The account that follows was recorded in the Memoirs of Jean Robert-Houdin, the most celebrated magician of all time. It describes the 'Turk' or Chess-player of Wolfgang von Kempelen, itself the most celebrated illusion in the world, which played against many heads of state including Napoleon and the Empress Catherine of All the Russias. Robert-Houdin admits that he did not see the Turk in action. If he had, he would certainly have questioned many of the 'facts' in this story. In fact, nothing in this account is true, although it remains to this day the most well-known description of this remarkable illusion.
The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin
My story commences in Russia: the first division of Poland in 1792 had produced a certain fermentation, the effects of which were felt some years later. In 1796, a revolt broke out in a half-Russian, half-Polish regiment stationed at Riga, at the head of the rebels being an officer of the name of Worousky, a man of great talent and energy. He was of short stature, but well built; and he exercised such influence, that the troops sent to suppress the revolt were beaten back with considerable loss. However, reinforcements came from St. Petersburg, and the insurgents were defeated in a pitched battle. A great number perished, and the rest took to flight across the marshes, where the soldiers pursued them, with orders to grant no quarter.
In this rout Worousky had both thighs shattered by a cannon-ball, and fell on the battle-field; however, he escaped from the general massacre by throwing himself into a ditch behind a hedge. At nightfall Worousky dragged himself along with great difficulty to the adjacent house of a physician of the name of Osloff, whose benevolence was well known, and the doctor, moved by his sufferings, attended upon, and promised to conceal, him. His wound was serious, but the doctor felt confident of curing him, until gangrene set in, and his life could only be saved at the cost of half his body. The amputation was successful, and Worousky saved.
During this time, M. de Kempelen, a celebrated Viennese mechanician, came to Russia to pay a visit to M. Osloff, with whom he had long been acquainted. He was travelling about to learn foreign languages, the study of which he afterwards displayed in his splendid work on the "Mechanism of Words," published at Vienna in 1791. M. de Kempelen stopped a short time in every country the language of which he desired to learn, and his aptitude was so great that he acquired it very speedily.
This visit was the more agreeable to the doctor, as for some time he had been alarmed as to the consequences of the noble action he had performed; he feared being compromised if it were found out, and his embarrassment was extreme, for, living alone with an old housekeeper, he had no one to consult or to help him. Hence, he told M. de Kempelen his secret, and begged his aid. Though at first startled by sharing such a secret-for he knew that a reward was offered for the insurgent chief, and that the act of humanity he was about to help in might send him to Siberia-still, M. de Kempelen, on seeing Worousky's mutilated body, felt moved with compassion, and began contriving some plan to secure his escape.
Dr. Osloff was a passionate lover of chess, and had played numerous games with his patient during his tardy convalescence; but Worousky was so strong at the game that the doctor was always defeated. Then Kempelen joined the doctor in trying to defeat the skilful player, but it was of no use; Worousky was always the conqueror. His superiority gave M. de Kempelen the idea of the famous Automaton Chess-player. In an instant his plan was formed, and he set to work immediately. The most remarkable circumstance is, that this wonderful chef-d'oeuvre, which astonished the whole world, was invented and finished within three months.
M. de Kempelen was anxious his host should make the first essay of his automaton; so, he invited him to play a game on the 10th October, 1796. The automaton represented a Turk of the natural size, wearing the national costume, and seated behind a box of the shape of a chest of drawers. In the middle of the top of the box was a chess-board.
Prior to commencing the game, the artist opened several doors in the chest, and M. Osloff could see inside a large number of wheels, pulleys, cylinders, springs, &c., occupying the larger part. At the same time, he opened a long drawer, from which he produced the chessmen and a cushion, on which the Turk was to rest his arm. This examination ended, the robe of the automaton was raised, and the interior of the body could also be inspected.
The doors being then closed, M. de Kempelen wound up one of the wheels with a key he inserted in a hole in the chest; after which the Turk, with a gentle nod of salutation, placed his hand on one of the pieces, raised it, deposited it on another square, and laid his arm on the cushion before him. The inventor had stated that, as the automaton could not speak, it would signify check to the king by three nods, and to the queen by two.
The doctor moved in his turn, and waited patiently till his adversary, whose movements had all the dignity of the Sultan he represented, had moved. The game, though slow at first, soon grew animated, and the doctor found he had to deal with a tremendous opponent; for, in spite of all his efforts to defeat the figure, his game was growing quite desperate. It is true, though, that for some minutes past, the doctor's attention had appeared to be distracted, and one idea seemed to occupy him. But while hesitating whether he should impart his thoughts to his friend, the figure gave three nods. The game was over.
"By Jove!" the loser said, with a tinge of vexation, which the sight of the inventor's smiling face soon dispelled, "if I were not certain Worousky is at this moment in bed, I should almost believe I had been playing with him. His head alone is capable of inventing such a checkmate. And besides," the doctor said, looking fixedly at M. Kempelen, "can you tell me why your automaton plays with the left hand, just like Worousky?"*
The mechanician began laughing, and not wishing to prolong the mystification, the prelude to so many others, he confessed to his friend that he had really been playing with Worousky.
