Magicians, illusionists, mentalists, escapes artists—they all have their element of danger, which is what makes them exciting to watch. That danger can also be fatal, for amateurs and professionals alike. Here are 10 people who were killed performing such feats.
10 Charles Rowen
Charles Rowen, otherwise known as “Karr the Magician” or “Karr the Mysterious,” was a South African escape artist and magician. His main tricks were escaping from straight jackets and jumping into piles of broken glass.
In 1930, Karr was performing in Springfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa. He was attempting a very dangerous stunt in which he was tied up in a straight jacket while a man drove straight at him in a car. The car approached from (180 meters) (200 yards) away, accelerating to a speed of 72 kilometers per hour (45 mph). If you do the math, that would give Karr about 10–15 seconds (depending on how long it would take the driver to get up to that speed) to get out of the straight jacket and get out of the way of the car.
But he was too slow.
Karr was unable to escape in time and he was run over by the car, which almost severed his leg. This happened in front of a large group of people, including small children. Before he died, he exonerated the driver of any wrongdoing.
9 Madame DeLinksy
The Gun Trick is when a magician pretends to be shot by a gun, giving the illusion that they either stopped or caught the bullet with their body. This trick, especially the bullet-catching variation, is one of the most dangerous tricks in a magician’s repertoire. Despite the gun trick being an illusion, it still puts the magician in harm’s way. No bullets are fired during the trick because people simply can’t catch bullets, yet there are at least 15 deaths associated with this trick.
One of the more notable deaths happened when a Polish magician and his wife, Madame DeLinsky, were performing in Arnstadt Germany for Prince Shwarznberg-Sonderhausen in November 1820. Their version of the the Gun Trick was that Madame DeLinsky would face a firing squad of six men, stopping all six bullets. The DeLinksys asked the soldiers to insert a blank load into their rifle. One solider didn’t and loaded a live round. Madame DeLinsky was shot through the abdomen and died two days later.
8 Benjamin Rucker
Benjamin Rucker, who performed under the stage name Black Herman, is a bit different than the other magicians here because he died of natural causes—although nobody believed it.
Black Herman was the preeminent African American magician of the time. Because of the Jim Crow laws, he played to mostly black audiences in the South, but was popular elsewhere. One of his signature illusions, which he used to promote his upcoming shows, was being buried alive then exhumed three days later, after which he’d go on with the show. That is why no one believed he really died when he had a heart attack at the end of one of his shows in April 1934. Using the disbelief to their advantage, Black Herman’s promoters charged people to get into the funeral to see that Black Herman was, in fact, dead.
Notably, magician and comedian Tommy Cooper suffered the same fate after having a heart attack on stage, leading people to believe it was part of the act. Nobody charged admission to his funeral, though.
7 Dr. Vivian Hensley
Nothing puts a black stain on the world of magic like an amateur getting in over his head while trying to perform a dangerous trick. Forty-three-year-old Vivian Hensley was a dentist in Brisbane, Australia. As a dentist he probably should have known the dangers of sticking non-food items into his mouth, but nevertheless, he died a very painful death from something he swallowed.
Dr. Hensley was performing his own trick called “swallowing the rusty razor blade” for his young son. He did the trick by pretending to slip the razor blade into his mouth while really putting it down the sleeve of his coat. On July 6, 1938, while performing the trick he slipped up and accidentally dropped the razor down his throat. His wife made him eat cotton balls as she drove him to the hospital. Despite a battery of X-rays and two bouts of surgery, the doctors were unable to locate the razor, and he died four days later.
6 Janaka Basnayake
Humans need water, food, and, most importantly, air in order to live, which brings us to the sad tale of 24-year-old Janaka Basnayake from Sri Lanaka. Basnayake was trying to beat the world record for longest time buried alive.
When most magicians do this, there is an escape illusion they perform so they don’t actually spend the time buried. The exception is David Blaine, who spent 6 days being buried alive, but he was a professional with a team of experts. Basnayake wasn’t a professional. Instead, on March 5, 2012, he got his family to bury him in a pit three meters (10 ft) deep, and then cover it with soil and wood. He was buried for seven and half hours before being dug up. They found him not breathing and took him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The sad thing is, The Guinness Book Of World Records doesn’t even recognize this record because it’s too dangerous and they don’t want people even attempting it.
5 Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison De La Genesta
Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison de la Genesta, or just Genesta for short, was an American magician whose signature trick was the milk can, or water barrel, escape trick. This trick has the escapist locked in a large milk can or water barrel filled with water. The trick is to get out before he or she drowns.
Unfortunately, in 1930 during the journey to the fateful performance, Genesta’s milk can was dented, which limited his space and prevented him from making the movements he needed to escape. He was unable to free himself and he drowned. His death had a ripple effect with contemporaries like Houdini because it made the water barrel trick seem even more dangerous, making it a more popular attraction.
