The Miracle Mongers, an Expos
by Harry Houdini
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"All wonder," said Samuel Johnson, "is the effect of novelty on ignorance." Yet we are so created that without something to wonder at we should find life scarcely worth living. That fact does not make ignorance bliss, or make it "folly to be wise." For the wisest man never gets beyond the reach of novelty, nor can ever make it his boast that there is nothing he is ignorant of; on the contrary, the wiser he becomes the more clearly he sees how much there is of which he remains in ignorance. The more he knows, the more he will find to wonder at.

My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the every-day commonplaces of my business. But I have never been without some seeming marvel to pique my curiosity and challenge my investigation. In this book I have set down some of the stories of strange folk and unusual performers that I have gathered in many years of such research.

Much has been written about the feats of miracle-mongers, and not a little in the way of explaining them. Chaucer was by no means the first to turn shrewd eyes upon wonder-workers and show the clay feet of these popular idols. And since his time innumerable marvels, held to be supernatural, have been exposed for the tricks they were. Yet to-day, if a mystifier lack the ingenuity to invent a new and startling stunt, he can safely fall back upon a trick that has been the favorite of pressagents the world over in all ages. He can imitate the Hindoo fakir who, having thrown a rope high into the air, has a boy climb it until he is lost to view. He can even have the feat photographed. The camera will click; nothing will appear on the developed film; and this, the performer will glibly explain, "proves" that the whole company of onlookers was hypnotized! And he can be certain of a very profitable following to defend and advertise him.

So I do not feel that I need to apologize for adding another volume to the shelves of works dealing with the marvels of the miracle-mongers. My business has given me an intimate knowledge of stage illusions, together with many years of experience among show people of all types. My familiarity with the former, and what I have learned of the psychology of the latter, has placed me at a certain advantage in uncovering the natural explanation of feats that to the ignorant have seemed supernatural. And even if my readers are too well informed to be interested in my descriptions of the methods of the various performers who have seemed to me worthy of attention in these pages, I hope they will find some amusement in following the fortunes and misfortunes of all manner of strange folk who once bewildered the wise men of their day. If I have accomplished that much, I shall feel amply repaid for my labor.




I. Fire worship.—Fire eating and heat resistance.—The Middle Ages.—Among the Navajo Indians.—Fire-walkers of Japan.—The Fiery Ordeal of Fiji

II. Watton's Ship-swabber from the Indies.-Richardson, 1667.—De Heiterkeit, 1713.—Robert Powell, 1718-1780.—Dufour, 1783.—Quackensalber, 1794

III. The nineteenth century.—A "Wonderful Phenomenon."—"The Incombustible Spaniard, Senor Lionetto," 1803.—Josephine Girardelli, 1814.—John Brooks, 1817.—W. C. Houghton, 1832.—J. A. B. Chylinski, 1841.—Chamouni, the Russian Salamander, 1869.—Professor Rel Maeub, 1876. Rivelli (died 1900)

IV. The Master—Chabert, 1792-1859

V. Fire-eating magicians. Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo.—Fire-eaters employed by magicians: The Man-Salamander, 1816.-Mr. Carlton, Professor of Chemistry, 1818.—Miss Cassillis, aged nine, 1820. The African Wonder, 1843.—Ling Look and Yamadeva die in China during Kellar's world tour, 1877.—Ling Look's double, 1879.—Electrical effects, The Salambos.—Bueno Core.—Del Kano.—Barnello.—Edwin Forrest as a heat-resister—The Elder Sothern as a fire-eater.—The Twilight of the Art

VI. The Arcana of the fire-eaters: The formula of Albertus Magnus.—Of Hocus Pocus.—Richardson's method.—Philopyraphagus Ashburniensis.—To breathe forth sparks, smoke and flames.—To spout natural gas.—Professor Sementini's discoveries.—To bite off red-hot iron.—To cook in a burning cage.—Chabert's oven.—To eat coals of fire.—To drink burning oil.—To chew molten lead.—To chew burning brimstone.—To wreathe the face in flames.—To ignite paper with the breath.—To drink boiling liquor and eat flaming wax

VII. The spheroidal condition of liquids.—Why the hand may be dipped in molten metals.—Principles of heat resistance put to practical uses: Aldini, 1829.—In early fire-fighting.—Temperatures the body can endure

VIII. Sword-swallowers: Cliquot, Delno Fritz, Deodota, a razor-swallower, an umbrella-swallower, William Dempster, John Cumming, Edith Clifford, Victorina

IX. Stone-eaters: A Silesian in Prague, 1006; Francois Battalia, ca. 1641; Platerus' beggar boy; Father Paulian's lithophagus of Avignon, 1760; "The Only One in the World," London, 1788; Spaniards in London, 1790; a secret for two and six; Japanese training.—Frog-swallowers: Norton; English Jack; Bosco; the snake-eater; Billington's prescription for hangmen; Captain Veitro.—Water spouters; Blaise Manfrede, ca. 1650; Floram Marchand, 1650

X. Defiers of poisonous reptiles: Thardo; Mrs. Learn, dealer in rattle-snakes.—Sir Arthur Thurlow Cunynghame on antidotes for snake-bite.—Jack the Viper.—William Oliver, 1735.—The advice of Cornelius Heinrich Agrippa, (1480-1535).—An Australian snake story.—Antidotes for various poisons

