At the start of magic tricks and illusions, the audience is often warned not to try the trick for themselves. There’s a good reason for this. Although many tricks involve misdirection and illusion (for example “sawing a man in half”) there is always a real danger that something can go wrong and the end result could be deadly.
Even being a professional magician is sometimes not enough. When you push the envelope – as most magicians do in an attempt to heighten their own fame – you put yourself at risk and if you tempt fate enough times, well, it’s going to catch up with you.
The most dangerous tricks are usually performed by a certain type of illusionist, known as an escapologist. They are sometimes also known as escape artists and their acts include escaping from handcuffs, straitjackets, cages, coffins, steel boxes, and water tanks. They most often escape from a series of restraints and add dangerous elements like water and lack of air to heighten the excitement for the audience.
Today we’ll be looking at magic artists who died performing such tricks and others whose deaths were indirectly caused as a result of their acts. We’ll say it just once – Don’t Try These at Home!
15. Accidentally Swallowing A Rusty Razor Blade
Vivian Hensley was a middle-aged dentist from Brisbane, Australia who liked to sometimes perform a little sleight of hand magic trick for his young son. Little did he know that this innocent act would one day claim his life – in a particularly gruesome way.
As an amateur magician, Hensley should have stuck to card and ball tricks but he wanted something more exciting. So to entertain his son he would perform a trick that he called “swallowing the rusty razor blade”. He used sleight of hand to make it appear that the blade was going into his mouth as he tipped his head back but what was actually happening was that the blade was being slipped down his sleeve.
On the 6th July 1938, he performed his signature move for the very last time when he accidentally dropped the blade down his throat. He was rushed to hospital but doctors were unable to locate and remove the blade. He died four days later.
14. Drowned In 6 Ft. Of Water During Practice
Those attending the Winona Lake Bible Conference were looking forward to watching magician Jeff Rayburn Hooper perform an escape trick later that afternoon. But Jeff never made it to the show…
The trick would have involved Jeff being shackled and thrown into the lake to emerge a few minutes later. That morning he had gone to the lake with his assistant to practice the escape act for the final time before the show. He handcuffed himself and jumped into the lake and swam a little way out. He managed to release himself from the handcuffs but the water was choppy as the wind was picking up. This made it impossible for him to swim back to shore and hampered rescuers. 27-year-old Hooper ended up drowning in 6ft of water.
13. Buried Alive
For most of us, being buried alive is a terror-inducing thought which explains why we love to watch escapologists perform this feat. But it should be left to the professionals – at the best of times. The trick is usually an illusion and the magician spends very little time inside the coffin. The one exception to this is David Blaine who survived 6 days of being buried alive but he did so with a team of professionals and experts.
Janaka Basnayake from Sri Lanka was neither a professional nor an expert and he had no team behind him. He just had a desire to be famous. The way he planned to achieve this fame was to beat the world record for longest time buried alive. So on the 5th of March 2012 he got his family to bury him in a 10ft deep pit. After seven hours they dug him up and found that he had died.
12. Ripped Apart
Charles Rowen, AKA “Karr the Mysterious” was a South African escape artist whose feats mainly involved escaping from straitjackets and leaping into piles of broken glass.
In 1930 he planned a very dangerous stunt which involved being confined in a straitjacket while a car was driven at high speed towards him. The stunt was poorly planned leaving Charles with only about 15 seconds to free himself and get out of the way. A large group of people including many young children had gathered to watch this trick. Charles didn’t make it. He was run over by the speeding car which almost completely severed his leg, traumatizing many of the onlookers. As he lay critically injured he exonerated the driver of any wrongdoing and died shortly after doing so.
11. Crushed In A Homemade Coffin
Many magicians idolize Harry Houdini – after all, he is one of the most famous magicians of all time. Joseph “Amazing Joe” Burrus was one of these magicians. He considered Houdini as his idol and his goal was to become even more famous than him. To achieve this he planned to perform the trick Houdini failed at – being buried alive.
On Halloween night of 1992, in front of news cameras and press, Amazing Joe was handcuffed and placed in a handmade coffin. The coffin was then placed in a 7ft grave and covered with seven tons of dirt and cement. Just for reference, that’s about the same weight as an African elephant. Just minutes into the performance the ground sank in as the coffin collapsed under the weight. Amazing Joe was crushed before he even had a chance to get out of the coffin.
10. No One Realized He Was Really Dying
Tommy Cooper didn’t die a particularly gruesome death. He didn’t drown or get crushed but what happened to him in his last moments will still make your skin crawl…
Tommy Cooper was British prop comedian and magician, who rose to fame in the mid 1970s thanks to numerous TV appearances. But those who were watching the live performance of Live From Her Majesty’s on the 15th of April 1984 got way more than they bargained for.
He was known for his offbeat antics on stage, often deliberately getting his tricks comically wrong. So when he collapsed on stage and slumped against the curtains during his act even his assistant thought it was part of his act. The audience roared with laughter as he gasped for air, not knowing that the magician was suffering from a devastating heart attack. The show cut to an unscheduled break and Cooper was taken backstage and rushed to the hospital but was announced dead on arrival.
9. Blown To Pieces
Swedish magician John Miller AKA Balabrega felt as though he was on the brink of fame when he and his wife appeared in a show with the legendary Houdini in 1900. He was hungry for further recognition and booked a tour in Brazil for himself. He needed a breath-taking signature trick so he purchased “The Moth and the Flame” illusion from his fellow performer Harry Rouclere.
This pyrotechnic vanishing trick made it appear as though six women (dressed as moths) disappeared into a large flame. But the trick required gas and during this time in Latin America, it was not an easy item to get hold of.
