City Paper is not for tourists
To kick off the first international Sword Swallower’s Awareness Day, 32-year-old Tyler Fyre tips off his blood-red bowler hat, plunges a 27-and-a-half-inch steel blade down his throat, rests it at the bottom of his stomach, wrenches it out, and delivers a punch line:
“Well, that’s all there is to sword swallowing, folks! Looks like we’ve wrapped up remarkably early here!”
Though navigating a sword into his mouth, past his gag reflex, along his esophagus, and into his dinner is no ordinary feat, on stage, sword swallowing can appear startlingly simple. “Sword swallowers have been around for 4,000 years,” says Fyre, whose real name is Tyler Fleet. “And for 4,000 years, they’ve been saying, ‘Well, what can I do to make sword swallowing interesting?’”
Carnival performers have, over the millennia, invented countless variations on swallowing a sword: swallowing a bigger sword, swallowing two swords, swallowing 25 swords, swallowing a flaming sword, swallowing a sword while submerged in a tank of sharks, swallowing a sword while making oral sex jokes. One variation, though, tops all the others: swallowing a sword and hurting yourself.
“People watch sideshow acts for the same reason they watch NASCAR,” says Fyre. “On some level, they’re hoping for an accident.”
Sword swallowing, even when performed correctly, isn’t comfortable: Fyre reports having vomited every day for three months while learning the act. Dan Meyer, president of Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) and the guy who established Sword Swallower’s Awareness Day, cites a near-constant sore throat (“sword-throat,” he calls it). But when something goes wrong—when a slipped blade punctures the thin lining of the throat and stomach—those symptoms are trumped by intestinal bleeding, dangerous blood loss, and life-threatening infection.
For most sword swallowers, something will inevitably go wrong. “Sword swallowing is the most dangerous act performed today, bar none,” says James Taylor, museum director of H Street bar-cum-sideshow-stage Palace of Wonders. The danger of the act suggests both its rarity and its appeal. SSAI estimates there are only a few dozen practicing sword swallowers in the world today; those who will swallow swords do so because nobody else will. “In the sideshow business, the more things you can do, the more money you can make,” says Thrill Kill Jill, aka Jill Fleet, Fyre’s wife and performance partner. “So you pick up a broom and sweep the floor, and you learn how to swallow swords.”
For some, the tale of injury becomes an integral part of the act. Says Taylor, “I think that 99 percent of people who are fascinated with it are really in it for the jackpot, which is the story. Sword swallowers have got stories that will leave you crying, falling down laughing, ready to run down to the bathroom to hurl. It’s a business made for storytelling.”
Onstage at the Palace of Wonders, Fyre tells his story. “In 10,000 individual live shows, I’ve only had one bad accident,” he says. It happened on a slow winter Sunday on the Coney Island Boardwalk. In front of an audience of eight, Fyre swallowed a brand-new glass sword with a bright-red neon center. “Suddenly, I heard an earth-shattering crash,” Fyre says. “One that you don’t hear, but that you feel, deep in your bones.” The sword’s neon light went dark.
“I knew something was terribly wrong,” he says, “So I did the only thing I knew to do: I pulled it out.” When Fyre retrieved the sword by the monofilament that strung it together, the sword’s glass fragments dragged back up him, cutting into his stomach, both sides of his throat, and the back of his mouth. “Ladies and gentleman, you’ve just experienced a miracle!” Fyre exclaimed; the crowd neither noticed nor cared. Lacking health insurance, he headed to the bar. For the next three weeks, he self-medicated with ice water, aloe vera juice, and whiskey. Fyre began swallowing swords again only a month later, in front of a similarly indifferent crowd.
“You’d like the first time back [after an injury] to be special,” says Jill, “But usually, you’re performing in front of an audience that doesn’t even know what it just got sucked into. They see a fast-talker, somebody with a face tattoo, and a pretty girl, they wander in confused, and at the end, they have no idea what they’ve witnessed.”