XI. Strongmen of the eighteenth century: Thomas Topham (died, 1749); Joyce, 1703; Van Eskeberg, 1718; Barsabas and his sister; The Italian Female Sampson, 1724; The "little woman from Geneva," 1751; Belzoni, 1778-1823

XII. Contemporary strong people: Charles Jefferson; Louis Cyr; John Grun Marx; William Le Roy.—The Nail King, The Human Claw-hammer; Alexander Weyer; Mexican Billy Wells; A foolhardy Italian; Wilson; Herman; Sampson; Sandow; Yucca; La Blanche; Lulu Hurst.—The Georgia Magnet, The Electric Girl, etc.; Annie Abbott; Mattie Lee Price.—The Twilight of the Freaks.—The dime museums



Fire has always been and, seemingly, will always remain, the most terrible of the elements. To the early tribes it must also have been the most mysterious; for, while earth and air and water were always in evidence, fire came and went in a manner which must have been quite unaccountable to them. Thus it naturally followed that the custom of deifying all things which the primitive mind was unable to grasp, led in direct line to the fire-worship of later days.

That fire could be produced through friction finally came into the knowledge of man, but the early methods entailed much labor. Consequently our ease-loving forebears cast about for a method to "keep the home fires burning" and hit upon the plan of appointing a person in each community who should at all times carry a burning brand. This arrangement had many faults, however, and after a while it was superseded by the expedient of a fire kept continually burning in a building erected for the purpose.

The Greeks worshiped at an altar of this kind which they called the Altar of Hestia and which the Romans called the Altar of Vesta. The sacred fire itself was known as Vesta, and its burning was considered a proof of the presence of the goddess. The Persians had such a building in each town and village; and the Egyptians, such a fire in every temple; while the Mexicans, Natches, Peruvians and Mayas kept their "national fires" burning upon great pyramids. Eventually the keeping of such fires became a sacred rite, and the "Eternal Lamps" kept burning in synagogues and in Byzantine and Catholic churches may be a survival of these customs.

There is a theory that all architecture, public and private, sacred and profane, began with the erection of sheds to protect the sacred fire. This naturally led men to build for their own protection as well, and thus the family hearth had its genesis.

Another theory holds that the keepers of the sacred fires were the first public servants, and that from this small beginning sprang the intricate public service of the present.

The worship of the fire itself had been a legacy from the earliest tribes; but it remained for the Rosicrucians and the fire philosophers of the Sixteenth Century under the lead of Paracelsus to establish a concrete religious belief on that basis, finding in the Scriptures what seemed to them ample proof that fire was the symbol of the actual presence of God, as in all cases where He is said to have visited this earth. He came either in a flame of fire, or surrounded with glory, which they conceived to mean the same thing.

For example: when God appeared on Mount Sinai (Exod. xix, 18) "The Lord descended upon it in fire." Moses, repeating this history, said: "The Lord spake unto you out of the midst of fire" (Deut. iv, 12). Again, when the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses out of the flaming bush, "the bush burned with fire and the bush was not consumed" (Exod. iii, 3). Fire from the Lord consumed the burnt offering of Aaron (Lev. ix, 24), the sacrifice of Gideon (Judg. vi, 21), the burnt offering of David (1 Chron. xxxi, 26), and that at the dedication of King Solomon's temple (Chron. vii, 1). And when Elijah made his sacrifice to prove that Baal was not God, "the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust and the water that was in the trench." (1 Kings, xviii, 38.)

Since sacrifice had from the earliest days been considered as food offered to the gods, it was quite logical to argue that when fire from Heaven fell upon the offering, God himself was present and consumed His own. Thus the Paracelsists and other fire believers sought, and as they believed found, high authority for continuing a part of the fire worship of the early tribes.

The Theosophists, according to Hargrave Jennings in "The Rosicrucians," called the soul a fire taken from the eternal ocean of light, and in common with other Fire-Philosophers believed that all knowable things, both of the soul and the body, were evolved out of fire and finally resolvable into it; and that fire was the last and only-to-be-known God.

In passing I might call attention to the fact that the Devil is supposed to dwell in the same element.

Some of the secrets of heat resistance as practiced by the dime-museum and sideshow performers of our time, secrets grouped under the general title of "Fire-eating," must have been known in very early times. To quote from Chambers' "Book of Days": "In ancient history we find several examples of people who possessed the art of touching fire without being burned. The Priestesses of Diana, at Castabala, in Cappadocia, commanded public veneration by walking over red-hot iron. The Herpi, a people of Etruria, walked among glowing embers at an annual festival held on Mount Soracte, and thus proved their sacred character, receiving certain privileges, among others, exemption from military service, from the Roman Senate. One of the most astounding stories of antiquity is related in the 'Zenda-Vesta,' to the effect that Zoroaster, to confute his calumniators, allowed fluid lead to be poured over his body, without receiving any injury."

To me the "astounding" part of this story is not in the feat itself, for that is extremely easy to accomplish, but in the fact that the secret was known at such an early date, which the best authorities place at 500 to 1000 B.C.

