Magicians, particularly escape artists, will often look towards the audience and solemnly intone “Don’t try this at home.” You might think it’s just to add a bit of drama to their act – and sure, it is – but it’s also a warning meant to be taken very seriously. Magic can be very dangerous and magicians spend years, sometimes decades, perfecting the skills necessary to do such exciting escapes and illusions. And even then, sometimes things go wrong. So we say, with absolute sincerity, don’t try this at home.
If you’ve seen The Prestige, what happened to Chung Ling Soo in 1918 will sound awfully familiar. Two assistants would load muskets in full view of the audience and fire directly at the world-famous Soo, who would magically catch the bullets in his teeth. The trick was done through sleight of hand and modified guns, so that a fake bullet was what actually got fired. Even done properly, the bullet catch is notoriously dangerous, because willingly having projectiles shot at you is not great for your health. It’s unclear whether the trick failed due to an unfortunate accident or because the bullets were switched on purpose, but on March 23, Soo (really William Ellsworth Robinson) caught one in the chest and died a few hours later.
We’re not going to offer an opinion on whether or not David Blaine really fired a bullet at himself (we’re guessing not, because he’s not a complete idiot), but regardless, something sure went wrong with this stunt. The setup is slightly different from a traditional bullet catch; David has a cup in his mouth to catch the bullet, and uses a laser and mirror to aim the gun, which he fires himself by pulling a string. In the process of doing the trick, the cup shattered and lacerated the back of his throat. Blaine had complete control of every element of the trick, and he still got hurt. Not as bad an outcome as Chung Ling Soo, certainly, but still a sobering reminder.
Magicians add the threat of injury or death to their escapes to raise the stakes for the audience – if they don’t slip their bonds in time they’ll be squashed or burned or something else terrible. But an accident with Jeff Rayburn Hopper in 1984 illustrates that even when the chains are off, things can go tragically wrong. Hopper was rehearsing an underwater escape where he would jump into a lake while handcuffed and chained. He managed to set himself free, but called his assistant for help when he surfaced. He managed to cry out several more times before finally going under. High winds prevented boats from reaching him in time, despite the fact that he was only 100 yards off shore, in about six feet of water.
More than one performer has met their end while imitating an escape made famous by the great Harry Houdini, who nearly died himself after performing a buried alive escape in 1915. In 1990, Joseph Burrus, who was quoted as saying he considered himself “the next Houdini”, was handcuffed, chained, and locked inside a transparent coffin, which was then lowered into the ground. The coffin was first covered with three feet of earth, then cement, the combined weight of which – an estimated nine tons – crushed the coffin, killing Burrus.
Another Houdini escape gone awry. In this classic, the performer wedges their way into a milk can filled with water, which is then chained and padlocked shut. The magician Genesta had successfully done the escape for ten years, but in 1930, something went wrong. His assistant realized the act was not going according to plan, but the time it took to remove the locks was sadly too much. Genesta emerged from the can unconscious, and died a few hours later.