Magicians Who Died Trying To Pull Off A Trick

The world of magic can be a very deadly place. While safety conditions for many of the industry's most popular entertainers are now better than ever, working as a magician was once one of the world's most dangerous professions. It was all too easy to get burned alive, shot to death, or horribly maimed, or to simply keel over in the middle of a show.

Many years ago, several magicians lost their lives while trying to awe their audiences with their complex illusions and acts of derring-do that involved everything from cutting-edge pyrotechnics to supposedly being able to withstand ridiculous punches. Needless to say, pulling off a trick that involved catching a bullet was much riskier back then than it is when Penn and Teller do it during their modern live shows in Las Vegas. In hindsight, the following magicians should have probably stuck with card tricks or pulling cute rabbits out of their hats.

Harry Houdini's last big hit

The man many consider the greatest magician of all time died at the age of 52 in 1926. Prior to his untimely passing, he amazed people all around the world with his astonishing escapes. Handcuffs were no match for him. Neither were milk cans, straitjackets, packing crates tossed into various bodies of water, nor the occasional Chinese water torture cell.

Sadly, Houdini's life came to an end after a nasty encounter with something far less thrilling. According to Houdini: His Life and Art, the seemingly superhuman magician was looking through his mail in a dressing room on the afternoon of October 22 when two college students asked to speak with him. One asked Houdini if he could really withstand any heavy blow to his abdomen, as he'd often professed. Houdini said he could. Before he could properly prepare for the trick, though, one of the students punched him four times. Houdini was also recovering from a broken ankle, which certainly didn't help matters.

The legendary magician still performed that evening as planned at Montreal's Princess Theatre, but he was suffering badly. After two sleepless nights, he performed one final time on October 24 in Detroit. He barely made it through the show, and his wife finally convinced him to go a nearby hospital. He died there on Halloween, but historians still debate whether it was the student's punches that did him in, or peritonitis, or a combination of the two.

Benjamin Rucker's assistant charged his fans to view his corpse

Benjamin Rucker was one of the world's first African-American magicians. He began his career as a teenager under the tutelage of a magician who performed with the stage name "Prince Herman," according to The Magic Library. The duo ran a traveling medicine show together.

Prince Herman died when Rucker was only 17, but he continued to tour and eventually dropped the "medicinal" portion of the show. He took the name "Black Herman" and advocated for the rights of African-Americans throughout his career. He also performed lots of tricks that celebrated African heritage, many of which were supposedly taught to him by "Zulu witch doctors."

His most popular trick was being buried alive. Rucker would set up "Black Herman's Private Graveyard" at various tour stops and slip out of the coffin prior to burial. Then, after a week or so of curious locals stopping by to pay their respects, he'd be magically resurrected.

Sadly, Rucker died of a heart attack during his final performance in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 17, 1934. Many assumed it was just another stunt. His assistant even charged his fans 10 cents each to view his body and poke it with needles to confirm that he was, in fact, dead. According to the University of Kentucky, so many curious fans wanted to see his corpse that it had to be moved from the funeral parlor to a nearby train station.

Like a moth to the flame

Balabrega was the stage name of John Miller, a Swedish-born magician who moved to the United States as a child in 1868. He began his career at a young age and was billed as the Boy Magician during his youth, according to Course Hero.

As an adult, he toured the world as Balabrega and performed elaborate illusions. He later purchased the rights to one that would prove to be his downfall. It involved six assistants who dressed as moths and would appear to be consumed by flames. Balabrega and his crew traveled to Brazil in 1900 to perform the trick at a theater that didn't have proper safety standards or the equipment they needed, and the magician made the fatal mistake of improvising.

The trick required a supply of gas to fuel the flames. Balabrega instead used acetylene, an odorless and unstable chemical that's incredibly flammable. According to Mental Floss, he and one of his assistants were preparing for the show when the acetylene ignited. It badly mangled them both, and they died instantly.

The late Great Lafayette

Sigmund Neuberger was born in Munich and moved to the United States in 1872. Not much is known about his early years, according to The Scotsman. He toured the vaudeville circuit as an expert marksman before switching to magic, moving to London in 1900, and becoming "The Great Lafayette."

Neuberger's signature illusion was called The Lion's Bride. It took 25 minutes to perform and involved him magically metamorphosing into a lion. Despite his immense fame, he was also considered a misanthrope by many and was very attached to Beauty, a pit bull given to him as a gift by Harry Houdini.