It is said that the earliest recorded instance, in our era, of ordeal by fire was in the fourth century. Simplicius, Bishop of Autun, who had been married before his promotion, continued to live with his wife, and in order to demonstrate the Platonic purity of their intercourse placed burning coals upon their flesh without injury.

That the clergy of the Middle Ages, who caused accused persons to walk blindfold among red-hot plowshares, or hold heated irons in their hands, were in possession of the secret of the trick, is shown by the fact that after trial by ordeal had been abolished the secret of their methods was published by Albert, Count of Bollstadt, usually called Albertus Magnus but sometimes Albertus Teutonicus, a man distinguished by the range of his inquiries and his efforts for the spread of knowledge.

These secrets will be fully explained in the section of this history devoted to the Arcana of the Fire-Eaters (Chapter Six).

I take the following from the New York Clipper-Annual of 1885:

The famous fire dance of the Navajo Indians, often described as though it involved some sort of genuine necromancy, is explained by a matter-of-fact spectator. It is true, he says, that the naked worshipers cavort round a big bonfire, with blazing faggots in their hands, and dash the flames over their own and their fellows' bodies, all in a most picturesque and maniacal fashion; but their skins are first so thickly coated with a clay paint that they cannot easily be burned.

An illustrated article entitled Rites of the Firewalking Fanatics of Japan, by W. C. Jameson Reid, in the Chicago Sunday Inter-Ocean of September 27th, 1903, reveals so splendid an example of the gullibility of the well-informed when the most ordinary trick is cleverly presented and surrounded with the atmosphere of the occult, that I am impelled to place before my readers a few illuminating excerpts from Mr. Reid's narrative. This man would, in all probability, scorn to spend a dime to witness the performance of a fire-eater in a circus sideshow; but after traveling half round the world he pays a dollar and spends an hour's time watching the fanatical incantations of the solemn little Japanese priests for the sake of seeing the "Hi-Wattarai"—which is merely the stunt of walking over hot coals—and he then writes it down as the "eighth wonder of the world," while if he had taken the trouble to give the matter even the most superficial investigation, he could have discovered that the secret of the trick had been made public centuries before.

Mr. Reid is authority for the statement that the Shintoist priests' fire-walking rites have "long been one of the puzzling mysteries of the scientific world," and adds "If you ever are in Tokio, and can find a few minutes to spare, by all means do not neglect witnessing at least one performance of 'Hi-Wattarai' (fire walking, and that is really what takes place), for, if you are of that incredulous nature which laughs with scorn at so-called Eastern mysticism, you will come away, as has many a visitor before you, with an impression sufficient to last through an ordinary lifetime." Further on he says "If you do not come away convinced that you have been witness of a spectacle which makes you disbelieve the evidence of your own eyes and your most matter-of-fact judgment, then you are a man of stone." All of which proves nothing more than that Mr. Reid was inclined to make positive statements about subjects in which he knew little or nothing.

He tells us further that formerly this rite was performed only in the spring and fall, when, beside the gratuities of the foreigners, the native worshipers brought "gifts of wine, large trays of fish, fruit, rice cakes, loaves, vegetables, and candies." Evidently the combination of box-office receipts with donation parties proved extremely tempting to the thrifty priests, for they now give what might be termed a "continuous performance."

Those who have read the foregoing pages will apply a liberal sprinkling of salt to the solemn assurance of Mr. Reid, advanced on the authority of Jinrikisha boys, that "for days beforehand the priests connected with the temple devote themselves to fasting and prayer to prepare for the ordeal. . . . The performance itself usually takes place in the late afternoon during twilight in the temple court, the preceding three hours being spent by the priests in final outbursts of prayer before the unveiled altar in the inner sanctuary of the little matted temple, and during these invocations no visitors are allowed to enter the sacred precincts."

Mr. Reid's description of the fire walking itself may not be out of place; it will show that the Japs had nothing new to offer aside from the ritualistic ceremonials with which they camouflaged the hocus-pocus of the performance, which is merely a survival of the ordeal by fire of earlier religions.

"Shortly before 5 o'clock the priests filed from before the altar into some interior apartments, where they were to change their beautiful robes for the coarser dress worn during the fire walking. In the meantime coolies had been set to work in the courtyard to ignite the great bed of charcoal, which had already been laid. The dimensions of this bed were about twelve feet by four, and, perhaps, a foot deep. On the top was a quantity of straw and kindling wood, which was lighted, and soon burst into a roaring blaze. The charcoal became more and more thoroughly ignited until the whole mass glowed in the uncertain gloom, like some gigantic and demoniacal eye of a modern Prometheus. As soon as the mass of charcoal was thoroughly ignited from top to bottom, a small gong in the temple gave notice that the wonderful spectacle of 'Hi-Wattarai' was about to begin.

"Soon two of the priests came out, said prayers of almost interminable length at a tiny shrine in the corner of the enclosure, and turned their attention to the fire. Taking long poles and fans from the coolies, they poked and encouraged the blaze till it could plainly be seen that the coal was ignited throughout. The whole bed was a glowing mass, and the heat which rose from it was so intense that we found it uncomfortable to sit fifteen feet away from it without screening our faces with fans. Then they began to pound it down more solidly along the middle; as far as possible inequalities in its surface were beaten down, and the coals which protruded were brushed aside."

