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Sword swallowing is an ancient performance art in which the performer passes a sword through the mouth and down the esophagus towards the stomach. This feat is obviously not swallowing in the traditional sense; the natural processes that constitute swallowing do not take place, but are repressed in order to keep the passage from the mouth to the stomach open for the sword. The practice is extremely dangerous, posing a high risk of injury, and therefore should only be performed by those with sufficient training to do it safely. Approximately one hundred in number, both male and female, most of today’s practicing sword swallowers belong to the Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) [115480]

History of the art

Originating in Indiamarker before 2000 BC, the deadly art of sword swallowing has a long and varied history. During its early history it was used as a demonstration of divine union and power.

The migration of the art to other lands, most notably Chinamarker in the 8th century, saw its transformation from divine demonstration to theatrical production. It quickly migrated to Japanmarker, where it became a central part of the Japanese acrobatic theatre, Sangaku. This form of theatre featured an array of performance delights, including fire eating, tightrope walking, juggling and early illusion.

Simultaneous to the arts' eastern migration was a migration to the north and west, all the way to Greecemarker and Romemarker in the first centuries AD. In Europe it developed into yet a third distinct type of performance associated with the medieval jongleurs, that of the street performance.

Sword swallowing was performed during the Middle Ages as part of street theatre and was popular at festivals and other large gatherings. However, from the founding of the Holy Inquisition in 1231, it and other forms of religious persecution slowly spread in their influence throughout Europe. Sword swallowers along with jugglers, magic, prophets and other performers, found themselves increasingly the target of religious persecution, being condemned and executed as heretic, witches and practitioners of the dark arts.

Though performers reemerged following the Inquisition and enjoyed a resurgence in activity and reception, this was to be short-lived. Sword swallowing began to die out in the mid 1800s, and was actually outlawed in Scandinavia in 1893. This was due to a declining interest in street and festival theatre and a growing interest on the part of audiences in more "sophisticated" and "proper" theatre.

In 1819, the East Indian juggler and sword swallower Ramo Sammee became popular in the United States after a brief stint in England. He performed in the US and England until his death in London in August 1850. From 1850 to the 1890s a very small number of sword swallowers performed in the UK such as Martha Mitchell (c 1855) and Signor Benedetti (1863-95), and in the US, including Lawson Peck (c 1850s), Ling Look (c 1872), Signor Wandana (died May 9 1875), and Harry Parsons (died Dec 1880). But the best-known North American sword swallower of this time was Fred McLone, better known to the public as "Chevalier Cliquot", who performed from 1878 to the early 1900s.

In 1893 sword swallowing was featured at the World Columbian Expositionmarker at the Chicago World's Fair. This spawned the beginning of the popularity of the American practice of the art.

The Great Victorina Troupe: originators and presenters of the most marvelous sword swallowing act on earth
Circuses and sideshows quickly became the dominant venue for sword swallowers. Traveling throughout North America and presenting their skills to the show-going public, any connection with religion or divine power was long gone. Sword swallowing became a stunt, and as such, it became competitive. Whereas the European practice of the art certainly saw performers attempting to swallow larger numbers of swords, there seemed to be an undue focus on the novel and bizarre in the American practice. This is understandable, as there were a larger number of sword swallowers performing at this time, and innovation was the only recourse performers had in the effort to make money, for themselves and for their employers.

It is during this time that we see a growing popularity with swallowing longer swords, multiple swords, hot swords, bayonets recoiled down the throat, glowing neon tubes and so forth. With the growing interest in the art came clever innovations. In fact, one could often find sword swallowers on the same bill as the magic greats such as Houdini, clearly indicating their appeal.

Western Europe and Englandmarker also saw an upsurge in sword swallowing interest during this period, with many many cross-Atlantic influences.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries traveling magic shows from the Orient toured Europe and America, bringing some unique twists on standard effects, some entirely new effects (the secrets of which were lusted after by American magicians), and of course sword swallowing, along with their traditional fire eating, juggling and acrobatic feats.

Around the middle of the 20th century saw a demise in circuses in general and sideshows in particular. Today there remains only one full-time permanent sideshow in the world, the Coney Islandmarker Sideshows by the Seashore, in New York Citymarker, and a very few smaller traveling sideshows. Some attribute the decline of the sideshow to the increased interest in and decreased cost of mechanical circus and carnival rides, as well as the growth of other forms of entertainment such as television, movies, videos and the Internet.

Today many skills typically associated with the circus or sideshows have been appropriated by individual performers and incorporated into their acts, fueling a revival in many of the sideshow arts.

