Some magical mishaps are laughable, like when a magician's trick goes awry mid-act: a hidden assistant is revealed, cards scatter to the ground rather than fly overhead, the bunny refuses to come out of the top hat. On the darker side, an illusion that doesn't work out can cause severe injury or even death. Magic gone wrong can range from the epically hilarious to the epically tragic, and we're going to explore failures from both ends of the spectrum.
Some magic tricks are actually incredibly risky. One in particular – the bullet catch – is one of the most dangerous magic tricks that performers take on. It's so dangerous that it makes more than one appearance in the world of magic-gone-wrong. The bullet catch is what it sounds like. Someone fires a gun at the magician or assistant, who then "catches" it: in their hand, between their teeth, whatever's dramatic. But a failed bullet catch is no joke, and at least 15 magicians or their assistants have been seriously injured and even killed when this illusion falls apart [source: Magic.com].
From catching bullets to swallowing swords to burying themselves alive, magicians put themselves into all sorts of risky situations just to entertain us. Things don't always go according to plan.
Chung Ling Soo's "Condemned to Death by Boxers"
Magician William Ellsworth Robinson performed in the early 20th century under the name Chung Ling Soo. From today's perspective, his whole act comes across as racially offensive; Robinson was a native New Yorker of Scottish descent who took on an Asian persona, stole a name from a living Chinese magician, and only spoke onstage in fake Chinese gibberish [source: Faraci]. (Think Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," but worse.) In Robinson's act, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. In a nod to the circa-1900 Boxer Rebellion, a failed anti-imperialist uprising in China, he called his act "Condemned to Death by Boxers." Classy.
The key to Robinson's trick was a gun with a secret second barrel. An audience member would load a real bullet into the gun, but what actually fired was a blank from the other barrel. It had worked smoothly for him at show after show until March 23, 1918, when he forgot to clean the gun properly [source: Black]. Built-up powder caused both the blank and the real bullet to fire simultaneously. The bullet struck Robinson in the chest.
When the bullet hit, Robinson broke character on stage for the first time since assuming his Chinese persona [source: Faraci]. His last words were, "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain."
Madame DeLinsky's Bullet Catch
The DeLinsky family, a Polish husband-wife magician duo, was performing a bullet catch in front of a German prince and his family in 1820 when things went awry. Madame DeLinsky acted as her husband's assistant, and he watched as his pregnant wife was shot to death right on stage.
Their bullet catch method was a little bit different from Chung Ling Soo's. Instead of loading one real bullet and one blank, they used all blanks and squad of professional soldiers who fired six guns at once. Their gunmen did the actual loading and shooting during the act.
At that time, bullets came wrapped in paper that was bitten away before loading the bullets into the gun. Instead of just biting away the paper wrapping, the soldiers were supposed to secretly bite away the whole bullet and swap in a blank [source: Steinmeyer].
One of the soldiers at the performance in Germany had a bit of stage fright and reverted to autopilot during the gun-loading part of the act. He forgot to bite away the whole bullet and swap it out for a blank; Madame DeLinsky was shot in the belly with a real bullet, lost her pregnancy and died from the wound two days later [source: DeMain].
Princess Tenko's "Spike Illusion in the Face of Death"
Japanese magician Princess Tenko – real name Tenko Hikita – is tough as nails. Or swords, really. When performing one of her illusions – called "Spike Illusion in the Face of Death" – things went terribly wrong, but she pushed through and finished her act. You've probably seen versions of this classic sword box trick. The magician gets into a box and an assistant drives swords into the box, and the magician emerges unscathed at the end. Sometimes the roles are swapped. In the summer of 2007, Tenko's performance didn't end as neatly as that trick usually does.
While performing the routine in Sabae, Japan, a mechanical failure caused the swords to hit Tenko while she was inside the box, breaking several ribs and her right cheekbone [source: Japan Zone]. According to her manager, one of the swords came dangerously close to puncturing Tenko's right eye [source: BBC News].
The swords pinned Princess Tenko into the box, and her assistant had to remove them to free her. When she finally emerged, Tenko continued her act for 30 minutes despite her debilitating injuries. She was reportedly more upset that she had to cancel some upcoming shows than she was about her broken ribs [source: BBC News]. The show must go on!
Joseph Burrus' Coffin Escape
Joseph Burrus was the self-proclaimed "Next Harry Houdini." There's one thing he ended up having in common with Houdini: They both died on Halloween. Unlike Houdini, though, who died after a punch to the gut ruptured internal organs, Burrus died in front of an audience while performing a stunt. On Oct. 31, 1990, he was crushed to death while performing a coffin escape trick [source: UPI]. It's a common trick among escape artists, and it's also an incredibly dangerous one.
This is another trick that is what it says it is. The magician – often in chains – gets into a coffin. A team lowers the coffin into the ground and fills the hole up with dirt. The idea is to escape both the chains and the grave before running out of air.
A recovering drug addict, Burrus was performing as part of a benefit for the recovery clinic that helped him overcome his own addiction. This was not his first coffin escape, but it was his first one using cement as well as dirt [source: UPI]. He was chained up, placed in a coffin made of glass and plastic, and lowered into a hole in the ground. A truck began covering the coffin with wet cement. So far, everything was going according to plan.
After a few minutes, Burrus essentially called for a time out, because one of the chains was choking him. Once he'd adjusted the chains, he climbed back into the coffin and resumed the act. He should never have gotten back in. Almost as soon as the hole was full, the audience – which included small children – heard a crash. The coffin had caved in under the combined weight of the dirt and cement. Rescuers weren't able to dig Burrus out in time to save his life.
Hannibal Hellmurto's Sword Swallowing
Sword swallowing is no illusion. Hannibal Hellmurto swallowed several different swords during his act in the March 2012 "Circus of Horrors" show in the U.K. before things went terribly wrong. His final trick was to swallow a neon sword, a feat so dangerous that most sword swallowers shy away.
A neon sword is basically a battery-powered neon light bulb, similar to the ones you see in the ceiling of most office buildings. The major concern with this trick is that if something does go wrong, you can end up with broken glass inside of your body. That isn't what happened to Hellmurto, though. Instead, he accidentally tore a 4-inch (10-centimeter) hole in his trachea [source: McQueeney]. Like Princess Tenko, Hellmurto finished his act before collapsing offstage.
The rupture occurred in a section of Hellmurto's windpipe that made it inoperable, so after doctors drained the blood that had pooled in his lungs, Hellmurto had to convalesce for five weeks until he healed completely. He couldn't eat or drink, and for the first couple of weeks he couldn't even speak. Twelve weeks later, he was back to training, and just nine months after his injury, he was back to performing [source: O'Connor].
Gerary Dogge's "Shadows"
Not every magical mishap lands someone in the hospital or the morgue. Magicians are people too, and they sometimes make just plain terrible choices – choices like stealing. This one might be more of a legal magic trick than a magical fail. Raymond Teller, of the magical duo Penn & Teller, successfully sued a Belgian magician for stealing one of his routines called "Shadows."
The trick involves a very specific setup and series of moves to give the illusion that Teller is pruning a flower by "cutting" its shadow rather than the flower itself. He mimes cutting the flower's shadow, and the audience sees the same leaves falling off the flower itself. Magician Gerary Dogge copied "Shadows" and posted a video of himself performing the trick on YouTube. Teller sued.
Here's the thing: You can't copyright a magic trick, and that's probably what Bakardy was banking on. Unfortunately for him, in March 2014 a Nevada judge ruled that "Shadows" was more a pantomime than a magic trick, and in the United States pantomimes can be copyrighted. It's the specifically planned moves that fall under copyright protection, much in the same way that the specific choreography of a dance performance can be protected. Teller had even registered "Shadows" as a pantomime with the U.S. Copyright Office back in 1983, along with a detailed illustration of the trick, which strengthened his case [source: Gardner].
A final default judgment came down in October 2014, and the judge ordered Dogge to pay Teller $15,000 plus $530,000 in attorney fees, and banned Dogge from performing "Shadows" in the future. The $15,000 was 10 percent of the damages that Teller sought, and the attorney fees were about half of what he wanted, but that's still a steep price to pay for one magic trick [source: Mazumdar]. Dogge's videos had received fewer than 30 total views on YouTube before the company took them down. More than half a million dollars for 30 views definitely classifies this as a total disaster.
Genesta's "Milk Can Escape"
Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison de la Genesta, who performed simply as Genesta, was attempting Houdini's "Milk Can Escape," an act that he'd successfully completed many times before. The escape artist used a trick setup to free himself after his assistants had elaborately locked him up. A mechanical malfunction thwarted his escape at a 1930 performance [source: Kalush].
The outside of his milk can had six locks and a large, metal cover, but a secret hatch automatically opened the whole apparatus when you pushed on it from the inside. Unbeknownst to anyone, the hatch had been dented earlier that day when the milk can was being unloaded, preventing the apparatus from working properly.
Genesta didn't notice the dent before his performance, so he climbed into the can, and his assistants filled it up with water, as usual. They locked him in and gave the six keys to six different audience members. Distributing the keys this way unfortunately meant that when his assistants realized that something was actually wrong, chaos broke out in the audience. Genesta was banging frantically on the side of the can, and everyone was scrambling to help – including Genesta's wife, who was in the audience. This just caused more confusion and wasted time [source: Kalush].
A doctor on hand was able to resuscitate Genesta when his assistants finally freed him more than two minutes later. They rushed him to the hospital, but he never fully recovered from his near drowning [source: Kalush]. He died in the hospital that same evening.
Harry Blackstone's Orange Bowl Queen Appearance
Harry Blackstone, Jr.'s magical failure didn't kill him, but it certainly bruised his reputation as one of the world's greatest illusionists [source: Mundo NoRain]. He was performing in a half-time show during the 1987 Orange Bowl football game when things began to go wrong. Blackstone fumbled his way through his whole act, and the awkward performance culminated in a technical problem that revealed the secret behind one of his illusions.
For his final trick, Blackstone was going to make Myrka Dellanos, the Orange Bowl Queen, appear out of thin air. When they rehearsed, though, she must not have been wearing the long cape that goes with her title. Here's how the trick was supposed to go down: a large box comes up from under the stage, and Blacksone's assistants show you that it's completely empty. Then they close the box, and when it reopens Dellanos magically appears within.
Unfortunately for Blackstone, the big reveal was neither what he nor the audience expected. The trick basically used an elevator to raise Dellanos out of the floor inside of the mirrored box, but her cape got caught. When they reopened the box, everyone saw Dellanos stuck halfway [source: Mcleod]. Blackstone tried to block the audience's view with his body while the elevator completed its trip, but what was going on was painfully clear. What would the Alliance of Magicians have said? Blackstone's snafu followed him around for years afterward [source: Donaghy].
David Blaine's "Dive of Death"
David Blaine's magical mishap also aired on live television, this time during his very own ABC special. There had been a lot of buildup to Blaine's 2008 "Dive of Death," without much detail about what was going to happen in the performance [source: Pang]. Blaine's failure was less a spectacular flub, and more a slow burn.
The dive turned out to be a 44-foot (13.4-meter) jump to the ground from a platform above Central Park. Blaine had spent the previous 60 hours hanging upside down above the park, which was supposed to add a death-defying layer to the jump at the end. That's where this slow-motion magical mess began. He took 10-minute breaks every hour, which many spectators considered cheating [source: Thompson]. The negative buzz meant that when it was time for Blaine's televised dive, he was already on slippery footing.
On the evening of the routine, ABC had to push Blaine's jump back 15 minutes to air a televised presidential address [source: Pang]. Really, you can blame George W. Bush for what happened next. During the delay, the wind in Central Park kicked up, and ABC convinced Blaine to ditch some of the trappings of the trick for safety's sake.
After diving straight toward the ground, Blaine was supposed to fly away on magical balloons just before impact. Without the balloons, his performance was more in line with a slow, awkward bungee jump. He leapt down, then his techs slowly raised him back up, and he disappeared. The disappearance part was kind of a neat trick, but a letdown after so much pre-show fanfare. The audience booed; even Blaine admitted later that the trick was a complete flop [source: Pang].
Uri Geller's "Tonight Show" Spoon Bending
You could almost feel bad for illusionist Uri Geller, except that his failed "Tonight Show" performance launched him to superstardom [source: Higginbotham]. The magician's act was all about his psychic abilities. It included tricks like spoon-bending and using his psychic powers to find water, and skeptic magician James Randi was determined to expose him as a fraud.
Randi is a self-described scientific investigator. He was appalled at how easily people were duped by his own staged psychic feats and became determined to expose others. He offered a prize of $1,000 to any illusionist who could scientifically prove their own powers as real. Over the years, Randi increased that reward to $10,000, but even with that much money on the table few magicians were willing to undergo his scrutiny [source: Higginbotham].
In the early 1970s, Randi turned his attentions to Geller. He worked with Time magazine to expose Geller's tricks, and when Geller was due to perform on the "Tonight Show" in 1973, Johnny Carson asked Randi to help make sure that Geller couldn't use misdirection in his act. Randi kept all of Geller's people away from the set before the performance, and without their help, Geller's act was a flop. During his segment, you can see Geller hedging as his tricks go awry on live television. He left humiliated [source: Higginbotham].
The real magic happened after the filming was done, though. Geller's embarrassment won viewers over, and believers said that his failure only proved that his act was real. After all, if he were using trickery, he'd never have an off night, right? Geller booked more TV appearances, including a 2000 return to the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno as host, and his feud with Randi continued for years afterward [source: Higginbotham].
HowStuffWorks looks at the history of magician's assistants, what they do and why the assistant is usually a woman.
Author's Note: 10 Epic Magic Trick Failures
I'll be honest: from the moment that I got this assignment, all that I could think about was Gob Bluth from "Arrested Development"; I was determined to have at least one Bluth-type magical faux pas in this article. There are a lot of gruesome accidents in the magic-gone-wrong realm, so I thought Harry Blackstone's Orange Bowl flub was a refreshing break from punctured windpipes and fatal shootings. I hope that when you read the page on Blackstone, Europe's majestic song "The Final Countdown" was going through your head, like it was through mine when I wrote it.
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