Miracle Mongers and Their Methods/Chapter II

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THE earliest mention I have found of a public fire-eater in England is in the correspondence of Sir Henry Watton, under date of June 3rd, 1633. He speaks of an Englishman "like some swabber of a ship, come from the Indies, where he has learned to eat fire as familiarly as ever I saw any eat cakes, even whole glowing brands, which he will crush with his teeth and swallow." This was shown in London for two pence.

The first to attract the attention of the upper classes, however, was one Richardson, who appeared in France in the year 1667 and enjoyed a vogue sufficient to justify the record of his promise in the Journal des Savants. Later on he came to London, and John Evelyn, in his diary, mentions him under date of October 8th, 1672, as follows:

I took leave of my Lady Sunderland, who was going to Paris to my Lord, now Ambassador there. She made me stay dinner at Leicester House, and afterwards sent for Richardson, the famous fire-eater. He devoured brimstone on glowing coals before us, chewing and swallowing them; he melted a beere-glass and eate it quite up; then taking a live coale on his tongue he put on it a raw oyster; the coal was blown on with bellows till it flamed and sparkled in his mouthe, and so remained until the oyster gaped and was quite boil'd.

Then he melted pitch and wax with sulphur, which he drank down as it flamed: I saw it flaming in his mouthe a good while; he also took up a thick piece of iron, such as laundresses use to put in their smoothing-boxes, when it was fiery hot, held it between his teeth, then in his hand, and threw it about like a stone; but this I observ'd he cared not to hold very long. Then he stoode on a small pot, and, bending his body, tooke a glowing iron with his mouthe from betweene his feete,
Miracle Mongers and Their Methods - John Evelyn.jpg


without touching the pot or ground with his hands, with divers other prodigious feats.

The secret methods employed by Richardson were disclosed by his servant, and this publicity seems to have brought his career to a sudden close; at least I have found no record of his subsequent movements.

About 1713 a fire-eater named De Heiterkeit, a native of Annivi, in Savoy, flourished for a time in London. He performed five times a day at the Duke of Marlborough's Head, in Fleet Street, the prices being half-a-crown, eighteen pence and one shilling.

According to London Tit-Bits, "De Heiterkeit had the honor of exhibiting before Louis XIV., the Emperor of Austria, the King of Sicily and the Doge of Venice, and his name having reached the Inquisition, that holy office proposed experimenting on him to find out whether he was fireproof externally as well as internally. He was preserved from this unwelcome ordeal, however, by the interference of the Duchess Royal, Regent of Savoy."

His programme did not differ materially from that of his predecessor, Richardson, who had antedated him by nearly fifty years.

By far the most famous of the early fire-eaters was Robert Powell, whose public career extended over a period of nearly sixty years, and who was patronized by the English peerage. It was mainly through the instrumentality of Sir Hans Sloane that, in 1751, the Royal Society presented Powell a purse of gold and a large silver medal.

Lounger's Commonplace Book says of Powell: "Such is his passion for this terrible element, that if he were to come hungry into your kitchen, while a sirloin was roasting, he would eat up the fire and leave the beef. It is somewhat surprising that the friends of real merit have not yet promoted him, living as we do in an age favorable to men of genius. Obliged to wander from place to place, instead of indulging himself in private with his favorite dish, he is under the uncomfortable necessity of eating in public, and helping himself from the kitchen fire of some paltry alehouse in the country."

His advertisements show that he was before
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the public from 1718 to 1780. One of his later advertisements runs as follows:


Please observe that there are two different performances the same evening, which will be performed by the famous


who has had the honor to exhibit, with universal applause, the most surprising performances that were ever attempted by mankind, before His Royal Highness William, late Duke of Cumberland, at Windsor Lodge, May 7th, 1752; before His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, at Gloucester House, January 30th, 1769; before His Royal Highness the present Duke of Cumberland, at Windsor Lodge, September 25th, 1769; before Sir Hans Sloane and several of the Royal Society, March 4th, 1751, who made Mr. Powell a compliment of a purse of gold, and a fine large silver medal, which the curious may view by applying to him; and before most of the Nobility and Quality in the Kingdom.