"But where the deuce have you put him, then?" the doctor said, looking round to try and discover his opponent.
The inventor laughed heartily.
"Well! do you not recognise me?" the Turk exclaimed, holding out his left hand to the doctor in reconciliation, while Kempelen raised the robe, and displayed the poor cripple stowed away in the body of the automaton.
M. Osloff could no longer keep his countenance, and he joined the others in their laughter. But he was the first to stop, for he wanted an explanation.
"But how do you manage to render Worousky invisible?"
M. de Kempelen then explained how he concealed the living automaton before it entered the Turk's body.
"See here!" he said, opening the chest, "these wheels, pulleys, and cranks occupying a portion of the chest, are only a deception. The frames that support them are hung on hinges, and can be turned back to leave space for the player while you were examining the body of the automaton.
"When this inspection was ended, and as soon as the robe was allowed to fall, Worousky entered the Turk's body we have just examined, and, while I was showing you the box and the machinery, he was taking his time to pass his arms and hands into those of the figure. You can understand that, owing to the size of the neck, which is hidden by the broad and enormous collar, he can easily pass his head into this mask, and see the chess-board. I must add, that when I pretend to wind up the machine, it is only to drown the sound of Worousky's movements."
"Very good, then," the doctor replied, to show he perfectly understood the plan; "while I was examining the chest, my confounded Worousky was in the Turk's body, and when the robe was lifted, he had passed into the chest. I frankly allow," M. Osloff added, "that I was done by this ingenious arrangement; but I console myself with the idea that cleverer persons than I will be deceived."
The three friends were the more delighted by the result of this private rehearsal, as this instrument furnished an excellent means of escape for the poor prisoner, and at the same time assured him a livelihood. The same evening the road by which the frontier should be reached was agreed on, as well as the precautions to be taken during the journey. It was also arranged that, in order to arouse no suspicions, performances should be given in all the towns they passed through, beginning with Toula, Kalouga, Smolensk, &c.
A month later, Worousky, now entirely recovered, gave a first specimen of his marvellous skill to a numerous audience at Toula. I possess a copy of the original bill, which was given me by M. Hessler, nephew of Dr. Osloff, who also supplied me with all these details. Worousky won every game he played at Toula, and the papers were full of praises of the automaton. Assured of success by the brilliance of their début, M. de Kempelen and his companion proceeded towards the frontier.
It was necessary that Worousky should be concealed from sight somewhere even while travelling; hence he was literally packed up. The enormous chest in which the automaton was conveyed only travelled very slowly, apparently through fear of breaking the machinery, but in reality to protect the skilful chess-player who was shut up in it, while air-holes were made in the side of this singular post-chaise to enable Worousky to breathe.
The poor cripple endured all this inconvenience calmly, in the hope of soon being out of reach of the Muscovite police, and arriving safely and sound at the end of this painful journey. The fatigue, it must be granted, was considerably alleviated by the enormous receipts they netted by the exhibition.
Our travellers had arrived at Vitebsk, on the road to the Russian frontier, when one morning Kempelen rushed into the room where Worousky was concealed.
"A frightful misfortune hangs over us," the mechanician said, in a terrible state of alarm, and showing a letter dated St. Petersburg. "Heaven knows how we shall escape it! The empress Catherine, having heard through the papers of the automaton's wonderful talent, desires to play a game with it, and requests me to bring it straight to the imperial palace. We must hit on some plan to evade this dangerous honour."
To Kempelen's extreme surprise, Worousky heard this great news very calmly, and even seemed to be pleased at it.
"Refuse such a visit!-by no means: the wishes of the Czarina are orders which cannot be infringed without peril; we must, therefore, obey her as quickly as possible. Your zeal will have the double effect of gaining her favour, and removing any suspicions that might arise about your automaton. Besides," the bold soldier added, with a degree of pride, "I confess I should like to find myself face to face with the great Catherine, and show her that the head on which she set the price of a few roubles is, under certain circumstances, as good as her own."
"Madman that you are!" M. de Kempelen exclaimed, startled by the excitement of the impetuous insurgent. "Remember, that we may be discovered, and you will lose your life, while I shall be sent to Siberia."
"Impossible!" Worousky quietly replied; "your ingenious machine has already deceived so many skilful persons, that I am convinced we shall soon have one dupe more. Besides, what a glorious reminiscence, what an honour it will be to us, if we can say some day that the Empress Catherine II., the haughty Czarina, whom her courtiers proclaim the most intellectual person in her vast empire, was deceived by your genius, and conquered by me!"
Kempelen, though not sharing Worousky's enthusiasm, was obliged to yield. Hence, they set off without further argument; the journey was very long and fatiguing, but Kempelen did not quit his companion for a moment, and did all in his power to ameliorate his position. At length they reached their journey's end, but though they had travelled as fast as they could, Catherine, on receiving Kempelen, appeared rather angry.
