Are sword swallowers for real?

Dear Cecil:

I attended the Ohio Renaissance Festival recently. One of the acts was Thom Selectomy, a sword swallower. He invited persons from the audience to inspect his props, the swords. From all appearances the weapons seemed to be authentic. He then proceeded to "swallow" rapiers of varying lengths. Once he ingested two at a time, extracting them separately. At another point (no pun), he allowed the weight of the hilt (no hands) to force the blade down. Thom also inflated and swallowed one of those long, skinny balloons. (He did not pull the balloon out.) Please, tell me he used deception — it simply cannot be possible to master control of the esophagus to permit the intake of such objects. (I gag thinking about it.)

Cecil replies:

If people could swallow Ross Perot for president without gagging, I don’t see what’s so amazing about a sword. Fact is, professional sword swallowers are totally (well, mostly) legit. Testimony on this score comes from Dan Mannix, a onetime carnival sword and flame swallower who published a book about his experiences in 1951.

Mannix says he learned the stunt by practicing an hour or so a day for several weeks with a blunt sword. The first problem was learning to stifle the gag reflex. Having lost his lunch a few dozen times, he finally conquered that difficulty, only to find his throat choked up tight every time he poked the sword in. Finally one day he got distracted while practicing and found that his throat relaxed enough that the sword sank in up to the hilt.

Mannix retched a few more times but was past the hard part, so to speak. Still, for a long time afterward he was obliged to bend forward when the sword was part way down to nudge it past an obstruction behind his Adam’s apple. He also had to watch out for the breast bone; he says striking it with the sword was like a blow to the solar plexus, only from the inside.

Cecil strongly advises against trying this at home but feels a few pointers are in order just in case. As you might guess, the sides of the sword must be dull so they won’t slice up your throat on the way down. But the point can be sharp, the better to impress the rubes, provided the sword isn’t long enough to puncture the bottom of your stomach. (If it does anyway, you’re in trouble; you could get peritonitis.) The sword should be wiped before and after swallowing: before to wipe off any dust, which might cause you to retch; after to remove stomach acid that could corrode the metal.

Mannix eventually became dissatisfied with swords, partly because many smartarse spectators were convinced the blade somehow folded up into the handle. He began swallowing neon tubes, then all the rage among the more daring carnies. The tube was specially fabricated of thin glass and doubled over into a tight U so that all the electrical connections were on one end. The lighted tube could be seen glowing through your skin, proving you had swallowed it. “A lovely act,” Mannix quotes a fellow performer as saying. “I was very nearly taken sick myself.” The drawback was that the tubes occasionally shattered in the throat, bringing the swallower’s act, career, and sometimes life to an abrupt end.

There were many other equally perverse variations. Mannix took to swallowing a giant corkscrew, “which made my Adam’s apple leap around like a flea on a hot griddle as it went down and this gave a particularly horrible effect that went over big.” He once got into a swallowing contest with another performer who downed a red-hot blade. The secret? The guy first swallowed an asbestos scabbard offstage. This same character later swallowed a sword plus scabbard on stage, removed the sword, then plucked a handful of paper flowers and a large American flag from the scabbard (still in his throat, natch), whereupon the orchestra launched into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” OK, it’s not everybody’s idea of a great job, but it sure sounds like more fun than the steno pool.

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