Miracle Mongers and Their Methods/Chapter V

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MANY of our most noted magicians have considered it not beneath their dignity to introduce fire-eating into their programmes, either in their own work or by the employment of a "Fire Artist." Although seldom presenting it in his recent performances, Ching Ling Foo is a fire-eater of the highest type, refining the effect with the same subtle artistry that marks all the work of this super-magician.

Of Foo's thousand imitators the only positively successful one was William E. Robinson, whose tragic death while in the performance of the bullet-catching trick is the latest addition to the long list of casualties chargeable to that ill-omened juggle. He carried the imitation even as far as the name, calling himself Chung Ling Soo. Robinson was very successful in the classic trick of apparently eating large quantities of cotton and blowing smoke and sparks from the mouth. His teeth were finally quite destroyed by the continued performance of this trick, the method of which may be found in Chapter Six.

The employment of fire-eaters by magicians began a century ago; for in 1816 the magician Sieur Boaz, K. C., featured a performer who was billed as the "Man-Salamander." The fact that Boaz gave him a place on his programme is proof that this man was clever, but the effects there listed show nothing original.

In 1818 a Mr. Carlton, Professor of Chemistry, toured England in company with Rae,
Miracle Mongers and Their Methods - Sieur Boaz Advertisment.jpg

the Bartholomew Fair magician. As will be seen by the handbill reproduced here, Carlton promised to explain the "Deceptive Part" of the performance, "when there is a sufficient company."

In 1820 a Mr. Cassillis toured England with a juvenile company, one of the features of which was Miss Cassillis, aged nine years, whose act was a complete reproduction of the programme of Boaz, concluding her performance with the "Chinese Fire Trick."

A Negro, Carlo Alberto, appeared in a benefit performance given by Herr Julian, who styled himself the "Wizard of the South," in London, on November 28th, 1843. Alberto was billed as the "Great African Wonder, the Fire King" and it was promised that he would "go through part of his wonderful performance as given by him in the principal theaters in America, in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc."

A later number on the same bill reads: "The African Wonder, Carlo Alberto, will sing several new and popular Negro melodies." Collectors of minstrel data please take notice!

In more recent times there have been a number of Negro fire-eaters, but none seems to have risen to noticeable prominence.

Ling Look, one of the best of contemporary fire performers, was with Dean Harry Kellar when the latter made his famous trip around the world in 1877. Look combined fire-eating and sword-swallowing in a rather startling manner. His best effect was the swallowing of a red-hot sword.[1] Another thriller consisted in fastening a long sword to the stock of a musket; when he had swallowed about half the length of the blade, he discharged the gun and the recoil drove the sword suddenly down his throat to the very hilt. Although Look always appeared in a Chinese make-up, Dean Kellar told me that he thought his right name was Dave Gueter, and that he was born in Buda Pesth.

Yamadeva, a brother of Ling Look, was also
Miracle Mongers and Their Methods - Harry Kellar.jpg


with the Kellar Company, doing cabinet manifestations and rope escapes. Both brothers died in China during this engagement, and a strange incident occurred in connection with their deaths. Just before they were to sail from Shanghai on the P. & O. steamer Khiva for Hong Kong, Yamadeva and Kellar visited the bowling alley of The Hermitage, a pleasure resort on the Bubbling Well Road. They were watching a husky sea captain, who was using a huge ball and making a "double spare" at every roll, when Yamadeva suddenly remarked, "I can handle one as heavy as that big loafer can." Suiting the action to the word, he seized one of the largest balls and drove it down the alley with all his might; but he had misjudged his own strength, and he paid for the foolhardy act with his life, for he had no sooner delivered the ball than he grasped his side and moaned with pain. He had hardly sufficient strength to get back to the ship, where he went immediately to bed and died shortly afterward. An examination showed that he had ruptured an artery.

Kellar and Ling Look had much difficulty in persuading the captain to take the body to Hong Kong, but he finally consented. On the way down the Yang Tse Kiang River, Look was greatly depressed; but all at once he became strangely excited, and said that his brother was not dead, for he had just heard the peculiar whistle with which they had always called each other. The whistle was several times repeated, and was heard by all on board. Finally the captain, convinced that something was wrong, had the lid removed from the coffin, but the body of Yamadeva gave no indication of life, and all save Ling Look decided that they must have been mistaken.

Poor Ling Look, however, sobbingly said to Kellar, "I shall never leave Hong Kong alive. My brother has called me to join him." This prediction was fulfilled, for shortly after their arrival in Hong Kong he underwent an operation for a liver trouble, and died under the knife. The brothers were buried in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, in the year 1877.

