Miracle Mongers and Their Methods/Chapter IX

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THAT the genesis of stone-eating dates back hundreds of years farther than is generally supposed, is shown by a statement in Wanley's Wonders of the Little World, London, 1906, Vol. II, page 58, which reads as follows:

Anno 1006, there was at Prague a certain Silesian, who, for a small reward in money, did (in the presence of many persons swallow down white stones to the number of thirty-six; they weighed very near three pounds; the least of them was of the size of a pigeon's egg, so that I could scarce hold them all in my hand at four times: this rash adventure he divers years made for gain, and was sensible of no injury to his health thereby.

The next man of this type of whom I find record lived over six hundred years later. This was an Italian named Francois Battalia. The print shown here is from the Book of Wonderful Characters, and is a reproduction from an etching made by Hollar in 1641.

Doctor Bulwer, in his Artificial Changeling, tells a preposterous story of Battalia's being born with two pebbles in one hand and one in the other; that he refused both the breast and the pap offered him, but ate the pebbles and continued to subsist on stones for the remainder of his life. Doctor Bulwer thus describes his manner of feeding:

His manner is to put three or four stones into a spoon, and so putting them into his mouth together, he swallows them all down, one after another; then (first spitting) he drinks a glass of beer after them. He devours about half a peck of these stones every day, and when he clinks upon his stomach, or shakes his body, you may hear the stones rattle as if they were in a sack, all of which in twenty-four hours are resolved. Once in three weeks he voids a great quantity of sand, after which he has a fresh appetite for these stones, as we have for our victuals, and by these, with a cup of beer, and a pipe of tobacco, he has his whole subsistence.

From a modern point of view the Doctor "looks easy."

The Book of Wonderful Characters continues:

Platerus speaks of a beggar boy, who for four farthings would suddenly swallow many stones which he met with by chance in any place, though they were big as walnuts, so filling his belly that by the collision of them while they were pressed, the sound was distinctly heard. Father Paulian says that a true lithophagus, or stone-eater, was brought to Avignon in the beginning of May, 1760. He not only swallowed flints an inch and a half long, a full inch broad, and half an inch thick, but such stones as he could reduce to powder, such as marble, pebbles, etc., he made up into paste, which to him was a moat agreeable and wholesome food. Father Paulian examined this man with all the attention he possibly could, and found his gullet very large, his teeth exceedingly strong, his saliva very corrosive, and his stomach lower than ordinary.

This stone eater was found on Good Friday, in 1757, in a northern inhabited island, by some of the crew of a Dutch ship. He was made by his keeper to eat raw flesh with his stones; but he never could be got to swallow bread. He would drink water, wine, and brandy, which last liquor gave him infinite pleasure. He slept at least twelve hours a day, sitting on the ground with one knee over the other, and his chin resting on his right knee. He smoked almost all the time he was not asleep or not eating. Some physicians at Paris got him blooded; the blood had little or no serum, and in two hours time it became as fragile as coral.

He was unable to pronounce more than a few words, such as Oui, Non, Caillou, Bon. "He has been taught," adds the pious father, evidently pleased with the docility of his interesting pupil, "to make the sign of the cross, and was baptized some months ago in the church of St. Come, at Paris. The respect he shows to ecclesiastics and his ready disposition to please them, afforded me the opportunity of satisfying myself as to all these particulars; and I am fully convinced that he is no cheat."

Here is the advertisement of a stone-eater who appeared in England in 1788.

An Extraordinary Stone-Eater
The Original
The Only One in the World,

Has arrived, and means to perform this, and every day (Sunday excepted) at Mr. Hatch's, trunk maker, 404 Strand, opposite Adelphi.


And after the stones are swallowed may
be heard to clink in
the belly, the same as in a pocket.

The present is allowed to be the age of Wonders and Improvements in the Arts. The idea of Man's flying in the Air, twenty years ago, before the discovery of the use of the balloon, would have been laughed at by the most credulous! Nor does the History of Nature afford so extraordinary a relation as that of the man's eating and subsisting on pebbles, flints, tobacco pipes and mineral excrescences; but so it is and the Ladies and Gentlemen of this Metropolis and its vicinity have now an opportunity of witnessing this extraordinary Fact by seeing the Most Wonderful Phenomenon of the Age, who Grinds and Swallows stones, etc., with as much ease as a Person would crack a nut, and masticate the kernel.

