A: I first witnessed sword swallowing as a child at circus sideshows and did not believe it was real. It wasn't until I was working as a Lutheran missionary in India at the age 20 that I witnessed sword swallowers on the street in a village in south India, where it originated over 4,000 years ago.
There is a progression to learning the sideshow arts. Like many other sword swallowers, I started by learning juggling, then stilt walking, unicycle riding, bed of nails, the human blockhead, fire eating, glass eating, and then the final move to sword swallowing in 1997 when I was living in Nashville. Sword swallowing is the hardest of all of the sideshow arts. Twenty-nine people have died swallowing swords over the past 150 years, and there are less than a few dozen professional sword swallowers left actively performing around the world today.
Q: How do you learn this profession?
A: It often takes from 3-10 years to learn to swallow a single sword, practicing multiple time a day, and some people never learn. I spent four years practicing 10 to 12 times per day for over four years, a total of almost 13,000 unsuccessful attempts, until I got my first sword down my throat (Feb. 12, 2001).
Q: Tell me the pathway of the sword through your mouth.
A: I first lick the sword to lubricate it with saliva, then put the sword in the mouth, overcome the gag reflex, and find the proper alignment into the epiglottis, then flip open the epiglottis and repress the peristalsis reflex in the throat (22 pairs of muscles in the esophagus that swallow your food). I then pass the sword between the lungs, nudge the heart to the left, pass through the diaphragm, and relax the lower esophageal sphincter, slide the blade past my liver and kidneys and into the stomach, and repress the retch reflex in the stomach.
Q: Have you ever injured your mouth, tongue or throat?
A: I have had several minor injuries and a few serious injuries requiring hospitalization. As president of the Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI -- www.swordswallow.org), we learn of about 4-8 serious sword swallowing injuries that require hospitalization each year, with more that go unreported. In 2005 I had my worst injury while swallowing five swords at once in Alabama. I had previously swallowed seven swords the week before, but this time, while the swords were in my stomach, my stomach retched and I punctured the opening to my stomach on the sword tips. When you sustain an injury like this, you can't just slap a bandaid on it. I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't breathe as I had fluids around my lungs and heart, so I ended up going to the emergency room. Recovery was three weeks of bedrest, antibiotics, and fasting on a water diet for about three weeks. For most sword swallowing injuries, doctors often prescribe an IV drip with antibiotics for about three weeks until the injury heals. That's the only way an injury like this can heal. If you get bacteria in the wound, you can die from peritonitis infection within 24 hours. In 2010, I perforated my upper esophagus while swallowing two swords underwater in a tank for the Guinness World Records TV in Rome. I currently hold 22 world records, including five Guinness World Records and three Ripley's Believe It or Nots and perform in about 20 countries around the world each year. For more info: www.swordswallower.net.
Q: Do you sterilize your mouth or sword before performing?
A: No. Most sword swallowers simply lubricate the blade with saliva. We also don't rinse with antiseptic because it can numb the throat, and it is very important that we are able to feel the placement and alignment of where the sword goes in the esophagus and epiglottis. I do sterilize my swords with rubbing alcohol before and after performance because I let audience members touch the blades to verify they are real.
Q: Do you have any dietary precautions before swallowing a sword?
A: I eat a full meal three hours before performing in order to fill and stretch my stomach. I also drink lots of water; this makes the stomach hang a little lower and it's easier to insert the swords into the stomach. It is extremely difficult to swallow a sword on an empty stomach at 6 a.m. when the esophagus and stomach are tight and shriveled up.
For more by Thomas P. Connelly, D.D.S., click here.