Miracle Mongers and Their Methods/Chapter VI

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THE yellow thread of exposure seems to be inextricably woven into all fabrics whose strength is secrecy, and experience proves that it is much easier to become fireproof than to become exposure proof. It is still an open question, however, as to what extent exposure really injures a performer. Exposure of the secrets of the fire-eaters, for instance, dates back almost to the beginning of the art itself. The priests were exposed, Richardson was exposed, Powell was exposed and so on down the line; but the business continued to prosper, the really clever performers drew quite fashionable audiences for a long time, and it was probably the demand for a higher form of entertainment, resulting from a refinement of the public taste, rather than the result of the many exposures, that finally relegated the Fire-eaters to the haunts of the proletariat.

How the early priests came into possession of these secrets does not appear, and if there were ever any records of this kind the Church would hardly allow them to become public. That they used practically the same system which has been adopted by all their followers is amply proved by the fact that after trial by ordeal had been abolished Albertus Magnus, in his work De Mirabilibus Mundi, at the end of his book De Secretis Mulierum, Amstelod, 1702, made public the underlying principles of heat-resistance; namely, the use of certain compounds which render the exposed parts to a more or less extent impervious to heat. Many different formulas have been discovered which accomplish the purpose, but the principle remains unchanged. The formula set down by Albertus Magnus was probably the first ever made public: the following translation of it is from the London Mirror:

Take juice of marshmallow, and white of egg, flea-bane seeds, and lime; powder them and mix juice of radish with the white of egg; mix all thoroughly and with this composition annoint your body or hand and allow it to dry and afterwards annoint it again, and after this you may boldly take up hot iron without hurt.

"Such a paste" says the correspondent to the Mirror, "would indeed be very visible."

Another early formula is given in the 1763 edition of Hocus Pocus. Examination of the different editions of this book in my library discloses the fact that there are no fire formulas in the second edition, 1635, which is the earliest I have (first editions are very rare and there is only one record of a sale of that edition at auction). From the fact that this formula was published during the time that Powell was appearing in England I gather that that circumstance may account for its addition to the book. It does not appear in the German or Dutch editions.

The following is an exact copy:


Take half an ounce of samphire, dissolve it in two ounces of aquævitæ, add to it one ounce of quicksilver, one ounce of liquid storax, which is the droppings of Myrrh and hinders the camphire from firing; take also two ounces of hematitus, a red stone to be had at the druggist's, and when you buy it let them beat it to powder in their great mortar, for it is so very hard that it cannot be done in a small one; put this to the afore-mentioned composition, and when you intend to walk on the bar you must annoint your feet well therewith, and you may walk over without danger: by this you may wash your hands in boiling lead.

This was the secret modus operandi made use of by Richardson, the first notably successful fire artist to appear in Europe, and it was disclosed by his servant.[1]

Hone's Table Book, London, 1827, page 315, gives Richardson's method as follows:

It consisted only in rubbing the hands and thoroughly washing the mouth, lips, tongue, teeth and other parts which were to touch the fire, with pure spirits of sulphur. This burns and cauterizes the epidermis or upper skin, till it becomes as hard and thick as leather, and each time the experiment is tried it becomes still easier. But if, after it has been very often repeated the upper skin should grow so callous and hard as to become troublesome, washing the parts affected with very warm water, or hot wine, will bring away all the shrivelled or parched epidermis. The flesh, however, will continue tender and unfit for such business till it has been frequently rubbed over with the same spirit.

This preparation may be rendered much stronger and more efficacious by mixing equal quantities of spirit of sulphur, sal ammoniac, essence of rosemary and juice of onions. The bad effects which frequently swallowing red-hot coals, melted sealing wax, rosin, brimstone and other calcined and inflammable matter, might have had upon his stomach were prevented by drinking plentifully of warm water and oil, as soon as he left the company, till he had vomited it all up again.

This anecdote was communicated to the author of the Journal des Savants by Mr. Panthot, Doctor of Physics and Member of the College at Lyons. It appeared at the time Powell was showing his fire-eating stunts in London, and the correspondent naïvely added:

Whether Mr. Powell will take it kindly of me thus to have published his secret I cannot tell; but as he now begins to drop into years, has no children that I know of and may die suddenly, or without making a will, I think it a great pity so genteel an occupation should become one of the artes perditae, as possibly it may, if proper care is not taken, and therefore hope, after this information, some true-hearted Englishman will take it up again, for the honor of his country, when he reads in the newspapers, "Yesterday, died, much lamented, the famous Mr. Powell. He was the best, if not the only, fire-eater in the world, and it is greatly to be feared that his art is dead with him."

After a couple of columns more in a similar strain, the correspondent signs himself Philopyraphagus Ashburniensis.