There follows a long and detailed description of further ceremonies, the receiving of gifts, etc., which need not be repeated here. Now for the trick itself.

"One of the priests held a pile of white powder on a small wooden stand. This was said to be salt—which in Japan is credited with great cleansing properties—but as far as could be ascertained by superficial examination it was a mixture of alum and salt. He stood at one end of the fire-bed and poised the wooden tray over his head, and then sprinkled a handful of it on the ground before the glowing bed of coals. At the same time another priest who stood by him chanted a weird recitative of invocation and struck sparks from flint and steel which he held in his hands. This same process was repeated by both the priests at the other end, at the two sides, and at the corners.

"Ten minutes, more or less, was spent in various movements and incantations about the bed of coals. At the end of that time two small pieces of wet matting were brought out and placed at either end and a quantity of the white mixture was placed upon them. At a signal from the head priest, who acted as master of ceremonies during the curious succeeding function, the ascetics who were to perform the first exhibition of fire-walking gathered at one end of the bed of coals, which by this time was a fierce and glowing furnace.

"Having raised both his hands and prostrated himself to render thanks to the god who had taken out the 'soul' of the fire, the priest about to undergo the ordeal stood upon the wet matting, wiped his feet lightly in the white mixture, and while we held our breaths, and our eyes almost leaped from their sockets in awe-struck astonishment, he walked over the glowing mass as unconcernedly as if treading on a carpet in a drawing-room, his feet coming in contact with the white hot coals at every step. He did not hurry or take long steps, but sauntered along with almost incredible sang-froid, and before he reached the opposite side he turned around and sauntered as carelessly back to the mat from which he had started."

The story goes on to tell how the performance was repeated by the other priests, and then by many of the native audience; but none of the Europeans tried it, although invited to do so. Mr. Reid's closing statement is that "no solution of the mystery can be gleaned, even from high scientific authorities who have witnessed and closely studied the physical features of these remarkable Shinto fire-walking rites." Many who are confronted with something that they cannot explain take refuge in the claim that it puzzles the scientists too. As a matter of fact, at the time Mr. Reid wrote, such scientists as had given the subject serious study were pretty well posted on the methods involved.

An article under the title The Fiery Ordeal of Fiji, by Maurice Delcasse, appeared in the Wide World Magazine for May, 1898. From Mr. Delcasse's account it appears that the Fijian ordeal is practically the same as that of the Japanese, as described by Mr. Reid, except that there is very little ceremony surrounding it. The people of Fiji until a comparatively recent date were cannibals; but their islands are now British possessions, most of the natives are Christians, and most of their ancient customs have become obsolete, from which I deduce that the fire-walking rites described in this article must have been performed by natives who had retained their old religious beliefs.

The ordeal takes place on the Island of Benga, which is near Suva, the capital of Fiji, and which, Mr. Delcasse says, "was the supposed residence of some of the old gods of Fiji, and was, therefore, considered a sacred land." Instead of walking on the live coals, as the Japanese priests do, the Fijians walk on stones that have been brought to a white heat in a great fire of logs.

The familiar claim is made that the performance puzzles scientists, and that no satisfactory solution has yet been discovered. We are about to see that for two or three hundred years the same claims have been made by a long line of more or less clever public performers in Europe and America.



The earliest mention I have found of a public fire-eater in England is in the correspondence of Sir Henry Watton, under date of June 3rd, 1633. He speaks of an Englishman "like some swabber of a ship, come from the Indies, where he has learned to eat fire as familiarly as ever I saw any eat cakes, even whole glowing brands, which he will crush with his teeth and swallow." This was shown in London for two pence.

The first to attract the attention of the upper classes, however, was one Richardson, who appeared in France in the year 1667 and enjoyed a vogue sufficient to justify the record of his promise in the Journal des Savants. Later on he came to London, and John Evelyn, in his diary, mentions him under date of October 8th, 1672, as follows:

I took leave of my Lady Sunderland, who was going to Paris to my Lord, now Ambassador there. She made me stay dinner at Leicester House, and afterwards sent for Richardson, the famous fire-eater. He devoured brimstone on glowing coals before us, chewing and swallowing them; he melted a beere-glass and eate it quite up; then taking a live coale on his tongue he put on it a raw oyster; the coal was blown on with bellows till it flamed and sparkled in his mouthe, and so remained until the oyster gaped and was quite boil'd.

Then he melted pitch and wax with sulphur, which he drank down as it flamed: I saw it flaming in his mouthe a good while; he also took up a thick piece of iron, such as laundresses use to put in their smoothing-boxes, when it was fiery hot, held it between his teeth, then in his hand, and threw it about like a stone; but this I observ'd he cared not to hold very long. Then he stoode on a small pot, and, bending his body, tooke a glowing iron with his mouthe from betweene his feete, without touching the pot or ground with his hands, with divers other prodigious feats.

The secret methods employed by Richardson were disclosed by his servant, and this publicity seems to have brought his career to a sudden close; at least I have found no record of his subsequent movements.

