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12 People Who Made a Living Eating Inedible Things

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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.

For 12-12-12, we’ll be posting twenty-four '12 lists' throughout the day. Check back 12 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

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Animals
Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. and LA, or by visiting their website.

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entertainment
15 Inconceivable Facts About The Princess Bride
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MGM

It's no wonder The Princess Bride is such a beloved film: It's action-packed but still lighthearted, sweet but not saccharine, silly but still smart—and, of course, endlessly quotable. Fortunately, in 2012, the movie's leading man Cary Elwes was inspired to write a behind-the-scenes book about the making of the movie in honor of its 25th anniversary, for which he interviewed nearly all of the key cast and crew (sadly, André the Giant, who played Fezzik, passed away in 1993).

Pulling from the impressively detailed text of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride and various interviews Elwes and others have given over the years, we rounded up a series of fun facts and anecdotes sure to delight any fan of the film, which was released 30 years ago today.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR THE AUTHOR'S DAUGHTERS.

William Goldman, who wrote the novel The Princess Bride in 1973 and penned the screenplay, told Entertainment Weekly that, "I had two little daughters, I think they were 7 and 4 at the time, and I said, 'I’ll write you a story. What do you want it to be about?' One of them said 'a princess' and the other one said 'a bride.' I said, 'That’ll be the title.'"

2. BOTH THE DIRECTOR AND THE LEADING MAN ALREADY KNEW AND LOVED THE STORY BEFORE FILMING EVEN BEGAN.

Cary Elwes' stepfather had given him Goldman's book in 1975, when the future actor was just 13 years old. Rob Reiner, who directed the movie, first read the book in his 20s when Goldman gave it to his father. It quickly became Reiner's favorite book of all time, and he had long wanted to turn it into a movie—but he had no idea that many before him had tried and failed.

3. FOR A LONG TIME, NO ONE WAS ABLE TO MAKE THE MOVIE.

At one point or another, Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, John Boorman, and François Truffaut all tried to get the book made into a movie, but due to a series of unrelated incidents—"green-lighters" getting fired, production houses closing—it languished for years. (In one of these proto-Princess Brides, a then-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to play Fezzik.) 

After several false starts, Goldman bought back the rights to the book. The movie only got made because Reiner had built up so much good will with movies like This is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing that the studio, 20th Century Foxoffered to make any project of his choice.

4. MANDY PATINKIN FELT A PERSONAL CONNECTION TO THE CHARACTER OF INIGO MONTOYA.

Andre the Giant, Mandy Patinkin and Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride (1987).
MGM

"The moment I read the script, I loved the part of Inigo Montoya," Patinkin told Entertainment Weekly. "That character just spoke to me profoundly. I had lost my own father—he died at 53 years old from pancreatic cancer in 1972. I didn’t think about it consciously, but I think that there was a part of me that thought, If I get that man in black, my father will come back. I talked to my dad all the time during filming, and it was very healing for me."

5. ANDRÉ THE GIANT COULD REALLY, REALLY DRINK.

Three bottles of cognac and 12 bottles of wine reportedly made him just a little tipsy. When the cast would go out for dinner, André—who, according to Robin Wright, ordered four appetizers and five entrees—would drink out of a 40-ounce beer pitcher filled with a mix of liquors, a concoction he called "The American."

6. ANDRÉ HAD AN UNCONVENTIONAL METHOD FOR LEARNING HIS LINES.

Reiner and Goldman met André, then a famous wrestler, at a bar in Paris. "I brought him up to the hotel room to audition him. He read this three-page scene, and I couldn’t understand one word he said," Reiner recalled. "I go, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? He’s perfect physically for the part, but I can’t understand him!’ So I recorded his entire part on tape, exactly how I wanted him to do it, and he studied the tape. He got pretty good!"

7. WILLIAM GOLDMAN WAS INCREDIBLY NERVOUS ON THE SET.

Of all the projects he’d written and worked on—which included the Academy Award-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Goldman loved The Princess Bride best of all. This manifested itself as extreme nervousness about the project. Reiner invited Goldman to be on set for the duration of the filming—which Goldman did not want to do, saying, “I don’t like being on set. If you’re a screenwriter, it’s boring”—but on the first day, he proved to be a slight nuisance. The first couple takes were plagued by a barely-audible chanting, which turned out to be Goldman praying things would go well. And when Wright's character's dress caught on fire, he panicked, yelling, "Oh my god! Her dress is on fire!"—even though Goldman himself had written that into the script.

8. WALLACE SHAWN WAS BRILLIANT, BUT ALWAYS ON EDGE.

Wallace Shawn and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride (1987)
MGM

Shawn, who played Vizzini the Sicilian, really is, like his character, a man of "dizzying intellect." He has a history degree from Harvard and studied philosophy and economics at Oxford. In fact, on a day off from filming The Princess Bride, Shawn went to Oxford to give a guest lecture on British and American literature. But Shawn was inconsolably nervous for the entirety of filming.

