FURTHER HISTORY OF BULLET CATCHING
by Ben Robinson, originally published in Magicol, #91, May, 1989.
“The matter of a showman's demise is always suspect. Sometimes those who trod the boards kill off an alter ego to begin new theatrics afresh.”
The esteemed conjuring historian Edwin A. Dawes once told me, "There comes a time for the researcher when he publishes and lives forever damned." Dr. Dawes was remarking upon the problem of published errors and additional information that comes to the fore after publication.
It has been 13 years since the appearance of my book Twelve Have Died the history and secrets of the bullet catching illusion. Though our literary team was second to none, errors still crept in. Nevertheless the book has been well received, often reviewed as a "must" for those wishing to perform the dark wonder.
Perhaps the greatest error concerning the history of the trick was perpetrated by Houdini! (Unfortunately I was misled by Houdini's error, and the gaffe appears on page one of THD.) Houdini wrote a brief article called "New Light on the Bullet Catching Trick" in the August 1919 M-U-M. Therein he claims that his friend Henry Evanion's nephew, R. Evanion, sent him the first record of a bullet-catcher. To set the record straight finally (without mentioning Houdini's error), the magician in question was named Coulen. He is mentioned on page 120 of the 1597 volume Theatre of God's Judgements. Subsequent editions were published in 1612, 1631, and 1648. These volumes may be inspected in the rare book division of the British Museum Library in London, where I found them. In addition, the book was translated by the Rev. Thomas Beard from an unknown French author. The book is a translation of an earlier work which is not identified or cited. Consequently, this first French record of Coulen pre-dates the first English publication of this book in 1597.
It is unfortunate that this information was discovered as my book was being printed.
Research in Europe also yielded previously unearthed historical gems and blatant corrections. On page 38 I mention Celerina, a city in Switzerland, not Germany (as noted in the text). In Switzerland I met two magicians who were to lead me to the ironic tragedy of Robert Dolder.
Pavel and Jean Garance both told me of Dolder, who performed under the stage name of Mac Deller. Deller performed the bullet-catch for nearly 10 years from the late '60's to the early '70's without injury. Deller had a bullet selected and marked by a chosen colored marker. The bullet was shot through a pane of glass equidistant between the performer and the marksman. One of Deller's last performances of this stunt was at the Geneva Soiree Fantastique in April 1973. When things became professionally rough for Deller, he committed suicide by suffocating himself in his garage with car exhaust fumes. Upon discovering her husband's corpse, Deller's wife hanged herself with the rope magicians cut and restore. Pavel had sold Deller this soft cotton rope!
I came by this information quite by coincidence. While performing in Geneva in 1987, I noticed posters for a museum exhibit of the Adolphe Blind collection. At this exhibit I met Jean Garance, who was surprised to meet me since he had just received my book from California. He wanted Twelve Have Died because it is one of the few books that mention Emile Sauty, who performed an unusual bullet-catch under the stage name Professor Rex. Garance had bought his magic shop from Sauty. (I must confess the typo of Sauty's name on page 26.)
At the Blind collection exhibit in Carouge, just outside Geneva, I was elated to find a full-color poster of Commander Cazeneuve performing a bullet-catch in front of three military men. Prior to this I had never found a reference to the celebrated wizard's performance of the bullet-catch. This was curious. How could such a well-known (in his day) performer strike such a beautiful poster of such a sensational event, yet no historical reference in the last 100 years notes this addition to the Commander's performance?
Perhaps such a "find" is not uncommon. Two other posters also eluded inclusion in my book. Mike Caveney owns a spectacular full-color poster of Alexander Herrmann performing the bullet-catch at a benefit performance for the Children's Ice Fund in New York City. The late David Price owned a less elaborate poster of a Canadian magician named Sebastian who has a marksman's target drawn over his face. Sebastian performed the bullet-catch at fairs and sporting events in Canada.
Other discoveries have led to my chagrin. Ralf Bialla did not die in 1972, as noted, but rather in 1975. A photograph of John Henry Anderson and his sons holding the rifle "The Wizard of the North" used for his bullet-catch surfaced too late for publication. This photograph is published by Ray Goulet in the C. Pole Bayer biography of the celebrated necromancer.
