Harry Houdini.

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My Wife


"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,

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

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

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


1783. - QUACKENSALBER, 1794.

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

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