Post-injury, sword swallowers say they also deal with a medical community naive to their particular injuries and even the indifference of fellow sword swallowers, who tend to keep their funds and trade secrets close to the vest. Most performers jump right back into the act in order to recoup lost income and pay medical expenses. “It can be a very thankless job,” says Taylor. “But the show must go on.”
The stories, if nothing else, are shared among sword swallowers. At the Palace of Wonders, Fyre tells the story of Centreville, Va., sword-swallower Charon Henning, known as “The Most Dangerous Beauty Alive.” It begins in a Baltimore radio station and ends with $34,000 in hospital bills. While swallowing swords on-air alongside Taylor, Henning—who can stomach up to a 23-and-a-half-inch blade—let a heavy broadsword slip. The sword punctured her pharynx, introducing a dangerous swell of air and saliva into the chest cavity. “When you walk into a hospital saying you’ve just had a sword-swallowing injury, you might as well have said, ‘I’ve just been impregnated by an alien,’” says Fyre.
“She was rolling around, moaning, saying that it felt like an elephant had stepped on her chest,” says Taylor. “But nobody would take her in and do anything about it.” Only after an attendant recognized Henning from a television spot did she get into surgery, Henning says.
Now, two monuments to Henning’s injury remain: The sword hangs upstairs in Taylor’s Palace—“There’s still some shit on the end of it,” says Fyre—and there’s a chalice tattooed to the base of her throat where the liquid from her chest was drained. Henning began swallowing swords again within three months. “I have too much respect for the art to just throw it away,” she says.
Audiences now marvel at Henning’s tale of recovery; the actual healing process drew less interest. “Nobody cared, frankly,” says Henning, who tried navigating her recovery and medical debt alone, and then turned to an online message board for advice. Her biggest problem: She needed to learn how to eat again. Sword-swallower Alex Kensington was the only one to reply. The pair began conversing over e-mail and in 2003, Kensington moved to Centreville to be with Henning. They’ve performed together ever since. “Both myself and Charon have had injuries that almost killed us in horrible, painful, and expensive ways,” says Kensington. “We survived these injuries and kept on performing. To almost die and keep on going—who but another sword swallower can understand that?”
Kensington’s own death-defying story is set in front of a particularly unsavory group of spectators: a crowd of frat boys. While performing with now-defunct troupe the Blue Monkey Sideshow in 2000, “my posture was not in appropriate alignment when I was trying to swallow a curved saber, and I poked about a 3-centimeter hole on the right side of my esophagus above the collar bone,” says Kensington.
When Kensington arrived at the hospital, the staff refused to treat him. “I was vomiting blood, and I had to drive myself to another hospital. My lung was collapsing, I was losing consciousness, losing blood, and I had to drive to another county,” he says. “I almost croaked myself for a college frat party. It was very demoralizing.” Kensington now avoids the curved swords, but “five months later, I was out doing shows again, performing self-inflicted injury for other people’s amusement.” When he was offered his first post-injury gig, “I said, ‘I guess I better do it, because I have big hospital bills, and you guys have good money.’ I swallowed swords to pay bills that I had from swallowing swords.”
Following the accident, Kensington lost touch with the troupe. “They could not deal with the fact that he got injured, and they abandoned him,” says Taylor. “They were all just terrified. They looked into the face of death and couldn’t deal with it.”
But somehow, sword swallowers keep swallowing. At Sword Swallower’s Awareness Day on H Street, Fyre and Jill together swallow about a dozen blades—some flaming, some two-at-a-time—for an audience of about 20, whose members react mainly with hand-over-mouth disgust. “How does she do it? Why does she do it?” exclaims Fyre as Jill stuffs a 22-and-three-quarter blade down her throat.
Kensington suggests one possibility. “There are a lot of other things I could be doing besides going through a self-torture act for other people’s petty amusement,” he says. “But nothing else is sexy enough. Hey, it beats working with puppets.”
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