Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
About Sword Swallowing

Sword swallowers are constantly asked a variety of questions, some common and some quite unusual. Here are some of the more common as well as the more unusual questions we've been asked along with the appropriate answers to those questions.

These questions and answers have been compiled from a poll of sword swallowers, a variety of audience members, reporters, interviewers, viewers to our site, doctors, and other resources from around the world, and we thank you all for your contributions. If you have other questions, please send them in and we'll try to post an answer for you.



  1. What is sword swallowing?
  2. Don't you use a gimmick sword, plastic tip or a sheath?
  3. So what's the trick?
  4. What is the history of sword swallowing?
  5. How many sword swallowers are there today?
  6. How long does it take to learn?
  7. How do you do it? Where does the sword go?
  8. Why do you do it?
  9. What does it feel like?
  10. What does it taste like?
  11. Isn't it dangerous? Can't you cut or hurt yourself?
  12. How many people have died from sword swallowing injuries?
  13. Did a sword swallower die after swallowing an umbrella?
  14. How do you treat sword swallowing injuries?
  15. Aren't there other jobs you can do that are less dangerous?
  16. Do you sterilize your swords?
  17. Do you use a lubricant on your swords?
  18. Do you use anything to dull the gag reflex in your throat?
  19. Do you have to hold your breath while swallowing a sword?
  20. Do sword swallowers have their tonsils removed?
  21. Does sword swallowing hurt or enlarge your Adam's apple?
  22. Do you bite the blade with your teeth and swallow it?
  23. Do you have to dislocate your collarbones?
  24. How deep can you insert a sword?
  25. How long can you keep a sword down your throat?
  26. What else do you swallow besides swords?
  27. Can you teach me how to swallow swords?
  28. Are there any books or classes for learning sword swallowing?
  29. When is World Sword Swallower's Day?
  30. Can I perform at the next Big Swallow?
  31. So how can I join SSAI?

Q:  "What is 'sword swallowing'?"

A:   Here are some definitions from dictionaries and the encyclopedia:

Encarta® World English Dictionary, North American Edition:

Sword Swallower: "a performer who appears to swallow a sword; a performer who passes or creates an illusion of passing a sword down his or her throat to its hilt"

Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary of the English Language:

Sword Swallower: "a performer who pretends to swallow a sword or some other rigid object."

(Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, sword swallowing is quite real - it is an ancient but deadly art with a long and colorful history).

Encyclopedia Britannica:

Sword Swallowing: "A magician's trick (false) dating back to ancient Greece and Rome (true) involving the swallowing of a sword without bodily injury. (hopefully true)   Capuleius, in his Metamorphoseon, tells of seeing the feat in Athens, performed by a juggler on horseback.

In reality, sword swallowing is not an illusion or trick. (true)   Those who practice it must first overcome their gag reflex at objects touching the back part of their mouths. (true)   Long practice controls this reflex. (true)   The pharynx must also be conditioned. (true)   Objects introduced here cause much pain, and only after several trials can they be passed without great discomfort. (true)   The stomach is conditioned in a similar manner. (true)

Exhibits of sword swallowing, beyond their entertainment value, have helped to further medicine by demonstrating to physicians that the pharynx could be habituated to contact, thus making experimentation and exploration of the involved organs possible. (true, sword swallowers are occasionally employed in medical research for their unique abilities)

Q:   So what is considered 'a sword'?

A:   The dictionary defines a 'sword' as:

Sword ( sôrd ) -n 1. "a weapon having various forms but typically consisting of a long, straight or slightly curved blade, sharp-edged on one or both sides, with one end pointed and the other fixed in a hilt or handle."

For general membership purposes, the Sword Swallowers Association International defines a 'sword' as:

Sword: ( sôrd ) "a weapon, with a non-folding, non-retractable solid steel or metal single-edged or double-edged blade at least 1/2 inch (1.27 cm) in width and 16 inches (40 cm) to 20 inches (50.8 cm) in length, and not recommended to exceed 24 inches (61 cm) in length except in extreme circumstances for performance purposes"

According to SSAI, the detailed definition of 'sword swallowing' is:

Sword Swallowing: "the act of inserting a solid metal blade at least 16 inches long into the mouth, down the esophagus, through the esophageal sphincter and into the stomach"

For purposes of admission into membership, SSAI defines a 'sword swallower' as:
Sword Swallower: "a person at least 18 years of age who is able to prove that he/she can swallow at least a 16 inch solid sword blade before he/she is permitted membership into SSAI"

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Q:  "Don't you use a gimmick, a fake sword that curls or folds up?"
"Don't you swallow a sheath first, or use a plastic tip on your sword?"

A:   No. Many people think that sword swallowers use a fake sword (known as a "gaff" in the business) that curls or folds up into the handle, but this is simply not the case for real sword swallowers.

Some books also erroneously claim that sword swallowers use gimmicks such as plastic, asbestos or metal sheaths that are swallowed first to protect the esophagus, or gutta-percha tips to protect their insides from the tip of the blade when they swallow their swords. These too are false myths that simply are not true for real sword swallowers.

Encyclopedia Britannica:

"Sword swallowers employ slightly varying methods. (partially true) While one may swallow a sword without using any intermediate apparatus, such as a gutta-percha tip, another will take this precaution. (rarely true) The majority of sword swallowers employ a guiding tube which they have previously ingested (completely false) and hence their performances are less dangerous. The tube is 45-50 centimeters (17.7-19.7 inches) long and is made of very thin metal. With a width of 25 millimeters (a little less than an inch), the tube permits easy entry of flat-bladed swords." (completely false)

Think about it. It would actually be more uncomfortable to pre-swallow a sheath and attempt to walk out on stage or deliver an introduction for several minutes with a sheath down the throat than it is to actually swallow a sword.

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Q:  "It's not real, is it?  ...So what's the trick?"