Sadly, Beauty died while Neuberger was preparing for a two-week run at the Empire Theater in Edinburgh in 1911. He was so grief-stricken that he predicted that his own death was imminent. During a performance on May 9, he was getting ready for the final moments of The Lion's Bride illusion when a lamp caught fire. The stage burst into flames, and Neuberger was trapped behind a fire curtain and a series of locked stage doors.

The body of his double was later discovered beside a horse and a lion used in the show. A fire crew initially thought it was him, but Neuberger's actual body was recovered a few days later, according to The Edinburgh Reporter. Hundreds of fans showed up to view his coffin as it went through the streets of Edinburgh, and he was buried at Piershill Cemetery beside his beloved pet.

The tragedy at Winona Lake

Jeff Rayburn Hopper was only 23 years old when he died in 1984 while preparing for an escape trick at Winona Lake in Indiana. According to the New York Times, he was put in handcuffs and chains before diving into the water on the morning of July 6.

It was all part of a rehearsal for a performance scheduled to take place later that day as part of the Winona Lake Bible Conference. Hopper jumped into the lake about 100 yards from the shore, and he managed to get out of both the chains and the handcuffs before he cried out for his assistant to help him.

Due to high winds, the assistant wasn't able to make it to Hopper in time. Tragically, he drowned in a mere 6 feet of water, the Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal reported. His body was recovered by authorities about five hours later.

The tragic fate of Madame DeLinsky and her unborn child

The bullet catch is one of the oldest and most dangerous tricks in the world of magic, and the illusion often involved real guns when it was performed in the 19th century. This is how Madame DeLinsky met her maker.

She was the wife and assistant of a Polish magician, and together they traveled to the court of a German prince and his family to perform the trick in 1820, according to Mental Floss. Their version involved paying a group of soldiers to act as shills. In those days, loading a rifle typically involved biting open a cartridge, pouring gunpowder into the barrel, and stuffing the cartridge down with a ramrod.

DeLinsky took her place in front of a "firing squad" of six soldiers. They were supposed to pretend to load their rifles with the method mentioned above but use blanks instead, according to The Chicago Tribune. One of them reportedly became nervous and prepared his rifle using the traditional method, eventually shooting her in the stomach with a real bullet. Several people in the audience fainted, and DeLinsky died two days later. Even worse, she was pregnant at the time.

Beaten to death with his own gun

You should never play with guns. This hasn't stopped plenty of magicians from performing the bullet catch over the years. This magic trick is at least 400 years old, and one of the oldest reports of it being performed was way back in the 16th century.

That's when a magician living in Lorraine, France, who went by the name of "Coulen" did the trick. For reasons unknown, this enraged one of his servants, who beat Coulen to death with the gun, according to a rundown by the Ipswich Magical Society.

There aren't a lot of details on the unfortunate incident, other than the fact that it made it into the pages of The Theater of God's Judgement, a historical and religious tome written by the English theologian and clergyman Thomas Beard. It also appeared in Wonderful Prodigies of Punishment and Mercury, another historical book that was first published in the 17th century. His career didn't take off, but at least people talked about the poor guy.

Chung Ling Soo literally caught a bullet

This notorious magician wasn't Chinese and likely never set foot in China. He was actually born William Ellsworth Robinson in New York in 1861. Nevertheless, that didn't stop him from performing magic while in yellowface during an era when this was still considered an acceptable form of entertainment. He even spoke in gibberish he claimed was actually a Chinese dialect, according to Birth Movies Death.

Robinson initially performed as "Robinson, the Man of Mystery," but his career really took off when he began pretending he was actually a mysterious Chinese illusionist named "Chung Ling Soo." He even came up with an elaborate backstory for his alter ego. Supposedly, Chung Ling Soo was the son of a Scottish man and a Cantonese woman. After they tragically died, he became an apprentice for an illusionist named Arr Hee. He joined Hee on a tour of South America and eventually returned to the Northern Hemisphere where he combined Ancient Eastern illusions with more modern European techniques.

Robinson enjoyed a successful career as Chung Ling Soo until the night of March 23, 1918. He was performing a bullet catching trick in London but had failed to properly clean his trick gun beforehand, according to Atlas Obscura. Robinson took a bullet to the chest and broke character by uttering, ""Oh my God, something's happened. Lower the curtain." He died the next day. (David Copperfield owns the gun in question.)