After learning from his agent that Reiner had originally wanted Danny DeVito for the part, Shawn was wracked with insecurity, perpetually convinced that he was going to be fired after every bad take. "Danny is inimitable," Shawn said. "Each scene we did, I pictured how he would have done it and I knew I could never possibly have done it the way he could have done it," he said.

9. THE DUEL BETWEEN WESTLEY AND INIGO WAS EXCRUCIATINGLY RESEARCHED AND REHEARSED.

Goldman spent months researching 17th-century swordfighting manuals to craft Westley and Inigo's duel; all the references the characters make to specific moves and styles are completely accurate. Then Elwes and Patinkin, neither of whom had much (if any) fencing experience, spent more months training to perfect it—right- and left-handed.

"I knew that my job was to become the world’s greatest sword fighter," Patinkin recalled in Elwes's book. "I trained for about two months in New York and then we went to London and Cary and I trained every day that we weren’t shooting for four months. There were no stuntmen involved in any of the sword fights, except for one flip in the air.” Even after months of pre-shooting training, the fencing instructors came to set and, when there were a few free minutes, would pull Elwes and Patinkin aside to work on the choreography for the scene, which was intentionally one of the last to be shot.

10. IT WAS ELWES'S IDEA TO DIVE HEADFIRST INTO THE "QUICKSAND."

That particular Fire Swamp stunt was accomplished by having a trap door underneath a layer of sand, below which there was foam padding for the actors to fall onto. Originally, the direction called for Westley to jump in feet-first after Buttercup, but Elwes argued this wasn't particularly heroic. Switching up the direction was a risky move—if the trap door wasn't opened at exactly the right instant, Elwes risked banging his head—or even breaking his neck. After the stunt double successfully executed the dive, Elwes himself tried it, and nailed it perfectly on the first take.

11. MIRACLE MAX REALLY WAS THAT FUNNY—AND YOU'RE NOT EVEN SEEING HIS BEST STUFF.

Billy Crystal brought two photos for his makeup artist, Peter Montagna, to draw inspiration from when creating Miracle Max: Crystal’s grandmother and Casey Stengel. As for the acting, Elwes wrote in his book, "For three days straight and 10 hours a day, Billy improvised 13th-century period jokes, never saying the same thing or the same line twice." Unfortunately for viewers, many of the improvised jokes were not fit for a family-friendly film. Only the cast and crew knows how funny his more crude Miracle Max takes were, but judging from the fact that Patinkin bruised a rib trying to stifle his laughter, as he recounts in the book, they were probably pretty good.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND CAROL KANE, WHO PLAYED HIS WIFE, INVENTED AN ENTIRE BACKSTORY.

Carol Kane and Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride (1987)
MGM

"Billy came over to my apartment in Los Angeles and we took the book and underlined things and made up a little more backstory for ourselves," Kane said. "We added our own twists and turns and stuff that would amuse us, because there’s supposed to be a long history—who knows how many hundreds of years Max and Valerie have been together?" How has that pair not gotten a spin-off film yet? 

13. ELWES FILMED MANY OF HIS SCENES WITH A BROKEN TOE.

Six weeks into production, André convinced Elwes to go for a spin on the ATV that was used to transport the larger man to and from filming locations because he didn’t fit in the van. Almost immediately, the vehicle hit a rocky patch and Elwes got his foot stuck between two mechanisms in the vehicle, breaking his big toe. The young actor tried to hide the injury from his director, but, of course, Reiner quickly found out. He didn't find a new Westley, as Elwes feared he might, but they did have to work some movie magic to allow Elwes to limp around in many of the scenes undetected.

14. ONE PARTICULAR ON-SCREEN INJURY WASN'T FAKED.

As soon as Westley recognizes Count Rugen as the six-fingered man, the script calls for the Count to knock our hero unconscious with the butt of his sword. In filming, Christopher Guest, who played Rugen, was naturally reluctant to really hit Elwes for fear of hurting him. Unfortunately, this reticence was reading on screen and take after take failed to look convincing. Finally, Elwes suggested Guest just go for, at least tap him on the head to get the reaction timing right. The tap came a little too hard, however, and Elwes was knocked legitimately unconscious; he later awoke in the hospital emergency room. It's that take, with Elwes actually passing out, that appears in the film.

15. ONE OF THE FINAL SCENES NEVER MADE IT INTO THE FINAL FILM.

In an alternate ending that was eventually cut, Fred Savage—who plays the initially reluctant audience to Peter Falk's reading of The Princess Bride—goes to his window after his grandfather has left and sees Fezzik, Inigo, Westley, and Buttercup all on their white horses.

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