sword swallower

Sword swallowing

Sword swallowing is a performance art, in which the performer inserts a sword into his or her mouth and down the esophagus towards the stomach. The name given to this art is technically misleading, as performers have to suppress their gag reflex and not actually swallow while the sword is down their throat. Sword swallowing is an extremely dangerous life-threatening activity, and many deaths and serious medical complications have arisen from attempting the feat. Some sword swallowers are officially recognized as members of the Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI). Of these, only a few dozen are actively performing professional sword swallowers, with the remainder being either amateurs or injured or retired performers.

History of the art

Originating in India prior to 2000 BC, the deadly art of sword swallowing has a long and varied history. Its age alone can account for the many transformations through which it has gone, being perhaps one of the oldest forms of extant performance art. During its early period of development, it was used primarily as a demonstration of divine union and power.

The migration of the art to other lands, most notably China in the 8th century, saw its transformation from divine demonstration to theatrical production. It quickly migrated to Japan, where it became a central part of the Japanese acrobatic theatre, Sangaku. This form of theatre featured an array of performance delights, including fire eating, tightrope walking, juggling and early illusion.

Simultaneous to the arts' eastern migration was a migration to the north and west, all the way to Greece and Rome. In Europe it developed into yet a third distinct type of performance associated with the medieval jongleurs, that of the street performance. Sword swallowing was performed during the Middle Ages as part of street theatre and was popular at festivals and other large gatherings. However, from the founding of the Holy Inquisition in 1231, it and other forms of religious persecution slowly spread in their influence throughout Europe. Sword swallowers along with jugglers, magicians, prophets and other performers, found themselves increasingly the target of religious persecution, being condemned and executed as heretics, witches and practitioners of the dark arts.

Though performers reemerged following the Inquisition and enjoyed a resurgence in activity and reception, this was to be short lived. Sword swallowing once again began to die out in the mid 1800s, and was actually outlawed in Scandinavia in 1893. This was due to a declining interest in street and festival theatre and a growing interest on the part of audiences in more "organized" and "proper" theatre.

In 1819, the East Indian juggler and sword swallower Ramo Sammee became popular in the United States after a brief stint in England. He performed in the US and England until his death in London in August 1850. From 1850 to the 1890s a very small number of sword swallowers performed in the UK such as Martha Mitchell (c 1855) and Signor Benedetti (1863-95), and in the US, including Lawson Peck (c 1850s), Ling Look (c 1872), Signor Wandana (died May 9 1875), and Harry Parsons (died Dec 1880). But the best-known north American sword swallower of this time was Fred McLone, better known to the public as "Chevalier Cliquot", who performed from 1878 to the early 1900s.

In 1893 sword swallowing was featured at the World Columbian Exposition at the Chicago World's Fair. This marked the beginning of the popularity of the American practice of the art.

Circuses and sideshows quickly became the dominant venue for sword swallowers. Traveling throughout North America and presenting their skills to the show-going public, any connection with religion or divine power was long gone. Sword swallowing became a stunt, and as such, it became competitive. Whereas the European practice of the art certainly saw performers attempting to swallow larger numbers of swords, there seemed to be an undue focus on the novel and bizarre in the American practice. This is understandable, as there were a larger number of sword swallowers performing at this time, and innovation was the only recourse performers had in the effort to make money, for themselves and for their employers.

It is during this time that we see a growing popularity with swallowing longer swords, multiple swords, hot swords, bayonets recoiled down the throat, glowing neon tubes and so forth. With the growing interest in the art came clever innovations. In fact, one could often find sword swallowers on the same bill as the magic greats such as Houdini, clearly indicating their appeal.

Western Europe and England also saw an upsurge in sword swallowing interest during this period, with many many cross-Atlantic influences.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries that traveling magic shows from the Orient toured Europe and America, bringing some unique twists on standard effects, some entirely new effects (the secrets of which were lusted after by American magicians), and of course sword swallowing, along with their traditional fire eating, juggling and acrobatic feats.

At around the middle of the 20th century, there was a demise in circuses, and sideshows in particular. Today there remains only one full-time permanent sideshow in the world, the Coney Island Sideshows by the Seashore, in New York City, and a very few smaller traveling sideshows. Some attribute the decline of the sideshow to the increased interest in and decreased cost of mechanical circus and carnival rides, as well as the growth of other forms of entertainment such as television, movies and videos.

Today many skills typically associated with the circus or sideshows have been appropriated by individual performers and incorporated into their acts, fueling a revival in many of the sideshow arts. Sword swallowing, like fire-eating and many of the other sideshow arts, has seen a renewed interest and growth in the past few years. Among contemporary sword swallowers are Patrick Oruska, Red Stuart, Johnny Fox, Dai Andrews, Natasha Veruschka, Todd Robbins, István Betyár, The Space Cowboy, Matthew Henshaw, Amy Saunders, David Straitjacket, Thomas Blackthorne, George the Giant, and Dan Meyer of the Sword Swallowers Association International.


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