A:   There is no trick. There are no smoke and mirrors. Sword swallowers really do swallow real swords - that's why we've been called "sword swallowers" for thousands of years.

No, professional sword swallowing is definitely NOT a magic "trick" or "stage illusion" as many people believe, nor is it a Hollywood stunt. Yes, there are some magicians or illusionists who buy fake curl-up swords or do balloon tricks to imitate real sword swallowers. But the true professional sword swallower does not rely on gimmicks. Because professional sword swallowers generally work in close proximity to the audience, a fake "rollup" or telescoping sword (known as a "gaff" in the business) would be easily noticeable, and brand such a performer as a fake.

That's why many sword swallowers have an audience member, preferably someone from the medical field, to inspect the sword first, and sometimes even pull out the sword, just to verify that it is indeed real and not a trick.

Still don't believe it? Then check out the x-rays and read on...

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Q:  "Who started sword swallowing? What's the history?"

A:   The art of sword swallowing comes from a long and colorful history.

Sword swallowing originated about 4000 years ago in India around 2000 BC by fakirs and shaman priests who developed the art along with fire-walking on hot coals, snake handling, and other ascetic religious practices, as demonstration of their invulnerability, power, and connection with their gods. Legend has it that sword swallowing began in either the region that is now Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka, India, and there is still a tribe known as the Konda Dhora tribe in the state of Andhra Pradesh where the ancient art of sword swallowing was rumored to be passed down from father to son for centuries. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of this practice today.

From India, sword swallowing spread to China, Greece, Rome, Europe, and the rest of the world. Sword swallowing was often seen at festivals throughout the ancient Roman empire. Capuleius, in his Metamorphoseon, tells of seeing the feat in Athens, performed by a juggler on horseback, and sword swallowers were mentioned in 410 AD during the Teutonic fight for Rome.

The art and practice of sword swallowing traveled north from India into China around 750 AD, and became popular in Japan in the 8th century. It was often seen as part of an acrobatic form of entertainment known as Sangaku, which also featured juggling, tightrope walking, contortion, and other related skills. This type of performance art was "street theater" and the performers traveled throughout Japan. Sangaku, like other forms of drama popular in Japan prior to the 11th century, traced its origins to southern China and India.

The Dervish Orders of the Sufis reflect the meeting of Islam and Hindu thought in the 8th century ("dervish" is Persian for "beggar.") Some Dervish orders wander, others beg alms, and others live in Sufi monasteries. Some are religious entertainers hired to chant the zikr dirge, and some only perform Dervish ceremonies on special occasions. Dervishes are known for working themselves into frenzies, whirling themselves about, and committing great feats of strength (this is where we get the term "Whirling Dervishes"). One of the Dervish orders founded in 1182 AD was the order of Rifais who eat glass, walk on hot coals, and swallow swords.

Sword swallowing spread north from Greece and Rome into Europe at the hands of medieval jongleurs and other street performers who performed in public areas. In the Middle Ages, sword swallowers, like magicians, jugglers and other entertainers, were often condemned and persecuted by the Catholic Church. Still, in most places they were popular with the common folk, and the tradition of the wandering entertainer remained strong. By the mid-17th century, performers wandered more freely and became common sights on street corners and at festivals across Europe. Sword swallowing began to die out in Europe in the late 1800s, and in Sweden in 1893 when variety shows were formally outlawed.

Sword swallowing came to America in 1817, but did not start becoming popular in America until 1893 when sword swallowers were one of the hit features of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. In the 1890s, sword swallowing became an expected part of traveling sideshows, which flourished from around 1899 to the 1950's. In the 1950's, with the increasing popularity and cost efficiency of mechanical rides at carnivals, one by one the side shows began to disappear, and with the growing popularity of TV, the Internet, video games and other forms of entertainment in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the popularity of sideshows and sword swallowing began to decrease. Since 1981, there have been only a very small number of the old-fashioned traveling 10-in-1 sideshows left touring the United States.

For general information on the history of sword swallowing, visit our History page.

For detailed information and photos of the top 100 sword swallowers over the past 100+ years, visit the Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame.

And for a list of the remaining living sword swallowers around the world, visit our Performers page.

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Q:  "How many sword swallowers are there in the world today?"

A:   There are less than a few dozen professional sword swallowers left actively performing around the world today.

In addition, there are a few dozen surviving injured or retired veteran sword swallowers who have swallowed a sword at one time in their lives, and a small number of beginners who have managed to swallow a sword at least one time in their lives, but may not be actively performing as full-time professionals.

In comparison with other rare or dangerous occupations and passions,

  • there are over 2.1 million skydives jumped each year
  • there are over 80,000 Elvis impersonators since 1977
  • there are over 12,000 professional bullriders in the world
  • over 2249 people have successfully climbed Mt. Everest since 1953
  • over 1000 people have run the 4 minute mile over 4700 times since 1954
  • over 750 astronauts have flown in outer space since 1961

    Yet there are less than a few dozen professional sword swallowers left actively performing the 4000 year old ancient art around the world today.

    Out of a world population of over 7 billion people in the world today, that makes each sword swallower unique at being about 1 out of every 250 million people in the world.

    For a list of the actively performing SSAI members and other sword swallowers around the world today, visit the Performers page.

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    Q:   "How did you learn to swallow swords?"
          "Were your parents in the circus?"
          "Who taught you to swallow swords?"
          "How did you discover you could do this?"
          "Did you start learning with small knives?"
          "How long did it take you to learn?"

    A:   The answer to these questions vary from sword swallower to sword swallower.

    In many cases, sword swallowing is often handed down from sword swallower to sword swallower, such as in a village in the state of Andhra Pradesh in central India where the ancient art is passed down from father to son, and sometimes the swords are handed down as well.

    Sword swallowing is not something you can just learn on your own in an afternoon. Many people study the art for years, often as apprentices under experienced sword swallowers, before they manage to learn to master it. SSAI research from sword swallowers around the world has shown that it can take some people from 3 years to 7 years to learn to swallow a sword, and up to 5 years to master it, and some NEVER learn.