"My roads must be very bad, sir, if you require fifteen days to travel from Vitebsk to St. Petersburg."
"Will your majesty," the crafty technician replied, "allow me to make a confession which will serve as my excuse?"
"Do so," Catherine replied, "provided it is not a confession of the incapacity of your marvellous machine."
"On the contrary, I would confess that, being aware of your majesty's skill at chess, I desired to offer you a worthy opponent. Hence, before starting, I made some additions which were indispensable for so important a game.
"Ah!" the empress said, with a smile, smoothed down by this flattering explanation. "And you fancy these new arrangements will enable your automaton to beat me?"
"I should be much surprised were it otherwise."
"Well, we shall see, sir," the empress continued, nodding her head ironically. "But," she added, in the same tone, "when will you bring my terrible opponent before me?"
"Whenever your majesty may please."
"If that is the case, I am so impatient to measure my strength with the conqueror of the most skilful players in my country, that I will receive him this very evening in my library. Put up your machine there, and at eight o'clock I will join you. Be punctual!"
Kempelen took leave of Catherine, and hastened to make his preparations for the evening. Worousky was delighted at the prospect of amusing the empress; but, although Kempelen was resolved to risk the adventure, he wished to take all possible precautions, so that he might have a way of escape in case of danger. Hence, he had the automaton carried to the palace in the same chest in which it travelled.
When eight o'clock struck, the empress, accompanied by a numerous suite, entered the library and took her place at the chess-board.
I have forgotten to say that Kempelen never allowed any one to pass behind the automaton, and would not consent to begin the game till all the spectators were in front of the board.
The court took their places behind the empress, unanimously predicting the defeat of the automaton. The chest and the Turk's body were then examined, and when all were perfectly convinced they contained nothing but the clockwork I have already mentioned, the game began. It proceeded for some time in perfect silence, but Catherine's frowning brow speedily revealed that the automaton was not very gallant towards her, and fully deserved the reputation it had gained. The skilful Mussulman captured a bishop and a knight, and the game was turning much to the disadvantage of the lady, when the Turk, suddenly forgetting his dignified gravity, gave a violent blow on his cushion, and pushed back a piece his adversary had just moved.
Catherine II, had attempted to cheat; perhaps to try the skill of the automaton, or for some other reason. At any rate, the haughty empress, unwilling to confess her weakness, replaced the piece on the same square, and regarded the automaton with an air of imperious authority. The result was most unexpected-the Turk upset all the pieces with a blow of his hand, and immediately the clockwork, which had been heard during the whole game, stopped. It seemed as if the machinery had got out of repair. Pale and trembling, M. de Kempelen, recognising in this Worousky's impetuous temper, awaited the issue of this conflict between the insurgent and his sovereign.
"Ah, ah! my good automaton! your manners are rather rough," the empress said, good humouredly, not sorry to see a game she had small chance of winning end thus. "Oh! you are a famous player, I grant; but you were afraid of losing the game, and so prudently upset the pieces. Well, I am now quite convinced of your skill and your violent character."
M. de Kempelen began to breathe again, and regaining courage, tried to remove the unfavourable impression which the little respect shown by the automaton must have produced. Hence he said, humbly,
"Will your majesty allow me to offer an explanation of what has just happened?"
"By no means. M. de Kempelen," Catherine said, heartily-"by no means; on the contrary, I find it most amusing, and your automaton pleases me so much, that I wish to purchase it. I shall thus always have near me a player, somewhat quick perhaps, but yet able to hold his own. You can leave it here tonight, and come to me to-morrow morning to arrange the price."
There is some reason to believe that Catherine wished to commit an indiscretion when she evinced a desire that the figure should remain at the palace till the next morning. Fortunately, the skilful mechanician managed to baffle her feminine curiosity by carrying Worousky off in the big chest. The automaton remained in the library, but the player was no longer there.
The next day Catherine renewed her proposition to purchase the chess-player, but Kempelen made her understand that, as the figure could not perform without him, he could not possibly sell it. The empress allowed the justice of these arguments; and, while complimenting the mechanician on his invention, made him a handsome present.
Three months after, the automaton was in England, under the management of Mr. Anthon, to whom Kempelen had sold it. I know not if Worousky was still attached to it, but I fancy so, owing to the immense success the chess-player met with. Mr. Anthon visited the whole of Europe, always meeting with the same success; but, at his death, the celebrated automaton was purchased by Maëlzel, who embarked with it for New York. It was then, probably, that Worousky took leave of his hospitable Turk, for the automaton was not nearly so successful in America. After exhibiting his mechanical trumpeter and chess-player for some time, Maëlzel set out again for France, but died on the passage of an attack of indigestion. His heirs sold his apparatus, and thus Cronier obtained his precious relic.
* The automaton chess-player always used the left hand-a defect falsely attributed to the carelessness of the constructor.