About 1713 a fire-eater named De Heiterkeit, a native of Annivi, in Savoy, flourished for a time in London. He performed five times a day at the Duke of Marlborough's Head, in Fleet Street, the prices being half-a-crown, eighteen pence and one shilling.

According to London Tit-Bits, "De Heiterkeit had the honor of exhibiting before Louis XIV., the Emperor of Austria, the King of Sicily and the Doge of Venice, and his name having reached the Inquisition, that holy office proposed experimenting on him to find out whether he was fireproof externally as well as internally. He was preserved from this unwelcome ordeal, however, by the interference of the Duchess Royal, Regent of Savoy."

His programme did not differ materially from that of his predecessor, Richardson, who had antedated him by nearly fifty years.

By far the most famous of the early fire-eaters was Robert Powell, whose public career extended over a period of nearly sixty years, and who was patronized by the English peerage. It was mainly through the instrumentality of Sir Hans Sloane that, in 1751, the Royal Society presented Powell a purse of gold and a large silver medal.

Lounger's Commonplace Book says of Powell: "Such is his passion for this terrible element, that if he were to come hungry into your kitchen, while a sirloin was roasting, he would eat up the fire and leave the beef. It is somewhat surprising that the friends of REAL MERIT have not yet promoted him, living as we do in an age favorable to men of genius. Obliged to wander from place to place, instead of indulging himself in private with his favorite dish, he is under the uncomfortable necessity of eating in public, and helping himself from the kitchen fire of some paltry ale-house in the country."

His advertisements show that he was before the public from 1718 to 1780. One of his later advertisements runs as follows:


Please observe that there are two different performances the same evening, which will be performed by the famous


who has had the honor to exhibit, with universal applause, the most surprising performances that were ever attempted by mankind, before His Royal Highness William, late Duke of Cumberland, at Windsor Lodge, May 7th, 1752; before His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, at Gloucester House, January 30th, 1769; before His Royal Highness the present Duke of Cumberland, at Windsor Lodge, September 25th, 1769; before Sir Hans Sloane and several of the Royal Society, March 4th, 1751, who made Mr. Powell a compliment of a purse of gold, and a fine large silver medal, which the curious may view by applying to him; and before most of the Nobility and Quality in the Kingdom.

He intends to sup on the following articles: 1. He eats red-hot coals out of the fire as natural as bread. 2. He licks with his naked tongue red-hot tobacco pipes, flaming with brimstone. 3. He takes a large bunch of deal matches, lights them altogether; and holds them in his mouth till the flame is extinguished. 4. He takes a red-hot heater out of the fire, licks it with his naked tongue several times, and carries it around the room between his teeth. 5. He fills his mouth with red-hot charcoal, and broils a slice of beef or mutton upon his tongue, and any person may blow the fire with a pair of bellows at the same time. 6. He takes a quantity of resin, pitch, bees'-wax, sealing-wax, brimstone, alum, and lead, melts them all together over a chafing-dish of coals, and eats the same combustibles with a spoon, as if it were a porringer of broth (which he calls his dish of soup), to the great and agreeable surprise of the spectators; with various other extraordinary performances never attempted by any other person of this age, and there is scarce a possibility ever will; so that those who neglect this opportunity of seeing the wonders performed by this artist, will lose the sight of the most amazing exhibition ever done by man.

The doors to be opened by six and he sups precisely at seven o'clock, without any notice given by sound of trumpet.

If gentry do not choose to come at seven o'clock, no performance.

Prices of admission to ladies and gentlemen, one shilling. Back Seats for Children and Servants, six pence.

Ladies and children may have a private performance any hour of the day, by giving previous notice.

N. B.—He displaces teeth or stumps so easily as to scarce be felt. He sells a chemical liquid which discharges inflammation, scalds, and burns, in a short time, and is necessary to be kept in all families.

His stay in this place will be but short, not exceeding above two or three nights.

Good fire to keep the gentry warm.

This shows how little advance had been made in the art in a century. Richardson had presented practically the same programme a hundred years before. Perhaps the exposure of Richardson's method by his servant put an end to fire-eating as a form of amusement for a long time, or until the exposure had been forgotten by the public. Powell himself, though not proof against exposure, seems to have been proof against its effects, for he kept on the even tenor of his way for sixty years, and at the end of his life was still exhibiting.

Whatever the reason, the eighteenth century fire-eaters, like too many magicians of the present day, kept to the stereotyped programmes of their predecessors. A very few did, however, step out of the beaten track and, by adding new tricks and giving a new dress to old ones, succeeded in securing a following that was financially satisfactory.

In this class a Frenchman by the name of Dufour deserves special mention, from the fact that he was the first to introduce comedy into an act of this nature. He made his bow in Paris in 1783, and is said to have created quite a sensation by his unusual performance. I am indebted to Martin's Naturliche Magie, 1792, for a very complete description of the work of this artist.

Dufour made use of a portable building, which was specially adapted to his purposes, and his table was spread as if for a banquet, except that the edibles were such as his performance demanded. He employed a trumpeter and a tambour player to furnish music for his repast—as well as to attract public attention. In addition to fire-eating, Dufour gave exhibitions of his ability to consume immense quantities of solid food, and he displayed an appetite for live animals, reptiles, and insects that probably proved highly entertaining to the not overrefined taste of the audiences of his day. He even advertised a banquet of which the public was invited to partake at a small fee per plate, but since the menu consisted of the delicacies just described, his audiences declined to join him at table.