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    Q:  "WHY do you do it?"

          "Did you just wake up one day
          and decide to stick a sword down your throat?"

            "It was either this or basketweaving!" --Natasha Veruschka

    A:   This is one of the most common questions we get asked every day.

    Many of us come from varied entertainment backgrounds, and we all have different reasons for why we swallow swords, but in general, most of us do it because we CAN, and because most other people CAN'T! If we didn't, who would? Somebody has to do these things, or you would never get to see feats like this.

    Many of us have chosen sword swallowing because it is a real feat, not a fake trick or deception, which sets us apart from other performers, knowing that there are a very limited number of sword swallowers left in the world today.

    Some of us do it to educate others and demonstrate the possibilities of stretching the mind and overcoming the limitations of the human body.

    Some of us do it to help preserve a dying ancient art.

    Others do it because they just crave the attention!

    If you enjoy TED talks, here's a TED talk from TEDxMaastricht Netherlands as to WHY one sword swallower swallows swords:

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    Q:   "Would you rather be a taxidermist or a sword swallower?"

    A:   "I'd rather be a sword swallower. It's not so much that I like to swallow swords, it just that I like animals more when they're alive."

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    Q:  "So where does the sword go? So how do you do it?"


    In order to swallow a sword, in medical terms, a sword swallower must:

    • insert the tip of the blade into the oral cavity,
    • repress the gag reflex in the back of the throat,
    • navigate a 90 degree turn down the pharynx,
    • find the proper alignment into the esophagus,
    • slide the blade through the cricopharyngeus upper esophageal sphincter (UES),
    • flip open the epiglottis so that the blade goes into the glottal chamber behind the prominentia laryngea and the voice box,
    • repress the peristalsys reflex,
    • slide the blade down the esophagus into the thoraxic chamber,
    • between the lungs,
    • nudge the heart slightly to the left,
    • slide the blade past the sternum and breast bone through the diaphragm,
    • relax the lower esophageal sphincter (LES),
    • slide the blade through the lower esophageal sphincter and into the upper stomach,
    • past the liver and kidneys,
    • repress the retch reflex in the stomach,
    • and insert the blade all the way down to the duodenum.
    Each step must be done correctly and very precisely - one slightly wrong move and you could puncture any of those organs and kill yourself.

    More importantly, in psychological terms, it take years of practice - for some sword swallowers from 3 years to as much as 10 years - and a strong mind-over-matter mental attitude - to study and learn the medical physiology, to consciously relax one's mind and body, get past the uncomfortable sensations, focus very carefully on the correct alignment and placement, repress the gag reflex and retch reflex, and make sure you direct the blade precisely where it needs to go without puncturing yourself in order to swallow a single sword - and sometimes several more years to work up to multiple swords and other more complicated and daring feats. Combining these physical and mental disciplines correctly every time is what makes sword swallowing so extremely difficult and extremely dangerous.

    Watch moving x-ray fluoroscopy

    More on how sword swallowing works

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    Q:  "What does it feel like to swallow a sword? Does it hurt?"

    A:   Yes!   If you poke yourself in the throat or esophagus while swallowing a sword, it can be quite painful and give you a "sword throat", or worse, a perforated esophagus or punctured stomach resulting in serious medical injuries. In some cases, if the esophageal sphincter is not relaxed and does not open properly while swallowing a sword or multiple swords, it can cause a painful bruising feeling in the center of the chest that can make it difficult to swallow food for several days.

    For the most part, if done properly, sword swallowing usually does not actually hurt terribly painfully, but it can sure feel VERY uncomfortable! It almost always makes your eyes water, and it constantly makes you feel like you're going to gag or get sick.

    Sometimes if the sword is a bit cold, you can feel the cool sensation as the blade travels down your throat. Often when withdrawing the sword, you are left with a taste of stomach acids and metal in your mouth.

    The act of swallowing a sword is not really a fun or "pleasant" feeling itself, but the audience response usually makes it worth the discomfort.

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    Q:  "What does it taste like to swallow a sword?"

    "You get the taste of metal in your throat, and everything tastes
    like metal from swallowing the swords so much, but I loved it."

    --Lady Sandra Reed

    "It tastes like a fork!"
    --Dai Andrews

    People often ask what it tastes like to swallow a sword. In some cases, depending on the type of metal used in the blade, it can sometimes taste a bit metallic. Lady Sandra Reed commented on the taste of metal and Red Stuart often says that your mouth and throat need to learn to overcome the metallic taste so that your throat does not rebel against the strange taste going down your throat.

    However, many of the newer swords nowadays have little to no flavor at all - much like the taste of a fork - except as the sword is being removed, at which time there may be the unpleasant taste of the stomach acids.

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    Q:  "Isn't it dangerous? Can't you hurt yourself? Have you ever cut yourself?"

    A:   Yes, and man, those paper cuts can hurt like crazy!

    Heck YES, it's DANGEROUS!

    Seriously, sword swallowing is one of THE MOST DANGEROUS performance arts still being performed today. Sword swallowers risk their lives every time they swallow a sword, just for the audience's entertainment pleasure!

    At the very least, sword swallowers often get sore or "sword" throats from bruising trauma or from the introduction of foreign germs and bacteria into abrasions in the esophagus. Oftentimes these sore throats can last several days where it may not be possible to eat solid foods for up to a week or more.

    As far as getting a more serious cut by a sword, yes, sometimes sword swallowers DO get cut, and in many cases, seriously injured! First of all, any cuts inside the body are very hard to diagnose, treat, repair and heal. There is always the very serious risk of damage to the throat, vocal cords, esophagus, lungs or stomach, and if it should happen, a lacerated or perforated esophagus or punctured stomach is extremely difficult to treat and repair, and can often become fatal very quickly. Even the slightest nick, perforation, or puncture can lead to the bacterial infection peritonitis which can quickly become quite deadly, sometimes within 24 hours.

