Miracle Mongers and Their Methods/Chapter IV

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IVAN IVANITZ CHABERT, the only Really Incombustible Phenomenon, as he was billed abroad, or J. Xavier Chabert, A,M., M.D., etc., as he was afterwards known in this country, was probably the most notable, and certainly the most interesting, character in the history of fire-eating, fire-resistance, and poison eating. He was the last prominent figure in the long line of this type of artists to appeal to the better classes and to attract the attention of scientists, who for a considerable period treated his achievements more or less seriously. Henry Evanion gave me a valuable collection of Chabert clippings, hand-bills, etc., and related many interesting incidents in connection with this man of wonders.

It seems quite impossible for me to write
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of any historical character in Magic or its allied arts without recalling my dear old friend Evanion, who introduced me to a throng of fascinating characters, with each of whom he seemed almost as familiar as if they had been daily companions.

Subsequently I discovered an old engraving of Chabert, published in London in 1829, and later still another which bore the change of name, as well as the titles enumerated above. The latter was published in New York, September, 1836, and bore the inscripton: "One of the most celebrated Chemists, Philosophers, and Physicians of the present day." These discoveries, together with a clue from Evanion, led to further investigations, which resulted in the interesting discovery that this one-time Batholomew Fair entertainer spent the last years of his life in New York City. He resided here for twenty-seven years and lies buried in the beautiful Cypress Hills Cemetery, quite forgotten by the man on the street.

Nearby is the grave of good old Signor Blitz, and not far away is the plot that holds all that is mortal of my beloved parents. When I finally break away from earthly chains and restraints, I hope to be placed beside them.

During my search for data regarding Chabert I looked in the telephone book for a possible descendant. By accident I picked up the Suburban instead of the Metropolitan edition, and there I found a Victor E. Chabert living at Allenhurst, N. J. I immediately got into communication with him and found that he was a grandson of the Fire King, but he could give me no more information than I already possessed, which I now spread before my readers.

M. Chabert was a son of Joseph and Thérèse Julienne Chabert. He was born on May 10th, 1792, at Avignon, France.

Chabert was a soldier in the Napoleonic wars, was exiled to Siberia and escaped to England. His grandson has a bronze Napoleon medal which was presented to Chabert, presumably for valor on the field of battle. Napoleon was exiled in 1815 and again three years later. Chabert first attracted public notice in Paris, at which time his demonstrations of heat-resistance were sufficiently astonishing to merit the attention of no less a body than the National Institute.

To the more familiar feats of his predecessors he added startling novelties in the art of heat-resistance, the most spectacular being that of entering a large iron cabinet, which resembled a common baker's oven, heated to the usual temperature of such ovens. He carried in his hand a leg of mutton and remained until the meat was thoroughly cooked. Another thriller involved standing in a flaming tar-barrel until it was entirely consumed around him.

In 1828, Chabert gave a series of performances at the Argyle Rooms in London, and created a veritable sensation. A correspondent in the London Mirror has this to say of Chabert's work at that time: "Of M. Chabert's wonderful power of withstanding the operation of the fiery element, it is in the recollection of the writer of witnessing, some few years back, this same individual (in connection with the no-less fire-proof Signora Girardelli) exhibiting 'extraordinary proofs of his supernatural power of resisting the most intense heat of every kind.' Since which an improvement of a more formidable nature has to our astonished fancy been just demonstrated. In the newspapers of the past week it is reported that he, in the first instance, refreshed himself with a hearty meal of phosphorus, which was, at his own request, supplied to him very liberally by several of his visitors, who were previously unacquainted with him. He washed down (they say) this infernal fare with solutions of arsenic and oxalic acid; thus throwing into the background the long-established fame of Mithridates. He next swallowed with great goūt, several spoonfuls of boiling oil; and, as a dessert to this delicate repast, helped himself with his naked hands to a considerable quantity of molten lead. The experiment, however, of entering into a hot oven, together with a quantity of meat, sufficient, when cooked, to regale those of his friends who were specially invited to witness his performance, was the chef–d'œuvre of the day. Having ordered three fagots of wood, which is the quantity generally used by bakers, to be thrown into the oven, and they being set on fire, twelve
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more fagots of the same size were subsequently added to them, which being all consumed by three o'clock, M. Chabert entered the oven with a dish of raw meat, and when it was sufficiently done he handed it out, took in another, and remained therein until the second quantity was also well cooked; he then came out of the oven, and sat down, continues the report, to partake, with a respectable assembly of friends, of those viands he had so closely attended during the culinary process. Publicly, on a subsequent day, and in an oven 6 feet by 7, and at a heat of about 220, he remained till a steak was properly done, and again returned to his fiery den and continued for a period of thirty minutes, in complete triumph over the power of an element so much dreaded by humankind, and so destructive to animal nature. It has been properly observed, that there are preparations which so indurate the cuticle, as to render it insensible to the heat of either boiling oil or melted lead; and the fatal qualities of certain poisons may be destroyed, if the medium through which, they are imbibed, as we suppose to be the case here, is a strong alkali. Many experiments, as to the extent to which the human frame could bear heat, without the destruction of the vital powers, have been tried from time to time; but so far as recollection serves, Monsieur Chabert's fire-resisting qualities are greater than those professed by individuals who, before him, have undergone this species of ordeal."

