8.

[11] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, December 19, 1934, page 1043.

[12] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, December 5, 1934, page 959; and Western Morning News (Plymouth, England), Saturday, November 24, 1934, page 10.

[13] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, December 19, 1934, page 1043.

[14] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, January 2, 1935, page 36.

[15] The National Archive of Australia has a copy of this photograph (image no. A1861:7671) autographed with the words, “Yours truly Karachi and Boy Kyder.”  The Archive dates it to 1955.

[16] Western Morning News (Plymouth, England), Friday, November 23, 1934, page 8; and The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, December 19, 1934, page 1043.

[17] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, January 16, 1935, page 98.  This article, somewhat edited, was reprinted as Chapter XXI of Price’s book, Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter (Putnam, 1936), but in the book Price’s suggested method of how the trick was done was omitted, as was the editor’s footnote.

[18] Dundee Courier and Advertiser (Dundee, Scotland), Monday, July 15, 1935, page 6.

[19] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, January 23, 1935, page 163.

[20] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, January 30, 1935, page 204.

[21] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, February 6, 1935, page 252.

[22] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, February 13, 1935, page 294.

[23][24][25] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, February 20, 1935, page 334.

[26] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, March 6, 1935, page 421.

[27] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, March 20, 1935, page 506.

[28] Tabori, Paul, Harry Price – the Biography of a Ghost-Hunter (Sphere Books, 1974 – the Dennis Wheatley paperback edition), page 60.

[29] Arthur’s granddaughter, Carlene, daughter of Gloria, told me this in February 2013.

[30] These details of Cyril’s life come from his brother, Horrie.

[31] Horrie told me of ENSA.  The other details in this paragraph come from a letter published by Karachi in The West Australian (Perth, W.A.), Monday, January 31, 1949, page 17.

[32] The Stage (London, England), Thursday, September 14, 1944, page 5.

[33] The Stage (London, England), Thursday, November 9, 1944, page 5.

[34] The West Australian (Perth, W.A.), Tuesday, January 18, 1949, page 7.

[35] The Daily News (Perth, W.A.), Saturday, January 22, 1949, page 19.

[36] The West Australian (Perth, W.A.), Tuesday, January 25, 1949, page 11.

[37] The West Australian (Perth, W.A.), Monday, January 31, 1949, page 17.

[38] These lists of members were printed on the backs of the menus for the WASM Annual Dinners for 1953 and 1958.

[39] For this amazing detective work, my sincere thanks are due to the office bearers and senior members of WASM who have been very kind to me. Even 102 year old Alfredo DeCampe took the trouble to write to me with his memories of Karachi.  The names of these and other helpful past and present members are included in my “thank you list” below.

[40] Polly Darby’s death notice and funeral notice appeared in The West Australian (Perth, W.A.), Friday, December 9, 1949, page 1.

[41] See, for one example, The Daily News (Perth, W.A.), Saturday, November 11, 1950, page 22.

[42] PEOPLE, issue on sale October 18, 1950.  I have not been successful in locating a copy of this issue.  A collection of PEOPLE is in the National Library of Australia in Canberra, but this issue was not in that collection when my researcher, Jan Conoplia, requested it.  The information given here is from a newspaper advertisement for it which can be found in The West Australian (Perth, W.A.), Wednesday, October 18, 1950, page 10.

[43] Emails and phone calls exchanged with Mike Roeger, January, 2013.

[44] Emails and phone calls exchanged with Maureen Roberts, January, 2013.

[45] The Listener (London, England), Wednesday, January 2, 1935, page 36.

[46] Letter from Peter Thorpe dated January 21, 2013.

[47] Jamie Bentley found the grave and photographed it for me: Karrakatta Cemetery, Roman Catholic Section ZA, grave no. 0125.  The grant for this grave expired in 1999, but at the time of writing it has not yet been disturbed.

[48] The Lakes Memorial Park Cemetery, Mandurah, W.A., Section 1, grave no. 140.

Acknowledgements:

My special thanks to Arthur Darby’s son Horrie Darby and granddaughters Carlene Davidson and Sandra Thomson, and also to: Rene Ahnstrom; Australian National Archive; Jamie Bentley; British Newspaper Archive; Noel Clutterbuck; Jan Conoplia; Patrick Cordier; Alfredo DeCampe; Angela Greenwood and the National Fairground Archive, Sheffield, UK; Jim Hanney; Jenny Kohlen and the “Can You Help” column of The West Australian; The Listener Historical Archive; Jan Masson; Ian Moffat; Vicki Morrow; National Library of Australia; David J. O’Connor; Maureen Roberts; Mike Roeger; Dorothea Thompson; Peter Thorpe; Tom Tulp; Steve Walker; and finally many thanks to my “silent partner” who edits and puts my material online – couldn’t do it without you, Andrew!