    Since the blade passes within an eigth of an inch from several internal organs, serious injuries can be caused by puncturing the blade through the wall of the esophagus and into the heart, lungs or other organs or tissue around the esophagus, resulting in severe bleeding, a buildup of fluids around the lungs, heart, and other tissues, pleurisy, swelling, infection, and in many cases, a quick death.

    Sometimes it may be only a slight nick, sometimes it can be abrasive cuts on the walls of the esophagus after repeated swallowings, while other times it can be a perforation or puncture wound, but in any case, injuries are quite dangerous and the effect can be quite painful and frightening, sometimes leaving the sword swallower unable to eat solid food for several days.

    The lining of the esophagus and stomach are also richly lined with a complex series of blood vessels, and if a sword swallower punctures a main blood vessel in the esophagus or stomach, it can cause serious internal bleeding which can quickly become fatal. In some cases, sword swallowers have lacerated blood vessels and nearly bled to death in a matter of minutes as blood shoots out of the mouth. In other cases, the bleeding may be contained internally within the lower esophagus or stomach and may not be detected until later as a black stool sample.

    Those sword swallowers who swallow neon tubes also run the additional risk of the neon tube bursting inside of them, leaving them injured from the explosion and bleeding from the cut glass, and a very difficult time trying to remove the broken and jaded neon tube.

    Sometimes over time after years of sword swallowing, sword swallowers can develop complications such as dysphagia, a difficulty in swallowing, acid reflux, or esophageal cancer from repeatedly introducing stomach acids to the walls of the esophagus when removing the blades.

    SSAI keeps a detailed database of sword swallowing injuries based on notifications of injuries by sword swallowers and doctors around the world, and has become known as a repository for information on sword swallowing injuries. SSAI reports that there are on average from four to seven serious sword swallowing injuries requiring hospitalization each year, and dozens of other injuries that go unreported.

    Many times sword swallowers simply decide to give up swallowing swords after serious or even minor injuries.

    Read the British Medical Journal report "Sword Swallowing and its side effects", or other medical reports and more information on sword swallowing injuries and complications.

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    Q:  "How do you treat sword swallowing injuries?"

    A:   That all depends on the injury...

    "...They can't just reach in and slap a Bandaid on it!"
    --Dan Meyer

    For severe injuries such as scissored blades causing lacerations, or puncture wounds causing a lacerated esophagus or perforated stomach, the sword swallower may feel a sudden icy-hot burning sensation or have a difficulty breathing, and should be RUSHED immediately to the nearest hospital or emergency room for immediate treatment to prevent bleeding to death. In some cases, the doctor may need to open up the patient in order to repair the injury or stop fluids from filling and contaminating the thoraxic chamber around the heart, give blood transfusions, antibiotics to prevent infection, etc. In cases like this, it helps to have your SSAI membership ID card with your emergency contact information, blood type and other information handy whenever performing in case of emergency.

    For minor scrapes in the back of the throat and upper esophagus causing sore throats, many sword swallowers drink ice water to help stop the bleeding, take antibiotics and heavy doses of healing vitamins such as vitamin C, A and E, and some sword swallowers drink Aloe Vera juice from places such as Fruit of the Earth to help heal the esophagus quicker. To help relieve the pain of the "sword throat", many sword swallowers gargle with hot saltwater, or take cough drops such as Fisherman's Friend or Hall's Mentholyptus, or Chloraseptic throat lozenges. Some over-the-counter or prescription products designed to treat heartburn, acid reflux, dysphagia and other upper GI issues such as Nexium, Prevacid, Prilosec, or Zantac may help in healing the esophagus more quickly. (If you are a product manufacturer who is interested in having us test or endorse your products in exchange for advertising commercials or corporate sponsorship, please contact us).

    Some sword swallowing injuries may cause so much severe pain that it may be difficult to eat solid food or swallow for several days or weeks. Below is a list of suggestions compiled from a recent survey of sword swallowers of things that sword swallowers have taken after minor sword swallowing injuries:

    • Ice water (to help stop light bleeding)
    • Pepto Bismal or other similar products (to coat the stomach from acids)
    • Prescription antiobiotics (to fight infection and promote healing)
    • Over-the-counter or prescription GI products such as Nexium, Prevacid, Prilosec or Zantac (to promote healing of the esophagus and stomach)
    • Aloe Vera juice (to promote healing)
    • Vitamin A, C, and E (to help promote healing)
    • Coloidal silver (to help heal the esophagus and/or stomach)
    • Geritol or other iron supplements (to help replace iron)
    • If able to eat solid foods, red meat and spinach (to help replace iron)
    • If unable to eat solid foods, ice cream or milk shakes (to help soothe the throat and/or stomach)

    After an injury, many sword swallowers stay away foods or drinks containing acids that can irritate the stomach, or abstain from taking aspirin and other diuretics that thin the blood, prevent clotting, and cause the sword swallower to bleed easily.

    Here are some items that doctors have recommended to AVOID ingesting after a sword swallowing injury:

    • Aspirin
    • Ibuprofen
    • Orange juice, grape fruit, lemon, lime or other citrus juices
    • Tomato products such as tomato juice, salsa, ketchup, spaghetti sauce
    • Raw eggplant
    • Chocolate
    • Coffee or other caffeine drinks
    • Alcohol

    Suggestions from sword swallowers for healing and recuperating after the injury:

    • Ginger tea (to help with occasional acid reflux)
    • Peanut butter (to stretch the esophagus)
    • Aloe gel (to promote strength and healing)
    • Bread (seems to soothe injuries in the stomach)
    • Ice cream (to soothe the throat after continuous performances)
    • Pepto Bismal (to coat and soothe the stomach)

    If you are a sword swallower, please complete the Sword Swallower Survey and let your fellow sword swallowers and the medical community know what treatment you or your doctor recommend to improve recovery after an injury.

