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By the Sword: The Science of Sword-Swallowing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A couple of weeks ago, new media mogul Arianna Huffington had an unusual experience: assisting veteran sword swallower Dan Meyer, who was visiting the Huffington Post headquarters in New York City. Meyer heads the Sword Swallowers Association International, based in Antioch, Tennessee. He’s a five-time Guiness Book of World Record Holder, and has appeared on America’s Got Talent. He made it to the finals despite having a visibly squicked-out David Hasselhoff pull the plug halfway through Meyer’s audition performance.

But we’re sure he’s most proud of his 2007 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine, which he shared with Brian Witcombe, a consulting radiologist at Gloucestershire Royal NHS Foundation Trust in England. They were honored “for their penetrating medical report, ‘Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects,’” which was published to almost no fanfare in the British Medical Journal — maybe because it appeared right around Christmas and people were too busy swallowing Yorkshire pudding and opening prezzies to pay much attention to the findings.

“I want to thank Arianna for not impaling me,” Meyer said. “At least 29 people have died sword swallowing in the last 50 years, so at least I’m not No. 30.” Actually, for all its long history, very few published reports exist of related injuries from the practice of shoving sharp steel blades down one’s throat — perhaps because there are only a little more than 100 sword swallowers worldwide, out of a population of some 6.6 billion people. That’s why Witcombe and Meyer set out to explore the various techniques and side effects of sword swallowing.

Forty-six SSAI members participated in the study, having swallowed a combined 2000 swords over the prior three months. More than half (25) had swallowed more than one, five managed to swallow at least ten swords at a time, and one person achieved the whopping feat of swallowing 16 swords simultaneously.

A news release last December reported that Witcombe and Meyer found, “Sword swallowers are more likely to sustain an injury — such as a perforation of the esophagus — if they are distracted or are using multiple or unusual swords.”

Mostly, the respondents suffered from a sore throat (or as they call it, “sword throat,” such wags, those guys), generally from the multiple sword stunts, or swallowing odd-shaped blades such as curved sabers rather than straight ones. Lower chest pains were another common complaint — the only remedy being not swallowing any swords for a few days.

Sixteen had suffered some form of intestinal bleeding, and three had undergone surgery to repair injuries to their necks. One lacerated his pharynx, another slashed his esophagus — he claimed to have been distracted by a misbehaving macaw on his shoulder — and one unfortunate belly dancer suffered a major hemorrhage when three blades lodged in her esophagus unexpectedly “scissored,” after an appreciative bystander shoved some dollar bills in her belt. His donation didn’t come close to covering her medical expenses, which came close to $70,000. Not surprisingly, most sword swallowers have higher than average health care and medical costs. All it takes it one tiny slip-up, after all.

These injuries are quite real, and quite serious, because unlike many other sideshow novelty acts, sword swallowing is not a magician’s illusion — although there is a trick to it (more on that later). As the x-ray image above attests, sword swallowers really do maneuver that sharp metal blade down the hatch, past all kinds of vital organs.

Sword swallowing is an ancient art dating back to India before 2000 B.C., where it was used primarily as “a demonstration of divine union and power,” per Wikipedia. Modern-day Indian fakirs still perform such feats, along with eating burning coals, swallowing snakes, and stopping their own pulse or raising their body temperatures through sheer will — although not all such feats are genuine; many are illusions.

The art spread to China in the 8th century, then to Japan, where it found a home in Sangaku, that nation’s acrobatic theater. It also found its way to Greece and Rome, and finally into Europe in the early Middle Ages, where it became a fixture of street performers. It languished a bit during the Dark Ages, in part thanks to persecution from the Inquisition, resurged briefly in the early 1800s, and then died out again as people lost interest in street theater.

But a featured exhibition of sword swallowing at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago brought sword swallowing mania to America, where a whole new generation of performers emerged, making some fascinating innovations along the way: multiple swords, bayonets, hot swords, and glowing neon tubes, among other feats. Meyer is one of the best-known contemporary sword swallowers.

It takes practice, sometimes over many years, to develop sufficient skill for safe (relatively speaking) sword swallowing. The term is a bit of a misnomer, since swallowing is actually the last thing you want to do with a sharp blade, since it involves contraction of numerous muscles; instead, the idea is to completely relax the throat and turn it into one long “living scabbard.”

Essentially, sword swallowers have to figure out how to carefully align a sword with their upper esophageal sphincter — a ring of muscle at the top end of the throat– and straighten the pharynx, commonly achieved by hyper-extending the neck by tipping the head waaay back.

The practitioner must then move his tongue out of the way and consciously relax his throat as he “swallows” — not an easy thing to do because of our involuntary gag reflex, the body’s defense mechanism against swallowing foreign objects. There are nerve endings lining the back of the throat that can detect any intrusive, non-chewed-food objects, generating nerve impulses which neurons carry to the brain stem. The brain responds by using motor neurons to instruct the throat muscles to contract. The end result: you retch, sometimes vomiting, as the body attempts to force the unwanted object out of the throat and mouth.

On the way down, the sword straightens out the curve of the esophagus and nudges certain organs out of the way. Per the book Bizarre Medical Abnormalities, published in 1897:

“The instrument enters the mouth and pharynx, then the esophagus, traverses the cardiac end of the stomach, and enters the latter as far as the antrum of the pylorus, the small cul de sac of the stomach. In their normal state in the adult these organs are not in a straight line, but are so placed by the passage of the sword. In the first place they head is thrown back, so that the mouth is in the direction of the esophagus, the curves of which disappear or become less as the sword proceeds; the angle that the esophagus makes with the stomach is obliterated, and finally the stomach is distended in the vertical diameter and its internal curve disappears, thus permitting the blade to traverse the greater diameter of the stomach.”

