Remember that kid in elementary school who would eat anything for a quarter? It turns out he wasn’t just trying to make up for a lack of personality to make friends or get attention. He was preparing himself for a career in show business. Thanks to the rise of the vaudeville and the circus sideshow, performers throughout history and even the modern stage have been practicing the strange art of digestion and regurgitation. They take seemingly inedible objects and choke them down before your very eyes. Here’s a look at some of the world’s greatest “human ostriches.”
1. Todd Robbins
This renowned illusionist, trickster and sideshow aficionado has carved an interesting career out of shocking his audiences. He’s perhaps best known for a trick that few people know how to do because it is very dangerous: lightbulb eating.
He learned the trick from an old Coney Island sideshow performer when he was a teenager and since then he’s eaten over 4000 lightbulbs. The only major injury he suffered while performing the trick is a broken tooth that exposed a raw nerve. The trick became the centerpiece of a very successful, very bloody and very scary off-Broadway spook show called Play Dead that he co-wrote with Teller of Penn & Teller.
2. Michel Lotito
The French entertainer known as “Monsieur Mangetout” (“Mr. Eat-All”) set world records by eating seemingly inedible metal objects from nails to bicycles. His career, however, started not because of his strange talent. It came from a strange medical condition.
Lotito suffered from Pica, a medical disorder that drives people to eat inedible things. It started after he accidentally swallowed a piece of glass in a swimming pool when he was 16. Since then, he ate bits of metal and glass to impress his friends and eventually turned the weird trick into a career leading to his most impressive meal: a Cessna 150 light aircraft. It took two years to eat the whole thing.
3. Louis Cole
The rise of the Internet and YouTube gave all sorts of shameless people the chance to humiliate themselves for fun and profit. This southwest London resident is no exception.
Cole’s “Food for Louis” channel presents him with an ultimate series of challenges to eat all sorts of unusual, disgusting, and dead animals without any preparation. They go straight from his plate directly into his mouth, sometimes while they are still living. He started taking dares from his friends to choke down things like spiders, rotten apples, and wasps, and eventually started making a living by creating his own popular YouTube channel to take on bigger challenges from the rest of the world. Some of his more unusual dining moments include roadkill straight from the road, blended mice, raw pig’s eyeballs, and 21 live locusts.
4. Stevie Starr
The almost forgotten art of regurgitation, the act of swallowing something and bringing it up again on command, has undergone a resurgence thanks to this legendary Scottish showman.
Starr claims he learned his art at a young age by swallowing his pocket change to hide it from bullies. He has since graduated to bigger and tougher objects such as lightbulbs, billiard balls, and Rubik’s Cubes. He not only brings up the objects intact but also claims he can manipulate them with the muscles in his stomach or even bring them back in a different order. His signature trick involves taking a ring from a member of the audience and swallowing it with a closed lock and a key. When he brings the objects back up, the ring has been placed in the lock while all three are in his stomach. Some have speculated his technique involves sleight of hand but doctors and magicians have been unable to figure out the gimmick—assuming he uses one.
5. Henry Harrison
One of the first and best sideshow eaters may have technically been a freak—but the ladies didn't think so. The Syracuse, New York native had a storied career throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s as the “human ostrich.” He would eat just about anything that audiences could throw at him, including pocket-knives, pins, nails, screws, and glass, with seemingly no discomfort whatsoever. He learned the skill at age 6 after accidentally swallowing one of his mother’s pins. When his mother learned he had swallowed one, she took him to a surgeon, who found 40 more pins in his stomach. The only serious malady occurred when he tried to swallow an entire package of tacks and the packaging became lodged in his intestine.
He was also known for being something of a player. Those who saw him described him as quite handsome and he was often seen leaving his New York shows with more than one girl on his arm.
6. John Fasel
This Williamsburg, New York tailor found an interesting way to bring in some extra money, but his sideshow career didn’t last long.