It was announced some time ago, in one of the French journals, that experiments had been tried with a female, whose fire-standing qualities had excited great astonishment. She, it appears, was placed in a heated oven, into which live dogs, cats, and rabbits were conveyed. The poor animals died in a state of convulsion almost immediately, while the Fire-queen bore the heat without complaining. In that instance, however, the heat of the oven was not so great as that which M. Chabert encountered.

Much of the power to resist greater degrees of heat than can other men may be a natural gift, much the result of chemical applications, and much from having the parts indurated by long practice; probably all three are combined in this phenomenon, with some portion of artifice.

In Timbs' Curiosities of London, published in 1867, I find the following:

At the Argyle Rooms, London, in 1829, Mons. Chabert, the Fire-King, exhibited his powers of resisting poisons, and withstanding extreme heat. He swallowed forty grains of phosphorus, sipped oil at 333° with impunity, and rubbed a red-hot fire-shovel over his tongue, hair, and face, unharmed.

On September 23d, on a challenge of £50, Chabert repeated these feats and won the wager; he next swallowed a piece of burning torch; and then, dressed in coarse woolen, entered an oven heated to 380°, sang a song, and cooked two dishes of beef steaks.

Still, the performances were suspected, and in fact, proved to be a chemical juggle.

Another challenge in the same year is recorded under the heading, "Sights of London," as follows:

We were tempted on Wednesday to the Argyle Rooms by the challenge of a person of the uncommon name of J. Smith to M. Chabert, our old friend the Fire King, whom this individual dared to invite to a trial of powers in swallowing poison and being baked! The audacity of such a step quite amazed us; and expecting to see in the competitor at least a Vulcan, the God of all Smiths, was hastened to the scene of strife. Alas, our disappointment was complete! Smith had not even the courage of a blacksmith for standing fire, and yielded a stake of £50, as was stated, without a contest, to M. Chabert, on the latter coming out of his oven with his own two steaks perfectly cooked. On this occasion Chabert took 20 grains of phosphorus, swallowed oil heated to nearly 100° above boiling water, took molten lead out of a ladle with his fingers and cooled it on his tongue; and, besides performing other remarkable feats, remained five minutes in the oven at a temperature of between 300° and 400° by the thermometer. There was about 150 persons present, many of them medical men; and being convinced that these things were fairly done, without trickery, much astonishment was expressed.

The following detailed account of the latter challenge appeared in the Chronicle, London, September, 1829.

THE FIRE KING AND HIS CHALLENGER.—An advertisement appeared lately in one of the papers, in which a Mr. J. Smith after insinuating that M. Chabert practised some juggle when he appeared to enter an oven heated to five hundred degrees, and to swallow twenty grains of phosphorus, challenged him to perform the exploits which he professed to be performing daily. In consequence M. Chabert publicly accepted Mr. J. Smith's challenge for £50, requesting him to provide the poison himself. A day was fixed upon which the challenge was to be determined, and at two o'clock on that day, a number of gentlemen assembled in the Argyle-rooms, where the exhibition was to take place. At a little before three the fire-king made his appearance near his oven, and as some impatience had been exhibited, owing to the non-arrival of Mr. J. Smith, he offered to amuse the company with a few trifling experiments. He made a shovel red-hot and rubbed it over his tongue, a trick for which no credit, he said, was due, as the moisture of the tongue was sufficient to prevent any injury arising from it. He next rubbed it over his hair and face, declaring that anybody might perform the same feat by first washing themselves in a mixture of spirits of sulphur and alum, which, by cautersing the epiderms, hardened the skin to resist the fire.