All this was related to me at the Marlborough-Blenheim, Atlantic City, in June, 1908, by Kellar himself, and portions of it were repeated in 1917 when Dean Kellar sat by me at the Society of American Magicians' dinner.

In 1879 there appeared in England a performer who claimed to be the original Ling Look. He wore his make-up both on and off the stage, and copied, so far as he could, Ling's style of work. His fame reached this country and the New York Clipper published, in its Letter Columns, an article stating that Ling Look was not dead, but was alive and working in England. His imitator had the nerve to stick to his story even when confronted by Kellar, but when the latter assured him that he had personally attended the burial of Ling, in Hong Kong, he broke down and confessed that he was a younger brother of the original Ling Look.

Kellar later informed me that the resemblance was so strong that had he not seen the original Ling Look consigned to the earth, he himself would have been duped into believing that this was the man who had been with him in Hong Kong.

The Salambos were among the first to use electrical effects in a fire act, combining these with the natural gas and "human volcano" stunts of their predecessors, so that they were able to present an extremely spectacular performance without having recourse to such unpleasant features as had marred the effect of earlier fire acts. Bueno Core, too, deserves honorable mention for the cleanness and snap of his act; and Del Kano should also be named among the cleverer performers.

One of the best known of the modern fire-eaters was Barnello, who was a good business man as well, and kept steadily employed at a better salary than the rank and file of his contemporaries. He did a thriving business in the sale of the various concoctions used in his art, and published and sold a most complete book of formulas and general instructions for those interested in the craft. He had, indeed, many irons in the fire, and he kept them all hot.

It will perhaps surprise the present generation to learn that the well-known circus man Jacob Showles was once a fire-eater, and that Del Fugo, well-known in his day as a dancer in the music halls, began as a fire-resister, and did his dance on hot iron plates. But the reader has two keener surprises in store for him before I close the long history of the heat-resisters. The first concerns our great American tragedian Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) who, according to James Rees (Colley Cibber), once essayed a fire-resisting act. Forrest was always fond of athletics and at one time made an engagement with the manager of a circus to appear as a tumbler and rider. The engagement was not fulfilled, however, as his friend Sol Smith induced him to break it and return to the legitimate stage. Smith afterwards admitted to Cibber that if Forrest had remained with the circus he would have become one of the most daring riders and vaulters that ever appeared in the ring.

His adventure in fire-resistance was on the occasion of the benefit to "Charley Young," on which eventful night, as the last of his acrobatic feats, he made a flying leap through a barrel of red fire, singeing his hair and eye-brows terribly. This particular leap through fire was the big sensation of those days, and Forrest evidently had a hankering to show his friends that he could accomplish it—and he did.

The second concerns an equally popular actor, a comedian this time, the elder Sothern (1826-1881). On March 20, 1878, a writer in the Chicago Inter-Ocean communicated to that paper the following curiously descriptive article:

Is Mr. Sothern a medium?

This is the question that fifteen puzzled investigators are asking themselves this morning, after witnessing a number of astounding manifestations at a private séance given by Mr. Sothern last night.

It lacked a few minutes of 12 when a number of Mr. Sothern's friends, who had been given to understand that something remarkable was to be performed, assembled in the former's room at the Sherman House and took seats around a marble-top table, which was placed in the center of the apartment. On the table were a number of glasses, two very large bottles, and five lemons. A sprightly young gentleman attempted to crack a joke about spirits being confined in bottles, but the company frowned him down, and for once Mr. Sothern had a sober audience to begin with.

There was a good deal of curiosily regarding the object of the gathering, but no one was able to explain. Each gentleman testified to the fact Mr. Sothern's agent had waited upon him, and solicited his presence at a little exhibition to be given by the actor, not of a comical nature.

Mr. Sothern himself soon after appeared, and, after shaking hands with the party, thus addressed them:

"Gentlemen, I have invited you here ths evening to witness a few manifestatons, demonstrations, tests, or whatever you choose to call them, which I have accidentally discovered that I am able to perform.

"I am a fire-eater, as it were. (Applause).

"I used to dread the fire, having been scorched once when an innocent child. (A laugh.)

Mr. Sothern (severely)—"I hope there will be no levity here, and I wish to say now that demonstrations of any kind are liable to upset me, while demonstrations of a particular kind may upset the audience."

Silence and decorum being restored, Mr. Sothern thus continued:

"Thirteen weeks ago, while walking up Greenwich Street, in New York, I stepped into a store to buy a cigar. To show you there is no trick about it, here are cigars out of the same box from which I selected the one I that day lighted." (Here Mr. Sothern passed around a box of tolerable cigars.)

