The Unsolved Mystery Of The Queen Of The Fire Eaters

Fire is nothing to mess around with, no matter how our ancestors mastered it to cook their food. Incineration, excruciating torment, pain of death: these are definitely things to avoid. At most, some folks might try that "pass your finger through the base of a candle flame" party trick. Others? Well, they just stuff flaming coals in their throats or spew mouthfuls of kerosene at torches (as Science Notes outlines).

And yet others, like Jo Girardelli, per Trivia Library and Historic Mysteries, used her bare hands to scoop molten iron into her mouth and just kind of hold it there. She licked flaming-hot shovels and ran them across her skin. She slowly moved burning candles under the soles of her feet and jumped onto red-hot metal fragments. She swigged nitric acid and spit it out onto iron and watched it fume orange. She poured boiling oil in her mouth – after cooking eggs with it – and then held it there. She drizzled hot wax onto her tongue and had audience members make impressions on it with a seal. In each case, she magically, miraculously, impossibly remained unharmed. And in each case, attempts to prove her a fraud, or debunk her, proved unsuccessful. Folks rightfully dubbed her "Queen of the Fire Eaters."

The thing is, no one really knew — or knows — anything about Girardelli. She was apparently born around 1780 in Italy, grew to prominence in England by 1810, and then simply vanished from the public eye.

No pain, no injuries, no possible explanations

It's reasonable to assume that stories about Girardelli were at least partially exaggerated. After all, most folks get an ouchie if their coffee is several degrees above optimal temperature. Humans are fragile creatures, especially to heat, which is why fire eaters and other such performers are so shocking and thrilling to behold. But the Queen of the Fire Eaters? She was on a whole other level. Even if it was all tricks, her performances were daring enough to go above and beyond anybody else. 

As Historic Mysteries says, skeptical audience members simply assumed Girardelli coated her skin or the interior of her mouth with some kind of fire-resistant cream or something. But, molten iron is 1,400-1,500 degrees Celsius (2,550-2,700 degrees Fahrenheit), as Britannica states. If she was really using molten iron, that's hot enough to sear nerves to nothing in a matter of seconds. Was there some pre-industrial, early 1800's material capable of protecting against such heat? Plus, conditions like congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) disallow people from feeling pain (as the BBC explains), but they still get injured. 

Mysterious Universe posits "mysteries of human physiology" as an explanation, asking, "Was there perhaps in Jo Girardelli an example of a human being who has branched out into the unknown limits of our physiology and the power of the mind?" Admittedly, that's as good of an explanation as we've got. Girardelli never provided answers, either. She disappeared from England as quickly as she'd arrived.