    Again, sword swallowing is extremely dangerous and numerous people have died attempting it! Do NOT attempt sword swallowing unless you are under the direct tutelage of a seasoned professional sword swallower!

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    Q:  "How many people have died from sword swallowing injuries?"

    A:   We know of at least 29 deaths over the past 150 years from sword swallowing injuries based on medical reports, death certificates, obituaries and other information. There are undoubtedly more that have gone unrecorded over the past 4000 years.

    Just a few of the more unusual sword swallowing deaths from sword swallowing injuries:

  • Signor Wandana - died on May 9, 1875 after cutting himself internally
  • Harry Parsons - died December 20, 1880 after fatally injured himself while performing in Cleveland, Ohio,
  • Patrick Mulraney - died June 29, 1891 after attempting to swallow a violin bow
  • Albert J. Pierce - died May 30, 1909 when the sword went too deep and cut the lining of his stomach
  • Maude D'Lean - died in 1920 when the sword snagged inside her from a nick on the blade while performing for the King of England
  • Bob Roberts - died June 5, 1936 when his trick of swallowing a shotgun barrel backfired
  • Prince Neon - died July 14, 1936, a week after his injury when his neon tube exploded inside him
  • Delno Fritz - died from pneumonia which developed as a result of a screw that came loose and lodged in his lung while testing a bronchialscope for doctors in Pennsylvania in the late 1930s
  • Alexander Dourof - died January 12, 1949 in London when his sword pierced his heart
  • Rosemary Puente - died February 27, 1968 died at the age of 25 from a quarter-inch puncture that got infected and killed her within two days
  • Francis Doran - died in 1979 from complications of his neon sword bursting inside him

    View the entire list of deaths on the Sword Swallower's Hall of Fame.

    "...He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword"
    --Matthew 24:52

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    Q:   "I heard a sword swallower died after swallowing an umbrella that opened inside him.   Is this really true?"

    A:   There is a myth that has been circulating around the Internet about a sword swallower who supposedly swallowed a closed umbrella that accidentally opened inside him, killing him.

    Status: False. Urban Legend.

    Examples: [Collected from the Internet, 2007-2011]

    Several variations of this urban legend have been floating around the Internet for years, including stories of sword swallowers who die from swallowing umbrellas in Canada, Germany, and New Jersey. Here are a few variations, all unsubstantiated:

    [1999] "In 1999, a German sword swallower died after he put an umbrella down his throat - and accidentally pushed the button that opened it." (ChaCha)

    [18 April 1999, Bonn, Germany] "A sword swallower died in Bonn after he put an umbrella down his throat - and accidentally pushed the button that opened it." (Darwin Awards)

    [Bonn, Germany] "A sword swallower's trick backfired on him when he stuck an umbrella down his throat - and accidentally pushed the button that opened it." (Weekly World News, July 8, 1997 and March 21, 2000)

    [Canada] "A Canadian sword swallower's death occurred as a result of attempting the trick with an umbrella." (alt.baldspot)

    [January 13, 2007, Barnegat, NJ] "A sword swallower tries to win the crowd by swallowing an umbrella." (Spike TV, "1000 Ways to Die")

    In the March 21, 2000 "Weekly World News", it was reported that "a sword swallower's trick backfired on him when he stuck an umbrella down his throat - and accidentally pushed the button that opened it." This was an exact word-for-word reprint of their earlier report that was published in the July 8, 1997 issue of "Weekly World News".

    This urban legend was later embellished and perpetuated in the Spike TV show 1000 Ways to Die, which premiered on February 8, 2009, and which shows fictional clips of unusual deaths. In this episode entitled "Dumbrella", a fictional sword-swallower named "Boris" was challenged to swallow an umbrella, puncturing his esophagus and killing him. The incident is said to have taken place at a "Woods Carnival" in Barnegot NJ in 2007, although there are no records of this actually happening, or of a sword swallower named "Boris" or a carnival named "Woods Carnival". The real sword swallower in this episode is George the Giant MacArthur who played the part of "Boris" the fictional sword swallower.


    • There is no known evidence (names, dates, photos) of any sword swallowers who have ever been able to swallow an actual umbrella. This is mostly due to the fact that the diameter of an umbrella shaft and hub attachment that attaches to the spokes are much larger than the opening to the human epiglottis, making it virtually impossible to actually swallow an umbrella, much less open it.

    • The length of the average human esophagus is approximately 23-25 centimeters inches in length. Even if a sword swallower were able to manage to swallow the hub of an umbrella, it would be virtually impossible to get all of the umbrella spokes and material into the esophagus deep enough to get past the epiglottis unless the umbrella was extremely small with spokes less than 25 centimeters (9 inches) in length.

    • Even if it were possible to swallow an umbrella shaft, hub, and spokes past the epiglottis, even if the umbrella were opened, there would not be enough force to open the umbrella spokes against the pressure of the esophageal muscles which would be pressing tightly against the umbrella, holding it closed.

    • There are a limited number of sword swallowers around the world, and we are all very aware of each other. However, there are no known sword swallowers in Canada, or Bonn or Berlin Germany who match this description in our database of known sword swallowers.

    • There are no known sword swallowers named "Boris". There are also no known carnivals with sword swallowers that have performed in Barnegat Township, NJ under the name "Woods Carnival".

    • There are no known deaths or obituaries of any sword swallowers who have ever died from swallowing an umbrella, nor have any sword swallowers died from sword swallowing injuries over the past 20+ years.

    • There have not even been any reported injuries from sword swallowers in any of these areas during the past 20+ years.

    Status: False. Urban Legend.

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    Q:  "Aren't there other jobs you can do that are less dangerous?"

    A:   Doh! Of course there are!

    That's precisely why most of us do it... because sword swallowing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world!

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    Q:  "What do you use to sterilize your swords?"

