Miracle Mongers and Their Methods/Chapter VIII
IT has sometimes been noted in the foregoing pages, that fire-eaters, finding it difficult to invent new effects in their own sphere, have strayed into other fields of endeavor in order to amplify their programmes. Thus we find them resorting to the allied arts of poison-eating, sword-swallowing and the stunts of the so-called Human Ostrich.
In this connection I consider it not out of place for me to include a description of a number of those who have, either through unusual gifts of nature or through clever artifice, seemingly submitted to tests which we have been taught to believe were far and away beyond the outposts of human endurance. By the introduction of these thrills each notable newcomer has endeavored to go his predecessors one better, and the issue of challenges to all comers to match these startling effects has been by no means infrequent, but I fail to discover a single acceptance of such a challenge.
To accomplish the sword-swallowing feat, it is only necessary to overcome the nausea that results from the metals touching the mucous membrane of the pharynx, for there is an unobstructed passage, large enough to accommodate several of the thin blades used, from the mouth to the bottom of the stomach. This passage is not straight, but the passing of the sword straightens it. Some throats are more sensitive than others, but practice will soon accustom any throat to the passage of the blade. When a sword with a sharp point is used the performer secretly slips a rubber cap over the point to guard against accident.
It is said that the medical fraternity first learned of the possibility of overcoming the sensitiveness of the pharynx by investigating the methods of the sword-swallowers.
Cliquot, who was one of the most prominent sword-swallowers of his time, finally "reformed" and is now a music hall agent in England. The Strand Magazine (1896) has this to say of Cliquot and his art:
The Chevalier Cliquot (these fellows must have titles) in the act of swallowing the major part of a cavalry sword 22 inches long.
Cliquot, whose name suggests the swallowing of something much more grateful and comforting than steel swords, is a French Canadian by birth, and has been the admitted chief in his profession for more than 18 years. He ran away from his home in Quebec at an early age, and joined a travelling circus bound for South America. On seeing an arrant old humbug swallow a small machete, in Buenos Ayres, the boy took a fancy to the performance, and approached the old humbug aforesaid with the view of being taught the business. Not having any money, however, wherewith to pay the necessary premium, the overtures of the would-be apprentice were repulsed; whereupon he set about experimenting with his own æsophagus with a piece of silver wire.
To say the preliminary training for this sort of thing is painful, is to state the fact most moderately; and even when stern purpose has triumphed over the laws of anatomy, terrible danger still remains.
On one occasion having swallowed a sword, and then bent his body in different directions, as an adventurous sensation, Cliquot found that the weapon also had bent to a sharp angle; and quick as thought, realizing his own position as well as that of the sword, he whipped it out, tearing his throat in a dreadful manner. Plainly, had the upper part of the weapon become detached, the sword swallower's career must infallibly have come to an untimely end. Again, in New York, when swallowing 14 nine-inch bayonet swords at once, Cliquot had the misfortune to have a too sceptical audience, one of whom, a medical man who ought to have known better, rushed forward and impulsively dragged out the whole bunch, inflicting such injuries upon this peculiar entertainer as to endanger his life, and incapacitate him for months.
In one of his acts Cliquot swallows a real bayonet sword, weighted with a cross-bar, and two 18-lb. dumb bells. In order to vary this performance, the sword-swallower allows only a part of the weapon to pass into his body, the remainder being "kicked" down by the recoil of a rifle, which is fixed to a spike in the centre of the bar, and fired by the performer's sister.
The last act in this extraordinary performance is the swallowing of a gold watch. As a ride, Cliquot borrows one, but as no timepiece was forthcoming at the private exhibition where I saw him, he proceeded to lower his own big chronometer into his æsophagus by a slender gold chain. Many of the most eminent physicians and surgeons in this country immediately rushed forward with various instruments, and the privileged few took turns in listening for the ticking of the watch inside the performer's body. "Poor, outraged nature is biding her time," remarked one physician, "but mark me, she will have a terrible revenge sooner or later!"
