A BRIEF HISTORY OF TWELVE HAVE DIED
By Ben Robinson written June, 2004
(author’s bio: Before the age of 29 Ben Robinson caught a bullet in his teeth at Houdini’s grave, wrote (with the late Larry White) the award-winning history of the stunt (Twelve Have Died – Bullet Catching the Story & Secrets 1986), was produced as the only one man show in the history of Broadway producer Lyn Austin’s 50 year career (Out Of Order, 1988) , and he trekked to the Base Camp of Mt. Everest with the American Everest Team in 1989. Since that time he has traveled all over the world performing and producing shows. Website: www. illusiongenius.com)
The Great Gun Trick, or commonly known as “the bullet catch” is a stunt in the lexicon of sideshow, carnival arts that has a dark history.
Twelve people are always said to have been killed by the stunt. This invention by Ted Annemann, enlists the idea that the performer attempting this dark wonder may be the unlucky 13th victim if the stunt goes wrong.
Here is a list of those that have been killed by the dangerous feat:
Madam DeLinsky (1820)
Arnold Buck (1840)
Prof. Adam Epstein (1869)
Raoul Curran ((1880)
DeLine’s son (1890)
Michael Hatal (1899)
Professor Blumenfeld (1906)
Chung Ling Soo (William Ellsworth Robinson) (1918)
H .T. Sartell
The Black Wizard of the West
Magic Marvo (1988)
Now, if you read the list carefully you will see that there are actually 13 people who have been killed. In my book Twelve Have Died I listed Doc Conrad. Conrad did die on a firing range, but not from the act. He was practicing Russian roulette and he was killed.
Coulen is actually the name of a performer who Houdini called Coulew incorrectly. And the deaths of Adam Epstein and Arnold Buck have been hotly disputed. There is also the misnomer that Kia Khan Khruse died in 1818, but this is untrue as refuted by the performer himself in 1820. My point is that the history of magic’s darkest wonder is fraught with chaos, blood and real deaths and anyone performing the stunt is well advised to learn what went wrong with others.
The bullet catch can become an obsession. I have lived most of my professional life thinking of the stunt and having performed it six times I can honestly attest to being injured three times. Here I am, having written a whole book about a stunt lying on the ground in California, at a casino, bleeding and being taken to the Emergency Room. What happened? Glass. Glass flew across the stage and went into my left hand in front of 2000 screaming gamblers.
In the act of being convincing, my deception led to injury. So has the stunt hurt others. DeLinsky, performing for the Prince of Schwartzburg-Sonderhaussen enlisted his wife to catch the bullet. She was pregnant. The marksman were to have bitten the lead ends off the bullets, and one person forgot and she paid with her and her unborn child’s life.
Adam Epstein was to have pushed the bullet in the gun with a wand that actually removed the projectile. The wand broke and the end of the wand was propelled into his head.
When performing the stunt you must convince the audience that the stunt is real, like walking on a tight rope, dangerous, but possible. Otherwise the trick is trivialized as the low class comedy magic duo in Vegas do trivialize it, and this decreases any wonder that the audience may have from witnessing the brilliant piece of deception.
Since my book on the stunt was released in1986, I have been informed of two new deaths. Magic Marvo was gunned down by an audience member who, like Raoul Curran and Charles Andress, faced a spectator who believed that they could draw a weapon and threaten the performer. John Henry Anderson successfully avoided being shot on stage by mentally fencing his opponent. He is lucky to have survived. Nellie of New Zealand was to have performed the act with a blank creating the “bang” and then she’d reveal the dupe slug in her mouth. The gunman forgot to switch the blank into the act and she was shot in the head. Dead.
Commander Cazeneuve faced a squad of marksman in the 1800’s. He had a poster drawn of his celebrated feat. He never received injury, and his deception was such that he did not become known for the feat as far as history goes.
The bullet catch will create publicity if done right. It will never make a performer rich or genuinely famous as Ted Annemann found. For my money Annemann was the greatest bullet catcher of all. I am honored to have worked with the man who worked in the shadows to make his catch successful. His name was Bob Weill and he is greatly missed. Bob showed me the ins and outs in Canada in 1990 when I faced a marksman on the evening news and raised funds for a children’s hospital with the proceeds of my daring attempt outdoors. In rehearsal, performing as Annemann did, with live rounds, I had a small piece of my right ear removed when a bullet came too close to my head.
The bullet catch has become a “separate the men from the boys” stunt in magic and this is nonsense. I know a magician who can make you think of any card he desires and this is more impressive than catching a machine gun fired round. My point is that the bullet catch is largely a matter of historical significance. Performing the stunt will create suspense if the history of the feat is interwoven in the presentation. The goal of the magician is to create wonder and give the message of magic. The goal of the magician is not to scare the pants off the audience.
Where the bullet catching magician is successful is if they have endured a death defying feat…once.
You need not defy death nightly, because one who does that is obviously full of trickery, and this doesn’t incite wonder. Audiences will feel “oh that is so fake” if they take for granted that the magic man is not doing something genuinely clever. To understand the feat completely, you need to research the “why” factor. Why are you doing this? Why would you risk your life to entertain others? Why indeed.
On TV live in 1957, my teacher, the great Milbourne Christopher, was asked why he was doing the one feat that Houdini did not do. He replied, “For publicity.” His reason was good. People would tune into the show to see if he lived. Houdini said that “others do not like to see another person being killed, but they like to be near by.”
In our modern age of terrorism, consider what point you are making when you perform the bullet catch you have just bought. Come up with an answer and then go to acting school. If your catching of a bullet in the teeth is not well acted you might as well pull a mouth coil out of your mouth and leave it at that.
And finally, be sure to always enlist a marksman you know. Putting a gun, however, rigged, in the hands of an audience member who has no experience with guns is foolish. Waving a loaded (apparently) weapon in an audience is not the image the bullet catcher who knows that they are doing wants to project. As Chung Ling So found, the spectacle is enhanced by trained marksman being part of the act. Unfortunately even this can go wrong as Soo found out.