A cut throat profession: the dying art of sword swallowing

Open wide! Pic: littlefishyjes

Most people won’t be surprised to hear that sword swallowing is a dying art. But for the daring few who make a living from it, this Friday is a chance to show the world that there’s more to this cut-throat profession than meets the eye.

“We established World Sword Swallower’s Day to promote this ancient tradition, still carried on by a few dozen surviving performers,” explains Dan Meyer, President of the Sword Swallowing Association International (SSAI).

“We are hoping to raise awareness of the medical contributions sword swallowers have made in the fields of medicine and science, to honour veteran performers, and to raise funds for oesophageal cancer research and the Injured Sword Swallower’s Relief Fund.”

Of course, most of the medical advances that Meyer refers to involve putting tubes down throats. One was the development of the first rigid endoscopy in 1868 – a tube which is used to look inside the body – which was tested in Germany by Dr. Adolf Kussmau with the help of a sword swallower. They evidently took to it with ease, as the procedure is now common practice.

Another medical breakthrough was in 1906, when a sword swallower in Wales was used to perform the first oesophageal electrocardiogram. The SSAI claim that many other swallowers have been “prodded” and examined by doctors throughout history without recognition.

Acclaimed sword swallower, Helmut ‘Hannibal’ Helmood, left his job as a German tax official 15 years ago after a visit to the circus, and now tours with the Circus of Horrors. He represents the SSAI in the UK. “It was something I really wanted to do when I first saw it”, he explains.

“It’s like when you’re 12 years old and you see your first rock band and you want to be a guitarist. You want to be on stage. It’s just very intriguing. Of course, I do also like to do things that have a bit of a thrill to it”.

He is also keen to highlight the medical prowess of his colleagues.

“I know of some sword swallowers who actually teach patients how to swallow gastric tubes, or cameras – it’s really a very hard thing to do. It’s all about aligning the body in the right way”.

Perfect alignment is vital to a successful swallow. Despite appearances there is no magic or illusion to the stunt, just years of practice and determination. The sword needs to fit through the mouth, flip open the epiglottis (which plays a crucial role in our ‘gag reflex’), before sliding down the oesophagus, just nudging the heart before finally touching the base of the stomach.

Inevitably, swallowers themselves often suffer from health problems. The most common is aptly known as a ‘sword throat’, when the sword makes a small cut on the inside of the oesophagus.

The British radiologist Dr. Brian Witcombe even published a medical report in 2006 exploring these occupational hazards. With the help of Meyer and the SSAI they got results from 46 sword swallowers and found, drum roll, that sore throats are common and that there was a “higher risk of injury when distracted”. Witcombe and Meyer were awarded an Ig Nobel prize – which celebrates “trivial and improbable” research – for their “penetrating” medical report. They proudly received this with a minute long acceptance speech, which included Meyer doing what he does best; swallowing a sword.

More seriously however, was that the study pointed out that sword swallowers without healthcare coverage “expose themselves to financial as well as physical risk.” Helmut is fortunate to work in the UK, where he has insurance as a circus performer, and of course, the NHS.

“In the US a lot of people don’t have health insurance so if they end up in hospital they also end up with a massive, massive bill”, he says.

“Sword swallowing is an extremely dangerous thing, and you can’t forget about it. If something goes wrong with sword swallowing it normally goes awfully wrong.”

Especially – as Witcombe’s study confirms – when the swallower inserts “multiple or unusual” swords. Helmut is currently working with a trick involving swallowing an umbrella (although he assures me he doesn’t open it – he just swallows the handle) and he himself was hospitalised for six weeks after performing a stunt that involved swallowing a fluorescent light bulb, rupturing his oesophagus.

“I explained what happened to the doctor, and they said ‘never do that again!’ But You’ll never find a doctor who is going to say; in six weeks just go for it – put another sword down your throat!”

Although, incredibly, deaths of performers are rare, these occupational hazards are one of the reasons why Helmut thinks there are so few sword swallowers around. There are only around 100 in the world, and he knows of only four in the UK, where he is based.

“There will never be a lot of sword swallowers, never ever. But it’s important that it survives, it’s a thousand year art.”

And as for people who think it is just a party trick, Helmut takes his trade far more seriously than that.

“Sword swallowing is not a party trick. Its nothing you do after two or three pints of beer…now that is how people will kill themselves.”

Talk about living life on the edge.

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