There is no doubt that the art of magic has evolved dramatically over time. The emergence of technology, new techniques, the study of psychology and the development of new performance genres have contributed to an increase in sophistication in the realm of mentalism and magic.
I think it’s fair to say that many of us, at some point, have been subject to the most baffling, unexplainable magic tricks whether in the theatre, on the street, on TV or at a private party or work event.
However, over the years, people’s appetite for magic has only fuelled the lengths that magicians would go to satisfy not only their own thirst to intrigue, but also the audiences desire to be stunned. During this time many magicians have pushed themselves and their performances to the limits by performing some of the most dangerous tricks you could imagine – without the required health and safety measures that are put in place today; and even with these checks things can still go horribly wrong and over the years many notable magicians have lost their life in pursuit of the jaw-dropping prestige.
Let’s take a look at some of the most tragic magic malfunctions which played out in front of a disbelieving audience…
1. ‘Trapped in a milk can’ – the Mechanical Mishap
Houdini’s famous Milk Can Escape trick dates back to 1908, where milk cans were large enough to fit a human being inside.
The essence of the trick was a trap door at the bottom of the milk can that, when pressed on, allowed the magician to secretly escape, mesmerising the audience before him.
Escape artist, Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison De La Genesta (or Genesta for short), was a fan of Houdini’s simple yet effective trick. Genesta successfully performed the Milk Can Escape many times until one day, in 1930, a mechanical mishap led to a fatal outcome.
What went wrong?
On that fateful day, Genesta unknowingly climbed into a milk can that had been dropped during its transportation to the show, which broke the functionality of the secret trap door.
Consequently, during his performance, the escape artist was unable to press down on the secret hatch, and became trapped inside the malfunctioning milk can as more and more water began to fill.
Genesta’s wife soon realised that something was wrong. The curtain came down and a doctor rushed to the scene. Genesta was pulled out of the can and eventually regained consciousness in hospital.
After telling the doctor that this was the first time he’d ever failed this trick, Genesta passed away soon after.
2. ‘Catch the bullet’
Another magic misfortune took place in the early twentieth century during a Polish husband-wife duo’s Bullet Catch trick. Madame DeLinksy would serve as her husband’s assistant by standing in front of a firing squad on stage and magically catch the bullets.
The secret to this trick was to load the guns with empty paper cartridges, so Madame DeLinksy was never really shot at. She would present the real bullets she kept on her person at the end of the act.
What went wrong?
During a show in Germany in 1920, a real bullet was accidentally (hmmmm - yeah!) loaded into one of the guns. Madame DeLinksy, who was pregnant at the time, suffered a bullet wound through her stomach, leading to the death of her and her unborn child two days later.
It was rumoured that Mr DeLinksy went crazy after the horrific event.
Given the competitiveness of the performing world, with magicians and illusionist vying for the same audiences’ attention, especially with tricks involving this level of risk it was not uncommon for bullets to ‘accidentally’ find there way into the chamber.
3. The mysterious death of the mentalist
Mentalist and spiritualist, Washington Irving Bishop, was a prominent mind-reader in the nineteenth century and is well-known for being the first to drive whilst blind-folded.
Aside from his hypnotic illusions, Bishop was subject to cataleptic fits which would send him into a state of unconsciousness… sometimes even on stage.
In his pocket, he kept a note to inform whoever found him in that state that he was not in fact dead, and instructed that he should not undergo an autopsy until 48 hours after his episode.
What went wrong?
During the middle of a performance in New York in 1889, Bishop’s act was interrupted by a cataleptic episode, for which the doctors who attended to him pronounced him dead.
Despite Bishop’s wife and mother insisting that he was just having another episode, physicians resisted and performed an autopsy on him.
The debate lies open as to whether Bishop was killed by his hysteron-catalepsy or the autopsy…
4. Black Herman
Black Herman (Benjamin Rucker) was a performer in the early twentieth century, who was well-known for being buried alive for three days at a time. Of course, he wasn’t actually buried, he just tricked the audience into thinking that he had been.
What went wrong?
Towards the end of one of his shows in 1934, Rucker suffered a sudden heart attack. The audience were so bewildered by his act, that they believed this was part of the performance.
His promoters/marketers capitalised on his unexpected death by charging an entry fee to fans at his funeral.
Working in magic has and will always continue to be a precarious profession, especially as the insatiable appetite of the audience to be shocked and awed continues to grow, making those of us who work in this bizarre world more under pressure to meet the demands.
Whether it’s an updated version of the bullet catch (although I’ll leave this one for my colleagues!), or the ability to read and manipulate strangers’ minds, I love this shadowy profession.
Whilst I hope not to end up on a list like the above, I love the baffled reaction I get from my audiences when I perform and will continue to push myself, and the audience, to the limits. Read more about my work here.
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