Although not as common as they were a century ago, professional sword swallowers are still around today.

The "art" of swallowing swords first appeared in recorded history in India 4,000 years ago as a holy skill mastered by fakirs and priests. The art soon passed to Greek and Roman cultures and then spread to Eastern Asia, eventually arriving in Europe during the 1200s. No longer a religious rite, by then sword swallowing became strictly an entertainment event.

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Beginning in the 19th century, the burgeoning medical science community also began using the art in experimentation. In 1868, Dr. Adolph Kussmaul tested out his new down-the-throat endoscope by using sword swallowers as test subjects. Today, practitioners of the art are being used to assist in research ranging from swallowing problems to trauma of the esophagus and other parts of the throat.

A vintage photograph of a child sword swallowerThe risks of sword swallowing are significant. Common injuries range from problems as minor as sore throats to punctures of the lungs, heart or stomach. Amazingly, however, fatalities are remarkably rare. A 2006 article in the British Medical Journal cited only 29 deaths since 1880 due to accidents during rehearsals or actual performances.

The number of sword swallowers in the U.S. exploded in the first half of the 20th century due to the massive increase in the number of circuses, traveling carnivals and vaudeville stages. Beginning in the late 1950s, however, the number of those circuses and carnivals dropped sharply and vaudeville virtually disappeared. Sword swallowers appeared on variety shows when the new medium of television arrived, but the art soon passed into near extinction.

Back in the limelight

There's now a renewed effort to popularize sword swallowing and to encourage more young people to take up the practice. The Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) was founded in 2001, but the group estimates that "there are less than a few dozen professional sword swallowers actively performing around the world today."

Those few professionals not only perform but also compete with each other for world records. As of September 2015, these are the current world records:

  • Longest sword swallowed: 33 inches
  • Most swallowed at one time (men): 52
  • Most swallowed at one time (women): 24
  • Most swallowed and then twisted around inside the throat: 24
  • Most swallowed by a single performer in one calendar year: 3,782
  • Heaviest object swallowed: 183-pound jackhammer
  • Hottest sword swallowed: 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit

And even:

  • Most swords swallowed while suspended upside down from a helicopter hovering over Niagara Falls: 1

The tricks of the trade

How exactly is it done? How long does it take to learn the art? It's not like a stage magician's secret. The technique has never been hidden from the curious public. Sword swallower Dan Meyer outlined the process for a February 2015 issue of Time magazine. He said at first he consciously suppresses his throat's gag reflex and then, head tipped back, begins lowering the sword behind his Adam's apple and voice box and into the stomach, purposely relaxing sphincters and the assorted automatic muscles along the way that are chiefly designed to stop a person from choking. It can take up to six years to successfully learn how to do this.

A woman sword swallowerMany apprentice sword swallowers start with bent coat hangers and gradually work their way up to wider and longer objects. But do not try this at home! Seriously. Don't.

Sword swallowers may be almost extinct, but the SSAI is not discouraged. The mission statement on the group's website is hopeful, stating that the "SSAI is a private organization dedicated to networking the last few existing sword swallowers around the world, promoting dialogue between sword swallowers, encouraging safe sword swallowing practices and techniques, and preserving and promoting the art of sword swallowing worldwide."

Inset photos: chippix/Shutterstock; Real Deal Photo/Shutterstock

The science of sword swallowing
The history, lore and general 'don't-try-this-at-home' dangers of sword swallowing.