The 11 Deadliest Illusions Of All Time

October 14, 2013

Illusions are a tricky business. The whole point is to make people essentially believe in a lie; hence the new show "Criss Angel BeLIEve" on Spike. Behind the haze of illusion and showmanship, there's little room for error with skilled craftsmen. In some cases the concern isn't public embarrassment, but rather serious injury or even death.

Throughout the years even the most common and stalwart tricks have ended lives. Here are eleven of the deadliest tricks:


There are many variations of this illusion, but the most common is for an audience member, volunteer, or some other assistant to load a gun and shoot it at the illusionist, who will then catch the bullet with their teeth or in their hand. In some variations it passes through a sheet of glass or some other object to show a bullet had actually been fired.

There are a myriad of ways to pull this illusion off, but unfortunately that also means there are even more ways for it to go wrong. In 1840, magician Arnold Buck gave the gun and a blank round to a skeptical audience member to fire at him. The audience member, unbeknownst to Buck, also loaded the gun with nails, which sprayed out of the chamber and killed Buck. Even pre-screening your shooters doesn't guarantee safety, as was the case twenty years earlier when a Polish magician's assistant, Madame Delinsky, was killed when she stood in front of a group of soldiers, all of whom were given instructions in how to load blanks into their guns. Unfortunately, one soldier got nervous being onstage and went into auto-pilot, loading his gun for real.

Probably the most well known fatality involving this trick occurred in 1918. William Elsworth Robinson became one of the most famous illusionists of his time by pretending to be Chinese and using the alias Chung Ling Soo. He went so far as to pretend not to know any English at all, which tricked audiences at the time (he wouldn't be able to get away with it in modern times – he couldn't actually speak Chinese). Robinson, as Soo, was performing the trick and took every precaution, as did everyone around him. Unfortunately, the gun didn't cooperate; something had become clogged in the gun's chamber, resulting in a real bullet being fired. The mysterious Soo, nee Robinson, further shocked audiences by muttering in perfect English "My God, I've been shot." He died almost instantly.


Like the unfortunate Mr. Robinson, there's nothing about this trick that's actually Chinese. This one is pretty simple in its presentation: an illusionist is restrained in a tank full of water and has to escape before he drowns. It was invented by Harry Houdini and replicated many times over the years. The stunt is so dangerous that for a time, a common urban myth surrounding Houdini's death was that he had died onstage while performing this stunt. Magicians have also failed attempting this stunt in current times. Once, they had to smash the sides of the glass to let the water out, which made it onto the Paul Harvey radio show, The Rest Of The Story


Given the logistics behind it, this test of endurance doubles as a leap of faith. Usually, a plexiglass coffin is used to show the audience that the magician is actually inside and didn't make a b-line when the dirt dropped. Magician Joseph Burrus attempted the feat in 1990, but unfortunately the plexiglass couldn't support the weight of the concrete and soil, and the plexiglass shattered, killing Joe instantly. Houdini never accomplished this stunt, and his diary entry read, "The weight of the earth is crushing."


Popularized by escapologist Harry Houdini, the straightjacket escape has become a staple of popular entertainment. Typically the danger comes from other elements involved in the stunt (for example: the rope being set on fire, or being hung from a precarious height), but what makes this trick particularly risky is that there really isn't a trick to it – it comes down to a combination of skill, strength, dexterity, and keeping calm under pressure.


This is another one of those tricks that people think of as Magic 101, but it's still a dangerous stunt. You're stabbing swords into a box with a live person inside! While there can be elements of trickery and illusion employed to pull it off, often it just comes down to careful placement of the swords or spikes. Whatever they pay assistants to do this trick, it isn't nearly enough.


Even Bugs Bunny has performed this time-honored illusion, where an assistant or volunteer from an audience, through various methods, is cut in half and survives. Not to toot his horn or anything, but Criss probably has the most interesting variation on this… Set of extra legs, anyone?


Showcased by performers that specialize in this task alone, sword swallowing is as old as time itself. Here, there is no "illusion" – the sword is actually being swallowed. The trick is to avoid having it pierce (or worse pass through!) a major organ. Dozens of deaths have been recorded since the 1800s, in addition to numerous injuries.


This is a trick that hasn't been performed since 1900, when Swedish-American magician Balabrega purchased it from one of his compatriots. The illusion involved six women, dressed as moths, who would disappear into a candle flame that was lit onstage. The stunt involved the use of gasoline, along with a tremendous amount of preparation and set-up. Balabrega took the trick with him on a tour of Latin America, but found that the gasoline didn't travel well, so he replaced it with bags of acetylene. That decision may have contributed to what happened on June 12th, 1900. During preparations for the show, an obstruction was found in one of the tubes. As attempts were made to clear it, the rigging exploded, killing Balabrega and one of his assistants, as well as injuring several others. It just goes to show that even when taking precautions, one has to take precautions.


Seriously, don't even think about trying this. German illusionist Hans Moretti gained fame with this trick that involved shooting an actual crossbow, blindfolded, over his shoulder and hitting an apple sitting atop his assistant/wife Helga's head, William Tell style. Even if there is some sort of trickery involved that allows the shooter to see through the blindfold, it still involves shooting a crossbow from a precarious position. Poor Helga, ever the trooper, was injured several times by the trick. Moretti himself died this past March, thankfully of natural causes that didn't involve a deadly weapon. His son now performs this stunt and his assistant has been hurt during its "execution."


Just like Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions, it's right there in the name. Dating back to the 1930s, the Table of Death is a notorious trick. The performer still has to be quick in his or her movements and careful in where he places himself. The stunt involves a raised bed below hanging swords or spikes, which are then dropped suddenly onto the performer, whose hands and/or feet are restrained. It's not the most complicated trick to pull off, but even the slightest error can spell disaster.


What? You didn't think we'd just give it away, did you? You'll have to tune in to see for yourself when "Criss Angel BeLIEve" premieres October 15, 10/9c. 11 Weeks, 11 Epic Illusions, and only one man can pull them off. Don't miss it!