Thursday, June 12, 2008

Defying the Bullets

Heroes and tragedies of the legendary “bullet catch trick”

Don't try the bullet-catching trick. There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will 'job' you. And we can't afford to lose Houdini. Harry, listen to your friend Kellar, who loves you as his own son, and don't do it!”
(Letter from magician Harry Kellar to Houdini)

In 1918, few years before this letter, magician Chung Ling Soo was killed onstage during his most popular act, “Condemed to Death by the Boxers”: or, catching a bullet from a rifle with his teeths. Perhaps the best known famous tragedy from the golden era of stage entertainment, this was not at all the first of his kind.

Performing the same feat, in 1820s Torrini “count” de Grisy shot on stage his own son; his contemporary De Linsky killed his wife. Before them, as back as 1613, Coulew de Lorraine was killed by an assistant; later, Kia Khan Kruse by a spectator in 1818, and Edvin Lindberg in 1905. The mentioned De Linky shot himself in 1820. Arnold Buck (1840) died when a volunteer secretly added nails to the gun; Adam Epstein (1869), used to ram home the balls in the rifle barrel, broke inside the gun; he was killed by wand shards. Raoul Curran was killed in 1880 by a member of the audience who jumped up out of his seat and shot him without warning; deLine Jr (1890) died when his magician father shot him onstage. Michael Hatal (1899) failed to switch blank cartridges for the real bullets that killed him; Otto “Bosco” Blumenfeld (1906) also failed to switch bullets as, later, H. T. Sartell; "The Black Wizard of the West" (1922) lost his life when his wife purposely fired live bullets at him. Ralf Bialla (1972) fell off a cliff because of constant dizziness caused by injuries from bullet catching act; Doc Conrad (1977) was killed during practice of the Russian Roulette trick, a version of the Bullet Catch; Fernando Tejada (1988) killed onstage during a performance in Columbia.

With much more chance and success, fortunately is also possible to attempt a list of survivors in magically catching a bullet, even if the catalogue is shorter. It can be unespectedly initiated by Sergeant Philip Astley, the very same inventor of the moder circus, that in the 1780s falsely proclamed to be the inventor of this more ancient trick. John Henry Anderson, great wizard of the North safely popularized it; as J.E. Robert-Houdin, Alexander and brave Adelaide Hermann.

Then, in the slowly fading of magic golden era, Theo Annemann, Rooklyn with his shoulders protected by a chainmail, Jean Hugard with the South African army pointing at his heart, the spectacular Ralf Bialla from Germany, Milbourne Cristopher, Dorothy Dietrich, Paul Daniels, up to today’s Penn and Teller with their remarkable version.

But a lesson in showmanship performing this piece of magic can be surely have an example in master British mentalist Maurice Fogel: we recently discovered him in the “bullet catch” from a rare vintage newsreel.

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