This Extraordinary Stone-eater appears not to suffer the least Inconvenience from so ponderous, and to all other persons in the World, so indigestible a Meal, which he repeats from twelve at noon to seven.

Any Lady or Gentleman may bring Black Flints or Pebbles with them. N. B.—His Merit is fully demonstrated by Dr. Monroe, who in his Medical Commentary, 1772, and several other Gentlemen of the Faculty. Likewise Dr. John Hunter and Sir Joseph Banks can witness the Surprising Performance of this most Extraordinary STONE-EATER.

Admittance, Two shillings and Six pence.

A Private Performance for five guineas on short notice.

A Spanish stone-eater exhibited at the Richmond Theater, on August 2nd, 1790, and another at a later date, at the Great Room, late Globe Tavern, corner of Craven Street, Strand.

All of these phenomenal gentry claimed to subsist entirely on stones, but their modern followers hardly dare make such claims, so that the art has fallen into disrepute.

A number of years ago, in London, I watched several performances of one of these chaps who swallowed, half a hatful of stones, nearly the size of hen's eggs, and then jumped up and down, to make them rattle in his stomach. I could discover no fake in the performance, and I finally gave him two and six for his secret, which was simple enough. He merely took a dose of powerful physic to clear himself of the stones, and was then ready for the next performance.

During my engagement in 1895 with Welsh Bros. Circus I became quite well acquainted with an aged Jap of the San Kitchy Akimoto troupe and from him I learned the method of swallowing quite large objects and bringing them up again at will. For practice very small potatoes are used at first, to guard against accident; and after one has mastered the art of bringing these up, the size is increased gradually till objects as large as the throat will receive can be swallowed and returned.

I recall a very amusing incident in connection with this old chap.

In one number of the programme he sat down on the ring bank and balanced a bamboo pole, at the top of which little Massay went through the regular routine of posturings. After years spent in this work, my aged friend became so used to his job that he did it automatically, and scarcely gave a thought to the boy at the top. One warm day, however, he carried his indifference a trifle too far, and dropped into a quiet nap, from which he woke only to find that the pole was falling and had already gone too far to be recovered, but the agility of the boy saved him from injury. As my knowledge of Japanese is limited to the more polite forms, I cannot repeat the remarks of the lad.

Until a comparatively recent date, incredible as it may seem, frog-swallowers were far from uncommon on the bills of the Continental theaters. The most prominent, Norton, a Frenchman, was billed as a leading feature in the high-class houses of Europe. I saw him work at the Apollo Theater, Nuremberg, where I was to follow him in; and during my engagement at the Circus Busch, Berlin, we were on the same programme, which gave me an opportunity to watch him closely.

One of his features was to drink thirty or forty large glasses of beer in slow succession. The filled glasses were displayed on shelves at the back of the stage, and had handles so that he could bring forward two or three in each hand. When he had finished these he would return for others and, while gathering another handful, would bring up the beer and eject it into a receptacle arranged between the shelves, just below the line of vision of the audience.

Norton could swallow a number of half-grown frogs and bring them up alive. I remember his anxiety on one occasion when returning to his dressing-room; it seems he had lost a frog—at least he could not account for the entire flock—and he looked very much scared, probably at the uncertainty as to whether or not he had to digest a live frog.

The Muenchen October Fest, is the annual fair at that city, and a most wonderful show it is. I have been there twice; once as the big feature with Circus Carre, in 1901, and again in 1913, with the Circus Corty Althoff. The Continental Circuses are not, like those of this country, under canvas, but show in wooden buildings. At these October Fests I saw a number of frog-swallowers, and to me they were very repulsive indeed. In fact, Norton was the only one I ever saw who presented his act in a dignified manner.

Willie Hammerstein once had Norton booked to appear at the Victoria Theater, New York, but the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would not allow him to open; so he returned to Europe without exhibiting his art (?) in America.

In my earlier days in the smaller theaters of America, before the advent of the B. F. Keith and E. F. Albee theaters, I occasionally ran across a sailor calling himself English Jack, who could swallow live frogs and bring them up again with apparent ease.

I also witnessed the disgusting pit act of that degenerate, Bosco, who ate living snakes, and whose act gave rise to the well-known barkers' cry He eats 'em alive! If the reader wishes further description of this creature's work, he must find it in my book, The Unmasking of Robert Houdin, for I cannot bring myself to repeat the nauseating details here.

