Miracle Mongers and Their Methods/Chapter III

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IN the nineteenth century by far the most distinguished heat-resister was Chabert, who deserves and shall have a chapter to himself. He commenced exhibiting about 1818, but even earlier in the century certain obscurer performers had anticipated some of his best effects. Among my clippings, for instance, I find the following. I regret that I cannot give the date, but it is evident from the long form of the letters that it was quite early. This is the first mention I have found of the hot-oven effect afterwards made famous by Chabert.


A correspondent in France writes as follows: "Paris has, for some days, rung with relations of the wonderful exploits of a Spaniard in that city, who is endowed with qualities by which he resists the action of very high degrees of heat, as well as the influence of strong chemical reagents. Many histories of the trials to which he has been submitted before a Commission of the Institute and Medical School, have appeared in the public papers; but the public waits with impatience for the report to be made in the name of the Commission by Professor Pinel.

The subject of these trials is a young man, a native of Toledo, in Spain, 23 years of age, and free of any apparent peculiarities which can announce anything remarkable in the organization of his skin; after examination, one would be rather disposed to conclude a peculiar softness than that any hardness or thickness of the cuticle existed, either naturally or from mechanical causes. Nor was there any circumstance to indicate that the person had been previously rubbed with any matter capable of resisting the operation of the agents with which he was brought in contact.

This man bathed for the space of five minutes, and without any injury to his sensibility or the surface of the skin, his legs in oil, heated at 97° of Réaumur (250 degrees of Fahrenheit) and with the same oil, at the same degree of heat, he washed his face and superior extremities. He held, for the same space of time, and with as little inconvenience, his legs in a solution of muriate of soda, heated to 102 of the same scale, (261½° Fahr.) He stood on and rubbed the soles of his feet with a bar of hot iron heated to a white heat; in this state he held the iron in his hands and rubbed the surface of his tongue.

He gargled his mouth with concentrated sulphuric and nitric acids, without the smallest injury or discoloration; the nitric acid changed the cuticle to a yellow color; with the acids in this state he rubbed his hands and arms. All these experiments were continued long enough to prove their inefficiency to produce any impression. It is said, on unquestionable authority, that he remained a considerable time in an oven heated to 65° or 70°, (178-189º Fahr.) and from which he was with difficulty induced to retire, so comfortable did he feel at that high temperature.

It may be proper to remark, that this man seems totally uninfluenced by any motive to mislead, and, it is said, he has refused flattering offers from some religious sectaries of turning to emolument his singular qualities; yet on the whole it seems to be the opinion of most philosophical men, that this person must possess some matter which counteracts the operation of these agents. To suppose that nature has organized him differently, would be unphilosophic: by habit he might have blunted his sensibilities against those impressions that create pain under ordinary circumstances; but how to explain the power by which he resists the action of those agents which are known to have the strongest affinity for animal matter, is a circumstance difficult to comprehend. It has not failed, however, to excite the wonder of the ignorant and the inquiry of the learned at Paris."

This "Wonderful Phenomenon" may have been "the incombustible Spaniard, Señor Lionetto," whom the London Mirror mentions as performing in Paris in 1803 "where he attracted the particular attention of Dr. Sementeni, Professor of Chemistry, and other scientific gentlemen of that city. It appears that a considerable vapor and smell rose from parts of his body when the fire and heated substances were applied, and in this he seems to differ from the person now in this country." The person here referred to was M. Chabert.

Dr. Sementeni became so interested in the subject that he made a series of experiments upon himself, and these were finally crowned with success. His experiments will receive further attention in the chapter "The Arcana of the Fire-Eaters."

A veritable sensation was created in England in the year 1814 by Señora Josephine Girardelli, who was heralded as having "just arrived from the Continent, where she had the honor of appearing before most of the crowned heads of Europe." She was first spoken of as German, but afterwards proved to be of Italian birth.

Entering a field of endeavor which had heretofore been exclusively occupied by the sterner sex, this lady displayed a taste for hot meals that would seem to recommend her as a matrimonial venture. Like all the earlier exploiters of the devouring element, she was proclaimed as "The Great Phenomena of Nature"—why the plural form was used does not appear—and, doubtless, her feminine instincts led her to impart a daintiness to her performance which must have appealed to the better class of audience in that day.

The portrait that adorned her first English handbill, which I produce from the Picture Magazine, was engraved by Page and published by Smeeton, St. Martins Lane, London. It is said to be a faithful representation of her stage costume and setting.

Richardson, of Bartholomew Fair fame, who was responsible for the introduction of many novelties, first presented Girardelli to an English audience at Portsmouth, where her success was so pronounced that a London
Miracle Mongers and Their Methods - Richardson Advertisment.jpg
Miracle Mongers and Their Methods - Madame Girardelli.jpg

"The Celebrated Fireproof Female"

appearance was arranged for the same year; and at Mr. Laxton's rooms, 23 New Bond Street, her performance attracted the most fashionable metropolitan audiences for a considerable time. Following this engagement she appeared at Richardson's Theater, at Bartholomew Fair, and afterwards toured England in the company of Signor Germondi, who exhibited a troupe of wonderful trained dogs. One of the canine actors was billed as the "Russian Moscow Fire Dog, an animal unknown in this country, (and never exhibited before) who now delights in that element, having been trained for the last six months at very great expense and fatigue."

Whether Girardelli accumulated sufficient wealth to retire or became discouraged by the exposure of her methods cannot now be determined, but after she had occupied a prominent position in the public eye and the public prints for a few seasons she dropped out of sight, and I have been unable to find where or how she passed the later years of her life.