"Well, I stepped to the little hanging gas-jet to light it, and, having done so, stood contemplatively holding the gas-jet and the cigar in either hand, thinking what a saving it would be to smoke a pipe, when, in my absent-mindedness, I dropped the cigar and put the gas-jet into my mouth. Strange as it may appear, I felt no pain, and stood there holding the thing in my mouth and puffing till the man in charge yelled out to me that I was swallowing his gas. Then I looked up, and, sure enough, there I was pulling away at the slender flame that came from the glass tube.

"I dropped it instantly, and felt of my mouth, but noticed no inconvenience or unpleasant sensation whatever.

"'What do you mean by it?' said the proprietor.

"As I didn't know what I meant by it I couldn't answer, so I picked up my cigar and went home. Once there I tried the experiment again, and in doing so I found that not only my mouth, but my hands and face, indeed, all of my body, was proof against fire. I called on a physician, and he examined me, and reported nothing wrong with my flesh, which appeared to be in normal condition. I said nothing about it publicly, but the fact greatly surprised me, and I have invited you here to-night to witness a few experiments."

Saying this, Mr. Sothern, who had lit a cigar while pausing in his speech, turned the fire end into his mouth and sat down, smoking unconcernedly.

"I suppose you wish to give us the fire-test," remarked one of the company.

Mr. Sothern nodded.

There was probably never a gathering more dumbfounded than that present in the room. A few questions were asked, and then five gentlemen were appointed to examine Mr. Sothern's hands, etc., before he began his experiments. Heaving thoroughly washed the parts that he proposed to subject to the flames, Mr. Sothern began by burning his arm, and passing it through the gas-jet very slowly, twice stopping the motion and holding it still in the flames. He then picked up a poker with a sort of hook on the end, and proceeded to fish a small coil of wire from the grate. The wire came out fairly white with the heat. Mr. Sothern took the coil in his hands and cooly proceeded to wrap it round his left leg to the knee. Having done so, he stood on the table in the center of the circle and requested the committee to examine the wrappings and the leg and report if both were there. The committee did so and reported in the affirmative.

While this was going on, there was a smile, almost seraphic in its beauty, on Mr. Sothern's face.

After this an enormous hot iron, in the shape of a horseshoe, was placed on Mr. Sothern's body, where it cooled, without leaving a sign of a burn.

As a final test, a tailor's goose was put on the coals, and, after being thoroughly heated, was placed on Mr. Sothern's chair. The latter lighted a fresh cigar, and then coolly took a seat on the goose without the least seeming inconvenience. During the last experiment Mr. Sothern sang in an excellent tone and voice, "I'm Sitting on the Stile, Mary."

The question now is, were the fifteen auditors of Mr. Sothern fooled and deceived, or was this a genuine manifestation of extraordinary power? Sothern is such an inveterate joker that he may have put the thing upon the boys for his own amusement; but if so, it was one of the nicest tricks ever witnessed by yours truly,


P. S.—What is equally marvellous to me is that the fire didn't burn his clothes where it touched them, any more than his flesh.P. C.

(There is nothing new in this. Mr. Sothern has long been known as one of the most expert jugglers in the profession. Some years ago he gained the soubriquet of the "Fire King!" He frequently amuses his friends by eating fire, though he long ago ceased to give public exhibitions. Probably the success of the experiments last night were largely owing to the lemons present. There is a good deal of trickery in those same lemons.—Editor Inter-Ocean.)

which suggests that the editor of the Inter-Ocean was either pretty well acquainted with the comedian's addiction to spoofing, or else less susceptible to superstition than certain scientists of our generation.

The great day of the Fire-eater—or, should I say, the day of the great Fire-eater—has passed. No longer does fashion flock to his doors, nor science study his wonders, and he must now seek a following in the gaping loiterers of the circus side-show, the pumpkin-and-prize-pig country fair, or the tawdry booth at Coney Island. The credulous, wonder-loving scientist, however, still abides with us and, while his serious-minded brothers are wringing from Nature her jealously guarded secrets, the knowledge of which benefits all mankind, he gravely follows that periennial Will-of-the-wisp, spiritism, and lays the flattering unction to his soul that he is investigating "psychic phenomena," when in reality he is merely gazing with unseeing eyes on the flimsy juggling of pseudo-mediums.

  1. I never saw Ling Look's work, but I know that some of the sword swallowers have made use of a sheath which was swallowed before the performance, and the swords were simply pushed into it. A sheath of this kind lined with asbestos might easily have served as a protection against the red-hot blade.