When Magic Tricks Went Terribly Wrong

Magic isn't just for people who were lonely as children or thought it might be a way to pick up girls. It's also for the professionals, people who make a living out of pushing themselves farther than anyone else. But sometimes magic pushes back and tragedy can strike.

Joseph W. Burrus fails his idol

If you're going to compare yourself to the best magician ever, Harry Houdini, you'd better be damn good at what you do. Unfortunately for Joseph Burrus, who according to the LA Times considered himself the next great illusionist, his career came to just as sudden an end as that of his idol.

On Halloween in 1990, Burrus was preparing to perform a stunt at the Blackbeard's Family Fun Center. Normally, burying yourself alive seems pretty crazy, but the ex-drug addict was doing it for a good cause: the Third Floor drug recovery clinic. While innocent children who were about to grow up really fast watched, Burrus was handcuffed and chained up, put in a see-through coffin, and lowered into a hole 7 feet deep. When they started pouring dirt on his coffin, he complained his chains were choking him. That was dealt with easily enough, but then more dirt and wet cement was dumped on top of him. As soon as they finished, the combined weight crushed the coffin, burying Burrus alive. He was quickly dug up but attempts to revive him failed.

In one way, Burrus did live up to his idol, unfortunately: Houdini also died on Halloween, making Burrus's death tragically ironic.

Charles Rowan versus a car

Sometimes it can seem that magicians feel like they need to keep trying to top each other, to keep adding dangerous elements to their acts for no real reason. That's how it was with Charles Rowan, who went by the stage name "Karr the Magician." He must have decided that being able to escape from a straitjacket was getting boring for his audience without a real sense of danger. In this case, he chose having a car drive right at him at 45 mph from just 200 yards away, giving him very little time to get out of his bonds.

But people must have liked the chance of seeing a magician get flattened because according to the book Linking Rings, he drew big crowds, including children, especially on the day it all went wrong. A doctor in the audience begged him not to go through with the trick, but Karr refused. He prepared a statement exonerating the driver if anything bad happened, then he got all ready, the car sped toward him, and ... he almost got out of the way in time. He was hit by a front wheel and died from his injuries.

It's a good thing he pardoned the driver beforehand, though. Surely, that driver didn't feel a bit of guilt, all thanks to Karr's intelligent thinking.

Dr. Vivian Hensley is a better dentist than magician

If you're going to take up magic as a hobby, you better be good at it. Otherwise it can turn deadly. That's what happened to Dr. Vivian Hensley in 1938.

The poor dentist was entertaining his family with his famous sleight-of-hand trick when tragedy struck. According to Australia's The Courier-Mail, the trick involved passing a razor blade in front of his mouth, then pretending to chew it and swallow hard while actually palming the blade into his sleeve. Then it would magically appear out of his mouth again when he passed his hand back. An impressive trick if done correctly, for sure, but a dentist like Hensley should have known that swallowing razor blades is a bad idea. For one they're probably terrible for your teeth, but they're definitely bad for your insides. Unfortunately, Hensley accidentally threw the blade to the back of his throat and then swallowed involuntarily. While he didn't feel any pain as it made its way down, he was rushed to the hospital where he had two different operations to remove the rusty razor. Sadly, it kept moving around his intestines and doctors couldn't find it either time they opened him up. He died after four days of having it stuck inside him.

Princess Tenko is committed to her craft

The Japanese Princess Tenko might not have been real royalty, but she was nobility of the magic world. With fans in Asia and North America, she regularly performed in Las Vegas. She obviously knew her stuff, but one day it all went horribly wrong. But what do you expect when you're performing a show called The Face of Death? It isn't going to be all pulling bunnies out of hats, that's for sure.

The BBC reported that she was performing a stunt called the Spike Illusion in the Japanese city of Sabae when disaster struck. The idea was that she would leap out of a box at the same moment 10 swords were stuck inside it, but something went wrong and she was pinned inside. The swords went through parts of her body, breaking several ribs and stabbing her right check, only a centimeter from her eye.

Despite being in "tremendous pain," instead of stopping immediately and going to the hospital like any sane person would do, Tenko decided the show must go on and continued her act for another 30 minutes. She was probably good at her job, but no one needs to see a magic show that badly. If you get stabbed a bunch of times, go get help.

