Hard to swallow

Chris Walljasper
Apr 28, 2015 · 8 min read

One man’s journey around the world & into the record books

Luther Bangert rolled his shoulders, loosening the sinewy muscles in his arms and neck, muscles that would be crucial in what he was about to attempt. He’d done it before, behind closed doors, in the quiet of his apartment. But the afternoon heat and the eyes of the growing crowd added a new element to the feat.

The crowd had grown to more than two hundred, most of whom seemed only mildly interested in the man standing in the center of the plaza. They were carrying shopping bags and pushing baby strollers down the street in Iowa City when the distorted sound of a carnival barker over a cheap guitar amp piqued their interest. What began as a performance for a few dozen family and friends on a hot, dry afternoon in July quickly turned into a packed pedestrian mall.

Luther was no stranger to crowds. In 2010, he was the single westerner performing in the Dasara festival parade in Mysore, India, unicycling laps around elephants and throwing pins into the air to the bewilderment of locals who likely had never seen such a peculiar performance.

“I burst out of the palace and rode as fast as I could.” Luther later recalled.

“There were six story buildings all around, people hanging off billboards to get a better view. I rode in and there was a roar all the way up — everyone freaking out. I was just riding as fast as I could, juggling pins. That went on for four hours. Three or four million watched in person, twenty million on TV.

After that, I had to stop riding the unicycle around town.”

The crowd was not what made Luther sweat that day in July. A baritone from the circus band sounded a clumsy bleat, signaling a man with a stopwatch. Luther nodded and slid an ornately-­hilted sword into his throat with a wet cough.

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In addition to sword-swallowing and juggling, Bangert plays the musical saw. He uses a violin bow to illicit the haunting vibrato of operatic melodies. (Christopher Walljasper)

Somewhere toward the back of the plaza, his mother looked away and shuddered. When Luther left for India, she’d asked that, of all the stunts he mastered, he leave sword swallowing to someone else. Fire-­eating, tight rope — sure. She could even feel comfortable with her only son juggling knives. But please, she said, don’t try sword swallowing. Which is why Luther waited until he was in India to begin the painstakingly slow task of learning to slide metal blades into his innards.

Prassad, his host in Mysore, welcomed juggling and unicycling in the house, but Luther hesitated to tell anyone about his determination to swallow swords. So he practiced behind closed doors.

“Three months, for an hour a night with a rod after Prassad would go to sleep, I would sit in my room. I just put it in my throat and it would sit on top of that sphincter.” Luther describes the anatomy of the throat with surprising technicality. “For the first few weeks I wasn’t sure if I even had a sphincter. Am I sideways, is there something else in there I didn’t know about?”

Luther repeated the exercise night after night, with little progress. His days included daily sitar lessons, yoga meditation, and trips to a monkey-­filled temple that sat astride the thousand-stepped Chamundi hill, where he would journal and meditate. At night, Luther remained dedicated to mastering the art of sword swallowing.

“There was a point around two months where I thought ‘this is too insane. I am never going to get this.” But Luther found ways to focus his efforts.

“I did all kinds of things as I was learning. I would put the rod in my throat, then sit there and play sitar. I would make weird rules, like every time I went into my room, I had to try it once.

I also had a couple albums that I was obsessed with — Phillip Glass’ Glassworks and Koyaanisqatsi. I would start the album and stand against the wall in the dark and just do it until the album was over.”

Finally he had a breakthrough. “It was actually on New Years, almost midnight, 2011 when it opened the first time. As soon as that happened, it was really only a week or two before I could get it all the way down.”

The sword in his throat forced Luther’s gaze to the overcast afternoon sky. Luther palmed six red and white balls, each a little larger than a baseball. He gestured to his left, where the baritone again sounded the timer. The balls flew into the air in quick succession, a flourish of color in an indistinguishable pattern, then thudded to the ground, to the disappointment of the crowd.

The timekeeper called out “two seconds.” Luther began again. He needed only five seconds, but despite his deepest concentration, the balls would not stay aloft. The crowd started to murmur and it seemed that many were losing interest. Skepticism rippled through the crowd — an uncomfortable whisper of doubt that jumped from cluster to cluster, edging closer to the juggler as he breathed stillness into his sweat-­drenched body.