During an engagement in Bolton, Eng., I met Billington, the official hangman, who was convinced that I could not escape from the restraint he used to secure those he was about to execute.

Much to his astonishment, I succeeded in releasing myself, but he said the time consumed was more than sufficient to spring the trap and launch the doomed soul into eternity. Billington told me that he had hardened himself to the demands of his office by killing rats with his teeth.

During my engagement at the Winter Garten, Berlin, Captain Veitro, a performer that I had known for years in America, where he worked in side shows and musemns, came to Berlin and made quite a stir by eating poisons. He appeared only a few times, however, as his act did not appeal to the public, presumably for the reason that he had his stomach pumped out at each performance, to prove that it really contained the poison. This may have been instructive, but it possessed little appeal as entertainment, and I rarely heard of the venturesome captain after that.

Years ago I saw a colored poison-eater at Worth's Museum, New York City, who told me that he escaped the noxious effects of the drugs by eating quantities of oatmeal mush.

Another colored performer took an ordinary bottle, and, after breaking it, would bite off chunks, crunch them with his teeth, and finally swallow them. I have every reason to believe that his performance was genuine.

The beer-drinking of Norton was a more refined version of the so-called water-spouting of previous generations, in which the returning was done openly, a performance that could not fail to disgust a modern audience. To be sure, in the days of the Dime Museum, a Negro who returned the water worked those houses; but his performance met with little approval, and it is years since I have heard of such an exhibition.

The first water-spouter of whom I find a record was Blaise Manfrede or de Manfre, who toured Europe about the middle of the seventeenth century. An interesting account of this man may be found in my book The Unmasking of Robert Houdin.

A pupil of Manfrede's, by the name of Floram Marchand, who seems to have been fully the equal of his master, appeared in England in 1650. The following description of Marchand's performance is from The Book of Wonderful Characters, edition of 1869, page 126:

In the summer of 1650, a Frenchman named Floram Marchand was brought over from Tours to London, who professed to be able to "turn water into wine," and at his vomit render not only the tincture, but the strength and smell of several wines, and several waters. He learnt the rudiments of this art from Bloise, an Italian, who not long before was questioned by Cardinal Mazarin, who threatened him with all the miseries that a tedious imprisonment could bring upon him, unless he would discover to him by what art he did it. Bloise, startled at the sentence, and fearing the event, made a full confession on these terms, that the Cardinal would communicate it to no one else.

From this Bloise, Marchand received all his instruction; and finding his teacher the more sought after in France, he came by the advice of two English friends to England, where the trick was new. Here—the cause of it being utterly unknown—he seems for a time to have gulled and astonished the public to no small extent, and to his great profit.

Before long, however, the whole mystery was cleared up by his two friends, who had probably not received the share of the profits to which they thought themselves entitled. Their somewhat circumstantial account runs as follows.

To prepare his body for so hardy a task, before he makes his appearance on the stage, he takes a pill about the quantity of a hazel nut, confected with the gall of an heifer, and wheat flour baked. After which he drinks privately in his chamber four or five pints of luke-warm water, to take all the foulness and slime from his stomach, and to avoid that loathsome spectacle which otherwise would make thick the water, and offend the eye of the observer.

In the first place, he presents you with a pail of luke-warm water, and sixteen glasses in a basket, but you are to understand that every morning he boils two ounces of Brazil thin-sliced in three pints of running water, so long till the whole strength and color of the Brazil is exhausted: of this he drinks half a pint in his private chamber before he comes on the stage: you are also to understand that he neither eats nor drinks in the morning on those days when he comes on the stage, the cleansing pill and water only excepted; but in the evening will make a very good supper, and eat as much as two or three other men who have not their stomachs so thoroughly purged.

Before he presents himself to the spectators, he washes all his glasses in the best white-wine vinegar he can procure. Coming on the stage, he always washes his first glass, and rinses it two or three times, to take away the strength of the vinegar, that it may in no wise discolour the complexion of what is represented to be wine.

At his first entrance, he drinks four and twenty glasses of luke-warm water, the first vomit he makes the water seems to be a full deep claret: you are to observe that his gall-pill in the morning, and so many glasses of luke-warm water afterwards, will force him into a sudden capacity to vomit, which vomit upon so much warm water, is for the most part so violent on him, that he cannot forbear if he would.

