Robert Houdin was actually named Jean-Eugène Robert on his birth in Blois, France, on 6 December 1805 His father, Prosper Robert, ran a business as a watchmaker in Blois. Tragically, Jean-Eugene’s mother, the former Marie-Catherine Guillon, died when he was a very young child. When Jean-Eugène reached the age of eleven, he was sent by his father, Prosper to school to the University of Orléans. He graduated at the age of 18, and returned to Blois.
Although his father wanted him to be a lawyer, he was determined to follow into his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker. 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-Eugène worked as a watchmaker doing conjuring on the side but later, he would go on to perform at social parties as a professional magician in Europe and the United States. It was at one such party that he met the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker, Monsieur Jacques François Houdin, who had also come from Jean-Eugène Robert’s native Blois. The daughter’s name was Josèphe Cecile Houdin, and it was love at first sight. 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 where he was able to tinker with mechanical toys and automatic figures. This would lead to his later fascination with automata.
Along with working in the shop, Jean-Eugène was still practicing magic and after a chance visit to a magic shop on the Rue Richelieu which was owned by a Père (Papa) Roujol, he met fellow magicians, both amateur and professional, and was able to chat about conjuring as well as indulge his fascination with mechanical creations. Soon he was building his own mechanical figures, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton doing the cups and balls magic routine.
Sadly, in 1843, Josèphe died aged thirty-two, and having three young children to take care of, he remarried in August this time to François Marguerite Olympe Braconnier, a woman ten years younger, who soon took over the household.
Of course the fact that he now lived in the French capital gave Houdin much more an opportunity to indulge his love of magic. Robert-Houdin loved to visit and study the big magic shows that came to Paris and he dreamed about some day opening his own theatre.
In 1844, PT Barnum the famous American circus impresario purchased a small android that Robert-Houdin had built for the universal exposition. Robert-Houdin was paid 7000 francs and this financial injection gave him the opportunity to finish the creations he was building for a magic theatre which he was soon to open in Paris.
He had a few failures initially in his ambitious magic shows but soon perfected his craft. The sight of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin in his elegant evening attire set him apart from other magicians in their long robes and this has led many to see Houdin as the first ‘modern’ magician.
In 1870, Robert-Houdin heard news that his son had been mortally wounded at the Battle of Worth during the Franco-Prussian War. 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, aged 65.
His home in Blois is today open to the public as the publicly owned La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin. It is a museum and theatre opened by his grandson Paul Robert-Houdin in 1966.