Video killed the comedy star

Tommy Cooper was a comedy legend over in the U.K. British audiences couldn't get enough of his magic tricks, which he did intentionally poorly. The "magical" Caerphilly-born jokester often wore a fez while performing and enjoyed a decades-long career that came to a tragic end at Her Majesty's Theater on April 15, 1984.

As Wales Online explained, many years of heavy drinking and smoking had evidently caught up with Cooper as he prepared to take the stage for a show that was also broadcast live on the BBC. The theater's crew set up a makeshift dressing room for him offstage so he wouldn't have to climb any stairs. Fellow comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, who MC'd the show and served as his assistant that evening, recalled that he looked frail as well.

Cooper fell during his act and suffered a massive heart attack. The audience and Tarbuck assumed he was just joking around — Cooper was known to suddenly improvise during his performances. Several moments passed before he and the stage crew realized something had gone terribly wrong.

Tarbuck called for a commercial break before struggling to get Cooper behind the stage curtain, and he was later pronounced dead at Westminster Hospital. "God, that was the saddest night of my entire career," Tarbuck later recalled. Unfortunately, since thousands of people watched the incident on TV that night and VCRs has become commonplace by then, videos of Cooper's death also occasionally pop up on YouTube.

'The Next Houdini' died on the anniversary of his hero's death

Getting buried alive is one way to get people's attention in the world of magic but it's also incredibly risky. The infamous escape artist Joseph "Amazing Joe" Burrus learned that lesson the hard way and became a cautionary tale in the process.

Burrus was a recovering drug addict who had been buried alive once before in Salem, Oregon, before he arranged an even crazier stunt at Blackbeard's Family Fun Center in Fresno, California. On Halloween night in 1990, he climbed inside a see-through coffin outside the amusement park while dressed in a white tuxedo. He was handcuffed and wrapped in chains as well.

"I consider myself a master of illusion and escape artist," he said prior to the stunt, according to The LA Times. "I believe I'm the next Houdini and greater."

In Oregon, Burrus was buried under a pile of dirt. He managed to claw his way out and back to the surface. For the Fresno stunt, his coffin was placed inside a 7-foot-deep hole under both a pile of dirt and a 3-foot layer of wet cement that was collectively estimated to weigh 9 tons. The coffin couldn't handle the load and it collapsed, crushing Burrus in the process. His support crew exhumed him but was unable to save his life. According to the Associated Press, a crowd of 150 people, including Burrus' wife and children, sadly witnessed the whole thing.

The fearless daredevil from Sri Lanka

Magician Janaka Basnayake was from Sri Lanka and attempted to break a record for the longest period of time spent buried alive back in 2012. The 24-year-old daredevil joined his family and friends in preparing a trench about 9 feet deep outside the town of Kantale, about 140 miles north of the island nation's capital. Then he climbed into it on a Saturday morning in March that year.

According to The Guardian, Basnayake was dug up about six hours later. He was unconscious and taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Basnayake's mother later said that her son was inspired to perform "unusual acts" due to his infatuation with the world of cinema.

He'd been buried alive twice before. The first time, he lasted 2.5 hours, and he went for four hours during his second attempt. As the BBC later reported, it's unclear if there's ever been an official world record for the longest amount of time spent while being buried alive, and considering how dangerous it is, it should probably stay that way.

Harry Houdini was really, really good

Harry Houdini is long gone, but that hasn't stopped the wannabes from trying to copy his most famous stunts. Except that Houdini's bits weren't just smoke and mirrors; they were genuinely dangerous stunts and they weren't designed for amateurs or even for most pros. That means duplicating a Houdini stunt might make you famous or it might make you dead, and no one's going to act super surprised if it ends up being the latter.

In 1912, Scientific American (which evidently wasn't always all about, you know, science) declared Houdini's underwater box escape to be "one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed." In June 2019, Indian magician Chanchal Lahiri (stage name "Jadugar Mandrake" or "Wizard Mandrake") was trying to perform a similar trick when something went wrong. Eyewitnesses said Lahiri — dressed in a bright red and yellow costume — had his arms and legs bound with ropes and chains and was lowered into the Hooghly River in Kolkata. He was expected to resurface just moments later, but he wasn't seen again until the following day, when authorities pulled his body out of the river. According to the Times of India, Lahiri made "several mistakes," including underestimating the current and wearing clothing and gear that would have hindered his ability to swim.

Weirdly, Lahiri's team waited a full 15 minutes to raise the alarm — plenty of time and then some for a man bogged down by chains and rope to drown in the murky waters.