Is it possible for a human being to catch a speeding bullet in his mouth? For centuries, magicians have been convincing audiences that it is. Whether the bullet catch is an illusion or the result of lightning-fast reflexes, it definitely comes with a fatal risk. Since its introduction in the late 1500s, many magicians have perished on stage doing the trick, as detailed in Ben Robinson’s 1986 book Twelve Have Died: Bullet Catching—The Story & Secrets.
The presentation of the catch usually goes like this. A bullet is offered to an audience member to examine, then marked for identification and loaded into a gun. The gun is fired by an assistant or a volunteer, directly at the magician’s mouth. The magician catches it with his teeth, or in a cup that’s been placed inside his mouth. He then presents the exploded shell of the marked bullet to the audience for verification. In modern versions of the trick (see Penn & Teller or David Blaine), there is often a plate of glass between the gun and the magician, to confirm that live ammunition is being fired. With that setup, let’s meet six magicians who became unfortunate targets in the bullet catch.
1. Madame DeLinsky (died 1820)
The wife/assistant of a Polish magician had a routine where she faced a firing squad of six soldiers. Back in the early 19th century, rifles were loaded by biting open a cartridge, pouring the gunpowder in the barrel, then jamming the rest of the cartridge down the barrel with a ramrod. In the DeLinsky version of the trick, the soldiers were shills, paid and secretly instructed to bite away the whole bullet and load in a blank. But in the fatal performance, in Germany before a royal court, one of the riflemen apparently got nervous being on stage, and reverted to his usual way of loading the gun. When the bullet hit Madame DeLinsky in the abdomen, several audience members fainted. The Madame died two days later. Adding to the tragedy, she was pregnant and lost her unborn child. Her husband was eventually driven mad from the shock of the accident.
2. Arnold Buck (died 1840)
As long as there have been magicians, there have been skeptical audience members who hope to screw up their tricks. Unfortunately, in Buck’s case, he picked one such troublemaker as a volunteer to load a bullet into a gun. Along with a bullet, which was a blank, the volunteer dropped some nails into the barrel, then fired. The sharp-end buckshot was fatal for Buck.
3. Professor Adam Epstein (died 1869)
Important safety tip for aspiring conjurers: magic wands should only be used for making rabbits disappear. The Professor reportedly used his wand to ram the ammunition into the barrel of a rifle before the bullet catch. But the wand broke, and he was killed when one of its flying shards pierced his forehead.
4. Chung Ling Soo (died 1918)
His real name, William Ellsworth Campbell Robinson, lacked the requisite hocus pocus. So when this American took the stage, he performed under names such as Achmed ben Ali and Nana Sahib. Inspired by famous Chinese conjurer Ching Ling Foo, Robinson finally chose a variation for his own professional alias. In his most notorious illusion, “Condemned To Death By The Boxers” (as in Boxer Rebellion), two assistants fired guns at him, and he’d catch both bullets. Each gun had two barrels, one with a real bullet, the other with a blank. On the fateful night, a buildup of gunpowder accidentally sent one of the real bullets straight into Chung’s chest. He said, “Oh my god, something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” He died the next day. At first, foul play was suspected, as there had been a feud between Chung and Ching, the magician from whom he stole his name. But after Chung’s widow explained the mechanics of the trick at an inquest, the death was ruled accidental.
5. The Black Wizard of the West (died 1922)
Clearly, the Black Wizard, real name H.T. Sartell, was a greenhorn. The story goes that he bought some wax bullets and attempted the trick on stage for the first time without any rehearsal. And he enlisted his wife as an assistant without realizing that she was harboring some serious ill will towards him. She switched out the wax bullets for real ones and gunned her husband down in front of a horrified audience.
6. Ralf Bialla (died 1975)
The bullet was only an accessory in the death of this eccentric German magician, who billed himself as “The Living Target.” Bialla had performed the trick over 3,000 times, a feat he attributed not only to his skill but to a secret weapon: a set of steel teeth he had beneath his dentures. In Bialla’s version of the trick, the bullet was fired through three panes of glass then into his mouth via a funnel he made with his hands, clad in steel gloves. But reportedly, one of the long-term effects of catching all those bullets was that he had circulation problems that caused him to black out. After recovering from an injury in 1975, he went for a stroll in the mountains. While admiring scenery over a cliff, he blacked out and fell to his death.