In his History of Inventions, Vol. III, page 272, 1817 edition, Beckmann thus describes the process:

The deception of breathing out flames, which at present excites, in a particular manner, the astonishment of the ignorant, is very ancient. When the slaves in Sicily, about a century and a half before our era, made a formidable insurrection, and avenged themselves in a cruel manner, for the severities which they had suffered, there was amongst them a Syrian named Eunus—a man of great craft and courage; who having passed through many scenes of life, had become acquainted with a variety of arts. He pretended to have immediate communication with the gods; was the oracle and leader of his fellow-slaves; and, as is usual on such occasions confirmed his divine mission by miracles. When heated by enthusiasm and desirous of inspiring his followers with courage, he breathed flames or sparks among them from his mouth while he was addressing them. We are told by historians that for this purpose he pierced a nut shell at both ends, and, having filled it with some burning substance, put it into his mouth and breathed through it. This deception, at present, is performed much better. The juggler rolls together some flax or hemp, so as to form a ball about the size of a walnut; sets it on fire; and suffers it to burn until it is nearly consumed; he then rolls round it, while burning, some more flax; and by these means the fire may be retained in it for a long time. When he wishes to exhibit he slips the ball unperceived into his mouth, and breathes through it; which again revives the fire, so that a number of weak sparks proceed from it; and the performer sustains no hurt, provided he inspire the air not through the mouth, but the nostrils. By this art the Rabbi Bar-Cocheba, in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, made the credulous Jews believe that he was the hoped-for Messiah; and two centuries after, the Emperor Constantius was thrown into great terror when Valentinian informed him that he had seen one of the body-guards breathing out fire and flames in the evening.

Since Beckmann wrote, the method of producing smoke and sparks from the mouth has been still further improved. The fire can now be produced in various ways. One way is by the use of a piece of thick cotton string which has been soaked in a solution of nitre and then thoroughly dried. This string, when once lighted, burns very slowly and a piece one inch long is sufficient for the purpose. Some performers prefer a small piece of punk, as it requires no preparation. Still others use tinder made by burning linen rags, as our forefathers used to do. This will not flame, but merely smoulders until the breath blows it into a glow. The tinder is made by charring linen rags, that is, burning them to a crisp, but stopping the combustion before they are reduced to ashes.

Flames from the lips may be produced by holding in the mouth a sponge saturated with the purest gasoline. When the breath is exhaled sharply it can be lighted from a torch or a candle. Closing the lips firmly will extinguish the flame. A wad of oakum will give better results than the sponge.

Natural gas is produced as simply. A T-shaped gas pipe has three or four gas tips on the cross-piece. The long end is placed in the mouth, which already holds concealed a sponge, or preferably a ball of oakum, saturated with pure gasoline. Blowing through the pipe will force the gas through the tips, where it can be ignited with a match. It will burn as long as the breath lasts.

In a London periodical, The Terrific Record, appears a reprint from the Mercure de France, giving an account of experiments in Naples which led to the discovery of the means by which jugglers have appeared to be incombustible. They first gradually habituate the skin, the mouth, throat and stomach to great degrees of heat, then they rub the skin with hard soap. The tongue is also covered with hard soap and over that a layer of powdered sugar. By this means an investigating professor was enabled to reproduce the wonders which had puzzled many scientists.

The investigating professor in all probability, was Professor Sementini, who experimented with Lionetto. I find an account of Sementini's discoveries in an old newspaper clipping, the name and date of which have unfortunately been lost:

Sementini's efforts, after performing several experiments upon himself, were finally crowned with success. He found that by friction with sulphuric acid deluted with water, the skin might be made insensible to the action of the heat of red-hot iron; a solution of alum, evaporated till it became spongy, appeared to be more effectual in these frictions. After having rubbed the parts which were thus rendered in some degree insensible, with hard soap, he discovered, on the application of hot iron, that their insensibility was increased. He then determined on again rubbing the parts with soap, and after that found that the hot iron not only occasioned no pain but that it actually did not burn the hair.

Being thus far satisfied, the Professor applied hard soap to his tongue until it became insensible to the heat of the iron; and having placed an ointment composed of soap mixed with a solution of alum upon it, burning oil did not burn it; while the oil remained on the tongue a slight hissing was heard, similar to that of hot iron when thrust into water; the oil soon cooled and might then be swallowed without danger.

Several scientific men have since repeated the experiments of Professor Sementini, but we would not recommend any except professionals to try the experiments.

Liquid storax is now used to anoint the tongue when red-hot irons are to be placed in the mouth. It is claimed that with this alone a red-hot poker can be licked until it is cold.

