Selbit was born Percy Thomas Tibbles in Hampstead, London, in 1881. He was to take his stage name by reversing his surname, subtracting one of the Bs, but that was to come much later.
He developed an interest in magic in his youth when he was apprenticed to a silversmith. The cellar beneath the shop was used by the magician, Charles Morritt, to develop his tricks.
Yorkshire born Morritt was interesting in his own right, being the man who taught Harry Houdini how to disappear an elephant, but sadly his name does not begin with the letter S!
However, Morritt gave the young Tibbles his first lessons in magic and his sorcerer’s apprentice took to the stage at an early age with a coin and card manipulation act in his new persona as P. T. Selbit.
He also worked as a journalist for a theatrical newspaper, edited a trade journal for magicians and wrote The Magician’s Handbook which is still available today, at least as an eBook.
Like other performers of the early 20th century, Selbit worked the music halls and in 1910 he toured with his Spirited Paintings illusion in which members of the audience were asked to name an artist and paintings in that artist’s style would appear on an illuminated canvas.
In 1912 Selbit began working for Maskelyne and Devant who were the great powerhouses of magic shows in the UK and he toured the music halls and America’s vaudeville circuit presenting Devant’s ‘Window of a Haunted House’ illusion.
Selbit was also an inventor of his own illusions which culminated in ‘Sawing a Woman in Half’ which he first performed at the Finsbury Park Empire theatre in London in January 1921.
The format of the trick was the one we’re familiar with. Selbit’s glamorous assistant climbed into the wooden box and secured by rope at wrist, ankle and neck. The box was closed and Selbit set to work with a large hand saw.
The trick was a sensation. The post-war audiences had grown tired of old-style mystery and were in the mood for something more shocking which Selbit and his saw provided.
It also marked the introduction of the cliché of the glamorous assistant (in this case a woman named Betty Barker) at a time when other women were campaigning for universal suffrage and some of the popularity of the act stemmed from the frisson of a man exerting control over a woman.
Selbit even offered the leading suffragette Christabel Pankhurst £20 a week to act as his ‘sawing-block’. She declined.
Other magicians rushed to create their own versions of the trick and soon the American Horace Goldin was performing something similar in which his assistant’s head, hands and feet were in full view of the audience throughout the trick.
Goldin registered as many titles for the act as he could think of with the Vaudeville Managers’ Protective Agency and when Selbit arrived in America he was forced to tour with ‘The Divided Woman’ which didn’t have the same dramatic impact.
As a result, Selbit failed to achieve the same success in the States as he had in the UK and he returned home in 1922 to begin work on new illusions. These included ‘Stretching a Girl’, ‘Selbit’s Blocks’ and the ‘Siberian Chain Escape’ which have been performed by subsequent generations of magicians.
And I would recommend watching the Penn and Teller video about his ‘Mighty Cheese‘ illusion!
Selbit died in 1938 aged 57, but he is still acknowledged as one of the magical greats. The UK performer, Paul Daniels recreated Selbit’s ‘Sawing Through a Woman’ trick for tv which you can watch below.