Genesta gets it wrong

If there's one thing to know about magic tricks, know that trying to honor Houdini by doing his tricks is a bad idea. Not everyone can pull off the stunts performed by the greatest magician ever.

This was again proven true when escape artist and man with the longest name of all time Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison de la Genesta (who thankfully performed under just "Genesta," probably to save room for literally anything else on the posters) tried to do the milk can escape. This involved a milk can being filled with water and the artist contorting himself to get inside, whereupon it was locked with a series of complicated locks. Genesta had performed this difficult trick perfectly for ten years, but it only had to go wrong once. And according to The Secret Life of Houdini, one night in 1930, the worst happened.

When it was clear something was wrong, the assistant had to waste time figuring out the locks to free his boss. When Genesta was finally pulled out, he was unconscious and later died at a hospital.

George Lalonde gets stabbed

Poor George Lalonde was just doing his job. This magician for the Wallace Brothers circus was performing his act quite happily in Quebec in 1936 when disaster struck. And unlike most people on this list, it wasn't because he did the trick wrong.

It's hard to say which stunt he was performing because of differing accounts. The Chicago Tribune reported he was sticking knives into a woman trapped in a box, while the Crosbyton Review, of Texas, said he was actually sawing her in half. Whichever it was, it involved a lady and sharp things and potential injury. The trick went off fine and Lalonde was probably feeling pretty good about himself when he was suddenly confronted by a drunk from the audience. Again, sources differ as to what the assailant said, but it was either that he "couldn't bear to see a lady sawed in two" or that he would "like to stick a knife into [Lalonde]." Whatever his motivation was, he picked a knife from a nearby table and plunged it into the back of the poor magician's neck.

Lalonde was taken to the hospital in critical condition, and the attacker, 51-year-old Henry W. Howard, was arrested. And the rest of the audience was treated to something much more exciting than they had paid for.

Chung Ling Soo is really William Ellsworth Robinson

Chung Ling Soo was a brilliant illusionist and incredibly famous in his day. He toured Europe but never spoke since he only knew Chinese. The Guardian reported that one of his most famous and dangerous tricks was catching two bullets between his teeth. Despite the trick behind it (the bullets were substituted at the last minute) it was still a possibly deadly stunt and he didn't always perform it, preferring to leave his audience in suspense.

One night, his audience got the shock of a lifetime when the bullet catch went wrong. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened, but rumors abounded. According to the book The Glorious Deception , Harry Houdini himself thought that it might have been a deliberate mixup by one of the stagehands and that Soo had been murdered. All we know for sure is that one of the bullets was real, it hit him in the chest, and he died a few hours later.

But Chung Ling Soo's most brilliant deception was only appreciated after he died and people found out he wasn't Chinese at all, but a man named William Ellsworth Robinson. He had stolen the name of a real Chinese magician but could speak perfect English. His last words from the stage were, "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain." It's perfectly understandable you can't keep up the silent act after you've been shot.

Janaka Basnayake stays buried too long

When a relative says they want your help burying themselves alive, maybe think twice about doing it. Because the family and friends of Sri Lankan man Janaka Basnayake were probably thinking that in 2012 after his stunt they assisted with ended in tragedy.

The BBC said this wasn't Basnayake's first time performing the stunt; he had buried himself before twice, for up to six hours. And The Guardian reported this was par for the course. According to his mother he had enjoyed attempting "unusual acts" since he was a kid. Now he wanted to go for the record of the longest time anyone had spent buried alive. But this time that unusual act was just too much for him. He was buried in a 10-foot-deep trench and sealed in with wood and soil at 9:30 a.m. He was pulled out unconscious at 4 p.m. and rushed to hospital but it was too late and he died.

The Guinness Book of World Records even posted a condolence message on its website and reminded everyone that, hey, maybe don't bury yourself alive because there aren't awards for that. If there were, people would probably be dropping like flies.

The Great Lafayette's final trick

The only time it's appropriate to yell "fire" in a crowded theater is when the place is burning down. But if it's in the middle of a magic show, people might be a little slow to realize that they're in actual danger and not just watching an illusion. This is what lead to the demise of Sigmund Neuberger, who went by the stage name the Great Lafayette.