Fasel also became a “human ostrich” in 1900 by swallowing metal objects whole, including nails, pocketwatches, keys, and knives. Unfortunately, his time in the spotlight was short lived because his digestive system wasn’t able to fully digest the bits of metal he left in his stomach. His talent almost killed him in 1901—doctors had to cut him open to remove the metal objects he swallowed on stage, which included three watch chains, five hairpins, 12 horseshoe nails, three keys, a ring, and 128 pins. Somehow, he recovered, but returned to his old trick four years later after swearing off the stunt by challenging another “human ostrich” to an eat-off at a Brooklyn gala.
7. Dagmar Rothman
Photo Courtesy of The Human Marvels
The man known as The Great Waldo was also one of the greatest regurgitators of all time. He grew up in Germany just before the start of World War II and fell in love with the circus, particularly the sideshow acts who taught him how to swallow and bring up objects at will. He fled to Switzerland after Adolf Hitler invaded Austria and found a place for his art in nightclubs and theaters. A talent scout from America discovered him and brought him back to the States, where he became a sideshow legend. He also elevated the art of regurgitation by not only swallowing inanimate objects and bringing them back, but by swallowing live animals such as white mice and frogs and bring them back up completely unharmed (at least not physically, we assume).
8. Hadji Ali
This notorious vaudevillian had a gift for gastrointestinal fortitude that made him one of the biggest variety stars of his time and the object of desire of some of the silver screen’s biggest movie stars.
The mysterious Arab figure who found fame in the 1920s was actually born in Wolverthampton, England. He toured dressed as a mystic Middle Eastern man willing to swallow any number of items including watermelon seeds and whole walnuts, who could also bring them back up in any order. His signature trick, one that landed him an appearance in the Spanish language version of Laurel and Hardy’s film “Chickens Come Home,” involved swallowing a ridiculous amount of water and topping it off with a large dose of kerosene. He would then vomit the mixture back on a small flaming castle brought on the stage to the shock of his audiences. He was so well known in his time that actress Judy Garland called him her favorite vaudevillian.
9. The Enigma
This puzzling performer got his start with one of the world’s most famous traveling sideshows, the Jim Rose Circus.
The Enigma (real name: Paul Lawrence) toured with the legendary grunge circus during its Seattle days in the early 1990s. He started as “Slug,” swallowing any number of tiny animals such as crickets, maggots, and worms before getting a full tattoo of a puzzle over his entire body and horns implanted in his skull to become The Enigma. He made numerous television appearances, including on an infamous episode of The X-Files called “Humbug.” Rose offers Scully a live cricket to eat (which Gillian Anderson immediately spat out after the cameras stopped rolling).
10. Chaz Chase
One of vaudeville’s longest working performers also had one of its more unusual acts.
Chase looked like a typical circus clown, but his performance cast him in a much different light. He became renowned for being able to eat just about anything put in front of him including paper, lit matches, coins, flowers and cigarettes. He appeared in several silent films and worked well into his 70s and 80s with a surprising amount of exuberance and agility for a man his age. He also did quite a bit of touring around the world and was required to bring along a large amount of items to swallow, which sometimes got him in trouble. According to one report from 1947, customs officials in Sydney, Australia refused to let him into the country after they caught him carrying more than 400 cigarettes and 75 cigars. He had to perform his bizarre act for the agents to prove that he wasn’t a smuggler.
11. Tom Mullica
Mullica, one of the world’s best known comic magicians, had an act that turned heads and stomachs: He would seemingly smoke and swallow an entire package of lit cigarettes. He would light them one at a time and hold them in his mouth as they were still lit and bring each back so he could add them to the pile before choking them all down with a handful of napkins. He eventually retired the act after he quit smoking.
12. Tokyo Shock Boys
This slapstick stunt show that started in Japan has performed all kinds of painful and humiliating acts in their 30 years in show business. They even include some things that aren’t really tricks, but closer to public displays of torture for our twisted amusement.
This furious foursome came together in the 1990s while they worked as roadies during Paul McCartney’s tour of Japan. Their appearances on some local variety shows made them stars practically overnight and gave them their own long-running stage show that has since toured all over the world. Most of their act consists of Jackass-style stunts such as breaking a cactus in half with their butt cheeks and wearing a diaper filled with lit firecrackers. They are also known to eat unusual things, such as dishwashing soap and detergent, and to swallow whole chunks of dry ice.
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