CLOSE
Original image

6 Magicians Who Died While Performing The Bullet Catch

Original image

Is it possible for a human being to catch a speeding bullet in his mouth? For centuries, magicians have been convincing audiences that it is. Whether the bullet catch is an illusion or the result of lightning-fast reflexes, it definitely comes with a fatal risk. Since its introduction in the late 1500s, many magicians have perished on stage doing the trick, as detailed in Ben Robinson's 1986 book Twelve Have Died: Bullet Catching—The Story & Secrets.

The presentation of the catch usually goes like this. A bullet is offered to an audience member to examine, then marked for identification and loaded into a gun. The gun is fired by an assistant or a volunteer, directly at the magician's mouth. The magician catches it with his teeth, or in a cup that's been placed inside his mouth. He then presents the exploded shell of the marked bullet to the audience for verification. In modern versions of the trick (see Penn & Teller or David Blaine), there is often a plate of glass between the gun and the magician, to confirm that live ammunition is being fired. With that setup, let's meet six magicians who became unfortunate targets in the bullet catch.

1. Madame DeLinsky (died 1820)

The wife/assistant of a Polish magician had a routine where she faced a firing squad of six soldiers.

Back in the early 19th century, rifles were loaded by biting open a cartridge, pouring the gunpowder in the barrel, then jamming the rest of the cartridge down the barrel with a ramrod. In the DeLinsky version of the trick, the soldiers were shills, paid and secretly instructed to bite away the whole bullet and load in a blank. But in the fatal performance, in Germany before a royal court, one of the riflemen apparently got nervous being on stage, and reverted to his usual way of loading the gun. When the bullet hit Madame DeLinsky in the abdomen, several audience members fainted. The Madame died two days later. Adding to the tragedy, she was pregnant and lost her unborn child. Her husband was eventually driven mad from the shock of the accident.

2. Arnold Buck (died 1840)

As long as there have been magicians, there have been skeptical audience members who hope to screw up their tricks. Unfortunately, in Buck's case, he picked one such troublemaker as a volunteer to load a bullet into a gun. Along with a bullet, which was a blank, the volunteer dropped some nails into the barrel, then fired. The sharp-end buckshot was fatal for Buck.

3. Professor Adam Epstein (died 1869)

Important safety tip for aspiring conjurers: magic wands should only be used for making rabbits disappear. The Professor reportedly used his wand to ram the ammunition into the barrel of a rifle before the bullet catch. But the wand broke, and he was killed when one of its flying shards pierced his forehead.

4. Chung Ling Soo (died 1918)

His real name, William Ellsworth Campbell Robinson, lacked the requisite hocus pocus. So when this American took the stage, he performed under names such as Achmed ben Ali and Nana Sahib. Inspired by famous Chinese conjurer Ching Ling Foo, Robinson finally chose a variation for his own professional alias. In his most notorious illusion, "Condemned To Death By The Boxers" (as in Boxer Rebellion), two assistants fired guns at him, and he'd catch both bullets. Each gun had two barrels, one with a real bullet, the other with a blank. On the fateful night, a buildup of gunpowder accidentally sent one of the real bullets straight into Chung's chest. He said, "Oh my god, something's happened. Lower the curtain." He died the next day. At first, foul play was suspected, as there had been a feud between Chung and Ching, the magician from whom he stole his name. But after Chung's widow explained the mechanics of the trick at an inquest, the death was ruled accidental.

5. The Black Wizard of the West (died 1922)

Clearly, the Black Wizard, real name H.T. Sartell, was a greenhorn. The story goes that he bought some wax bullets and attempted the trick on stage for the first time without any rehearsal. And he enlisted his wife as an assistant without realizing that she was harboring some serious ill will towards him. She switched out the wax bullets for real ones and gunned her husband down in front of a horrified audience.

6. Ralf Bialla (died 1975)

The bullet was only an accessory in the death of this eccentric German magician, who billed himself as “The Living Target.” Bialla had performed the trick over 3,000 times, a feat he attributed not only to his skill but to a secret weapon: a set of steel teeth he had beneath his dentures. In Bialla’s version of the trick, the bullet was fired through three panes of glass then into his mouth via a funnel he made with his hands, clad in steel gloves. But reportedly, one of the long-term effects of catching all those bullets was that he had circulation problems that caused him to black out. After recovering from an injury in 1975, he went for a stroll in the mountains. While admiring scenery over a cliff, he blacked out and fell to his death.

Original image
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Original image
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
Original image
Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
Original image
Getty Images

Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios