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Memoirs of a Sword Swallower Excerpt: Flamo Up In Flames

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Fountain of Fire Act (1887)I probably never would have become America’s leading fire-eater if Flamo the Great hadn’t happened to explode that night in front of Krinko’s Great Combined Carnival Side Shows. The tragedy–if such it may be called–took place at eleven o’clock when there’s only time for one more show before the carnival closes for the night, so all the concessions compete for the late crowd at the same time. The side show had a bad location, being next to the Oriental Dancing Girls (“Fugitives from a Life of Shame in the Sultan’s Harem”) and it’s pretty hard to compete with ten naked girls for the public’s interest.

But a good side show can compete with anything. When Flamo stood up on the platform outside the side show tent, naked to the waist with the two great torches in his hands throwing up plumes of golden fire topped by black smoke that reached above the ferris wheels–well, it was something that nothing in the Arabian Nights, Grimm’s Fairy Tales or an opium smoker’s dreams could top. People left all the other concessions to rush to the side show, and I led the rush.

Some of the other acts had come out on the platform to join Flamo: a cowboy playing his guitar, a Hindu fakir sticking hat pins into himself, a gypsy palmist, and an almost nude girl hopefully holding up a fifteen-foot rock python. As I say, in a side show there’s something to appeal to every taste. But none of them could touch Flamo as a public attraction.

Slowly the fire-eater put back his head and thrust one of the burning torches between his lips. Flames rushed out of his mouth like the backlash of a blast furnace, making his cheeks and throat glow like a jack-o’-lantern and throwing a witch glow over the other acts. Women screamed in the rapidly forming crowd and a man beside me suddenly turned sick and tried to force his way out through the mob. Flamo gradually closed his lips over the flame until the fire went out, leaving only the dancing light of the torch in his other hand to illuminate the platform. Taking care to hold the lighted torch well away from his body, he filled a drinking glass half full of gasoline from a scarlet tin marked DANGEROUS. Instantly the Hindu fakir grabbed up a potbellied flute and began to play a wild chant into the microphone while the side show talker beat on a metal triangle and shouted, “This is it, folks! Something you’ll never see again.”

I’d seen fire-eaters work before, so I guessed that Flamo was going to do the Fountain of Fire. Not many fire-eaters care to try this stunt because even if they don’t blow themselves up they’re liable to set the audience on fire. To perform the Fountain, the fire-eater takes a mouthful of gas, blows it out in a fine stream, and then lights it. Some fire-eaters will even puff out circles of flame that go undulating up into the air like burning smoke rings. I’d never seen a fire-eater do the stunt except in a dead calm and this evening little gusts of wind were flapping the side show banners-the big canvas pictures of the performers that hang outside a side show. Flamo hesitated. He probably wouldn’t have attempted the Fountain if the Oriental Dancing Girls hadn’t suddenly turned loose a series of bumps and grinds that began to draw away some of the side show crowd. Then the fire-eater made his decision. He took a mouthful of gasoline and stood waiting for the wind to die down.

I was in the front row of the crowd and by the leaping light of the torch in his hand I could see the fire-eater’s face, thin and sunken in spite of his puffed-out cheeks, as he watched the breeze bellying the banner line. He was a swarthy man, apparently of South European blood, his thick black hair carefully combed, and his bare hairless chest as scrawny as an emaciated child’s. Suddenly a little trickle of gas leaked from the corner of his mouth and ran down his chin. Instantly a tiny flash of fire from the torch leaped toward it, running through the air as though along an invisible fuse as it ignited the gasoline vapor. The little trickle blazed up and his whole mouthful of gas exploded.

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