On February 25, 2012, more than twenty of the world’s dwindling number of sword swallowers “dropped swords” at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditoriums worldwide to celebrate the Sixth Annual World Sword Swallower’s Day. My wife Diana and I were at the Niagara Falls, Ontario, Ripley’s with Vanessa, Canada’s celebrated female sword swallower, to watch her have a snack of cold steel.
About 1976, nineteen-year-old Toronto native Vanessa Neil left art college to classically “run away and join the circus.” She has since performed with Carnival Diablo and countless other venues—swallowing swords for much of that time. As traveling sideshows have seriously declined and only a few dozen full-time sword swallowers remain worldwide, Vanessa stands out as one of the rare female performers of the art. Indeed, she is the only female sword swallower in Canada.
Before the Ripley event occurred—at 2:25:12 p.m. to reflect the 2-25-12 date—Vanessa spoke briefly about her favorite subject. An adoring crowd that included many children moved close as she allowed her 24-inch sword to be examined.
While some suspect sword swallowing of being a trick, actually the ancient art is the real deal. Although swords with telescoping blades exist (such as those made by a Parisian magic manufacturer), they are suitable only for theatrical purposes. Real sword swallowers swallow real swords—although these have dull edges and rounded points. Vanessa jokes that the sharp variety is swallowed “only once.”
The important secret is that one must conquer what is known as the “gag reflex.” One must also learn to relax the numerous pairs of muscles that normally contract to grip food, or else the throat may be cut or abraded by the blade. Except for those problems, the process is rather straightforward: There is an unobstructed passage from mouth to bottom of the stomach, and while the passage is not straight, the passing of the blade straightens it. (For more on the history and practice of the art, see my Secrets of the Sideshows, 2005.)
As Vanessa readied for the appointed moment of around-the-world simultaneous sword swallowing, some in the audience also stood open-mouthed. On signal, Vanessa thrust the sword smoothly down her throat (see photo), quickly bowed deeply, then stood straight and withdrew the blade to enthusiastic applause.
Although I have performed some carnival-style feats myself—demonstrating fire eating and fire walking, lying sandwiched between beds of nails while a cinder block was placed atop and smashed, dipping my hand in molten lead, and so on—I have avoided trying sword swallowing, which is in a class by itself. I have concluded that that is best left to such rare individuals as Canada’s remarkable Vanessa.