They Were Meant To Entertain But Ended In A Tragedy!
When thinking about the world of magic and illusions, names such as David Blaine, David Copperfield, and Harry Houdini come to mind. Many of these famous names had stunned audiences worldwide by performing stunts that shocked and mesmerized them. No matter how dangerous they were and how impossible to get out of, these stars always managed to get out of whatever tight spot, sometimes literally, they managed to find themselves in. However, sometimes these performances of danger were not illusions at all and have proven to be deadly. We are going to look at some magicians, dating back to the 1800s, who tried to outdo their predecessors or defy the laws of nature with their stunts that ultimately took a turn for the worse and their dedication to the craft ended up costing them their lives. Make sure to read to the very end to find out about magic tricks that had a tragic ending.
Genesta - Death By Milk
One of the tricks that had made Houdini's name was the escape from a milk can, which at the time was transported from farms in human-sized cans. And given that he was one of the greatest there were many that wanted to imitate him. One such person was Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison De La Genesta, though more commonly he was known as Genesta who in 1930 tried to imitate the trick. His milk-can escape involved a secret trap door that allowed for him to escape despite the fact that there were locks on the top of the can’s opening. Though unfortunately for the impersonator, what he didn’t know was that the milk can had been dropped en route and the escape door was dented and no longer functioned. As a result, he was submerged in the milk for three minutes before his wife realized that something wasn’t right. However, not used to using the locked door, the crew took another fateful minute to open the padlocks. Despite the fact that while in hospital Genesta momentarily regained consciousness, he died as a result of the accident.
Joe Burrus - Cement Coffin
There had been many other hopeful illusionists that had compared themselves to the great Houdini and Joseph Burrus was no different. Back in 1990, he had arranged for a Halloween night spectacle 1990 where he would settle into a glass coffin and have nine tons of dirt and cement poured over him. The performance took place at Blackbeard’s Family Fun Center in Fresno, California and many were eager to see this illusionist complete his trick! After he was lowered seven feet into the ground and chained up, he waited while assistants directed a cement truck to unload its contents over the coffin. But this is where things went wrong. After one false start, the chain around his neck was too tight and so he made a second attempt but it was too late. The cement was already unloading and it crushed the glass coffin, suffocating Burrus. In a way, it was a morbid homage to Houdini who had also died on Halloween.
Charles Rowan - Speeding Car Escape
When it comes to magic, tension is everything. If a performer is underwater holding their breath, the audience will be holding theirs as they wait for signs of life. This is something that South African Charles Rowan understood. And so, in 1930, he was preparing his signature stunt that he had done many times before, and he prepared the way he always did: writing a letter of exoneration for his assistant in case of accidental death. Though this time, however, the assistant would need it. Rowan’s stunt consisted of him being secured in a straitjacket while a car sped towards him at 45 miles per hour. And despite having performed this many times before, it only needed to go wrong once. That happened when he was performing in front of a sizable audience when Charles failed to dislodge himself in time. The car ran right over him, virtually severing his leg and ending his life.
Balabrega - The Moth and the Flame
Johan Miller was a Swedish magician who went by the stage name Balabrega. He was on a tour of Brazil in 1900 when he brought a trick from a fellow performer, which was known as “The Moth and the Flame”. This act had used pyrotechnics to make assistants, which were six women dressed like moths, vanish into a candle flame. This trick required a gas supply which the theatre wasn’t set up for. Not wanting to disappoint audiences Miller looked for an alternative and so ended up purchasing gas bags of acetylene, that he could easily transport to any stage that he wanted. While setting up for one of his shows, one of the gasbags exploded, killing Balabrega and his assistant, as witnessed by the cast and crew. According to reports, the magician's manager was also severely injured.
