originally published March 23, 2014
To my fellow fans of tweaked reality, I ask: what is the ultimate magic trick? Is it David Copperfield sending the Statue of Liberty into a temporary netherworld? David Blaine bending the laws of logic and physics two inches from a spectator’s nose? Jim Belushi keeping his garbage sitcom on the air for eight whole seasons?
When I was a kid, before the sombrero of skepticism had planted its weighty brim upon my cranium and killed off much of my wondrous buzz of rapturous imagination, I used to gape over the illusions that would court the most danger. Saws, swords, sickles – the puncture of flesh and the damning of imminent destruction, only to reveal that – whew! – Doug Henning’s mystical mustache and frilly mullet were safe after all. I hadn’t yet developed my appreciation of up-close street magic. To me – and I credit my mother for conveying to me this belief, even in the present – it was all magic. And like any young boy who swam in Star Wars and targeted Space Invaders with the subtle nudge of a joystick, danger was king.
The bullet catch fascinated me. Could someone snag a full-speed bullet in their hands or between their teeth without being blown to shreds? Of course the answer is no – like anything else performed by magicians, it’s not real (except for David Blaine – I’m convinced that guy is deep down the rabbit-hole of the dark arts). It’s just a magnificent magic trick. Sorry – illusion.
The first recorded grab of a bullet from the air came courtesy of a French magician named Coullew of Lorraine, sometime in the late 16th century. Reverend Thomas Beard told the story in his book, Theatre of Judgment. This was the same tome in which he related the death of Christopher Marlowe, whom he’d dubbed the first modern atheist. In a similar moralistic twist of one who would challenge God’s laws, Reverend Beard explains how Coullew of Lorraine was ironically clubbed to death with his pistol by one of his assistants.
Philip Astley, who invented the modern circus and whose famous amphitheater was immortalized in the works of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, claims to have invented the bullet catch in 1762, though two books from the previous year demonstrated knowledge of the gimmick. The act was seen as the ultimate scoff at danger and death, so naturally it was the perfect fit for a travelling showman.
John Henry Anderson, whose legendary performances earned him a stage before folks like P.T. Barnum, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, brought the bullet catch into the mainstream. His imitators quickly incorporated it into their repertoires, and the trick became a hallmark showpiece of a top-end magician. Part of the illusion’s schtick was building up the inherent sense of mortality involved. Sure, seeing someone snag a slug with their hands or teeth without trickling so much as a drop of blood upon the stage was great, but a magician is first and foremost a showman, so the tales of the fallen were mandatory.
There was Torrini De Grisy, who shot his son Giovanni in 1826 while trying the trick. Dr. Epstein, the famous French conjurer who was killed when a spectator pulled the trigger in 1869. Michael Hatal from America, Bosco Blumenfeld in Switzerland – in total there are at least twelve tales of bullets slipping past the magician’s control and blasting them into splatter. There was a curse to the bullet catch, they’d claim. A nasty, nefarious curse. That, ladies and gentleman of the audience, is how you sell a trick like this.
Chung Ling Soo – in fact an American named William Robinson – is history’s most famous bullet catch casualty. Robinson had adopted his alter ego completely, never speaking English in public while his publicists claimed he could channel the mysteries of the Orient on stage. He’d have the audience mark a bullet (so it could be identified), then his assistant would fire the gun. Robinson would snatch the bullet from the air and plunk it onto a plate. One March night – coincidentally on this exact date, 96 years ago – things went wrong during a London performance.
Using expert misdirection, the plan was to palm the bullet while the assistant was explaining the trick, then to pass it up to Robinson who would “snatch it” as the gun fired a blank. Robinson had forgotten to empty and clean the weapon beforehand though, and the gun fired an actual bullet into his chest. Robinson uttered the phrase, “Oh my god. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” It was the only English he’d ever spoken in public. The next day he was dead.
The bullet catch disappeared from public performance after that; even Houdini wanted nothing to do with it. But like anything with the power to draw a crowd, it came back.
A German magician named Ralf Bialla performed the trick in the 50’s, wearing bullet-proof glasses, and having the gun fire through three glass panes before hitting him in his steel teeth. He was injured several times – I don’t think he was using any sort of trickery, just stupidity and a heap of protection. A guy named Carl Skenes performed a verified catch of a .22 bullet in 1980 on the show That’s Incredible. But that required an elaborate steel mouth-box and tooth-guard – also more a demonstration of pure holy-fuckery than an elaborate illusion.
Enter Dorothy Dietrich, the ‘First Lady of Magic’. She became the highest-paid magician on the history of Canadian television when she pulled off the bullet catch on the CBC in 1988. She offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove that no bullet left the rifle. This was before the age of super-slo-mo I suppose – nobody took her up on it.
So is it possible? Can someone actually catch a moving bullet with their teeth?
When in doubt, ask the Mythbusters. And someone did – they ran the bullet catch through the demystifying lens of empirical science in 2006, determining that no, a person could not catch a bullet between their teeth without some sleight of hand or audience deception. They used a severed pig’s head to test how well a jawbone could hold up to a bullet. Unsurprisingly, it did not. Not only that, but the bullet was shmushed into a slab of metal upon impact.
Criss Angel claims his bullet catch was barred from A&E because it was too realistic. The trick has been performed by a myriad of modern performers, from Steve Cohen to Penn & Teller to David Blaine. It’s not going away because it’s a crowd-thriller, a perfect depiction of danger-thwarting that anyone with access to a gun full of blanks and the sleight of hand to pull it off can do. As with any illusion, it’s all in the show.
Except when David Blaine does it. I still believe that guy is channeling some dark hoodoo.