You are again to understand that all that comes from him is red of itself, or has a tincture of it from the first Brazil water; but by degrees, the more water he drinks, as on every new trial he drinks as many glasses of water as his stomach will contain, the water that comes from him will grow paler and paler. Having then made his essay on claret, and proved it to be of the same complexion, he again drinks four or five glasses of luke-warm water, and brings forth claret and beer at once into two several glasses: now you are to observe that the glass which appears to be claret is rinsed as before, but the beer glass not rinsed at all, but is still moist with the white-wine vinegar, and the first strength of the Brazil water being lost, it makes the water which he vomits up to be of a more pale colour, and much like our English beer.

He then brings his rouse again, and drinks up fifteen or sixteen glasses of luke-warm water, which the pail will plentifully afford him: he will not bring you up the pale Burgundian wine, which, though more faint of complexion than the claret, he will tell you is the purest wine in Christendom. The strength of the Brazil water, which he took immediately before his appearance on the stage, grows fainter and fainter. This glass, like the first glass in which he brings forth his claret, is washed, the better to represent the colour of the wine therein.

The next he drinks comes forth sack from him, or according to that complexion. Here he does not wash his glass at all; for the strength of the vinegar must alter what is left of the complexion of the Brazil water, which he took in the morning before he appeared on the stage.

You are always to remember, that in the interim, he will commonly drink up four or five glasses of the luke-warm water, the better to provoke his stomach to a disgorgement, if the first rouse will not serve turn. He will now (for on every disgorge he will bring you forth a new colour), he will now present you with white wine. Here also he will not wash his glass, which (according to the vinegar in which it was washed) will give it a colour like it. You are to understand, that when he gives you the colour of so many wines, he never washes the glass, but at his first evacuation, the strength of the vinegar being no wise compatible with the colour of the Brazil water.

Having performed this task, he will then give you a show of rose-water; and this indeed, he does so cunningly, that it is not the show of rose-water, but rose-water itself. If you observe him, you will find that either behind the pail where his luke-warm water is, or behind the basket in which his glasses are, he will have on purpose a glass of rose-water prepared for him. After he has taken it, he will make the spectators believe that he drank nothing but the luke-warm water out of the pail; but he saves the rose-water in the glass, and holding his hand in an indirect way, the people believe, observing the water dropping from his fingers, that it is nothing but the water out of the pail. After this he will drink four or five glasses more out of the pail, and then comes up the rose-water, to the admiration of the beholders. You are to understand, that the heat of his body working with his rose-water gives a full and fragrant smell to all the water that comes from him as if it were the same.

The spectators, confused at the novelty of the sight, and looking and smelling on the water, immediately he takes the opportunity to convey into his hand another glass; and this is a glass of Angelica water, whch stood prepared for him behind the pail or basket, which having drunk off, and it being furthered with four or five glasses of luke-warm water, out comes the evacuation, and brings with it a perfect smell of the Angelica, as it was in the rose-water above specified.

To conclude all, and to show you what a man of might he is, he has an instrument made of tin, which he puts between his lips and teeth; this instrument has three several pipes, out of which, his arms a-kimbo, a putting forth himself, he will throw forth water from him in three pipes, the distance of four or five yards. This is all clear water, which he does with so much port and such a flowing grace, as if it were his master-piece.

He has been invited by divers gentlemen and personages of honour to make the like evacuation in milk, as he made a semblance in wine. You are to understand that when he goes into another room, and drinks two or three pints of milk. On his return, which is always speedy, he goes first to his pail, and afterwards to his vomit. The milk which comes from him looks curdled, and shows like curdled milk and drink. If there be no milk ready to be had, he will excuse himself to his spectators, and make a large promise of what he will perform the next day, at which time being sure to have milk enough to serve his turn, he will perform his promise.

His milk he always drinks in a withdrawing room, that it may not be discovered, for that would be too apparent, nor has he any other shift to evade the discerning eye of the observers.

It is also to be considered that he never comes on the stage (as he does sometimes three or four times in a day) but he first drinks the Brazil water, without which he can do nothing at all, for all that comes from him has a tincture of the red, and it only varies and alters according to the abundance of water which he takes, and the strength of the white-wine vinegar, in which all the glasses are washed.