I am even more at a loss concerning her contemporary, John Brooks, of whom I have no other record than the following letter, which appears in the autobiography of the famous author-actor-manager, Thomas Dibdin, of the Theaters Royal, Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Haymarket and others. This one communication, however, absolves of any obligation to dig up proofs of John Brooks' versatility: he admits it himself.

To Mr. T. Dibdin, Esq. Pripetor of the Royal Circus.

May 1st, 1817.


I have taken the Liberty of Riting those few lines to ask you the favour if a Greeable for me to Come to your House, as i Can do a great many different things i Can Sing a good Song and i Can Eat Boiling hot Lead and Rub my naked arms With a Red hot Poker and Stand on a Red hot sheet of iron, and do Diferent other things.—Sir i hope you Will Excuse me in Riting I do not Want any thing for my Performing for i have Got a Business that will Sirport me I only want to pass a Way 2 or 3 Hours in the Evening. Sir i hope you Will Send me an Answer Weather Agreeple or not.

I am your Humble Servant,

J. B.

Direct to me No. 4 fox and Knot Court King Street Smithfield.

John Brooks.

We shall let this versatile John Brooks close the pre-Chabert record and turn our attention to the fire-eaters of Chabert's day. Imitation may be the sincerest flattery, but in most cases the victim of the imitation, it is safe to say, will gladly dispense with that form of adulation. When Chabert first came to America and gave fresh impetus to the fire-eating art by the introduction of new and startling material, he was beset by many imitators, or—as they probably styled themselves—rivals, who immediately proceeded, so far as in them lay, to out-Chabert Chabert.

One of the most prominent of these was a man named W. C. Houghton, who claimed to have challenged Chabert at various times. In a newspaper advertisement in Philadelphia, where he was scheduled to give a benefit performance on Saturday evening, February 4th, 1832, he practically promised to expose the method of poison eating. Like that of all exposers, however, his vogue was of short duration, and very little can be found about this super-Chabert except his advertisements. The following will serve as a sample of them:




A CARD.—W. C. Houghton, has the honor to announce to the ladies and gentlemen of Philadelphia, that his BENEFIT will take place at the ARCH STREET THEATRE, on Saturday evening next, 4th February, when will be presented a variety of entertainments aided by the whole strength of the company.

Mr. H. in addition to his former experiments will exhibit several fiery feats, pronounced by Mons. Chabert an IMPOSSIBILITY. He will give a COMPLETE explanation by illustrations of the PRINCIPLES of the EUROPEAN and the AMERICAN CHESS PLAYERS. He will also (unless prevented by indisposition) swallow a sufficient quantity of phosphorus, (presented by either chemist or druggist of this city) to destroy the life of any individual. Should he not feel disposed to take the poison, he will satisfactorily explain to the audience the manner it may be taken without injury.

In our next chapter we shall see how it went with others who challenged Chabert.

A Polish athlete, J. A. B. Chylinski by name, toured Great Britain and Ireland in 1841, and presented a more than usually diversified entertainment. Being gifted by nature with exceptional bodily strength, and trained in gymnastics, he was enabled to present a mixed programme, combining his athletics with feats of strength, fire-eating, poison-swallowing, and fire-resistance.

In The Book of Wonderful Characters, published in 1869 by John Camden Hotten, London, I find an account of Chamouni, the Russian Salamander: "He was insensible, for a given time, to the effects of heat. He was remarkable for the simplicity and singleness of his character, as well as for that idiosyncrasy in his constitution, which enabled him for so many years, not merely to brave the effects of fire, but to take a delight in an element where other men find destruction. He was above all artifice, and would often entreat his visitors to melt their own lead, or boil their own mercury, that they might be perfectly satisfied of the gratification he derived from drinking these preparations. He would also present his tongue in the most obliging manner to all who wished, to pour melted lead upon it and stamp an impression of their seals."

A fire-proof billed as Professor Rel Maeub, was on the programme at the opening of the New National Theater, in Philadelphia, Pa., in the spring of 1876. If I am not mistaken the date was April 25th. He called himself "The Great Inferno Fire-King," and his novelty consisted in having a strip of wet carpeting running parallel to the hot iron plates on which he walked barefoot, and stepping on it occasionally and back onto the hot iron, when
Miracle Mongers and Their Methods - Yamadeva.jpg

From portrait taken in 1876

Miracle Mongers and Their Methods - Professor Maeub.jpg
Miracle Mongers and Their Methods - Fire King Chabert.jpg
"Great Inferno Fire King"
From a drawing from life by J.
Minasi, artist to the King of Naples

a loud hissing and a cloud of steam bore ample proof of the high temperature of the metal.

One of the more recent fireproofs was Eugene Rivalli, whose act included, besides the usual effects, a cage of fire in which he stood completely surrounded by flames. Rivalli, whose right name was John Watkins, died in 1900, in England. He had appeared in Great Britain and Ireland as well as on the Continent during the later years of the 19th century.

The cage of fire has been used by a number of Rivalli's followers also, and the reader will find a full explanation of the methods employed for it in the chapter devoted to the Arcana of the Fire-eaters, to which we shall come when we have recorded the work of the master Chabert, the history of some of the heat-resisters featured on magicians' programmes, particularly in our own day, and the interest taken in this art by performers whose chief distinction was won in other fields, as notably Edwin Forrest and the elder Sothern.