4 Jeff Rayburn Hooper
On July 7, 1984, 23-year-old magician Jeff Rayburn Hooper was practicing an escape trick that he planned on performing later that afternoon for the Winona Lake Bible Conference. The trick involved escaping from shackles while being submerged in the lake. Unfortunately, Hooper would not make it to the performance.
While rehearsing the stunt, Hooper handcuffed himself and jumped into Winona Lake, outside Fort Wayne, Indiana. Then he swam out about 100 yards from the shore. Hooper was able to free himself from the shackles. He surfaced and yelled to his assistant for help, but because of the high winds he was unable to swim to shore. The wind was also a major problem when it came to helping him, as rescuers were unable to reach Hooper. He drowned in 1.6 meters (6 ft) of water.
3 Joseph W. Burrus
The lifelong dream of 32-year-old Joseph “Amazing Joe” Burrus was to be more famous than his hero, Harry Houdini. On Halloween night in 1992, the anniversary of Houdini’s death, he attempted to try the escape Houdini failed at—being buried alive. Amazing Joe had himself handcuffed, locked in a homemade coffin, then placed in a grave two meters (7 ft) deep and buried alive under seven tons of dirt and cement (about the weight of a male African elephant).
Amazingly, no one was able to convince him that it was impossible, and that he needed some sort of illusion to come out of the trick alive. During his preparation, a reporter covering the story pointed out to him that cement dries quicker on the bottom than on the top. So even if he didn’t get crushed to death, he’d still have to get through several feet of dirt before trying to break through a layer cement that was fast hardening—all without running out of air.
However, the cement was not even an issue for Burrus. The dirt and cement collapsed on him and he was crushed before leaving the coffin. WARNING: That link points to a video showing the actual death of Burrus. Watch at your own discretion.
2 William Elsworth Robinson
William Elsworth Robinson, otherwise known as Chung Ling Soo, was an American magician who adopted the persona of a Chinese magician and never broke character. He never spoke English on stage, and when speaking to journalists, he always used an interpreter. At the time of his death, he was one of the most famous magicians in the world.
The fateful accident happened at Wood Green Empire in London on March 23, 1918. Chung Ling Soo was performing his version of the bullet catch. Sadly, he did not have the gun cleaned out properly after the last time he had performed the trick. This caused a buildup of gun powder in the ramrod tube, which gave it enough force to launch the bullet into Chung Ling Soo’s chest. Breaking character for the first time, he said “Oh my God, bring down the curtan. Something has happened.” He died the next day in the hospital.
If this magician seems familiar, it’s because he appears as a character in the movie The Prestige.
1 Sigmund Neuberger
Sigmund Neuberger, otherwise know as the Great Lafayette, was a German magician who was the highest paid magician of his time. The Great Lafayette loved animals, but loved his terrier Beauty most of all. Beauty was a gift from Harry Houdini, who was an admirer of the Great Lafayette. He lavished the dog with its own suite, five-course meals, and a diamond-studded collar.
Four days before the opening of his show in Edinburgh, Beauty died. Lafayette made a deal with the city council that he would allow his own body to be buried there when he died if they would consent to burying Beauty in the nearby Piershill Cemetery. On the opening night of the show, May 9, 1911, there was a fire while he was performing his signature trick, “The Lion’s Bride.” He manage to escaped from the building, but ran back inside to save a horse that was part of the show. Besides Lafayette, 10 other people died because the side doors had been locked tight before the show—Lafayette didn’t want anyone sneaking in.
His body was laid to rest beside his beloved dog.
+ Washington Irving Bishop
Bishop grew up in a spiritual family; his mother was a practicing medium. As an adult he worked for a psychic, after which he set about trying to expose them and their tricks. Eventually he gave up on exposing psychics and become a mentalist himself. Unlike the psychics he exposed, he professed to audiences that he had no supernatural powers. He became incredibly successful using muscle reading, which involved holding the hand of an audience member and asking them a series of questions. He would feel acute muscle movements in their hands and perform accurate readings.
On May 12, 1889, while performing at the Lamb Club in New York city, he collapsed. Bishop suffered from catalepsy, which is when someone can fall into a coma-like state despite being very much alive. He awoke a short time later and asked to finished the show, but fell back into unconsciousness and eventually died.
That’s where things get a little murky.
Since Bishop suffered from catalepsy, many people believe that he wasn’t really dead. Some people, including Bishop’s mother, believe that the autopsy was what ultimately killed him. Doctors were especially interested in his brain because they wanted to know if his brain was special, giving him his “mind reading powers.” Unfortunately, they never got the chance to study it.