His usual bill-of-fare was as follows:

Soup—boiling tar torches, glowing coals and small, round, super-heated stones.

The roast, when Dufour was really hungry, consisted of twenty pounds of beef or a whole calf. His hearth was either the flat of his hand or his tongue. The butter in which the roast was served was melted brimstone or burning wax. When the roast was cooked to suit him he ate coals and roast together.

As a dessert he would swallow the knives and forks, glasses, and the earthenware dishes.

He kept his audience in good humor by presenting all this in a spirit of crude comedy and, to increase the comedy element, he introduced a number of trained cats. Although the thieving proclivities of cats are well known, Dufour's pets showed no desire to share his repast, and he had them trained to obey his commands during mealtime. At the close of the meal he would become violently angry with one of them, seize the unlucky offender, tear it limb from limb and eat the carcass. One of his musicians would then beg him to produce the cat, dead or alive. In order to do this he would go to a nearby horse-trough and drink it dry; would eat a number of pounds of soap, or other nauseating substance, clowning it in a manner to provoke amusement instead of disgust; and, further to mask the disagreeable features—and also, no doubt, to conceal the trick—would take the cloth from the table and cover his face; whereupon he would bring forth the swallowed cat, or one that looked like it, which would howl piteously and seem to struggle wildly while being disgorged. When freed, the poor cat would rush away among the spectators.

Dufour gave his best performances in the evening, as he could then show his hocus-pocus to best advantage. At these times he appeared with a halo of fire about his head.

His last appearance in Paris was most remarkable. The dinner began with a soup of asps in simmering oil. On each side was a dish of vegetables, one containing thistles and burdocks, and the other fuming acid. Other side dishes, of turtles, rats, bats and moles, were garnished with live coals. For the fish course he ate a dish of snakes in boiling tar and pitch. His roast was a screech owl in a sauce of glowing brimstone. The salad proved to be spider webs full of small explosive squibs, a plate of butterfly wings and manna worms, a dish of toads surrounded with flies, crickets, grasshoppers, church beetles, spiders, and caterpillars. He washed all this down with flaming brandy, and for dessert ate the four large candles standing on the table, both of the hanging side lamps with their contents, and finally the large center lamp, oil, wick and all. This leaving the room in darkness, Dufour's face shone out in a mask of living flames.

A dog had come in with a farmer, who was probably a confederate, and now began to bark. Since Dufour could not quiet him, he seized him, bit off his head and swallowed it, throwing the body aside. Then ensued a comic scene between Dufour and the farmer, the latter demanding that his dog be brought to life, which threw the audience into paroxysms of laughter. Then suddenly candles reappeared and seemed to light themselves. Dufour made a series of hocus-pocus passes over the dog's body; then the head suddenly appeared in its proper place, and the dog, with a joyous yelp, ran to his master.

Notwithstanding the fact that Dufour must have been by all odds the best performer of his time, I do not find reference to him in any other authority. But something of his originality appeared in the work of a much humbler practitioner, contemporary or very nearly contemporary with him.

We have seen that Richardson, Powell, Dufour, and generally the better class of fire-eaters were able to secure select audiences and even to attract the attention of scientists in England and on the Continent. But many of their effects had been employed by mountebanks and street fakirs since the earliest days of the art, and this has continued until comparatively recent times.

In Naturliche Magie, in 1794, Vol. VI, page 111, I find an account of one Quackensalber, who gave a new twist to the fire-eating industry by making a "High Pitch" at the fairs and on street corners and exhibiting feats of fire-resistance, washing his hands and face in melted tar, pitch and brimstone, in order to attract a crowd. He then strove to sell them a compound—composed of fish glue, alum and brandy—which he claimed would cure burns in two or three hours. He demonstrated that this mixture was used by him in his heat resistance: and then, doubtless, some "capper" started the ball rolling, and Herr Quackensalber (his name indicates a seller of salves) reaped a good harvest.

I have no doubt but that even to-day a clever performer with this "High Pitch" could do a thriving business in that overgrown country village, New York. At any rate there is the so-called, "King of Bees," a gentleman from Pennsylvania, who exhibits himself in a cage of netting filled with bees, and then sells the admiring throng a specific for bee-stings and the wounds of angry wasps. Unfortunately the only time I ever saw his majesty, some of his bee actors must have forgotten their lines, for he was thoroughly stung.



In the nineteenth century by far the most distinguished heat-resister was Chabert, who deserves and shall have a chapter to himself. He commenced exhibiting about 1818, but even earlier in the century certain obscurer performers had anticipated some of his best effects. Among my clippings, for instance, I find the following. I regret that I cannot give the date, but it is evident from the long form of the letters that it was quite early. This is the first mention I have found of the hot-oven effect afterwards made famous by Chabert.


A correspondent in France writes as follows: "Paris has, for some days, rung with relations of the wonderful exploits of a Spaniard in that city, who is endowed with qualities by which he resists the action of very high degrees of heat, as well as the influence of strong chemical reagents. Many histories of the trials to which he has been submitted before a Commission of the Institute and Medical School, have appeared in the public papers; but the public waits with impatience for the report to be made in the name of the Commission by Professor Pinel.