Technique

Learning

Learning to sword swallow comprises both physical and psychological aspects. The first obstacle in acquiring the skill is overcoming the gag reflex, achieved by accustoming the pharynx to touch. As recorded in the 2006 study by Brian Whitcombe, radiologist, and Dan Meyer, Chief Executive Director of Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI), this is accomplished through practice with putting fingers and other objects down the throat, such as spoons, knitting needles, and plastic tubes, before eventually graduating to a wire coat-hanger. Performers must prepare mentally as well as physically, steeling themselves against unpleasant sensations, relaxing the mind and body, and focusing carefully on proper technique. According to swordswallow.com, a site run by SSAI, the art takes “about three to seven years to learn and approximately five [more] to master.” Most swallowers surveyed for the Whitcombe-Meyer study were self-taught .

Anatomy and method

In order to perform this feat of physical and mental discipline, the performer must first lean the head back, hyper-extending the neck, and relax the upper esophageal sphincter (a generally involuntary muscle which contracts the top of the esophagus). Retching must be controlled while the sword, lubricated by saliva, is inserted through the mouth and past the pharynx.
The pharynx
Once past the pharynx and sphincter the sword passes swiftly, assisted by gravity, straightening the flexible esophagus. The stomach, at an angle to the esophagus, is brought into line as the sword enters through the cardiac opening. . Some swallowers consume a large meal or drink water before performing to give the stomach a more vertical orientation, allowing for easier passage of the sword. Most performers only keep the sword down for a matter of a few seconds, as it is difficult to suppress the gag reflex for any length of time. Careful focus is required to complete the process without injury, as the sword passes within millimeters of vitals such as the aorta, heart and lungs.

Added risks

Sometimes factors are added which increase the danger; some highly experienced swallowers practice the “drop,” a maneuver in which the sword is allowed to fall suddenly, its movement controlled by the muscles of the pharynx. Practitioners have also reported such things as performing on a unicycle, lying on a bed of nails, and allowing audience members to remove the sword, adding to the risk of injury. Some of these risk factors are employed in the act of one such contemporary “cutting-edge” sword swallower, Dai Andrews, and include:

➢ Swallowing a blade curved 90 degrees from point to hilt

➢ Swallowing two 24” blades, one curved side to side in a snake-like manner (a Kris-type blade)

➢ Swallowing 15 swords simultaneously

➢ Heating a blade with a torch live onstage before swallowing it

Side effects and injuries

Swallowing practitioners have reported sore throats—dubbed “sword” throats, in the business—when first learning, after frequent consecutive performances, or after swallowing curved swords or several swords at once . Swallowing multiple swords simultaneously over time can also lead to distension of the esophagus . Less common are reports of lower chest pain as a result of practicing the “drop.” Such injuries rarely require medical attention; the performers simply refrain from swallowing swords for a time. A minor injury may predispose the performer in sustaining a more major one;  these more serious injuries include perforation of the esophagus, stomach, lungs, and other organs in close proximity to the path of the sword, as well as intestinal bleeding, . Examples from the investigations of Dr. Brian Whitcombe and Dan Meyer are as follows:
"One swallower lacerated his pharynx when trying to swallow a curved sabre, a second lacerated his oesophagus and developed pleurisy after being distracted by a misbehaving macaw on his shoulder, and a belly dancer suffered a major haemorrhage when a bystander pushed dollar bills into her belt causing three blades in her oesophagus to scissor."In spite of its highly dangerous nature, few deaths have been reported as a result of sword swallowing; however, a Canadian sword swallower’s death occurred as a result of attempting the trick with an umbrella .

Medical case reports

➢ A 59-year-old man experienced chest pain and severe dysphagia following practice for his sword swallowing act. An esophageal perforation was found and surgically repaired; 19 days later a leak at the site required a transhiatal esophagectomy with a left cervical esophagogastrostomy. The patient recovered normally, but ceased the practice of sword swallowing.

➢ A 27-year-old woman reported neck pain and a single episode of hematemesis (vomiting blood) after pricking her throat while practicing her sword swallowing act with a sharp dagger. The injury was found to be immediately below the esophageal sphincter, and the patient was admitted to intensive care and placed on intravenous antibiotics and a proton-pump inhibitor. She recovered well and returned to all previous activities with the exception of sword swallowing.

Contributions to science

The unique abilities of sword-swallowers have proven useful to the progress of medical knowledge, specifically in the development and advancement of upper endoscopy . In 1868 Adolf Kussmaul of Frieburg, Germany performed the first esophagoscopy on a sword-swallower using a rigid 47 cm tube, mirrors, and a gasoline lamp . The apparatus, an early endoscope, allowed him to examine the esophagus and the fundus of the stomach. Stevens, a Scottish physician, performed digestive experiments with his sword-swallowing assistant; small metal tubes, pierced with holes and filled with meat, were swallowed and after a time regurgitated, allowing Stevens to examine the extent of the digestion that had taken place . In 1906 Dr. Cremer performed the first electrocardiogram on a professional sword-swallower in Wales by passing an electrode down the esophagus. This approach has since been proven useful by numerous studies; esophageal recording at a location in close proximity to the heart improves signal detection .