The Great Lafayette - The Act That Killed Him Twice
Another magician who had lost his life due to fire was The Great Lafayette, otherwise known as Sigmund Neuberger. In 1911 in Edinburgh, he was performing one of his most famous acts was called “The Lion’s Bride”. This trick involved Lafayette being sacrificed to his giant 400-pound lion on stage. At the last second, however, he was to switch places and reveal himself to be in costume as the lion. As it was reported, much of his stage decor was made up of oriental tenting and Chinese paper lanterns, and on this one fateful occasion, one such lantern caught fire during the act. At first, the audience did not move as they thought it was part of the show and only began evacuating when the theatre manager signaled for the orchestra to play God Save the King. By the time the entire stage became engulfed in flames and escape for Lafayette’s large cast and the crew was limited as the magician was paranoid about his tricks so much that three of the four exits backstage were locked. Eleven people were reported to have died, including Lafayette who managed to escape but then returned into the blaze to try and save his beloved horse. The theatre had burned down to the ground and what was left of the magician's body was apparently found and sent to Glasgow for cremation. But there was a twist to the story as two days after, workers cleaning the understage area had found another body identically dressed as the late magician. And it was then that his secret was revealed: Lafayette used a body double and the real magician had been stuck under the stage during the fire.
Chung Ling Soo - The Bullet Catch
William Ellsworth Robinson was a turn-of-the-century vaudeville veteran who managed to achieve tremendous fame and success in Europe by pretending to be an established Chinese performer Chung Ling Soo. In order to do that, Robinson pretended to speak no English, and so his audiences were fooled, the exotic routines and his persona captivated those who paid to see his show. One of his most famous stunts was one that involved two rifles being aimed at him and then being fired. The barrels were supposed to be rigged to not fire real bullets, but his last performance was an anomaly, and the rifles did discharge actual ammunition. Only then did the audience present understand the extent of his ruse, when in perfect English the Chung Ling Soo imposter shouted, “I’ve been shot!”
Yellowface magic act Chung Ling Soo, a.k.a. William Ellsworth Robinson, (literally) died on stage #OTD in 1918 when a bullet trick went wrong; you may recognise his tale from Gus Van Sant’s interminable mumblefest “Last Days” #AYearofStrangeFlowershttps://t.co/rcm32lZVdOpic.twitter.com/ArwPHJC2Qn— James J. Conway (@James_J_Conway) March 24, 2021
Madame DeLinsky - Also Bit The Bullet
Though prior to the famous Robinson, another bullet act had gone terribly wrong that ended up taking someone's life. Back in 1820, a Polish magician had lost not only his wife but also his unborn child while performing the infamous “bullet catch trick: During the act, his wife and assistant, Madame Delinsky, was fired, while appearing on stage. Six soldiers were invited onstage to load their guns. To load these rifles, the men had to bite open the cartridge to add the gunpowder to the barrel. Then they could insert the rest of the cartridge. Though these soldiers, in particular, were paid “shills” as they were previously instructed to actually bite the entire bullet, allowing them to fire blanks instead. But it all went wrong when one of their soldiers got a bit of stage fright and accidentally loaded his gun with the bullet. As a result of this mistake, he fatally shot the pregnant Madame Delinsky and her unborn child on stage.
Princess Tenko - The Spike Illusions
Despite the fact that some tricks go horribly wrong and result in injury, they don’t always end in death. One such case included Princess Tenko, a Japanese pop singer turned magician specializing in grand illusions. This performer, who was well known for her outlandish costumes, was on stage in the city of Sabae, Japan in 2007, when her show had turned into a Grand Guignol spectacle. As part of one of her most famous stunts, "the spike illusion in the face of death", she was stuffed into a box where she was to become a pincushion for ten incoming swords if she didn’t escape in time. Unfortunately for the performer, this was something that she did not manage and the swords wound up breaking several ribs and her cheekbone. What’s more, after being released she continued her show for 30 more minutes until she finally ended it early at the urging of her organizers to seek medical help.
George Lalonde - The Backstabbing Audience Member
Many magic and illusion shows had always attracted great audiences who wanted to see something that they knew had some kind of logical explanation behind it, that all it was just a bit of misdirection. However, Henry Howard, who sat in the audience of a show in Montreal in 1936 was just a little bit agitated. And what had made him act that way? Well, it was the magic trick that stage magician George Lalonde had prepared which included sawing his assistant in half. Despite the fact that it was a trick prepared where the chances of the assistant being hurt were low, Howard felt the need to act and rushed the stage, grabbed a sword, and plunged it into Lalonde’s neck in what he perceived as an act of heroism. Despite the fact that his injuries sound serious, George survived this, and later when speaking with police, Henry told them that he “couldn’t bear to see a woman cut in two.”
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