Eaters of glass, tacks, pebbles, and like objects, actually swallow these seemingly impossible things, and disgorge them after the performance is over. That the disgorging is not always successful is evidenced by the hospital records of many surgical operations on performers of this class, when quantities of solid matter are found lodged in the stomach.
Delno Fritz was not only an excellent sword-swallower, but a good showman as well. The last time I saw him he was working the "halls" in England. I hope he saved his money, for he was a clean man with a clean reputation, and, I can truly say, he was a master in his manner of indulging his appetite for the cold steel.
Deodota, an Italian Magician, was also a sword-swallower of more than average ability. He succumbed to the lure of commercialism finally, and is now in the jewelry business in the "down-town district" of New York City.
Sword-swallowing may be harmlessly imitated by the use of a fake sword with a telescopic blade, which slides into the handle. Vosin, the Paris manufacturer of magical apparatus, made swords of this type, but they were generally used in theatrical enchantment scenes, and it is very doubtful if they were ever used by professional swallowers.
It is quite probable that the swords now most generally used by the profession, which are cut from one piece of metal—handle and all—were introduced to show that they were free from any telescoping device. Swords of this type are quite thin, less than one-eighth of an inch thick, and four or five of them can be swallowed at once. Slowly withdrawing them one at a time, and throwing them on the stage in different directions, makes an effective display.
A small, but strong, electric light bulb attached to the end of a cane, is a very effective piece of apparatus for sword swallowers, as, on a darkened stage, the passage of the light down the throat and into the stomach can be plainly seen by the audience. The medical profession now make use of this idea.
By apparently swallowing sharp razors, a dime-museum performer, whose name I do not recall, gave a variation to the sword-swallowing stunt. This was in the later days, and the act was partly fake and partly genuine. That is to say, the swallowing was fair enough, but the sharp razors, after being tested by cutting hairs, etc., were exchanged for dull duplicates, in a manner that, in better hands, might have been effective. This chap belonged to the great army of unconscious exposers, and the "switch" was quite apparent to all save the most careless observers.
His apparatus consisted of a fancy rack on which three sharp razors were displayed, and a large bandanna handkerchief, in which there were several pockets of the size to hold a razor, the three dull razors being loaded in this. After testing the edge of the sharp razors, he pretended to wipe them, one by one, with the handkerchief, and under cover of this he made the "switch" for the dull ones, which he proceeded to swallow in the orthodox fashion. His work was crude, and the crowd was inclined to poke fun at him.
I have seen one of these performers on the street, in London, swallow a borrowed umbrella, after carefully wiping the ferrule, and then return it to its owner only slighty dampened from its unusual journey. A borrowed watch was swallowed by the same performer, and while one end of the chain hung from the lips, the incredulous onlookers were invited to place their ears against his chest and listen to the ticking of the watch, which had passed as far into the æsophagus as the chain would allow.
The following anecdote from the Carlisle Journal, shows that playing with sword-swallowing is about as dangerous as playing with fire.
On Monday evening last, a man named William Dempster, a juggler of inferior dexterity while exhibiting his tricks in a public house in Botchergate, kept by a person named Purdy, actually accomplished the sad reality of one of those feats, with the semblance only of which he intended to amuse his audience. Having introduced into his throat a common table knife which he was intending to swallow, he accidentally slipped his hold, and the knife passed into his stomach. An alarm was immediately given, and surgical aid procured, but the knife had passed beyond the reach of instruments, and now remains in his stomach. He has since been attended by most of the medical gentlemen of this city; and we understand that no very alarming symptoms have yet appeared, and that it is possible he may exist a considerable time, even in this awkward state. His sufferings at first were very severe, but he is now, when not in motion, comparatively easy. The knife is 9½ inches long, 1 inch broad in the blade, round pointed, and a handle of bone, and may generally be distinctly felt by applying the finger to the unfortunate man's belly; but occasionally, however, from change of its situation it is not perceptible. A brief notice of the analogous case of John Cumming, an American sailor, may not be unacceptable to our readers. About the year 1799 he, in imitation of some jugglers whose exhibition he had then witnessed, in an hour of intoxication, swallowed four clasp knives such as sailors commonly use; all of which passed from him in a few days without much inconvenience. Six years afterward, he swallowed fourteen knives of different sizes; by these, however, he was much disordered, but recovered; and again, in a paroxysm of intoxication, he actually swallowed seventeen, of the effects of which he died in March, 1809. On dissection, fourteen knife blades were found remaining in his stomach, and the back spring of one penetrating through the bowel, seemed the immediate cause of his death.