He put his hand into some melted lead, took a small portion of it out, placed it in his mouth, and then gave it in a solid state to some of the company. This performance, according to his account, was also very easy; for he seized only a very small particle, which, by a tight compression between the forefinger and the thumb, became cool before it reached the mouth. At this time Mr. Smith made his appearance, and M. Chabert forthwith prepared himself for mightier undertakings. A cruse of oil was brought forward and poured into a saucepan, which was previously turned upside down, to show that there was no water in it. The alleged reason for this step was, that the vulgar conjurors, who profess to drink boiling oil, place the oil in water, and drink it when the water boils, at which time the oil is not warmer than an ordinary cup of tea. He intended to drink the oil when any person might see it bubbling in the saucepan, and when the thermometer would prove that it was heated to three hundred and sixty degrees. The saucepan was accordingly placed on the fire, and as it was acquiring the requisite heat, the fire-king challenged any man living to drink a spoonful of the oil at the same temperature as that at which he was going to drink it. In a few minutes afterwards, he sipped off a spoonful with greatest apparent ease, although the spoon, from contact with the boiling fluid, had become too hot for ordinary fingers to handle.

"And now, Monsieur Smith," said the fire-king, "now for your challenge. Have you prepared yourself with phosphorus, or will you take some of mine, which is laid on that table?" Mr. Smith, walked up to the table, and pulling a vial bottle out of his pocket, offered it to the poison-swallower.

Fire-king—"I ask you, on your honor as a gentleman, is this genuine unmixed poison?"

Mr. Smith—"It is, upon my honor."

Fire-king—"Is there any medical gentleman here who will examine it?"

A person in the room requested that Dr. Gordon Smith, one of the medical professors in the London University, would examine the vial, and decide whether it contained genuine phosphorus.

The professor went to the table, on which the formidable collection of poisons—such as red and white arsenic, hydrocyanic acid, morphine and phosphorus—was placed, and, examining the vial, declared, that, to the best of his judgment, it was genuine phosphorus.

M. Chabert asked Mr. Smith, how many grains he wished to commence his first draught with. Mr. Smith—"Twenty grains will do as a commencement."

A medical gentleman then came forward and cut off two parcels of phosphorus, containing twenty grains each. He was placing them in the water, when the fire-king requested that his phosphorus might be cut into small pieces, as he did not wish the pieces to stop on their way to his stomach. The poisons were now prepared. A wine-glass contained the portion set aside for the fire-king—a tumbler the portion reserved for Mr. Smith.

The Fire-king—"I suppose, gentlemen, I must begin, and to convince you that I do not juggle, I will first take off my coat, and then I will trouble you, doctor (speaking to Dr. Gordon Smith), to tie my hands together behind me. After he had been bandaged in this manner, he planted himself on one knee in the middle of the room, and requested some gentleman to place the phosphorus on his tongue and pour the water down his throat. This was accordingly done, and the water and phosphorus were swallowed together. He then opened his mouth and requested the company to look whether any portion of the phosphorus remained in his mouth. Several gentlemen examined his mouth, and declared that there was no phosphorus perceptible either upon or under his tongue. He was then by his own desire unbandaged. The fire-king forthwith turned to Mr. Smith and offered him the other glass of phosphorus. Mr. Smith started back in infinite alarm—'Not for worlds, Sir, not for worlds; I beg to decline it.'

The Fire-king—"Then wherefore did you send me a challenge? You pledged your honor to drink it, if I did; I have done it; and if you are a gentleman, you must drink it too."

Mr. Smith—"No, no, I must be excused: I am quite satisfied without it."

Here several voices exclaimed that the bet was lost. Some said there must be a confederacy between the challenger and the challenged, and others asked whether any money had been deposited? The fire-king called a Mr. White forward, who deposed that he held the stakes, which had been regularly placed in his hands, by both parties, before twelve o'clock that morning.

The fire-king here turned round with great exultation to the company, and pulling a bottle out of his pocket, exclaimed, "I did never see this gentleman before this morning, and I did not know but that he might be bold enough to venture to take this quantity of poison. I was determined not to let him lose his life by his foolish wager, and therefore I did bring an antidote in my pocket, which would have prevented him from suffering any harm." Mr. Smith said his object was answered by seeing twenty grains of genuine phosphorus swallowed. He had conceived it impossible, as three grains were quite sufficient to destroy life. The fire-king then withdrew into another room for the professed purpose of putting on his usual dress for entering the oven, but in all probability for the purpose of getting the phosphorus out of his stomach.

