Living On a Diet of Steel

Out of all the sideshow acts that exist, I consider sword swallowing to be one of of the deadliest, as there is certainly a great risk taken every time that steel blade enters the body. The practice dates back thousands of years to origins in India, where Fakirs and Shaman priests used it as a demonstration of their power to be invulnerable, and a means connection to their gods. There is a great hall of fame list that has more details of this ancient art, which I am sure some might find to be quite surprising. People constantly ask me exactly what inspired me to want to learn how to do this, so I thought that I would take the opportunity to finally divulge that information.

The first time I ever saw someone down a sword was at Coney Island, and of course I was instantly intrigued. While I could wrap my head around most of the other acts, there was something undeniably sensual about sword swallowing. Understanding that there was no trick to the feat, my curiosity of how one was able to accomplish it grew each time I returned to Sideshows By the Seashore and watched Tyler Fyre stick that blade into his throat.  In 2002, I had the opportunity to attend the Coney Island Sideshow School and finally learn the secret behind sword swallowing, which I am not going to share. What I will say, however, is that practicing with a wire coat hanger was one of the most unpleasant things I have experienced, but I was certainly determined to emulate the act that had caught my attention.

There are a few gag reflexes one must over come in order to safely pass an object into the throat, down the esophagus, where it will rest somewhere in the depths of the stomach. Doing this right results in an overwhelming amount of applause from an audience. Doing this wrong can [and has] lead to serious injury, or even death. This is due to the fact that the object is passing several vital organs, including the heart and lungs. Suffice to say that ones life is literally on the line each time the act is performed. It took about a month of practice with the wire coat hanger to get it all the way into my stomach, and I must say that it was certainly a proud moment.

However, I could not legitimately call myself a sword swallower and present the act with this crude implement. So it was that I abandoned the practice, though I did purchase a sword in 2005 at an indoor flea market in New Jersey. A fellow performer suggested that I make some changes to it in order for it to be presentable on stage. For whatever reason, I was slightly nervous about actually making an attempt to swallow the sword, and so it sat in storage for a couple more years. The motivation to return to practice came from continuing to watch others flawlessly perform the act, because I knew I had the ability to do the same if I tried hard enough.

Swallowing 18 1/2 inches of solid steel in the wasteland of West Philly.

In 2006, while living in West Philadelphia, I was struck with the inspiration to attempt swallowing the sword. At that time I was friends with Barry Silver [notable master magician and fellow sideshow performer] who had learned several skills from the legendary Red Stuart. It was with their assistance that I worked up the courage to finally stick that sword in my throat. After about half an hour of practice, for the first time ever, I felt the steel blade slip down into my stomach. That swell of pride returned, only this time, I had truly become a sword swallower. Barry was the first person I called to share the good news with, and I wound up replicating the feat for him and a few other friends later that day.

Four years later, and I am still happily performing the act for a wide variety of audiences. Much inspiration has been drawn from Red Stuart, who is the world’s oldest living sword swallower, and also holds several Guinness Book World Records. It is said that he has swallowed over 50 sword simultaneously, and I have personally seen him down broad swords and even a Ford model A car axle at the Palace of Wonders. Truly he deserves much recognition, and I can only hope to achieve even a fraction of his greatness.

Photo courtesy of http://www.swordswallow.com

While researching sword swallowing history, I cam across this most amazing woman, Edith Clifford. She began performing the act at the tender age of thirteen, and became famous for swallowing razor blades, scissors, saw blades and bayonets. Personally, I would also like to note that she has held the record for most swords swallowed by a female for over one hundred years. That number is 24, and as far as I know, the current record is only half that amount. While this is certainly impressive in its own right, there is a great urge I have to not only duplicate her effort, but hopefully even surpass it. Presently, I have succeeded in swallowing three swords at once, which was first accomplished on stage at the Troccadero Theater in Philadelphia. Interestingly enough, I was a bit nervous about doing this for the first time, so Red Stuart easily swallowed the stack to give me motivation.

The very dangerous triple blade sandwich. Slipper Room, NYC [2007] 

That was also the same evening I shared the stage with Red Stuart and a few other sword swallowers to participate in a group swallow. In other words, we all stood in a line and swallowed our swords in simultaneous fashion. While I have only been a part of two group swallows, I must say that it was quite an honor to be on stage with performers I had the utmost respect for as we all slid solid steel into our stomachs.

Group swallow at Palace of Wonders, Washington D.C. [2007] Photo: David Schmidt

Over the past four years, I have added a few other objects to the routine. Currently, I swallow a stainless steel wire coat hanger, 15 inch cane sword, 18 inch 8-sided sai and the 18 1/2 sword, though it is without a proper handle. It actually fell off during a performance, at which point I picked it up, explained to the audience that they could not think the blade retracted into the handle, then continued with the act. There are certainly plans to find even more objects that I can swallow, though I am keeping such thoughts to myself.

