Magic offers a twofold thrill: 1) the how-did-they-do-it nature of tricks and illusions; 2) the often serious danger magicians seem to place themselves in. While you may assume much of this danger is for show, there's a sordid history of magic acts that killed the magician. These magicians who died during tricks aimed to awe and delight audiences but learned the hard way what happens when illusions go wrong. If nothing else, this list proves magic is a dangerous profession requiring extensive knowledge.
Magicians who died performing span generations and come from many countries and cultures, giving a reminder of the public fascination with the medium. Surely that fascination stems, in part, from a general lack of understanding of how tricks and illusions work. Magician stage deaths surely only increase mass interest in the craft because they highlight how much danger these entertainers put themselves in, and play to the religious and occult underpinnings of magic's ancient origins.
The DeLinskys were a well-known Polish husband and wife magic duo who toured Europe in the early 19th century. One of their most sensational tricks involved Madame DeLinsky facing a firing squad of soldiers and coming away unscathed after "catching" all the bullets. This was achieved by instructing those on the firing squad to load their guns with bullets that they secretly tore open, emptying the gunpowder and making them into blanks.
In 1820, Madame DeLinsky, pregnant at the time, was performing a bullet catching trick in Germany for the royal family. A member of the firing squad conscripted for the performance was nervous on stage and accidentally put a real bullet in his gun and shot Madame DeLinsky through the abdomen. Members of the royal family reportedly fainted. The infant inside her was immediately killed and she died two days later. Her magician husband supposedly went mad with grief.
Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison de la Genesta, professionally known as Genesta, more or less swiped his signature trick from Houdini, who first performed it in 1908. The idea was simple yet extremely attractive to audiences - Genesta locked himself in a milk can or barrel filled with water. One fateful day in 1930, the magician failed to make his escape in time.
When stagehands ascertained something was wrong, the curtain came down, a doctor rushed on stage. and assistants pulled Genesta from the can. He was unconscious but revived and rushed to the hospital, where he passed after telling the doctor that, in more than 10 years of performing the trick, he had never failed before.
Apparently, the milk can Genesta used during his final performance was dented. This limited the space he had to contort his body in order to make a timely escape, and may have contributed to his demise.
Tommy Cooper was an English comedian and magician known for being terrible at magic. His act consisted of screwing up tricks and mining jokes from his incompetence. It wasn't unusual for him to fall over and lay about on the stage. That's why, during his slapstick routine on Live From Her Majesty's at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, no one realized something was amiss when Cooper keeled over on stage and died from a heart attack.
Audience members laughed as Cooper lay before them, dying. The broadcast cut as Cooper was pulled off stage, and after several attempts to revive him failed, he was transported to a hospital, where he was proclaimed dead.
Joseph W. Burrus was enamored with Harry Houdini and wanted to be even greater than his idol. On Halloween night, 1990, the 64th anniversary of Houdini's death, the 32-year-old magician was buried alive in a plastic coffin at an amusement park, before a crowd of onlookers including his own children.
There was little cause for alarm on the day, as Burrus, known as Amazing Joe, had successfully performed the trick a year before. However, at that time, he was buried only by dirt. In 1990, he added cement to the mix, and apparently didn't take into account the extra weight. His plastic coffin was crushed immediately. Rescuers began digging upon hearing the coffin collapse, but Burrus was dead by the time they got to him.