Another formula is given by Griffin, as follows: 1 bar ivory soap, cut fine, 1 pound of brown sugar, 2 ounces liquid storax (not the gum). Dissolve in hot water and add a wine-glassful of carbolic acid. This is rubbed on all parts liable to come in contact with the hot articles. After anointing the mouth with this solution rinse with strong vinegar.

No performer should attempt to bite off red-hot iron unless he has a good set of teeth. A piece of hoop iron may be prepared by bending it back and forth at a point about one inch from the end, until the fragment is nearly broken off, or by cutting nearly through it with a cold chisel. When the iron has been heated red-hot, the prepared end is taken between the teeth, a couple of bends will complete the break. The piece which drops from the teeth into a dish of water wll make a puff of steam and a hissing sound, which will demonstrate that it is still very hot.

The mystery of the burning cage, in which the Fire King remains while a steak is thoroughly cooked, is explained by Barnello as follows:

Have a large iron cage constructed about 4 x 6 feet, the bottom made of heavy sheet iron. The cage should stand on iron legs or horses. Wrap each of the bars of the cage with cotton batting saturated with oil. Now take a raw beefsteak in your hand and enter the cage, which is now set on fire. Remain in the cage until the fire has burned out, then issue from the cage with the steak burned to a crisp.

Explanation: On entering the cage the performer places the steak on a large iron hook which is fastened in one of the upper corners. The dress worn is of asbestos cloth with a hood that completely covers the head and neck. There is a small hole over the mouth through which he breathes.

As soon as the fire starts the smoke and flames completely hide the performer from the spectators, and he immediately lies down on the bottom of the cage, placing the mouth over one of the small air holes in the floor of the same.

Heat always goes up and will soon cook the steak.

I deduce from the above that the performer arises and recovers the steak when the fire slackens but while there is still sufficient flame and smoke to mask his action.

It is obvious that the above explanation covers the baker's oven mystery as well. In the case of the oven, however, the inmate is concealed from start to finish, and this gives him much greater latitude for his actions. M. Chabert made the oven the big feature of his programme and succeeded in puzzling many of the best informed scientists of his day.

Eating coals of fire has always been one of the sensational feats of the Fire Kings, as it is quite generally known that charcoal burns with an extremely intense heat. This fervent lunch, however, like many of the feasts of the Fire Kings, is produced by trick methods. Mixed with the charcoal in the brazier are a few coals of soft white pine, which when burnt look exactly like charcoal. These will not burn the mouth as charcoal will. They should be picked up with a fork which will penetrate the pine coals, but not the charcoal, the latter being brittle.

Another method of eating burning coals employs small balls of burned cotton in a dish of burning alcohol. When lifted on the fork these have the appearance of charcoal, but are harmless if the mouth be immediately closed, so that the flame is extinguished.

In all feats of fire-eating it should be noted that the head is thrown well back, so that the flame may pass out of the open mouth instead of up into the roof, as it would if the head were held naturally.

To drink burning oil set fire to a small quantity of kerosene in a ladle. Into this dip an iron spoon and bring it up to all appearance, filled with burning oil, though in reality the spoon is merely wet with the oil. It is carried blazing to the mouth, where it is tipped, as if to pour the oil into the mouth, just as a puff of breath blows out all the flame. The process is continued until all the oil in the ladle has been consumed; then the ladle is turned bottom up, in order to show that all the oil has been drunk.

A method of drinking what seems to be molten lead is given in the Chambers' Book of Days, 1863, Vol. II, page 278:

The performer taking an iron spoon, holds it up to the spectators, to show that it is empty; then, dipping it into a pot containing melted lead, he again shows it to the spectators full of the molten metal; then, after putting the spoon in his mouth, he once more shows it to be empty; and after compressing his lips, with a look expressive of pain, he, in a few moments, ejects from his mouth a piece of lead impressed with the exact form of his teeth. Ask a spectator what he saw, and he will say that the performer took a spoonful of molten lead, placed it in his mouth, and soon afterwards showed it in a solid state, bearing the exact form and impression of his teeth. If deception be insinuated, the spectator will say. "No! Having the evidence of my, senses, I cannot be deceived; if it had been a matter of opinion I might, but seeing, you know, is believing." Now the piece of lead, cast from a plaster mould of the performer's teeth, has probably officiated in a thousand previous performances, and is placed in the mouth between the gum and the cheek, just before the trick commences. The spoon is made with a hollow handle containing quicksilver, which, by a simple motion, can be let run into the bowl, or back again into the handle at will.

The spoon is first shown with the quicksilver concealed in the handle, the bowl is then dipped just within the rim of the pot containing the molten lead, but not into the lead itself, and, at the same instant the quicksilver is allowed to run into the bowl. The spoon is then shown with the quicksilver (which the audience takes to be the melted lead) in the bowl, and when placed in the mouth, the quicksilver is again allowed to run into the handle.

