7 Magic Tricks That Went Horribly Wrong

trialsanderrors, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
trialsanderrors, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / trialsanderrors, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Done right, magic tricks can fill us with a sense of childlike wonderment: From a clever card trick to a mullet-era David Copperfield illusion, we love to be fooled. Unfortunately, not all magicians escape their dramatic scenarios unscathed. Take a look at seven illusionists who didn’t have enough up their sleeves to avoid being mangled.

1. Charles Rowan and the Speeding Car

In magic, tension is everything. While a performer may be holding his or her breath underwater, the audience is holding theirs, waiting for signs of life. South African Charles Rowan understood the appeal of melodrama, which is why he repeatedly consented to being secured in a straitjacket while a car sped toward him at 45 miles per hour. Rowan performed this stunt many times, but it only needed to go awry once. While appearing in front of a sizable crowd in 1930, Rowan failed to dislodge himself in time; the car ran right over him, virtually severing his leg and ending his life. Prior to the stunt, Rowan wrote a letter of exoneration for the driver in case something went wrong.  

2. Princess Tenko and the Swords

This Japanese performer, known for her outlandish costumes, was onstage in the city of Sabae in 2007 when her show devolved into a Grand Guignol spectacle. Tenko was stuffed into a box where she was to become a pincushion for ten incoming swords if she didn’t escape in time. She did not, and the swords wound up breaking several ribs and her cheekbone. Amazingly, the Princess finished her performance before seeking medical attention.

3. Joe Burrus and the Cement

Comparing himself to the famed Harry Houdini, Joseph Burrus arranged for a Halloween night spectacle in 1990 where he would settle into a glass coffin and have nine tons of dirt and cement poured over him. The performance took place at Blackbeard’s Family Fun Center in Fresno, California. After being lowered seven feet into the ground, a chained-up Burrus waited while assistants directed a cement truck to unload its contents over the coffin. After one false start—the chain around his neck was too tight—Burrus made a second attempt. The cement crushed the coffin, suffocating him. It was a morbid homage to Houdini: He had also died on Halloween night.  

4. Genesta and the Milk Can

Houdini had made his name in part from the milk can escape, an often-imitated trick in which the magician is stuffed into an oversized container full of water, locked in, and given only moments to escape before drowning. Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison de la Genesta, or simply “Genesta,” was among those paying tribute to the illusion in a 1930 performance. The secret of the trick was that the neck of the container could come off, so locking on a lid made little difference. What Genesta didn’t realize is that the prop had been dropped during transit, creating a dent that sealed the neck and prevented it from moving. Though he was roused briefly at the hospital, Genesta died as a result of the accident.

5. George Lalonde and the Back-Stabbing Audience Member

Most sensible people regard illusions for what they are: bits of misdirection. But Henry Howard, who sat in the audience of a show in Montreal in 1936, became agitated when stage magician George Lalonde prepared to saw his assistant in half. Howard rushed the stage, grabbed a sword, and plunged it into Lalonde’s neck in what he perceived as an act of heroism. Lalonde survived, while Howard told police he “couldn’t bear to see a woman cut in two.”

6. Balabrega and the Flaming Moths

Swedish conjurer Balabrega was fascinated by an elaborate deception involving six assistants dressed as moths who would appear before being "consumed" by flames. After purchasing the rights to perform the illusion, he traveled to Brazil in June 1900 for a tour. The trick required a supply of gas for the flame, but the theater wasn’t set up for it. Instead, Balabrega substituted acetylene, which immediately ignited during preparation and literally blew the magician and a nearby assistant to pieces.  

7. The Chinese Impostor and the Bullet Catch

Williams Ellsworth Robinson was a turn-of-the-century vaudeville veteran who achieved tremendous fame and success in Europe by pretending to be established Chinese performer Chung Ling Soo. Robinson professed to speak no English, as his exotic routines and persona captivated audiences. Occasionally, Robinson would perform a trick where two rifles were aimed at him and fired. The barrels were supposed to be rigged to not fire real bullets, but his last performance was an anomaly, and the rifles discharged actual ammunition. Only then did audiences understand the extent of his ruse: In perfect English, he shouted, “I’ve been shot!”