The subject of these trials is a young man, a native of Toledo, in Spain, 23 years of age, and free of any apparent peculiarities which can announce anything remarkable in the organization of his skin; after examination, one would be rather disposed to conclude a peculiar softness than that any hardness or thickness of the cuticle existed, either naturally or from mechanical causes. Nor was there any circumstance to indicate that the person had been previously rubbed with any matter capable of resisting the operation of the agents with which he was brought in contact.

This man bathed for the space of five minutes, and without any injury to his sensibility or the surface of the skin, his legs in oil, heated at 97 degrees of Reaumur (250 degrees of Fahrenheit) and with the same oil, at the same degree of heat, he washed his face and superior extremities. He held, for the same space of time, and with as little inconvenience, his legs in a solution of muriate of soda, heated to 102 of the same scale, (261 1/2 degrees Fahr.) He stood on and rubbed the soles of his feet with a bar of hot iron heated to a white heat; in this state he held the iron in his hands and rubbed the surface of his tongue.

He gargled his mouth with concentrated sulphuric and nitric acids, without the smallest injury or discoloration; the nitric acid changed the cuticle to a yellow color; with the acids in this state he rubbed his hands and arms. All these experiments were continued long enough to prove their inefficiency to produce any impression. It is said, on unquestionable authority, that he remained a considerable time in an oven heated to 65 degrees or 70 degrees, (178-189 degrees Fahr.) and from which he was with difficulty induced to retire, so comfortable did he feel at that high temperature.

It may be proper to remark, that this man seems totally uninfluenced by any motive to mislead, and, it is said, he has refused flattering offers from some religious sectaries of turning to emolument his singular qualities; yet on the whole it seems to be the opinion of most philosophical men, that this person must possess some matter which counteracts the operation of these agents. To suppose that nature has organized him differently, would be unphilosophic: by habit he might have blunted his sensibilities against those impressions that create pain under ordinary circumstances; but how to explain the power by which he resists the action of those agents which are known to have the strongest affinity for animal matter, is a circumstance difficult to comprehend. It has not failed, however, to excite the wonder of the ignorant and the inquiry of the learned at Paris."

This "Wonderful Phenomenon" may have been "the incombustible Spaniard, Senor Lionetto," whom the London Mirror mentions as performing in Paris in 1803 "where he attracted the particular attention of Dr. Sementeni, Professor of Chemistry, and other scientific gentlemen of that city. It appears that a considerable vapor and smell rose from parts of his body when the fire and heated substances were applied, and in this he seems to differ from the person now in this country." The person here referred to was M. Chabert.

Dr. Sementeni became so interested in the subject that he made a series of experiments upon himself, and these were finally crowned with success. His experiments will receive further attention in the chapter "The Arcana of the Fire-Eaters."

A veritable sensation was created in England in the year 1814 by Senora Josephine Girardelli, who was heralded as having "just arrived from the Continent, where she had the honor of appearing before most of the crowned heads of Europe." She was first spoken of as German, but afterwards proved to be of Italian birth.

Entering a field of endeavor which had heretofore been exclusively occupied by the sterner sex, this lady displayed a taste for hot meals that would seem to recommend her as a matrimonial venture. Like all the earlier exploiters of the devouring element, she was proclaimed as "The Great Phenomena of Nature"—why the plural form was used does not appear—and, doubtless, her feminine instincts led her to impart a daintiness to her performance which must have appealed to the better class of audience in that day.

The portrait that adorned her first English handbill, which I produce from the Picture Magazine, was engraved by Page and published by Smeeton, St. Martins Lane, London. It is said to be a faithful representation of her stage costume and setting.

Richardson, of Bartholomew Fair fame, who was responsible for the introduction of many novelties, first presented Girardelli to an English audience at Portsmouth, where her success was so pronounced that a London appearance was arranged for the same year; and at Mr. Laston's rooms, 23 New Bond Street, her performance attracted the most fashionable metropolitan audiences for a considerable time. Following this engagement she appeared at Richardson's Theater, at Bartholomew Fair, and afterwards toured England in the company of Signor Germondi, who exhibited a troupe of wonderful trained dogs. One of the canine actors was billed as the "Russian Moscow Fire Dog, an animal unknown in this country, (and never exhibited before) who now delights in that element, having been trained for the last six months at very great expense and fatigue."

Whether Girardelli accumulated sufficient wealth to retire or became discouraged by the exposure of her methods cannot now be determined, but after she had occupied a prominent position in the public eye and the public prints for a few seasons she dropped out of sight, and I have been unable to find where or how she passed the later years of her life.

I am even more at a loss concerning her contemporary, John Brooks, of whom I have no other record than the following letter, which appears in the autobiography of the famous author-actor-manager, Thomas Dibdin, of the Theaters Royal, Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Haymarket and others. This one communication, however, absolves of any obligation to dig up proofs of John Brooks' versatility: he admits it himself.

To Mr. T. Dibdin, Esq. Pripetor of the Royal Circus.

May 1st, 1817.


