Many of the world's most famous magicians have made a name for themselves by perfecting the illusion of danger onstage. Before modern sensations like Criss Angel and David Blaine, illusionists such as Houdini were performing stunts that shocked and mesmerized the public. But sometimes, these performances are not illusions at all - and some of these magic tricks have even proven to be deadly. These magicians - dating back to the 1800s - were often trying to outdo their predecessors or defy the laws of nature when their stunts took a turn for the worse. Their dedication to the craft may have been overzealous, and they met their demise - and sometimes took others down with them - thanks to magic tricks gone awry.
Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison De La Genesta really had too long of a name to be in the entertainment industry, but nonetheless performed as a Houdini imitator. In 1930, Genesta attempted a famous Houdini trick: the milk-can escape. At that time, milk was transported from farms in human-sized cans.
Genesta's milk-can escape involved a secret trap door that allowed him to escape despite the locks on the can's opening. What he didn't know, however, is that the milk can had been dropped en route, and the escape door was dented and no longer functioned. He was submerged in the milk can for three minutes before his wife realized something was wrong. Not used to using the locked door, the crew took another fateful minute to open the padlocks. Genesta momentarily regained consciousness and passed shortly after.
Back in 1930, Charles Rowan, AKA "Karr the Magician," performed a stunt where he strapped himself into a straitjacket and had a car accelerate toward him at 45 mph and from 200 yards away as he executed his escape. Rowan had actually performed the trick before, but this time, he was a fraction of a second too late.
The car's right wheel struck him, resulting in him passing in front of a large crowd of spectators, including children. Prior to the stunt, Karr exonerated the driver in writing from any responsibility in the unlikely event of his death.
In 1820, a Polish magician lost his wife and unborn child while performing the infamous "bullet catch" trick. During the act, his wife and assistant, Madame DeLinsky, was fired at while on stage. Six soldiers were invited onstage to load their guns. To load the rifles, the men had to bite open the cartridge to add the gunpowder in the barrel. Then they could insert the rest of the cartridge.
The soldiers were paid "shills" - they had previously been instructed to actually bite the entire bullet, allowing them to fire blanks instead. One of the soldiers got a bit of stage fright and accidentally loaded his gun with the bullet. He then fatally shot the pregnant Madame DeLinsky on stage.
In 1911, "The Great Lafayette" - otherwise known as Sigmund Neuberger - was performing one of his most famous acts called "The Lion's Bride," in Edinburgh. In the trick, Lafayette was to be sacrificed to his giant 400-pound lion on stage. At the last second, however, Lafayette was to switch places and reveal himself to be in costume as the lion. Much of his stage decor was made up of oriental tenting and Chinese paper lanterns, and one such lantern caught fire during the act.
The entire stage became engulfed in flames. Lafayette was so paranoid about his tricks that three of the four exits backstage were locked, leaving only one exit open to his large cast and crew. Eleven people died, including Lafayette, who reportedly escaped and then returned to the blaze to save his beloved horse.
After the cremation of his body, Lafayette was again found under a trap door beneath the stage. It was only then that Lafayette's secret was revealed: he used a body double, and the real Lafayette had been stuck under the stage during the fire.