The performer, in fact, takes a spoonful of nothing, and soon after exhibits the lead bearing the impression of the teeth.

Molten lead, for fire-eating purposes, is made as follows:

Bismuth . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 oz.
Lead . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 oz.
Block tin . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 oz.

Melt these together. When the metal has cooled, a piece the size of a silver quarter can be melted and taken into the mouth and held there until it hardens. This alloy will melt in boiling water. Robert-Houdin calls it Arcet's metal, but I cannot find the name elsewhere.

The eating of burning brimstone is an entirely fake performance. A number of small pieces of brimstone are shown, and then wrapped in cotton which has been saturated with a half-and-half mixture of kerosene and gasoline, the surplus oil having been squeezed out so there shall be no drip. When these are lighted they may be held in the palm of any hand which has been anointed with one of the fire mixtures described in this chapter. Then throw back the head, place the burning ball in the mouth, and a freshly extinguished candle can be lighted from the flame. Close the lips firmly, which will extinguish the flame, then chew and pretend to swallow the brimstone, which can afterwards be removed under cover of a handkerchief.

Observe that the brimstone has not been burned at all, and that the cotton protects the teeth. To add to the effect, a small piece of brimstone may be dropped into the furnace, a very small piece will suffice to convince all that it is the genuine article that is being eaten.

To cause the face to appear in a mass of flame make use of the following: mix together thoroughly petroleum, lard, mutton tallow and quick lime. Distill this over a charcoal fire, and the liquid which results can be burned on the face without harm.[2]

To set paper on fire by blowing upon it, small pieces of wet phosphorus are taken into the mouth, and a sheet of tissue paper is held about a foot from the lips. While the paper is being blown upon the phosphorus is ejected on it, although this passes unnoticed by the spectators, and as soon as the continued blowing has dried the phosphorus it will ignite the paper.

Drinking boiling liquor is accomplished by using a cup with a false bottom, under which the liquor is retained.

A solution of spermaceti in sulphuric ether tinged with alkanet root, which solidifies at 50° F., and melts and boils with the heat of the hand, is described in Beckmann's History of Inventions, Vol. II., page 121.

Dennison's No. 2 sealing wax may be melted in the flame of a candle and, while still blazing, dropped upon the tongue without causing a burn, as the moisture of the tongue instantly cools it. Care must be used, however, that none touches the hands or lips. It can be chewed, and apparently swallowed, but removed in the handkerchief while wiping the lips.

The above is the method practiced by all the Fire-Eaters, and absolutely no preparation is necessary except that the tongue must be well moistened with saliva.

Barnello once said, "A person wishing to become a Fire-Eater must make up his or her mind to suffer a little at first from burns, as there is no one who works at the business but that gets burns either from carelessness or from accident."

This is verified by the following, which I clip from the London Globe of August 11th, 1880:

Accident to a Fire-Eater. A correspondent telegraphs: A terrible scene was witnessed in the market place, Leighton Buzzard, yesterday. A travelling Negro fire eater was performing on a stand, licking red-hot iron, bending heated pokers with his naked foot, burning tow in his mouth, and the like. At last he filled his mouth with benzolene, saying that he would burn it as he allowed it to escape. He had no sooner applied a lighted match to his lips than the whole mouthful of spirit took fire and before it was consumed the man was burned in a frightful manner, the blazing spirit running all over his face, neck and chest as he dashed from his stand and raced about like a madman among the assembled crowd, tearing his clothing from him and howling in most intense agony. A portion of the spirit was swallowed and the inside of his mouth was also terribly burnt. He was taken into a chemist's shop and oils were administered and applied, but afterwards in agonizing frenzy he escaped in a state almost of nudity from a lodging house and was captured by the police and taken to the work-house infirmary, where he remains in a dreadful condition.

Remember! Always have a large blanket at hand to smother flames in burning clothing—also a bucket of water and a quantity of sand. A siphon of carbonic water is an excellent fire extinguisher.

The gas of gasoline is heavier than air, so a container should never be held above a flame. Keep kerosene and gasoline containers well corked and at a distance from fire.

Never inhale breath while performing with fire. Flame drawn into the lungs is fatal to life.

So much for the entertaining side of the art. There are, however, some further scientific principles so interesting that I reserve them for another chapter.

  1. Such disloyalty in trusted servants is one of the most disheartening things that can happen to a public performer. But it must not be thought that I say this out of personal experience: for in the many years that I have been before the public my secret methods have been steadily shielded by the strict integrity of my assistants, most of whom have been with me for years. Only one man ever betrayed my confidence, and that only in a minor matter. But then, so far as I know I am the only performer who ever pledged his assistants to secrecy, honor and allegiance under a notarial oath.
  2. Barnello's Red Demon.