I have taken the Liberty of Riting those few lines to ask you the favour if a Greeable for me to Come to your House, as i Can do a great many different things i Can Sing a good Song and i Can Eat Boiling hot Lead and Rub my naked arms With a Red hot Poker and Stand on a Red hot sheet of iron, and do Diferent other things.—Sir i hope you Will Excuse me in Riting I do not Want any thing for my Performing for i have Got a Business that will Sirport me I only want to pass a Way 2 or 3 Hours in the Evening. Sir i hope you Will Send me an Answer Weather Agreeple or not.

I am your Humble Servant,

J. B.

Direct to me No. 4 fox and Knot Court King Street Smithfield.


We shall let this versatile John Brooks close the pre-Chabert record and turn our attention to the fire-eaters of Chabert's day. Imitation may be the sincerest flattery, but in most cases the victim of the imitation, it is safe to say, will gladly dispense with that form of adulation. When Chabert first came to America and gave fresh impetus to the fire-eating art by the introduction of new and startling material, he was beset by many imitators, or—as they probably styled themselves—rivals, who immediately proceeded, so far as in them lay, to out-Chabert Chabert.

One of the most prominent of these was a man named W. C. Houghton, who claimed to have challenged Chabert at various times. In a newspaper advertisement in Philadelphia, where he was scheduled to give a benefit performance on Saturday evening, February 4th, 1832, he practically promised to expose the method of poison eating. Like that of all exposers, however, his vogue was of short duration, and very little can be found about this super-Chabert except his advertisements. The following will serve as a sample of them:



A CARD.—W. C. Houghton, has the honor to announce to the ladies and gentlemen of Philadelphia, that his BENEFIT will take place at the ARCH STREET THEATRE, on Saturday evening next, 4th February, when will be presented a variety of entertainments aided by the whole strength of the company.

Mr. H. in addition to his former experiments will exhibit several fiery feats, pronounced by Mons. Chabert an IMPOSSIBILITY. He will give a COMPLETE explanation by illustrations of the PRINCIPLES of the EUROPEAN and the AMERICAN CHESS PLAYERS. He will also (unless prevented by indisposition) swallow a sufficient quantity of phosphorus, (presented by either chemist or druggist of this city) to destroy THE LIFE OF ANY INDIVIDUAL. Should he not feel disposed to take the poison, he will satisfactorily explain to the audience the manner it may be taken without injury.

In our next chapter we shall see how it went with others who challenged Chabert.

A Polish athlete, J. A. B. Chylinski by name, toured Great Britain and Ireland in 1841, and presented a more than usually diversified entertainment. Being gifted by nature with exceptional bodily strength, and trained in gymnastics, he was enabled to present a mixed programme, combining his athletics with feats of strength, fire-eating, poison-swallowing, and fire-resistance.

In The Book of Wonderful Characters, published in 1869 by John Camden Hotten, London, I find an account of Chamouni, the Russian Salamander: "He was insensible, for a given time, to the effects of heat. He was remarkable for the simplicity and singleness of his character, as well as for that idiosyncrasy in his constitution, which enabled him for so many years, not merely to brave the effects of fire, but to take a delight in an element where other men find destruction. He was above all artifice, and would often entreat his visitors to melt their own lead, or boil their own mercury, that they might be perfectly satisfied of the gratification he derived from drinking these preparations. He would also present his tongue in the most obliging manner to all who wished, to pour melted lead upon it and stamp an impression of their seals."

A fire-proof billed as Professor Rel Maeub, was on the programme at the opening of the New National Theater, in Philadelphia, Pa., in the spring of 1876. If I am not mistaken the date was April 25th. He called himself "The Great Inferno Fire-King," and his novelty consisted in having a strip of wet carpeting running parallel to the hot iron plates on which he walked barefoot, and stepping on it occasionally and back onto the hot iron, when a loud hissing and a cloud of steam bore ample proof of the high temperature of the metal.

One of the more recent fireproofs was Eugene Rivalli, whose act included, besides the usual effects, a cage of fire in which he stood completely surrounded by flames. Rivalli, whose right name was John Watkins, died in 1900, in England. He had appeared in Great Britain and Ireland as well as on the Continent during the later years of the 19th century.

The cage of fire has been used by a number of Rivalli's followers also, and the reader will find a full explanation of the methods employed for it in the chapter devoted to the Arcana of the Fire-eaters, to which we shall come when we have recorded the work of the master Chabert, the history of some of the heat-resisters featured on magicians' programmes, particularly in our own day, and the interest taken in this art by performers whose chief distinction was won in other fields, as notably Edwin Forrest and the elder Sothern.



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 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 inscription: "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 Bartholomew 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 Therese 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 gout, 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'oeuvre 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 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 degrees with impunity, and rubbed a red-hot fire-shovel over his tongue, hair, and face, unharmed.

On September 23d, on a challenge of L50, 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 degrees, 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 L50, 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 degrees 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 degrees 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 L50, 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 cauterising the epidermis, 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."



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, 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 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 eyebrows 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 seance 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 curiosity 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 this evening to witness a few manifestations, 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. Having 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, ONE OF THE COMMITTEE.

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 perennial 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.



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 aquaevitae, 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 naively 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:

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