    A:   Many sword swallowers make it a point to clean their blades with high percentage alcohol or Listerine before and after each performance. Others use only saliva and learn to develop a tolerance and immunity to germs.

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    Q:  "Do you use any lubricant on your swords?"

    A:   Many of us sword swallowers prefer our swords "au natural". We don't use anything on our swords or on our throats. Unless our throats are extremely dry, the saliva in the throat is usually lubricant enough to help the sword slide down.

    Most sword swallowers, however, prefer to lick their swords with a little saliva to libricate them so they are not quite so dry before they swallow them.

    Other sword swallowers use cooking oil, olive oil, or Japanese Kurobara Camellia oil to help the sword slide down. Some of us also use oils on our blades after the performance to help keep our blades lubricated and to protect them from pitting and rusting.

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    Q:  "Do you use anything to dull the gag reflex in your throat?"

    "I have heard that some sword-swallowers use things like Chloraseptic to numb the throat, thus suppressing the gag reflex. Do you use Chloraseptic or other products to numb or coat the throat to dull or suppress the gag reflex?"
    A:   No, absolutely not! We definitely don't use anything to numb our throats; Numbing the throat would be VERY dangerous, as we would not be able to feel where the blade goes or what we might be hitting or puncturing. It is very important for us to be able to feel the sword to assure the correct placement of the blade all the way down.

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    Q:  "Can you breathe while swallowing a sword, or do you have to hold your breath?"

    "I imagine the answer to this question is 'no', but can one breathe while swallowing a sword?"

    Yes and no. In the beginning many sword swallowers do hold their breath while learning to repress the gag reflex until they learn to relax and become more proficient at sword swallowing. However, after relaxing, many sword swallowers are able to relax and breathe while swallowing a sword.

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    Q:  "Do sword swallowers have their tonsils removed? Is there any correlation between having ones' tonsils removed and sword swallowing?"

    "Is it true that there is some sort of a valve thing at the back of your throat you have to "break" before you ever attempt to swallow a sword?"
    A:   No. Even though some sword swallowers may have had their tonsils removed for medical or other reasons other than for sword swallowing, no, there is no specific reason to have one's tonsils removed in order to swallow a sword, and most sword swallowers have not intentionally had their tonsils or any other "valve thing" removed specifically for sword swallowing, as it really does not seem to affect sword swallowing one way or another.

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    Q:  "Does sword swallowing hurt or enlarge your Adam's apple?"

    "I noticed in pictures of you swallowing swords that you have a large Adam's apple (I noticed this because I've always wanted to touch a sword swallower's Adam's apple out of curiosity), and I was wondering if you have ever injured it or caused your throat to get sore?"

    A:   The "Adam's apple", known in the medical profession as the prominentia laryngea, is actually a central ridge of thyroid cartilage in the front of the throat below the hyoid bone where two plates of cartilage meet to surround and protect the larynx or voice box. When swallowing a sword, the sword goes behind the epiglottis, past the hyoid bone, down the esophagus, and behind the larynx and Adam's apple, so the sword does not actually touch the Adam's apple itself. But with the head tilted back, the pressure of the sword blade in the esophagus causes some slight displacement in the throat, which can in turn displace the Adam's apple, causing the Adam's apple to be temporarily distended and appear to protrude slightly more while the sword is down the throat.

    Additionally, when sword swallowers swallow wavy Kriss or flamberge blades, you can see the Adam's apple wobble back and forth as the sword is inserted and withdrawn (which sword swallower Alex Linton used to call the "Shimmy-Shawabble"). But in general, no, sword swallowing does not harm or enlarge one's Adam's apple.

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    Q:  "Do you bite the blade with your teeth and actually swallow it?"

    "I've heard of a sword swallower advising biting down on the blade. Do you really bite down on the blade with your teeth? Does your throat actually go through the motions of 'swallowing' the blade?"

    A:   Some sword swallowers make it a point to bite down on the blade, mostly as a security measure and safeguard to prevent against actually swallowing the blade if the handle were to come loose. Other sword swallowers sometimes bite down slightly upon removal of the blade for showmanship in order to create a metallic "schwing" sound while removing the blade for theatrical effect. However, in general, it is not necessary to bite down on or "chew" the blade, as in some cases, it could chip the teeth.

    As for actual 'swallowing' the blade, the act of swallowing is a complex process called peristalysis that involves using some 50 pairs of muscles in the throat. Most sword swallowers do not actually 'swallow' the sword, but instead relax the throat enough to allow the blade to slide down the esophagus, although some sword swallowers do intentionally cause the blade to move down their throats by using their throat muscles in the peristalysis act of swallowing.

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    Q:  "Do you have to dislocate your collarbones to swallow a sword?"

    "I am an SLP studying dysphagia. From one of the accounts I read about a sword swallower, he claims to 'dislocate' his collarbones and other joints to swallow the sword. I was wondering if you do the same thing? Are you double jointed? If so, do you suffer pain in your other joints?"

    A:   No, it is not necessary to dislocate your collarbones or any other bones in order to swallow a sword. There is one sword swallower in Australia known as Chayne the Space Cowboy who claims to have a condition that allows him to dislocate his joints, but in general, it is not necessary to do so in order to swallow a sword, and as far as is known, no other sword swallowers do it.

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    Q:  "How deep can you insert the sword?   How do you know when you're as far as you can go?"

    A:   This usually depends on how tall the sword swallower is and how long their esophagus is. The length of the average human esophagus ranges from about 23-25 cm, and from 36 to 44 cm to the bottom of the stomach, averaging around 40 cm in length. Most sword swallowers can swallow swords from about 16" to 22" (about 40 to 60 cm) in length, but the average length of swords swallowed ranges from 19 to 22 inches, often with a few inches of blade extending out of the mouth. We can usually tell the blade is in as far as possible because the sword won't go any further once it hits the bottom of the stomach. At that point, when the blade stops, we know we are at the bottom of the stomach, and it feels uncomfortable to push the blade any further (which is NOT recommended!).

