The Harrowing Way Knife Swallowing Led To The Eventual Death Of A Sailor

You've probably heard of people who swallow swords, a magic trick of sorts that dates back to ancient Rome. It takes time to learn this talent, which involves overcoming the gag reflex and conditioning the pharynx and the stomach, according to Britannica. Natasha Veruschka holds the record for swallowing the longest sword, which was 22.83 inches long, in 2009 (via Guinness World Records).  

Knife swallowing is something altogether different and much more dangerous because it involves literally swallowing a knife. And if you think this sounds remarkably dangerous, you'd be right. But that doesn't mean that someone somewhere hasn't tried it. Take the story of John Cummings, an American sailor who found that after consuming liberal amounts of alcohol, he had enough liquid courage to not only brag about swallowing knives but to actually do it. And, for better or worse, it would eventually be his claim to fame, per the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

John Cummings was quite adept at swallowing knives

The account goes that in June 1799, John Cummings, who was around 23 years old, saw something in France that stuck with him for years — a charlatan who claimed he could swallow clasp-knives, or what we might think of today as a crude pocket knife. Later that evening, after "drinking freely," Cummings boasted to his shipmates that he, too, could also swallow knives. And he proceeded to swallow not one but four knives that night. Oddly enough, in the following days, he was able to pass three of them.

Surprisingly, Cummings never suffered any negative implications from swallowing the knives, and his life went on without incident. Some six years later, when recounting the story to new shipmates in Boston, they did not believe him. Under the influence of rum, he did what you might think he would do — he decided to swallow 14 more knives to prove he could do it. This time, he did suffer from abdominal pain, but somehow, he managed to pass all of the knives, per the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

He ran out of luck 10 years later

Not long after that, encouraged by his shipmates and too much alcohol, John Cummings swallowed 20 more knives. But this time, he didn't have such good luck. On December 6, 1805, he reported to the ship's surgeon in pain, who attempted to ease his symptoms to no avail. Some three months later, Cummings told the doctor that he could feel the knives moving into his bowels. In June 1806, he vomited up part of one knife, and later in November and February, he passed fragments of others, according to Medico-Chirurgical Transactions.

By June 1807, he was discharged and declared incurable. In March 1809, he died in a state of "extreme emaciation," according to Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. After his death, the remains of his gut were examined, and physicians removed some 35 fragments of knives, some of which were corroded while others were in a "state of tolerable preservation," reports Medico-Chirurgical Transactions.