After a few more attempts to juggle all six balls with the sword in his throat, Luther realized that his original goal was not going to happen that July afternoon. But defeat is not in Luther’s vocabulary. The Guinness Book World Record that he was attempting to break was set by a man who had juggled five balls for just five seconds. While six balls flying for more than five seconds would have been admirable, Luther Bangert announced to the crowd that he would instead try five balls and focus on beating the previously held time.

Again, the sickening gag made the crowd shudder as he sheathed his sword within his esophagus. While some in the plaza were fighting their own gag reflex, Luther was at peace with his sword. But Luther’s sword swallowing has not always been painless.

“I don’t even know exactly what happened. It was December and it was outside, in Italy, at midnight — probably 30 degrees.” Luther was the guest of a fellow street ­performer while performing in Venice, and things didn’t go quite as planned. A missed musical queue forced the sword swallower to rush his act. He was frantic, but got back on track and finished the show with two swords in his mouth, to the applause and amazement of his Italian congregation.

It wasn’t until after the show that he noticed something was wrong. “When I was putting my stuff away, someone was looking at the sword and was like ‘Is that your blood all over it?’ I spit and it was all blood.”

Despite the alarming presence of his own blood, Luther didn’t feel all that bad. The bleeding had slowed. So he went back to his rented flat and went to bed. “The next day I felt really weak. My roommate called the ambulance and at that point I couldn’t even walk. I was totally out of it and feverish. I went to the hospital, but none of the doctors spoke English, so they kept having patients translate for me.”

Luther spent 10 hours in the hospital, as they tried to find the source of the bleeding in his throat. “They decided I just scraped my throat and gave me some antibiotics. The next week was hellish. Five days of it being completely impossible to swallow, then all of a sudden, it was all fine.”

This type of incident would stop most from ever trying to swallow swords again. Luther wasn’t phased. “I’m not really afraid of it. Maybe that’s bad.”

Instead, others have felt that fear. The manager of the Great Bombay Circus, after hiring Luther to travel across western India with his big ­top production, thought he was getting an American juggler and unicyclist. The crowds loved his act, his bizarre transportation and his ability to fling three, four and five balls thirty feet into the air without missing a beat. But after months of practice, Luther worked up the courage to introduce India to his sword.

“I had one of the clowns bring the sword out to me at the end. I swallowed the sword and juggled. I thought the whole time every knew what I was doing. After about the third day of sword swallowing at the end of every act, the clown freaked out. No one had realized it was real — they just assumed it was a magic trick. They had never heard of sword swallowing. The manager was afraid he was going to have a dead American on his hands.”

Despite the manager’s worries, Luther continued his act and the audiences loved it.

Eventually the manager invited government officials and dignitaries back to Luther’s tent to prove that the American was not trying to trick them. They were amazed. “I did 300 shows with the circus.”

At first, Luther could only swallow the sword and clumsily try to juggle three balls. “By the end I could nail five balls. That’s been the finale of my juggling act for the last three years.

The skeptical crowd paused, allowing Luther to adjust his plans and mount the five­-ball attempt. The crowd that was on the brink of wandering back into the cool air of a nearby national chain restaurant began to tighten, straining to see what the the slim mustachioed man claimed was a forgone conclusion.

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The only time Bangert’s been injured by his swords during a street show in Italy. He doesn’t blame the swords, but his carelessness during a two-sword routine. (Christopher Walljasper)

Again, the sword went in. As the balls went up, the crowd began to chant.

“One. Two. Three.” The sound rippled across the tentative gathering.

“Four! Five! Six!” The crowd danced with electric energy. The chant reached frenzy as it topped ten. At twelve seconds, Luther flung the balls into the air, triumphantly hoisting the sword into the air from its corporeal sheath. The crowd roared at the Iowa boy’s record­-breaking spectacle.

The band jerked into a frenetic polka rhythm and Luther snatched up all six balls, dancing with his familiar orbs as he rocketed them three stories into the air, catching them in perfect time with the accented notes of the horns.

With the record out of the way, the show could really begin.

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