Several women have adopted the profession of sword-swallowing, and some have won much more than a passing fame. Notable among these is Mlle. Edith Clifford, who is, perhaps, the most generously endowed. Possessed of more than ordinary personal charms, a refined taste for dressing both herself and her stage, and an unswerving devotion to her art, she has perfected an act that has found favor even in the Royal Courts of Europe.
Mlle. Clifford was born in London in 1884 and began swallowing the blades when only 15 years of age. During the foreign tour of the Barnum & Bailey show she joined that organization in Vienna, 1901, and remained with it for five years, and now, after eighteen years of service, she stands well up among the stars. She has swallowed a 26-inch blade, but the physicians advise her not to indulge her appetite for such luxuries often, as it is quite dangerous. Blades of 18 or 20 inches give her no trouble whatever.
In the spring of 1919 I visited the Ringling Bros., and the Barnum & Bailey Show especially to witness Mlle. Clifford's act. In addition to swallowing the customary swords and sabers she introduced such novelties as a specially constructed razor, with a blade five or six times the usual length, a pair of scissors of unusual size, a saw which is 2½ inches wide at the broadest point, with ugly looking teeth, although somewhat rounded at the points, and several other items quite unknown to the bill-of-fare of ordinary mortals. A set of ten thin blades slip easily down her throat and are removed one at a time.The sensation of her act is reached when the point of a bayonet, 23½ inches long, fastened to the breech of a cannon, is placed in her mouth and the piece discharged; the recoil
"Champion Sword Swallower of the World"
driving the bayonet suddenly down her throat. The gun is loaded with a 10 gauge cannon shell.
Mlle. Clifford's handsomely arranged stage occupied the place of honor in the section devoted to freaks and specialties.
Cliquot told me that Delno Fritz was his pupil, and Mlle. Clifford claims to be a pupil of Fritz.
Deserving of honorable mention also is a native of Berlin, who bills herself as Victorina. This lady is able to swallow a dozen sharp-bladed swords at once. Of Victorina, the Boston Herald of December 28th, 1902, said:
By long practice she has accustomed herself to swallow swords, daggers, bayonets, walking sticks, rods, and other dangerous articles.
Her throat and food passages have become so expansive that she can swallow three long swords almost up to the hilts, and can accommodate a dozen shorter blades.
This woman is enabled to bend a blade after swallowing it. By moving her head back and forth she may even twist instruments in her throat. To bend the body after one has swallowed a sword is a dangerous feat, even for a professional swallower. There is a possibility of severing some of the ligaments of the throat or else large arteries or veins. Victorina has already had several narrow escapes.
On one occasion, while sword-swallowing before a Boston audience, a sword pierced a vein in her throat. The blade was half-way down, but instead of immediately drawing it forth, she thrust it farther. She was laid up in a hospital for three months after this performance.
In Chicago she had a still narrower escape. One day while performing at a museum on Clark Street, Victorina passed a long thin dagger down her throat. In withdrawing it, the blade snapped in two, leaving the pointed portion some distance in the passage. The woman nearly fainted when she realized what had occurred, but, by a masterful effort, controlled her feelings. Dropping the hilt of the dagger on the floor, she leaned forward, and placing her finger and thumb down her throat, just succeeded in catching the end of the blade. Had it gone down an eighth of an inch farther her death would have been certain.