Sword swallowing today

Remarkable feats

Space Cowboy swallowing a sword attached to a metal bar from which weights are suspended


➢ “Matty ‘Blade’ Henshaw swallowed a total of 3782 swords in 2003

➢ 19 performers swallowed 50 swords simultaneously at a 2002 swallowers' convention

➢ In honor of International Sword Swallower Awareness Day, Red Stuart swallowed 50 swords simultaneously on February 28, 2009, breaking his previous records of 34 and 25 swords .

➢ Natasha Veruschka holds the women’s record, having swallowed 13 swords at once at the Third Annual Sword Swallower’s Convention on September 3, 2004.

SSAI

Formed in 2001 and officially launched in 2002, Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) is an elite private organization designed to keep sword swallowing alive and network performers, both amateur and professional, around the world. February 28 was declared "International Sword Swallowers Awareness Day," which serves to further the purpose of SSAI and foster appreciation for this unique art.

In order to be recognized by and obtain membership to SSAI, a sword swallower must meet official criteria. Each potential member must be capable of swallowing a solid steel sword blade under the following specifications:

➢ Swords: All swords must pass inspection by officials and witnesses


➢ Blades: Blades are required to be non-retractable, non-collapsible solid steel

➢ Length: Blades need to measure at least 15 inches (38 cm) long


➢ Width: Blades must measure at least 1/2 inch (2 cm) wide in width


➢ Multiples: Multiple blades should be swallowed simultaneously as opposed to one by one

Video and other verification in addition to an application are required to complete the membership process .

Among the ranks of contemporary swallowers are The Enigma, Brad Byers, Red Stuart, [[Dan Meyer (performer)|Dan Meyer], Murrugun The Mystic(Scott Nelson), Thom Sellectomy, Johnny Fox, Dai Andrews, Natasha Veruschka, Todd Robbins, Brett Loudermilk, Thomas Blackthorne, István Betyár, the Space Cowboy (real name Chayne Hultgren), Matthew Henshaw, Frank Hartman, Matt the Knife, Roderick Russell, David Straitjacket, George the Giant, Travis Fessler, Erik Kloeker, Chris Steele (Capt. Stab-Tuggo), Gordo Gamsby, Lucky Diamond Rich (the worlds most tattooed man), Lady Sandra Reed, Alex Lang, Count Desmond, Edith Clifford, Capt. Don Leslie, Dai Andrews, Lucky Ball, Red Stuart, Travis Fessler, Charles Knight, Roderick Russell, John Metz, John Strong, Damien Blade, Lizard Man, Bill Berry, Mr. Pennygaff, The Great Fredini, Jewels and Amy Saunders (Miss Behave).

References

  1. Whitcombe, Brian and Dan Meyer. [ http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/333/7582/1285 ' 'Sword swallowing and its side effects.' '] British Medical Journal. 23 Dec. 2006. Retrieved 16 Sept. 2009
  2. Swordswallow.com.[1] 2009. 1 Oct. 2009
  3. Whitcombe, Brian. “Sword swallowing uncertainties.” British Medical Journal. 5 Nov. 2005. Retrieved 16 Sept. 2009
  4. Andrews, Dai. [2] retreived 1 Oct. 2009
  5. “Sword Diet Did Not Agree: M’Lone’s Exhibition Had Rather Serious Results." New York Times. 21 Jan. 1894. Retreived 29 Sept. 2009
  6. Scheinin, Scott A., MD, and Patrick R. Wells, MD. “Esophageal Perforation in a Sword Swallower.” Texas Heart Institute Journal. 28(2001): 65-68. 17 Sept. 2009
  7. Martin, Matthew MD, Scott Steele, MD, Philip Mullenix, MD, William Long, MD, and Seth Izenberg, MD. “Management of Esophageal Perforation in a Sword Swallower: A Case Report and Review of the Literature.” The Journal of Trauma, Injury Infection, and Critical Care. 59.1(2005): 233-235.
  8. Hopkins, Albert A. Magic, Stage Illusions, and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography. New York: Munn & Co., Inc., 1911.
  9. Machler, Heinrich E. et al. “A New High-Resolution Esophageal Electrocardiography Recording Technique: An Experimental Approach for the Detection of Myocardial lschemia.” Anesthesia & Analgesia. 86.1 (1998): 34-39. 21 November 2009
  10. http://www.swordswallow.org


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