So he decided to use acetylene to fuel the illusion instead. Bad move. While he and his assistant started setting up for a show later that year, the large gas bag – filled with acetylene – exploded and quite literally blew them both to pieces.
8. Getting An Autopsy While Still Alive
Washington Irving Bishop was a mentalist with two distinct differences.
The first thing that set him apart was his honesty. Unlike many of his fellow spiritualists of the time, he professed to audiences that he had no supernatural powers or guiding spirits. What he did was read muscle movements by taking someone’s hand and feeling their acute movements to perform accurate readings.
Bishop also suffered from a condition known as catalepsy. This caused him to sometimes collapse and fall into a deep coma-like state. He knew about this condition and carried a card meant to warn medical professionals against performing an autopsy for at least 48 hours even if he appeared dead.
But this card was nowhere to be found when he collapsed while performing on May 12th, 1889. He was taken to a funeral home and an unauthorized autopsy was performed. Many people, including his mother, believe that the autopsy is what actually killed Bishop.
7. This Act Is On Fire
Sigmund Neuberger, AKA the Great Lafayette was an outstanding performer and one of the highest paid magicians of his time. He even boasted Harry Houdini as one of his fans. Houdini was a great admirer of his work and knowing that The Great Lafayette loved animals sent him a little terrier dog called Beauty. The magician and Beauty were inseparable and the dog lived in the lap of luxury with five-course meals and a diamond studded collar.
He was known for his highly entertaining quick change routine and his signature illusion was the “The Lions Bride” – transforming a lady into a lion right in front of the audience. But the signature move would cost him his life. A faulty lamp caused the theater he was performing in to go up in flames and he perished along with many of the cast and audience.
6. The Death Blow
Harry Houdini didn’t die on stage but according to most historians, it was still a trick that finally killed him. The escapologist had survived dozens of death-defying feats but it was a simple blow to the stomach that finally did him in.
After a show in Montreal, the famous magician was relaxing backstage while a student from a nearby university sketched him. While he sat for the portrait he chatted to another student who asked Houdini about this claim that he had the ability to absorb any blow above the waist. Houdini was still explaining when, without warning, the student suddenly punched him three times in the abdomen. Although he was in pain he refused to go to the hospital and collapsed and died four days later. Medical professionals believe that he may have been suffering from appendicitis and the trauma intensified the problem.
5. Bring Down The Curtain!
Chung Ling Soo marketed himself a mysterious eastern conjuror but this was his greatest illusion ever. His real name was William Elsworth Robinson and he was an American magician who adopted the persona of a Chinese performer. He never broke character and never spoke English – even off stage. He was brought to life in film (as a minor character) in the movie The Prestige.
Actually, it’s wrong to say he never broke character – he did, but only once.
It happened one night while Soo performed his version of the deadly bullet catch trick. The gun he used hadn’t been cleaned properly the night before and this caused a buildup of gunpowder. This residual powder was enough to launch the bullet straight into his chest. As he collapsed he cried, “Oh my God, bring down the curtain. Something has happened.”
4. Killer Assistant
As a magician, it’s really important to have the right assistant. You need to have someone that you can trust – especially if you are performing deadly tricks. It was a lesson that the famed Black Wizard of the West would learn the hard way.
At the time, around 1922, bullet catch tricks were all the rage and this magician thought that he could cash in on the popularity of the illusion. But in his haste, he didn’t take the time to practice – or find the right assistant.
Instead, he bought some wax bullets and enlisted his wife as his stage aid. What he didn’t know was that she was a scorned woman and had grown to hate him. While he wasn’t looking she replaced the fake bullets with real ones and gunned down her husband on a Deadwood, South Dakota stage to the horror of audience members.
3. Drowned In A Milk Can
Nowadays people use giant vintage milk cans to make quaint farm style furniture but there was a time when these cans formed part of a dangerous magic trick.
Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison de la Genesta, or Genesta for short, was an American magician whose signature trick was the milk can escape. This trick involved the performer climbing into the milk can which was then filled with water and locked. He would then proceed to miraculously escape before he drowned.
But one night in 1930 Genesta climbed into his milk can to perform the feat oblivious to the fact that the can had been dented in transport. This limited the small space inside and prevented him from making the moves he needed to escape. Unable to free himself he drowned inside the can.
2. The Most Dangerous Trick
The Gun Trick or The Bullet Catch is considered to be one of the most dangerous tricks for a magician to perform. Despite the trick being only an illusion (because people just can’t catch bullets – unless they are David Blaine and have a reinforced mouthpiece) there’s just so much that can go wrong. That’s the reason that there are at least 15 known deaths associated with this trick.
One of the most famous of these tragic cases involved a Polish magician and his wife Madame DeLinsky. Their version of the trick involved six guns, upping the ante but also the danger. Madame DeLinsky would face six men who would all fire and she would “stop” all the bullets. But one fateful night one of the men loaded a live round instead of a blank into his rifle and shot her in the stomach. She died from her injuries two days later.
1. The Living Target
Many people think that David Blaine came up with the idea of using a steel plate in the mouth to catch a bullet but it was actually German magician Ralf Bialla AKA “The Living Target” who pioneered this method. In his version the bullet was fired through three panes of glass then into his steel reinforced mouthpiece via a funnel he made with his hands, protected in steel gloves.
He didn’t die doing this trick, which is pretty incredible on its own, considering he performed it more than 3000 times, but in the end, it did kill him. Over time he developed circulation problems caused by performing the trick and these lead to blackouts. Bialla went out for a walk one day and while admiring the scenery he blacked out and toppled over a cliff to his death.