Magicians Who Have Died during the Bullet Catch
The bullet catch is one of the most interesting illusions to be done in the Victorian era. The effect, its namesake, either catching the bullet in their own mouth or inside a plate or small bowl. Seems simple in concept, but the execution (pun intended) is a lot harder than it seems. The premise of the illusion needs a non-firing gun that seems to still fire or the introduction of a blank bullet or the riskiest method, a bullet that will not cause harm. One of the earliest documentations of this illusion is in Threats of God's Judgments by Reverend Thomas Beard in 1631, even though it was performed around 50 years before the book was written. It became a favorite of street performers during the 1700s, and to this day, it is responsible for killing at least six.
One of the first to die is Madame DeLinsky, the assistant to her magician husband, who was shot in 1820 during a performance in the royal court of Germany. During this time, guns were loaded using cartridges, which were made of paper, and inside of this this cartridge was gunpowder as well as the bullet. For those that don’t know me, I am also a Revolutionary War reenactor, and so I own several guns of this manufacture and am very familiar with their loading. The cartridge is removed from the pouch and then the cartridge is opened using the teeth and the contents are put into the barrel of the gun. During this performance of the trick, the soldiers who performed the illusions was secretly bribed to make sure that the bullet was bitten off from the cartridge and kept in their mouth while the gunpowder was put in the gun. Unfortunately, one of the soldiers was very nervous and accidentally loaded the bullet as well as the gunpowder. When the bullet struck Madame Delinsky in the abdomen, several of the audience fainted. Medical treatment was given but unfortunately Madame Delinsky would pass away two days later. The truly sad part of this story is that her husband, who was supervising the illusion onstage, went mad shortly after witnessing the death of his wife and their unborn child.
Another was Arnold Buck who was killed in 1840. During his performance of the illusion, Buck had an audience member shoot the gun. While Buck loaded the gun, he would palm the bullet instead of putting it inside the barrel and the gun was then handed over to a member of the audience. The audience member, a known troublemaker, secretly put a handful of nails into the barrel which killed the magician upon impact. In the movie The Prestige (2006), Christian Bale’s character Alfred, talks about the dangers of having an audience member as the person firing the gun. In the movie, Alfred talks about a button being inserted in the gun. Even just a wood or metal button would be lethal at that range.
Next, was Professor Adam Epstein who died in 1869. His death was one of blatant stupidity. The magician’s wand is great for misdirecting and doing tricks like the cups and balls, it’s not good for using as a ramrod for your gun. The wood that is used for ramrod is usually a walnut or a maple and usually has a metal endcap, and used to taking punishment, the magician’s wand is not. Epstein used his wand as a ramrod too many times and didn’t take the time to make sure his wand came out alright. When the gun fired, he was struck in the forehead by the flying shards from his broken wand.
Only about twenty years later, Harry Franklin Sartelle was killed by performing The Bullet Catch. The 23-year-old magician was just starting out when he died in 1889. Unfortunately, I cannot find more information on what went wrong with the trick that caused his demise.
One of the most famous though was Chung Ling Soo who perished in 1918. Born William Ellsworth Campbell Robinson, William first started performing by masquerading as an Egyptian and then a Hindu magician. He would settle on the Chinese persona that he would tailor for many years until his death. His final act was known as “Condemned to Death by The Boxers" in which he would face a firing squad while he held a silver plate. The guns were gimmicked and had two chambers. One in which to insert a round and another for the gunpowder. The freak accident occurred when one of the rifle’s chambers hadn’t been cleaned properly and was clogged with gunpowder residue. This residual gunpowder caused the bullet to exit the barrel and struck the magician. When I read about this freak accident, I was reminded of the accidental death of film star Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow. Robinson, who never spoke English to maintain his Chinese persona and would use interpreters screamed, "Oh my god, something's happened. Lower the curtain." He died the next morning. Harry Houdini, who was a friend of Robinson wanted to try the trick himself after the death of his fellow magician, but the words of Harry Keller, one of the most famous magicians during the Victorian Age chided him with this letter:
“Now, my dear boy, this is advice from the heart, DON’T TRY THE D—N Bullet Catching…no matter how sure you may feel of its success. There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will “job” you. And we can’t afford to lose Houdini. You have enough good stuff to maintain your position at the head of the profession. And you owe it to your friends and your family to cut out all stuff that entails risk of your life. Please, Harry, listen to your old friend Kellar who loves you as his own son and don’t do it.”
And finally, we have H.T. Sartell, who went by the stage name of “The Black Wizard of the West” who died in 1922 in Deadwood, South Dakota. This was a case of mistaken identity of the worst kind. Sartell would use wax bullets that would break apart in the barrel and the projectile would become harmless to the magician. The major problem was that his assistant, his wife, wanted to get rid of him, so she simply switched the wax bullet for a real one. Again, there is something to be said about who you let point the gun at you.
The Bullet Catch is an amazing illusion that belongs to the past. As technology progressed, the trick became more advanced to satisfy a new audience generation. And the more convincing that you try to perform it, the more deadly it can become. Yes, the Bullet Catch is still done today, and has been performed by great magicians such as Penn and Teller and David Blaine. I also saw it done live in LA at a “Parlour” magic show, a Parlour that contained about 300 members in the audience. It was okay. The illusion was with a modern pellet gun instead of a real gun and it was mounted on a tripod (it was of course in LA). There was a disconnect between the illusion and the audience because of the tripod and the pellet gun being set up by the magician himself. The setup was too long and the instructions to the audience member who actually fired the gun were too winded and so by the time the magician got set to do the trick, I almost wanted to see something go wrong just to see what would happen.
By the way, I was told that the Bullet Catch is the only illusion that I am not allowed to perform.