He intends to sup on the following articles: 1. He eats red-hot coals out of the fire as natural as bread. 2. He licks with his naked tongue red-hot tobacco pipes, flaming with brimstone. 3. He takes a large bunch of deal matches, lights them altogether; and holds them in his mouth till the flame is extinguished. 4. He takes a red-hot heater out of the fire, licks it with his naked tongue several times, and carries it around the room between his teeth. 5. He fills his mouth with red-hot charcoal, and broils a slice of beef or mutton upon his tongue, and any person may blow the fire with a pair of bellows at the same time. 6. He takes a quantity of resin, pitch, bees'-wax, sealing-wax, brimstone, alum, and lead, melts them all together over a chafing-dish of coals, and eats the same combustibles with a spoon, as if it were a porringer of broth (which he calls his dish of soup), to the great and agreeable surprise of the spectators; with various other extraordinary performances never attempted by any
Miracle Mongers and Their Methods - Robert Powell.jpg

ROBERT POWELL, the Fire eater, Drawn from the Life whilst he was exhibiting at Guildford in the Year 1780 He exhibited in publick from the Year 1718 to the above mentioned Year, as may be collected from his Advertisements during that Period.

other person of this age, and there is scarce a possibility ever will; so that those who neglect this opportunity of seeing the wonders performed by this artist, will lose the sight of the most amazing exhibition ever done by man.

The doors to be opened by six and he sups precisely at seven o'clock, without any notice given by sound of trumpet.

If gentry do not choose to come at seven o'clock, no performance.

Prices of admission to ladies and gentlemen, one shilling. Back Seats for Children and Servants, six pence.

Ladies and children may have a private performance any hour of the day, by giving previous notice.

N. B.—He displaces teeth or stumps so easily as to scarce be felt. He sells a chemical liquid which discharges inflammation, scalds, and burns, in a short time, and is necessary to be kept in all families.

His stay in this place will be but short, not exceeding above two or three nights.

Good fire to keep the gentry warm.

This shows how little advance had been made in the art in a century. Richardson had presented practically the same programme a hundred years before. Perhaps the exposure of Richardson's method by his servant put an end to fire-eating as a form of amusement for a long time, or until the exposure had been forgotten by the public. Powell himself, though not proof against exposure, seems to have been proof against its effects, for he kept on the even tenor of his way for sixty years, and at the end of his life was still exhibiting.

Whatever the reason, the eighteenth century fire-eaters, like too many magicians of the present day, kept to the stereotyped programmes of their predecessors. A very few did, however, step out of the beaten track and, by adding new tricks and giving a new dress to old ones, succeeded in securing a following that was financially satisfactory.

In this class a Frenchman by the name of Dufour deserves special mention, from the fact that he was the first to introduce comedy into an act of this nature. He made his bow in Paris in 1783, and is said to have created quite a sensation by his unusual performance. I am indebted to Martin's Natürliche Magie, 1792, for a very complete description of the work of this artist.

Dufour made use of a portable building, which was specially adapted to his purposes, and his table was spread as if for a banquet, except that the edibles were such as his performance demanded. He employed a trumpeter and a tambour player to furnish music for his repast—as well as to attract public attention. In addition to fire-eating, Dufour gave exhibitions of his ability to consume immense quantities of solid food, and he displayed an appetite for live animals, reptiles, and insects that probably proved highly entertaining to the not overrefined taste of the audiences of his day. He even advertised a banquet of which the public was invited to partake at a small fee per plate, but since the menu consisted of the delicacies just described, his audiences declined to join him at table.

His usual bill-of-fare was as follows:

Soup—boiling tar torches, glowing coals and small, round, super-heated stones.

The roast, when Dufour was really hungry, consisted of twenty pounds of beef or a whole calf. His hearth was either the flat of his hand or his tongue. The butter in which the roast was served was melted brimstone or burning wax. When the roast was cooked to suit him he ate coals and roast together.

