One of the first marvelous feats I personally learned to endure and perform was the consumption and manipulation of fire. I was young and, of course being foolish, I went about learning the craft in completely the most incorrect and dangerous manner – alone with the aid of texts hazardously outdated. I burnt myself severely more times than I care to recall and took far too many risks in conditions and materials then I should have. Still, I learned and with those hard knocks I developed a deep respect for fire and those practitioners who have harnessed its fearsome power and converted into a healthy livelihood.
The art of fire eating has evolved immensely to what we now view as ‘fire eating’. Today, most of us envision a performer extinguishing torches with the aid of their mouth. However, early fire eaters generally ate and drank burning objects like coals and pitch. The earliest record of fire eating dates back to 133 B.C.E. when a Syrian named Eunus lead a successful slave revolt while breathing out smoke, sparks and spikes of fire. His feat was accomplished by placing a nutshell containing burning material into his mouth and exhaling through the two tiny holes on either side of the shell – not unlike putting the bellows to an ember. The stunt did make him a King for a time until the Roman regained control and crushed his rebellion.
Houdini, in his groundbreaking book Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, relates the earliest record of a professional travelling fire manipulator. Houdini points to a correspondence of England’s Sir Henry Watton dated June 3, 1633 detailing a showcase featuring a man eating fire and crushing glowing embers with his teeth. It was a spectacle Sir Henry Watton paid two pence to witness and likely never forgot.
The first fire manipulator to draw renowned attention, however, was a man by the name of Richardson who came to prevalence in France in the year 1667. His presence and act was sufficient to be recorded in the Journal des Savants, a sort of encyclopaedia of scientific wonders, and a subsequent successful tour of London. While in London Richardson’s performance was observed and recorded for posterity by noted diarist John Evelyn on October 8, 1672. Evelyn wrote that Richardson devoured ‘brimstone and devoured coals’ then melted pitch and wax with sulphur and ‘drank it down as it flamed’. In addition Richardson also placed a hot coal in his mouth with a raw oyster and, with a bellows, flamed and sparked the coal until the oyster opened from the steam.Richardson’s act comprised of a fair amount of sleight of hand and dishonesty in addition to fire manipulation and his methods were eventually disclosed by his servant. As a result of the sensation that followed, even today, the general public hold a firm misconception that fire eating is a trick. Richardson’s popularity quickly plummeted following the exposure of his dishonest secrets and he disappeared into obscurity.
It took fifty years until another fire eater garnered the attention and adoration of the public. In 1713 a gentleman by the name of De Heiterkeit, hailing from Savoy near the western flank of the Alps, found great popularity in London. His one half-a-crown, eighteen pence and one shilling priced performance venue on Fleet Street drew commoners and royalty alike. De Heiterkeit performed before Louis XIV, the Emperor of Austria, the King of Sicily and the Doge of Venice. He even drew the unwanted attention of the Inquisition but was spared interrogation by the interference of his Royal acquaintances.
A gentleman named Robert Powell, whose public career extended over a period of nearly sixty years was next to grace royalty and his eminent admirers read like a virtual guide to Royalty families. In 1751, the Royal Society presented Powell a purse of gold and a large silver medal for his services. He performed up until his natural demise charging a shilling per show.
In the 19th century the first female fire manipulator of note appeared.Italian Signora Josephine Giardelli was billed as the ‘Fireproof Female’ and she was known for her London based fire manipulations and for placing boiling lead into her mouth. Her direct competition during the era was ‘The Fire King’ Ivan Chabert. His unusual and mostly illusion based act was detailed in the London Times in 1826 when he sat in a 600 degree oven with a leg of lamb and emerged only after the leg was properly cooked.
The first black fire eater of note was Carlo Alberto ‘The Great African Wonder’. He came to prevalence in the 1840’s and combined fire manipulation with a minstrel show. Around the same time a Chinese magician named Ching Ling Soo was drawing great popularity for his fire based antics. As the decades progressed so did the acts evolve to incorporate popular attractions and common fire related materials.
In the late 1930’s, a fire manipulator known as Dr. Mayfield appeared at Ripley Odditorium attraction. According to reports Mayfield ‘shaved himself with a blazing blowtorch’ before putting ‘the torch directly into his mouth, extinguishing the flame with his tongue’.
When it comes to fire eating, I am often asked what the trick is.
In truth, there is no trick involved. There is no special liquid coating the mouth and no materials that burn without heat. There are techniques to reduce the risk involved in eating fire but fire eating is a stunt that is dangerous beyond laymen recognition. No matter how well versed a fire eater is, burns will occur so a high pain tolerance is mandatory along with a love of the art.
Furthermore, to inhale while a flame is held in ones mouth is almost certain death.
Image: Robert Powel from Miracle Mongers and Their Methods.