Friday, March 12, 2010

A Swallower

I swallow swords. Swords, knives and snakes. They call me in the profession a Sallementro, and that is what I term myself, though perhaps it’s easier to say I’m a “swallower”.

It was a mate of mine that I was with, that first put me up to sword-and-snake swallowing. I copied off him, and it took me about three months to learn it. I see him, and I said, oh, well, I shall set up master for myself, and practice until I can do it.

I started with a sword. At first it turned me, putting it down my throat, past my swallow – right down – about eighteen inches. It made my swallow sore – very sore – and I used lemon and sugar to cure it. It was tight at first, and I kept pushing it down further and further: there’s one thing, you mustn’t cough; and until you’re used to it, you want to, very bad, and then you must pull it up again.

My sword was about three-quarters of an inch wide. At first, I didn’t know the trick of doing it, but I found it out this way. You see, the trick is, you must oil the sword – the best sweet oil, it’s fourteen pence a pint – and you put it on with a sponge. Then, you understand, if the sword scratches your swallow, it don’t make it sore, because the oil heals it up again.

I was only the second one ever that swallowed a snake, after this chap. I was about seventeen or eighteen years old when I learnt it. The snakes I use are about eighteen inches long and you must first cut the stingers out, because they might hurt you.

I always keep two or three by me for performances. I keep them warm, but the winter kills them. I give them nothing to eat but worms and gentles. I generally keep them in flannel, or hay, in a box. I’ve three at home now.

When I first began swallowing snakes, they tasted queer like. They drawed the roof of the mouth a bit. It’s a roughish taste, the scales rough you a bit when you draw them up. You see, a snake will go into ever such a little hole, but they’re only smooth one way.

When I exhibit, I first holds the snake up in the air and pinches the tail, to make it curl about and twist round my arm to show them he’s alive. Then I holds it above my mouth, and as soon as he sees the hole – in he goes. I always hold my breath while he’s in my swallow; when he moves it tickles a little, but it don’t make you want to retch. In my opinion, he’s more glad to come up than to go down; it seems to be a bit hot for him. But I keep him down about two minutes on a good day.

I think there’s artfulness in some of those big snakes, they seem to know which of us is the master. I was at Wombwell’s Menagerie of Wild Beasts for three months, and I had the care of a big snake, as thick as my arm. I wouldn’t attempt to put that one down my throat, I can tell you, I might easier have gone down his. It was a foreign snake, all over spots, called a Boa Constructor. It never injured me, though I’m told it is uncommon powerful, and can squeeze a man up like a sheet of paper, and crack his bones as easy as a lark’s. I’m tremendous courageous, nothing frightens me; indeed, I don’t know what it is to be afraid.

from "Behind Our Scenes," Royal Shakespeare Company