As a dessert he would swallow the knives and forks, glasses, and the earthenware dishes.

He kept his audience in good humor by presenting all this in a spirit of crude comedy and, to increase the comedy element, he introduced a number of trained cats. Although the thieving proclivities of cats are well known, Dufour's pets showed no desire to share his repast, and he had them trained to obey his commands during mealtime. At the close of the meal he would become violently angry with one of them, seize the unlucky offender, tear it limb from limb and eat the carcass. One of his musicians would then beg him to produce the cat, dead or alive. In order to do this he would go to a nearby horse-trough and drink it dry; would eat a number of pounds of soap, or other nauseating substance, clowning it in a manner to provoke amusement instead of disgust; and, further to mask the disagreeable features—and also, no doubt, to conceal the trick—would take the cloth from the table and cover his face; whereupon he would bring forth the swallowed cat, or one that looked like it, which would howl piteously and seem to struggle wildly while being disgorged. When freed, the poor cat would rush away among the spectators.

Dufour gave his best performances in the evening, as he could then show his hocus-pocus to best advantage. At these times he appeared with a halo of fire about his head.

His last appearance in Paris was most remarkable. The dinner began with a soup of asps in simmering oil. On each side was a dish of vegetables, one containing thistles and burdocks, and the other fuming acid. Other side dishes, of turtles, rats, bats and moles, were garnished with live coals. For the fish course he ate a dish of snakes in boiling tar and pitch. His roast was a screech owl in a sauce of glowing brimstone. The salad proved to be spider webs full of small explosive squibs, a plate of butterfly wings and manna worms, a dish of toads surrounded with flies, crickets, grasshoppers, church beetles, spiders, and caterpillars. He washed all this down with flaming brandy, and for dessert ate the four large candles standing on the table, both of the hanging side lamps with their contents, and finally the large center lamp, oil, wick and all. This leaving the room in darkness, Dufour's face shone out in a mask of living flames.

A dog had come in with a farmer, who was probably a confederate, and now began to bark. Since Dufour could not quiet him, he seized him, bit off his head and swallowed it, throwing the body aside. Then ensued a comic scene between Dufour and the farmer, the latter demanding that his dog be brought to life, which threw the audience into paroxysms of laughter. Then suddenly candles reappeared and seemed to light themselves. Dufour made a series of hocus-pocus passes over the dog's body; then the head suddenly appeared in its proper place, and the dog, with a joyous yelp, ran to his master.

Notwithstanding the fact that Dufour must have been by all odds the best performer of his time, I do not find reference to him in any other authority. But something of his originality appeared in the work of a much humbler practitioner, contemporary or very nearly contemporary with him.

We have seen that Richardson, Powell, Dufour, and generally the better class of fire-eaters were able to secure select audiences and even to attract the attention of scientists in England and on the Continent. But many of their effects had been employed by mountebanks and street fakirs since the earliest days of the art, and this has continued until comparatively recent times.

In Natürliche Magie, in 1794, Vol. VI, page 111, I find an account of one Quackensalber, who gave a new twist to the fire-eating industry by making a "High Pitch" at the fairs and on street corners and exhibiting feats of fire-resistance, washing his hands and face in melted tar, pitch and brimstone, in order to attract a crowd. He then strove to sell them a compound—composed of fish glue, alum and brandy—which he claimed would cure burns in two or three hours. He demonstrated that this mixture was used by him in his heat resistance: and then, doubtless, some "capper" started the ball rolling, and Herr Quackensalber (his name indicates a seller of salves) reaped a good harvest.

I have no doubt but that even to-day a clever performer with this "High Pitch" could do a thriving business in that overgrown country village, New York. At any rate there is the so-called, "King of Bees," a gentleman from Pennsylvania, who exhibits himself in a cage of netting filled with bees, and then sells the admiring throng a specific for bee-stings and the wounds of angry wasps. Unfortunately the only time I ever saw his majesty, some of his bee actors must have forgotten their lines, for he was thoroughly stung.