In Canada Bob Weill told me the inside story of Annemann's Fort Erie performance in 1938. It was Bob Weill's father who fired at the mentalist with a .303 Lee Enfield rifle. Complementing the lecture I was to give to The Oban Event invitees, Bob also wrote and circulated the story of Annemann's two performances of his blood-chilling bullet-catch at the Piff Paff Poof conventions. This would indicate that Annemann had performed the stunt five times (not four performances, as is generally believed).
The information that has surfaced since publication surely makes me feel the scholar's plight. Bullet-catchers left unmentioned have called from around the world: Friedhoffer, Steven Shaw, Tony Binarelli, Moretti, Larry Barnes, and Sonny Fontana. My attention has been directed to the detailed methods of Stanton Carlisle, Will Ayling, Jack London, and the Willard family.
Though I have only gone before the marksman several times, my performance usually includes a passing reference to the bullet-catch. After a show in Snowbird, Utah, a woman approached me and said, "I hear you've caught bullets in your mouth. My husband used to do that." It was from this introduction that I interviewed Annapolis graduate Jim Williams. Between 1963 and 1970, Williams performed the bullet-catch about 30 times from Maine to Oregon. He first performed the feat as a Naval Academy student, and had a high-ranking officer in uniform fire at him through a pane of glass. Williams stood handcuffed and blindfolded across the stage. He claims he was only injured once by flying glass.
I too was injured by glass shards. In 1987 1 opened the second act of the Boston
Magicale. The police officer who fired through a lighted light bulb didn't injure me. The glass shards left from the first "demonstration shot" did slice my knees when I fell to the ground. This was a minor annoyance. My alliance with this feat has brought more joy than despair. Hector Robinson (son of Chung Ling Soo) sponsored my application to the British Magic Circle; collectors have sent exciting tidbits from around the globe; and a host of additional bibliographic references have cropped up.
The bullet-catch, and its history, has also had a significant social impact recently. The Izusu car company had its TV spokesperson catch a bullet between his teeth in an '87-'88 commercial. Headlines have captured the populace's attention in the case of two real bullet-catches, 20 years apart. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner of Sunday, August 28, 1966 details the story of Ernest LaMay who was shot in the mouth, and lived! An apparent victim of an argument gone haywire, LaMay's assailant was sought for murder with the evidence of a .38 caliber bullet removed from LaMay's teeth! The headline read, "He's Shot, But Catches Bullet in His Teeth."
The New York Daily News of Friday, November 21, 1986 notes a woman police officer named Mary Buckley who literally caught a bullet in her teeth, saving her life:
The six cops shot by a frenzied mass murder suspect in a Bronx apartment "would be dead if not for their bullet-proof vests and a million-to-one miracle" where a woman cop "caught a bullet" in her teeth, surgeons said."The [.45 caliber] bullet hit her in the teeth. She caught it with her teeth," said Dr. Leon Patcher, chief of the trauma unit at Bellevue Hospital in describing the amazing circumstances surrounding the wounding of Emergency Service Officer Mary Buckley.
And finally there is the always unclear matter of the number of deaths actually associated with the trick. For showmanly reasons the performer always enlists the superstitiously-minded phrase that "twelve have died." Several deaths are seemingly untraceable. Arnold Buck, who, we now know, was also called "The Wizard of the West," was certainly wounded at the Queen's Theatre on Tottenham Street in London, 1840. Apparently the audience volunteer, enlisted by Buck to act as marksman, claimed to have also shot at J. H. Anderson during the same trick! Though Buck received injury to his left eye, and other parts of his head, it is reported by London papers that he resumed performing two days after the injury. The matter of a showman's demise is always suspect. Sometimes those who trod the boards kill off an alter ego to begin new theatrics afresh.
The London Sun of February 3, 1988 reports in a loud headline: MAGIC MARVO DIES AS HE CATCHES BULLET. The story explains that Marvo's real name was Fernande Tejada, and he was shot dead on stage in Colombia, South America by an audience membera gold miner named Marco Asprella. Like the story of Raoul Curran in Twelve Have Died, Marvo had successfully performed the trick (using blanks) and Asprella, apprehending the illusion as reality, stood in the audience with his own revolver, yelled, "Catch this!!!" and slayed the magician.
Like mentalism, the bullet-catch, to be successful, must be presented as real. Perhaps this psychological aspect is responsible for the ongoing fascination with and the tragedy of the bullet catch.