After an absence of twenty minutes, he returned, dressed in a coarse woolen coat, to enter the heated oven. Before he entered it, a medical gentleman ascertained that his pulse was vibrating ninety-eight times a minute. He remained in the oven five minutes, during which time he sung Le Vaillant Troubadour, and superintended the cooking of two dishes of beef steaks. At the end of that time he came out, perspiring profusely, and with a pulse making one hundred and sixty-eight vibrations in a minute. The thermometer, when brought out of the oven, stood at three hundred and eighty degrees; within the oven he said it was above six hundred.

Although he was suspected of trickery by many, was often challenged, and had an army of rivals and imitators, all available records show that Chabert was beyond a doubt the greatest fire and poison resister that ever appeared in London.

Seeking new laurels, he came to America in 1832, and although he was successful in New York, his subsequent tour of the States was financially disastrous. He evidently saved enough from the wreck, however, to start in business, and the declining years of his eventful life were passed in the comparative obscurity of a little drug store in Grand Street.

As his biographer I regret to be obliged to chronicle the fact that he made and sold an alleged specific for the White Plague, thus enabling his detractors to couple with his name the word Quack. The following article, which appeared in the New York Herald of September 1st, 1859, three days after Chabert's death, gives further details of his activities in this country:

We published among the obituary notices in yesterday's Herald the death of Dr. Julian Xavier Chabert, the "Fire King," aged 67 years, of pulmonary consumption. Dr. C. was a native of France, and came to this country in 1832, and was first introduced to the public at the lecture room of the old Clinton Hall, in Nassau Street, where he gave exhibitions by entering a hot oven of his own construction, and while there gave evidence of his salamander qualities by cooking beef steaks, to the surprise and astonishment of his audiences.

It was a question to many whether the Doctor's oven was red-hot or not, as he never allowed any person to approach him during the exhibition or take part in the proceedings. He made a tour of the United States in giving these exhibitions, which resulted in financial bankruptcy. At the breaking out of the cholera in 1832 he turned Doctor, and appended M.D., to his name, and suddenly his newspaper advertisements claimed for him the title of the celebrated Fire King, the curer of consumption, the maker of Chinese Lotion, etc.

While the Doctor was at the height of his popularity, some wag perpetrated the following joke in a newspaper paragraph: "During some experiments he was making in chemistry last week, an explosion took place which entirely bewildered his faculties and left him in a condition bordering on the grave. He was blown into a thousand atoms. It took place on Wednesday of last week and some accounts state that it grew out of an experiment with phosphoric ether, others that it was by a too liberal indulgence in Prussic acid, an article which, from its resemblance to the peach, he was remarkably fond of having about him."

The Doctor was extensively accused of quackery, and on one occasion when the Herald touched on the same subject, it brought him to our office and he exhibited diplomas, certificates and medical honors without number.

The Doctor was remarkable for his prolific display of jewelry and medals of honor, and by his extensive display of beard. He found a rival in this city in the person of another French "chemist," who gave the Doctor considerable opposition and consequently much trouble.

The Doctor was famous, also, for his four-horse turnouts in Broadway, alternating, when he saw proper, to a change to the "tandem" style. He married an Irish lady whom he at first supposed to be immensely rich, but after the nuptials it was discovered that she merely had a life interest in a large estate in common with several others.

The Doctor, it appears, was formerly a soldier in the French Army, and quite recently he received from thence a medal of the order of St. Helena, an account of which appeared in the Herald. Prior to his death he was engaged in writing his biography (in French) and had it nearly ready for publication.

Here follows a supposedly humorous speech in broken English, quoted from the London Lancet, in which the Doctor is satirized. Continuing, the articles says:

"The Doctor was what was termed a 'fast liver,' and at the time of his death he kept a drug store in Grand Street, and had very little of this world's goods. He leaves three children to mourn his loss, one of them an educated physician, residing in Hoboken, N. J.

Dr. C. has 'gone to that bourne whence no traveller returns,' and we fervently trust and hope that the disembodied spirits of the tens of thousands whom he has treated in this sphere will treat him with the same science with which he treated them while in this wicked world."