The same book also notes that sword swallowers proved vital to studying the human digestive system in the 19th century. Specifically, a Scottish physicist named Stevens had an assistant sword swallower down small metal tubes with holes in them, filled with pieces of meat. After a set interval of time, the acrobat would “disgorge” the tubes, and Stevens could study how much the meat had been digested.

Also, in 1868, a sword swallower visited Freiburg, Germany, so impressing a local doctor named Keller that he examined the man’s throat with a laryngeal mirror. His colleague, one Dr. Muller, is credited with first suggesting that such acrobats would make terrific subjects for esophagoscopy, because of their ability to voluntarily relax all the muscles in the throat at the same time.

Another colleague, Adolph Kussmaul, actually performed the first successful esophagoscopy on the visiting sword swallower using a rudimentary endoscope (basically a straight tube), mirrors, and a gas lamp for illumination. The results were a bit disappointing because of the poor illumination, but it did lead to further improvements in the technique.

A famous sword and snake swallower of the mid-1800s, called Sallementro, claimed he learned his art at 17 from a friend; it took him three months. He tried starting with full-sized swords, but discovered “it made my swallow sore, very sore, and I used lemon and sugar to cure it.” Apparently he was unable to eat anything, and subsisted on a liquid diet for two months until he’d mastered the trick. Knives, he found, were easier than swords because of the shorter length.  “It was tight at first, and I kept pushing it down further and further.” He recommended resisting the urge to cough (duh), and also oiled the blade to reduce the abrasion as it slides down the throat.

Snakes proved less tricky, although Sallementro was careful to “cut the stingers out, ‘cos it might hurt you.” He used 18-inch serpents, cleaned by scraping them with a cloth because otherwise the things tasted nasty. Unlike swords, snakes are quite helpful to the process, naturally inclined to seek out a dark hole down which to disappear — unless the swallower coughs too much, in which case the snake seeks to escape back up the hatch. Sallementro said that  swallowing snakes “tickles a little, but it don’t make you want to retch.” Speak for yourself, buddy.

Like Sallementro, Witcombe and Meyer’s study found that many of the respondents had desensitized their gag reflex by starting with smaller objects and increasing the size over time. They started with their own fingers, then upgraded to spoons, paint brushes, knitting needles, bent wire coat hangers, and so forth, before attempting short knife blades and, finally, swords.

Per Cecil Adams of Straight Dope fame, I learned that Dan Mannix, a retired carnival sword and flame swallower, wrote a memoir of his experiences in 1951, and reported that he definitely threw up the first few times he tried to overcome the involuntary gag reflex. Then he struggled with getting a sword down his throat because he couldn’t… quite… relax. (Hmmm. Wonder why?) Eventually he succeeded, but said that he had to bend forward a bit halfway through the sword’s passage to get it past his Adam’s apple. He also occasionally struck his own breast bone with the sword, which apparently felt like a blow to the solar plexus, from the inside.

Many have emulated Sallementro and figured out that lubricating the blades with saliva or butter made it easier to slide them down their throats, although one admitted to retiring from the sport after developing a chronic “dry mouth” condition. The sides of the swords aren’t sharp, but the tips are, as those who suffered ruptured stomachs (with the resulting peritonitis) can attest.

Adams — recognizing that there’s always someone stupid enough to try this sort of thing at home, despite cautionary words — recommends wiping the blade before and after swallowing: the first, to remove any dust which could trigger the gag reflex, and afterwards to remove stomach acid, which could corrode the blade’s metal. (Neon tubes have an added risk of shattering inside the throat, with seriously disabling and sometimes fatal effects.)

Jen-Luc Piquant thinks she’ll take a pass on participating in this decidedly quirky skill. But those those with a penchant for showy, yet dangerous hobbies like this might want to join Meyer on February 25, when he’ll be performing at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! in Orlando, Florida., to mark World Sword Swallower’s Day.

This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on the archived blog in 2007.

 

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. kclancy 7:56 pm 01/25/2012

    What a neat post, thanks for sharing Jennifer. I was on stage at the most recent Ig Nobels in 2011 where Meyer reprised his role as sword swallower — I was maybe fifteen feet from him as he did it. I will be taking a pass as well :) .

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  2. 2. Alex Wild 10:58 pm 01/25/2012

    This is one of those posts where my stomach started turning a couple paragraphs in, yet I couldn’t stop reading.

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  3. 3. Ujrao 9:45 am 01/26/2012

    I saw one of this act in the public square when I was a little boy many decades ago. It was freightening and have not got over that terror even today. So I am not going to read the article !

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  4. 4. Anthony M 5:45 pm 01/28/2012

    Thank you, Jennifer. Very complete explanation of how it is done; along with the dangers involved.

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  5. 5. Fredeliot 7:04 pm 01/28/2012

    There was a great demonstration of sword swallowing at the 2011 NECSS (Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism necss.org) by Todd Robbins.

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  6. 6. Quinn the Eskimo 12:00 am 01/29/2012

    If you were attempting to caution the reader *not* to try this activity — well, never mind.

    Remember: There’s no feminine way to swallow a sword.

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