The Magic of Chivalry

Chivalry isn’t dead unless you want it dead.

The magician P.T. Selbit performs his famous illusion in 1937
The magician P.T. Selbit performs his famous illusion in 1937 (photo: Jasper Maskelyne / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

One hundred years ago, a British magician named P.T. Selbit appeared onstage at London’s Finsbury Park Empire Theatre and accomplished the impossible. 

Admittedly, all magicians do the impossible but Selbit’s trick was so outstanding that it’s still considered not only iconic in terms of stage magic but also the standard by which all magic — and all jokes about magic — is judged.

Further, there are very few magic tricks that translate into the general human consciousness, but Selbit’s was so profound that it is incumbent for all men and women of virtue — not only magicians but muggles as well — to learn from.

On Jan. 17, 1921, Selbit sawed a lady in half. It didn’t go well.

His first public performance of the stage illusion featured Selbit (Selbit is the backward spelling of his actual surname, Tibbles) sawing his hotel’s bellboy in half. His illusion was an abject failure and was greeted only with polite and unencouraging applause. Selbit was taken aback.

When the boy didn’t return for the next night’s performance, Selbit panicked and begged his assistant, Betty Barker, to pinch hit for the AWOL sky cap. She entered the box to an immediately alert audience which had been stunned into silence. When her limbs were stretched out of the holes in the sides and ends of the box and tied with ropes to keep her immobile, women in the audience gasped and men got to their feet. 

“Here! Here!” the men shouted warning Selbit to cease accosting the poor lady-in-the-box. The stunned magician turned to receive an enormous two-man saw handed to him by yet another assistant. As soon as the audience caught sight of the murder weapon which would figure prominently at Selbit’s upcoming murder trial — if he survived the evening’s performance — the men in the audience rushed the stage to put an end to this vile attack on a young woman’s virtue. The theater’s security had to physically block those intent on rescuing the fair damsel’s life. Beat cops, alerted by the bedlam that had broken out in the theatre, came in the nick of time to save Selbit from what might have turned out to be a lynching. (Talk about dying on stage!)

The two half-boxes containing pieces of Betty were separated to show that the poor woman had indeed been murdered. Women fainted. Children cried and hid their eyes. Snarling men rolled up their sleeves in preparing to fight Selbit threatening to do the same or worse to him than what he was doing to the young flower of womanhood in his confounded, infernal box.

Without wasting anytime, Selbit quickly concluded the show by positioning the two half-boxes as they had been originally. He opened the lid and there stood a resplendent and very much intact Miss Barker. The grateful audience erupted in cheers, showering Selbit with praise and heartfelt thanks and applause. The theater manager brought him a bouquet of flowers and shook his hand amid copious tears. Selbit was stunned at the audience’s reaction, especially in light of the previous evening’s anticlimactic fiasco.

And then it hit him like an frightened rabbit jumping unrepentantly out of a top hat.

T’was chivalry — or lack thereof — that nearly did in Selbit and his career.

Chivalry isn’t spoken about a great deal these days thanks to people who view it — God help us — as the “cause” of suffering rather than the remission and cure of suffering. Catholics have for decades tried to explain that Christian chivalry is based on charitable respect for women and others who need a champion. That’s how you make a Christian gentleman.

Inside every successful marriage is a gallant and uxorious husband who would lay down his life for his lady fair just because he loves her, and not necessarily because she still laughs at his jokes. Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.

All gentlemen have two jobs: first, the job which provides a paycheck; and second, the job that gives him life, love and a chance at immortality.

Chivalry isn’t dead unless you want it dead. Therein lies the difference between the self-destructiveness of toxic feminism, and the sanctity and wisdom of the Church. Some people prefer to wallow in their misery while others prefer to hold a door open for lady with a baby in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other.

Women, and the men who love them — we make a great life-giving team.