    Sometimes after eating a full meal, the stomach can be somewhat stretched, so with a full stomach, the blade can sometimes sit a little deeper. An old sword swallower's trick is to drink several glasses of water before performing in order to make the stomach heavier and sink lower, thereby allowing the sword swallower to swallow slightly longer blades.

    The unofficial world's record for longest blade length was set by George the Giant MacArthur at 33 inches long (over 83 cm), but George is said to be about 7' 2" tall!

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    Q:  "How long can you keep a sword down your throat?"

    A:   Most of us can only keep a sword down a matter of few seconds - We are constantly repressing the gag reflex which feels like it makes you want to gag at any second - it feels a little like trying to hold back a sneeze.

    Another factor is that when you have an object in your mouth and pressing on your tongue such as a blade, your mouth naturally begins to salivate. With your head turned upwards and your epiglottis held open by the blade, there is the feeling that the saliva is going to run down your throat and into your lungs, creating the urge to swallow or cough.

    Some veteran sword swallowers are able to repress the gag reflex a little longer, while others only keep a blade in for a few seconds, long enough to spin around or bow to the audience, before we are ready to withdraw the blade before gagging or choking on our saliva.

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    Q:  "If you can overcome the gag reflex to swallow a sword, can you overcome the cough reflex and put something into your lungs?"

    A:   No, not that we are aware of. Putting things into your lungs is a good way to accelerate your death - it is probably possible, but would result in serious problems and death!

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    Q:  "What else do sword swallowers swallow?"

    A:   Sword swallowers often swallow a variety of implements including sword blades, daggers, bayonets, and other objects besides swords to add to their acts. Here are a few of the various sword types that sword swallowers have been known to swallow:

    • dagger
    • bayonet
    • eight-sided sai
    • double-edged sword
    • rapier
    • fencing foil
    • saber
    • cutlass
    • wakasashi
    • malaysian kris sword
    • flamberge serpentine sword   (Red Stuart, Dan Meyer, Andrew Stanton)
    • broadsword   (Red Stuart, Charon Henning, Dan Meyer)
    • curved Persian shamshir sword   (Brad Byers, Dai Andrews, Dan Meyer)
    Other implements sword swallowers have swallowed:
    • coat hanger   (several)
    • arrow   (Phil DePalo)
    • drumstick   (Alex Zander)
    • oil dipstick   (Dai Andrews, Dan Meyer, Jim Ball, others)
    • long chopsticks   (David Straitjacket)
    • long thermometer   (Jewels)
    • long screwdriver   (Johnny Fox, Dan Meyer, Thomas Blackthorne, others)
    • long handled spoon   (Johnny Fox, Sebastien K.)
    • pocket watch on a chain   (Cliquot)
    • surgical forceps   (Dan Meyer)
    • long scissors (Johnny Fox, Natasha Veruschka, Dan Meyer, others)
    • straight razor   (Edith Clifford, Dan Meyer)
    • saw blade   (Edith Clifford, Mimi Garneau, Dan Meyer)
    • hedge clippers   (Dan Meyer)
    • neon tube  (Johnny Meah, Natasha Veruschka, others)
    • pool cue   (Shamus, Tommy Breen)
    • gyroscope handle with spinning gyroscope   (Keith Nelson)
    • flaming sword with blade on fire   (Dan Meyer)
    • chair leg   (Amy Saunders, Thomas Blackthorne)
    • Swedish "Sparkstötting" sled runner (Niklas Folkegård)
    • sword shot down throat by pistol (Karmi, Edith Clifford, John Trower)
    • gun barrel   (Karmi, Johnny Fox, Keith Nelson)
    • carriage axle   (Prince Nelson)
    • car axle   (Red Stuart)
    • running jackhammer   (Thomas Blackthorne)

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    Q:  "Can you teach me how to swallow swords so I can impress my friends?"

    A:   The answer you'll hear from most sword swallowers: Nope, afraid not... Sword swallowing is extremely dangerous, we don't know you, and liability is such a huge issue in our litigious society these days.

    Please understand that this is one of the most common (and annoying) questions we get asked all the time. Asking this question of a professional sword swallower is like asking David Copperfield to show you how to saw your girlfriend in half so you can "impress your friends." However, unlike the fact that just about anyone can learn the classic "sawing a woman in two" routine from many sources, unfortunately, not everyone can learn to swallow swords, even with the proper training and years of practice. Besides, even though it is not a "trick", we don't like to go around teaching the trademark of our livelihood for others to become our competition, nor do we advocate or condone its practice or attempts by the untrained.

    Sword swallowing is not only difficult to watch and almost too incredible to believe, but it is also one of the most dangerous of all the performance arts. To be done properly and with the least amount of risk of injury requires long hours of study, training, practice, and patience. It is NOT something that just anyone can do in an afternoon after only a few brief words of instruction.

    Sword swallowing is also one of the most unpleasant things a person could ever feel. The human body was designed to rebel against foreign objects being introduced into the throat, and the muscles of the esophagus completely reject anything by triggering the gag reflex in the throat, the wretch reflex in the stomach, and by creating the feeling of being sick to your stomach. Sooner or later most people give up; very few learn to actually tolerate it, and succeed at learning it. But it never really feels comfortable or pleasant.

    Many people have attempted sword swallowing and have gotten themselves severely injured or even killed. Others have spent years attempting to learn it, and have never been able to successfully master it either mentally or physically. Only a few serious students have managed to successfully learn it by studying seriously under the tutelage of seasoned sword swallowers, and the process can take up to three years to seven years or longer to master. Even many seasoned professionals have simply decided to quit sword swallowing and refuse to perform it any longer. A few seconds of glory are not worth the risk of death.