In recognition of my accomplishment as a sword swallower, I decided to get a tattoo that would very obviously state my profession. This was something that did not take much thought, as I had wanted to celebrate my 26th birthday with a new piece of ink anyway. The design was partially inspired by one of my own swords, and I took a long train ride up to New Jersey just to obtain the piece. While I was definitely slightly nervous, most of that feeling subsided the moment that stencil was placed on my neck. About an hour or so later, I looked at the permanent artwork and smiled. Two after acquiring the tattoo, I performed at a New Year’s Eve event at a warehouse in Brooklyn, even though my neck was slightly stiff.

The very appropriate tattoo to honor my profession. Artist: Kevin Craig

The highlight of my somewhat short career as a sword swallower came in January of 2009, when I met Thomas Blackthorne. He is most well known for swallowing a jackhammer, and also holds several Guinness Book titles. It just so happened that he was passing through town with a sword that he had made, in an attempt to get as many people as possible to swallow it. Barry Silver and myself accompanied him to the steps of the Art Museum, where we were photographed and videotaped downing that very cold steel blade. The best comparison I can give, is if one were to accidentally swallow a whole ice pop. However, I must say that it was the finest sword I have ever had the pleasure of sliding into my stomach. A few months ago, I learned that the record was officially recognized, with my name being recorded in the book for posterity, and literally is engraved into that steel sword.

There are approximately 100 people world wide who can swallow a sword, and only a handful of those are women. While I am not the youngest, tallest or can swallow the most, I am still very proud of my unusual ability. It is definitely my favorite act to perform, and it never ceases to get a reaction from the audience. My main goal is to continue sharing it with as many people as possible, teaching a bit of history along the way, and some day setting a new record. As it has been said many times in this business, certainly this is a hard way to make an easy living, but I would not trade the experience for anything in the world.

For more information about sword swallowing, please visit the following sites:

Sword Swallowing To The Hilt

Sword Swallowers Association International

Interview With Fixe Magazine

Originally, this interview was sent to me last May, but several months of lacking Internet access did not allow me to fill it out at that time.

While I am very flattered to be featured on the site, I am quite disappointed with the lack of care that my interview received. Reading thru it, you will noticed that a lot of my sentences are cut off, and I really feel that this interrupts the flow of the article. Not to mention that it’s quite annoying.

Despite the fact that I brought this to the attention of the person who posted it, the error remains unchanged, and it’s hard for me not to feel as tho I wasted my time.

Here is the full interview the way it should have been posted. Feel free to leave comments on the article so that maybe someone will correct the mistakes.

*NOTE* – Decided to rework my answer for the costume question because I did not like what I wrote the first time around.

Classic Burlesque has become a huge phenomena lately, what about it first captured your interest?

In 2000, I was taken to a magical land called Coney Island, where traditional sideshow and burlesque were performed in a building that once belonged to the Dreamland Circus Sideshow. While I cannot pinpoint exactly when I saw my first real live burlesque performance, the very act of seducing the audience with carefully choreographed moves was definitely intriguing. Over the years I have seen a number of performances, and sadly many of them are reminiscent of scenes one might find at the strip club. There seems to be little respect for the classic art and the whole purpose of TEASE. Now it’s about how fast one can get naked, and the things one is willing to do once all the goods are exposed. One of my favorite and most memorable performances goes to the lovely Dirty Martini, a so-called ‘plus size’ dancer who received Miss Exotic World honors and can still make men drool. Certainly there are plenty of women who carry on the traditions of real burlesque, but sadly I feel the trend outweighs the art.

What first attracted you to sword swallowing?

Natural curiosity. Understanding that this was not a trick, my mind had numerous questions as to how one could easily slide a solid object into the body without being seriously injured. There is something undeniably sensual about the act, and the more I watched people do it, the more I needed to know how I could make this possible.

How did you learn to swallow swords?

Attending the Coney Island Sideshow School in 2002. Fred Kahl [aka the Great Fredini] was our teacher, tho Tyler Fyre let us look at his swords. Keith Bindlestiff and Red Stuart have also given me pointers in the past. Other than that, it was a whole lot of practice. The first object I ever deep-throated was a wire coat hanger bent in a ‘sword shape’, which took a month to overcome the internal gag reflexes. The first time I swallowed a sword was in August ’07 after half an hour of practice. My goal is to smash the Guinness World Record, which currently stands at 13 for a female, tho the official record is over 20 and has been held for more than a century by the very talented Edith Clifford.

At what kind of events do you perform?

Anywhere there is space, honestly. From seedy basements and grassy backyards to sandy beaches and the vast labyrinth of South Jersey forests, there is no event or venue too small. In fact, I much prefer more intimate settings, in order to be able to interact with the audience.

