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Sword Swallowing: Don't Try This at Home

Updated on July 15, 2013

Sword swallower Hannibul Hellmurto returned to action in early 2012 after spending about five weeks in the hospital. He had torn a hole in his esophagus that was almost the size of Cleveland—well, perhaps just downtown Cleveland. He had been swallowing a lit glass neon tube in Bristol, a town in southwest England, during a performance of the Circus of Horrors. Hellmurto completed his performance while suffering intense pain. The show must go on!

Hellmurto had been a German tax official, and had become a professional sword swallower after taking it up as a hobby in 1999. So, he changed from torturing others to torturing himself.

Risks of Sword Swallowing

A paper published in the Texas Heart Institute Journal, “Esophageal Perforation in a Sword Swallower” (Scheinin and Wells, 2001), discusses the case of a 59-year-old sword swallower who perforated his esophagus. “This case report presents an unusual mechanism for a potentially lethal injury,” says the abstract. Really. The paper notes, “The patient recovered and has resumed his daily activities at the circus, with the exception of sword swallowing.” In the past, glass fragments had been removed from the patient's stomach after he had swallowed a light bulb. In another incident, a raging circus elephant had broken his arm. Here is a person who might benefit from a career change.

Sword swallowers have stuck many things down their throats over the years. Edith Clifford and Dan Meyer have swallowed straight razors. Meyer has swallowed a flaming sword—at least it can cauterize the wound if he's cut. Several people have had a sword shot down the throat by a pistol, and one sword swallower, Thomas Blackthorne, has swallowed a running jackhammer.

If you're looking for a sword swallower, you could do worse than to consult the Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI), which claims to be the world's only network of performing sword swallowers. I'm prepared to take this assertion at face value.

The SSAI reports that there are roughly four to six serious sword-swallowing injuries each year. They solicit donations to the Injured Sword Swallowers' Relief Fund to help allay the victims' medical costs. I'll send that donation right away, as soon as I mail the checks for the various earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes that have occurred in the recent past.

I think the relief fund would do better with a telethon. Of course, a sword swallowers' telethon is likely to produce even more injuries. I must admit that with the cost of health insurance these days, sword swallowers might be priced out of the market, and with only about 100 practitioners in the world today, they probably didn't lobby too hard when the Democrats' healthcare law was being hammered out.

A Brief History of Sword Swallowing

Sword swallowing is said to have been developed by Indians around 2000 BC, along with practices such as walking on hot coals, all designed to demonstrate that the practitioners were true badasses. The practice spread to China and throughout Europe over the next two millennia. The Japanese practiced the art as a sort of street theater. The Rifais, a Dervish order in the Middle East, were known to eat glass, walk on hot coals and swallow swords. Street performers swallowed swords in Europe through the 19th century.

How to Learn Sword Swallowing

It takes time to learn the art of sword swallowing. The first trick is overcoming the gag reflex. The aspiring sword swallower will first put fingers down the throat, then objects such as spoons, knitting needles and plastic tubes, and finally a wire coat hanger, according to SSAI chief executive Dan Meyer, as reported in Wikipedia. The SSAI says it takes three to seven years to learn the art, and another five to master it. A report by radiologist Brian Whitcombe and Meyer indicated that most sword swallowers were self-taught.

Once you can keep from gagging, you must learn to relax the muscles that push food down your throat. Sword swallowers must also work at “attaining a mind-over-matter attitude and maintaining calm and focus during the performance,” notes Mental Floss. Tell that to the performer who lacerated his esophagus when distracted by an errant macaw on his shoulder, or the sword-swallowing belly dancer who suffered a hemorrhage when a bystander stuffed dollar bills in her panties. That'll teach her to wear panties!

Perhaps the only source of training in sword swallowing is the Sideshow School operated by Coney Island USA, a registered not-for-profit organization in the amusement park area of Brooklyn's Coney Island neighborhood. The four-day Sideshow Skills Workshop costs $800 at the time of writing, and teaches students numerous skills, including fire eating and breathing, glass walking, strait jacket escape, snake charming and the fundamentals of sword swallowing.

Beer and Sword Swallowing

Coney Island is also home to the Coney Island Brewing Co., operated by Jeremy Cowan, whose Shmaltz Brewing Co. has sold He'brew Beers since 1996. Billed as the world's smallest commercial production brewery, it turns out a gallon at a time.

Shmaltz produces a series of Coney Island Craft Lagers in bottles and kegs that are sold in bars and retail stores across the United States. Profits support Coney Island USA. One of these beers, Sword Swallower, features practitioner Heather Holliday on its label.

Cowan says, "For our Coney Island Sword Swallower, I took the inspiration from Heather's exceptional talents to create a beer with my master brewer Paul McErlean that would combine the sharp, steely, aggressive edges of an IPA with a slightly softer and sweeter malt flavor profile, all fermented with the more delicate and elegant lager yeast. As Heather famously says, 'Down the hatch, without a scratch!' "


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    • giocatore profile image

      giocatore 6 years ago

      Wow, that's coming right up! Thanks for your comments.

    • profile image

      Dan Meyer 6 years ago

      Thanks for putting together this article! We're all looking forward to putting on our 6th Annual World Sword Swallower's Day on Saturday, February 25 at Ripley's Believe It or Not locations around the world! Come join us and watch sword swallowing first hand!


      Dan Meyer


      Sword Swallowers Association Int'l