    Even if you manage to survive and not kill yourself, there is still the very serious risk of damage to your throat, vocal cords, esophagus, and stomach, and if it should happen, a perforated esophagus or stomach is extremely hard to repair and is quite often fatal. A small puncture, perforation, or even the slightest nick can lead to the bacterial infection peritonitis that can quickly turn deadly. Most intelligent people realize it's just not worth the risk.

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    Q:  "Are there any books, manuals, videos, or classes where I can learn sword swallowing?"

    Nope, not really. You're looking at the most authoritative and comprehensive compilation of information on the subject right here on this website. If you are still interested in finding out more, the main book out that deals with sword swallowing is "Memoirs of a Swordswallower" (originally entitled "Step Right Up") by Daniel P. Mannix, where he describes his few months' adventures with a sideshow in 1949, but which does not go into detail on how to actually swallow a sword. (There has been a bit of discussion among sword swallowers and sideshow folks questioning whether Mannix actually did have any experience traveling with a sideshow or learning to swallow a sword, or if the story is pure fiction.)

    If you are still obsessed with actually learning to try to swallow a sword, there are sometimes sideshow classes taught for a fee at Coney Island Sideshow by the Seashore in Brooklyn, New York.

    Disclaimer: We accept no responsibility or liability for your actions. In other words, "DON'T EVEN TRY IT!" No, we're not trying to be mean, we just don't want you to get hurt!

    If you are still really interested in performing, we highly recommend that you take up some other hobby such as juggling or magic.

    "If at first you don't succeed,
    don't take up sword swallowing..."

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    Q:  "What and when is World Sword Swallower's Day?"

    A:   World Sword Swallower's Day is SSAI's annual media event founded by SSAI president Dan Meyer in 2007 and held the last Saturday in February to raise awareness about sword swallowing for a variety of reasons:

    • To correct myths that sword swallowing is just a trick
    • To raise awareness that sword swallowing is a viable entertainment option today
    • To give people the opportunity to see sword swallowing firsthand
    • To honor veteran sword swallowers for their contributions to the field of sword swallowing
    • To raise awareness of the contributions sword swallowers have made in the fields of science and medicine
    • To perform demonstrations for doctors, nurses, hospitals, medical and health clinics, by doing x-rays, fluoroscopes and endoscopes
    • To raise donations for the Injured Sword Swallower's Relief Fund and esophageal cancer research
    • And because February is National Swallowing Disorders Month in the US

    World Sword Swallower's Day 2014 will be held on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 2:22:14pm at Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditoriums around the world. Details and more information...

    Q:  "Why does SSAI hold World Sword Swallower's Day in conjunction with Ripley's Believe It or Not?"

    A:   Because it’s great entertainment! Sword swallowers and Ripley's go way back to the very first Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 where three sword swallowers, two of whom were ladies, mesmerized the huge crowds. Ripley’s has been home to sword swallowers around the world ever since, so it's only fitting that we partner together on this special day.

    More info...

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    Q:  "What are the requirements for being part of SSAI and taking part in the the SSAI "Big Swallow" on World Sword Swallower's Day?"

    A:   In order to qualify to be eligible to take place in the SSAI Big Swallow, you must be a verified SSAI sword swallower and registered member of SSAI, and must comply with SSAI sword swallowing regulations. SSAI regulations require that SSAI member sword swallowers must be at least 18 years of age and comply with the following minimum requirements:

    • Each sword must be non-retractable with a non-collapsible solid steel blade
    • Each blade must be at least 16 inches (40 cm) in length*
    • Each blade must be at least 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch (2 cm) wide in width**
    • Each blade must be available for inspection by officials and witnesses

    * In order to qualify to become an approved member of SSAI, an sword swallower must be able to swallow a sword with blade at least 16 inches (40 cm) in length. Due to the dangers involved in sword swallowing, SSAI does NOT encourage sword swallowers to attempt to swallow blades longer than 24 inches (61 cm) in length.

    **Accepted minimum blade width -- from 1/2 to 3/4 inch in width.

    Due to the extreme danger and increased risk of injury from swallowing multiple swords (sometimes known as a "sword sandwich") and the amount of time that other sword swallowers would be required to retain their swords, SSAI does NOT encourage sword swallowers to swallow multiple swords individually one at a time due to the increased risks of scissoring and perforation of the esophagus.

    If you are a sword swallower who is interested in swallowing swords with us at a Ripley's Odditorium for World Sword Swallower's Day, please contact us.

    If you are media interested in covering World Sword Swallower's Day, please contact us.

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    Q:  "So what do I need to do to join SSAI?"

    A:   Sword Swallowing is an extremely dangerous performance art. Due to the dangers and liability involved in sword swallowing, the Sword Swallowers Association International is a private organization open to serious sword swallowers only.

    If you are a serious sword swallower and you would like to become a contributing member of SSAI, please send an e-mail with a description of your history of sword swallowing and a photo or link to a website which shows or describes you actually swallowing a sword of at least 16 inches (40 cm) in length, or provide a referral from a recognized sword swallower who is already a member of SSAI who can verify that you are a legitimate sword swallower before we can approve your membership. At such time as your claim can be thoroughly verified that you are indeed a legitimate sword swallower, you can then submit your application and payment for membership into SSAI.

    We hope you understand the reasoning behind our stringent requirements, and look forward to hearing from you.

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    If you have other questions, please send them in and we'll try to post an answer for you.

    This FAQ is a collaborative work in progress compiled from a poll of sword swallowers and based on questions asked by a variety of audience members, reporters, interviewers, doctors, nurses, viewers to our site, and other resources from around the world. Special thanks to Red Stuart, Dai Andrews, Natasha Veruschka, George McArthur, Travis Fessler, Chris Steele, Thom Sellectomy, Geoffrey Cobb, Jewels, Miss Behave, and all the other sword swallowers, doctors, nurses, reporters, interviewers, audience members and others who have contributed questions, answers and input for this FAQ.

    If you would like to quote any portion of this FAQ for use in an article/website, please contact us.