What’s it like performing all over and experiencing the different scenes?

Hard to describe, really. When I was touring with the carnival in 2005, work and business always came before pleasure. Between performing about 10-12 hours a day, set-up and tear down, we did not have a whole lot of spare time to socialize. However, being able to draw a crowd into a canvas tent and have every pair of eyes set on you is something that makes you understand that you a part of something big. The audience react in a variety of ways and I love every single one of them. At moments, it is what makes performing worth the effort. It is also enjoyable when people come and talk to me, even if they say “I don’t know what to say about that” in response to my sword swallowing. The fact that someone can take a minute to even pay attention to what I am doing gives me a boost of confidence.

The downside of the scene is what most people will never see and maybe do not even want to know about. In my opinion, it seems that who you know and not what you do gets you gigs. My life is dedicated to my art [in all its forms], and at the end of the day, the life time of memories and experience I have gained outweighs any sort of monetary reward or ‘being known’ in the scene.

Has anything crazy ever happened at a show?

No matter how well planned a show is, there is always the chance of the unexpected.

The worst thing that ever happened was back in 2004, during the midnite performance on the Wall of Death. My late friend Jon had constructed the track out in the Pine Barrens in South Jersey and we sold tickets to anyone brave enough to come witness the Death Defying Daredevil at his best. Riding at about 90MPH on a custom motorcycle, there must have been a loose board or fastener or something, and I watched Jon fly head first over the handlebars and skid across the wooden planks for a good thirty seconds or so. Everyone was in shock, and each second that ticked by as medics rushed to his aid felt like a lead weight in my stomach. While he was pronounced dead for a brief minute, Jon was able to walk away from the accident. However, the physical effects were permanent, and led to him retiring completely from show business.

Less tragic incidents include: cutting my foot on broken glass [at least the audience knows it is real] and bleeding on the floor for a moment, tho the injury was very minor; some guy deciding to whip out his member and urinate in front of the sideshow during its performance; and dealing with hecklers who do not quite know when to stop.

Are there any other creative mediums you work in?

Painting – mostly acrylics, water color and oil
Drawing – tattoo flash and pin ups
Writing – blogger for over a decade, created two magazines and currently finishing up a novel
Photography – self-portraits, urban decay, abandoned places and general natural scenery
Hair – hand made, one-of-a-kind wigs, pieces and accessories

Would love to make some organic body jewelry too.

What are your favorite types of outfits to perform in?

Carny Style is not something that comes pre-manufactured from an assembly line, but rather a careful evolution of personal aesthetics. It defies all scenes and subcultures, and most certainly is not going to be found on the racks of Hot Topic, nor can it be purchased in any form. My personal style takes cues from 50s pin-ups and Kustom Kulture, Victorian wares, American Circus and pretty much anything that is fun, exciting and comfortable to wear.

The idea is to separate stage clothes from everyday wear. Sword swallowing in a corset also adds a bit of danger, which is why I enjoy wearing them to perform this feat. Red, blue or yellow is incorporated into most of my outfits in one form or another, utilizing everything from fabrics to hair to make-up. Oh, and just once it would be fun to sword swallow while wearing latex couture.

What kind of music do you like?

Interestingly enough, there is a wide spectrum of things I listen to. Big band, swing, surf, doo-wop, rockabilly and lounge are definite favorites, particularly for uplifting moods or background music. Punk, metal, noise, industrial, hardcore and grindcore work for those times where aggression or anger need to come out.  I have even formed a love for old school rap and hip-hop, as well as country and bluegrass, but not that pop crap that is all over the radio. Hank III, George Jones and similar veins is what I prefer.

What do you like to do for fun?

Supporting local bands, observing people in public, being visually obnoxious and random social experiments.  A good friend of mine taught me that people are far more interesting when you take them out of their comfort zone, and I greatly enjoy doing this whenever possible.

Additional Info

Writer/Editor/Publisher – Alive On the Inside: magazine dedicated to preservation and education of American Circus & Sideshow history and culture; Aesthetic Evolution: magazine that strives to educate the public about body modification history and culture.

Finishing a novel that has been in the works for several years. Set in the mid 1950s, the fictional story takes place in an ocean side community that hosts a carnival, with a traditional 10-in-1 sideshow. The two main characters meet by chance during dinner in the city, and their first encounter stirs up all sorts of feelings and emotions that were once very dormant. The next few days are a blur of romance, passion and strange events that will constantly test their new relationship. He also has a dark secret, one that the lovely heroine knows from personal experience and will stop at nothing to uncover. However, once their past is unlocked, what can prevent the future from becoming very grim? A riveting tale of love and cannibalism.

Guinness Book of World Records title holder – recognized as #35 to swallow Thomas Blackthorne’s Sword of Swords.