In reality, this is a trick that has been done by several magicians, and is actually the most dangerous illusion in existence. A total of 11 people have died performing the trick. Most famously, Chung Ling Soo, who was mistakenly shot in the chest during a performance. In the inquiry after his death, it was basically discovered that part of the reason the trick was fatal was because he so closely guarded the secret as to how it was done. For a great read about the magician, check out author Jim Steinmeyer, who has written several books about magic and magicians.
It’s kind of difficult to imagine now, but back in the day, magic was all the rage. My theory is that film stole a lot of the magic, because the illusions could now be done inside a camera, and there was no need for the expensive stage shows. But in the 1800s and early 1900s, magicians competed fiercely against each other for notoriety and ticket sales. There are so many names (in addition to Chung Ling Soo) that were important in the time: Henry Kellar, the Great Lafayette, and Hermann the Great. Of course, Houdini is in there, too, and my personal favorite, Howard Thurston, who was a contemporary of Houdini’s.
There’s another great book about Thurston written by Steinmeyer, and rather than hash out the history, I’ll just tell you again to check it out. I don’t want to mangle something he so carefully research and wrote. It’s a great read, and will make you feel like an expert in the world of magic when you’re finished reading it.