Lafayette was one of the most famous people of his day. He had a pet dog that had been given to him by Harry Houdini himself. And according to the Scotsman, in 1911, he was playing to a packed house in Edinburgh when tragedy struck. He had just performed his last and greatest trick. The stage was covered in draperies and tents to give it an "Asian" feel. A woman walked toward a cage with a lion in it, then opened the door and went inside. The lion prepared to pounce! Then the lion skin was pulled away to reveal the Great Lafayette himself, who had somehow switched places with the great beast.

Huzzah! To deafening applause, the magician took his bow, only for a lamp to be accidentally knocked over. The stage was engulfed in flames, and the people in the audience thought it was just part of the show. Once everyone clued into the fact they were in danger, it was too late to save Lafayette.

David Blaine survives a gunshot by the skin of his teeth

David Blaine is always pushing himself, one day being buried alive, the next being frozen in ice, or trying to hold his breath for the longest time. How many other times will he try death-defying feats before he's satisfied?

His closest brush with death might have come during one of his regular shows at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas in 2016. According to People, he was performing a bullet catch trick, holding a mouth guard between his teeth with a metal cup to catch the bullet. Even with that in place, though, the trick could go horribly wrong if the bullet didn't land exactly where it needs to. He pulled the string attached to the gun and at the same second, felt the cup slip from position.

He said time suddenly slowed down. Then he felt an impact on the back of his throat and was sure he had been shot. Thankfully, it just turned out to be the mouth guard shattering. All he had was a laceration in his throat. His assistants still refuse to help him with the trick ever again, but Blaine isn't worried. "That's not how I'm going to die," he told a reporter. Who knew he was also clairvoyant?

Jeff Rayburn found God too literally

There are some events that just need spicing up to make them interesting, like Bible camp. That's probably why in 1984, magician Jeff Rayburn was hired to perform some tricks for the Winona Lake Bible Conference. According to the Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal, one of those stunts involved being chained up and jumping into the lake where, in theory, he would escape his bonds. That's because unlike Jesus, magicians can't walk on water.

But while rehearsing for his performance later that day, Rayburn ran into trouble. He jumped into the lake about 100 yards from the shore and did manage to get the chains off. But something went wrong and he fought his way to the surface numerous times, calling on his assistant to help him. The most tragic thing was that he was in just 6 feet of water, but high winds prevented boats from reaching him. Sadly, he drowned, and Jesus wasn't around to resurrect him like Lazarus.

Marcin Poloniewicz gets his bags wrong

There comes a point in most magicians' acts when a member of the audience is invited to participate in a trick — increases the suspense. If you're the one chosen, this involves a level of trust in the illusionist to not, say, screw something up and cause you bodily harm.

Marzena Rogalska, one of the hosts of the Polish morning show Question for Breakfast was not so lucky. While interviewing magician Marcin Poloniewicz, who had made it to the semifinals of Poland's Got Talent, she agreed to participate in a trick where, according to CNET, he arranged three empty brown paper bags alongside one with a large nail in it. She had to trust that he knew which one was safe. Things started out fine as he slammed his hand down on a bag with no problem. Despite looking a little unsure, Rogalska agreed to do the same. She followed his lead –- then started jumping around and screaming, probably using all the best Polish curse words.

According to the Independent, at first everyone else thought it was a joke, until they notice the giant nail sticking out of her hand. She was rushed to the hospital, but posted a Facebook video saying she didn't even need stitches. That was probably the happiest outcome possible, except that it casts doubt on the idea that Poland has much magical talent.

Criss Angel passes out

You'd think if you manage to become one of the most famous magicians ever and you score a residency in Las Vegas, where drunk people taking a break from losing money come to see you perform, you'd probably have all your tricks worked out to perfection. Not so for Criss Angel, who is famous for being a magician and spelling his first name totally wrong.

According to TMZ, in March 2017, Angel was performing one of his standard tricks: dangling upside-down in a straitjacket and managing to escape. It was only ten minutes into his Mindfreak Live! Vegas show, and you know he wouldn't put his hardest stuff that early in the gig. Nevertheless, this time the trick beat him. He struggled to get out of the straitjacket for a full two minutes, before the curtains were suddenly closed and the audience was asked to leave, probably to go back to their drinking and gambling, which must have been rough. Apparently, Angel passed out during his attempt. Most people know that will happen if you hang upside-down for too long, but magicians seem kind of stupid about this stuff.

The magician was taken to the hospital, was deemed able to walk out on his own, and planned on performing the next night. The show must go on.