I recently went to the Coney Island freak show. It was amazing.
Attending a so-called "freak show" wasn't initially on the agenda for my mom's Easter weekend visit to New York City. We were going to do some shopping, eat some pizza, and see a show on Broadway. But at the last minute, we decided on a Saturday afternoon jaunt to Coney Island, where neither of us had ever been. My boyfriend, born and raised in Manhattan, insisted our train ride out to Brooklyn's coast would be worth it, if just for a Nathan's hotdog.
After the hotdogs, we walked past a building, Sideshows by the Seashore, nestled in a side street leading up to Coney Island's boardwalk. After a few minutes of debate, we ponied up for the $10 tickets and went in. My mom was convinced it was going to be all smoke and mirrors; I thought it would be cheesy; my boyfriend thought his $10 might be better spent on another hotdog.
The show has rolling admission, so when we walked in it was already underway. A gentleman by the name of Dr. Klaw was onstage with a bowling ball hanging from chains that were attached to piercings in his nostrils. You know, typical Saturday stuff.
We proceeded to watch Betty Bloomerz swallow massive, jagged knives; Ray Valenz gulp down fire; and Dr. Klaw return to the stage to stick meat hooks attached to chains that were holding a big clock into his eye sockets. He then put his hands behind his back and swung the clock around as it dangled from his eye sockets.
He claimed the trick once caused a woman in the audience to go into labor.
When the show ended, we had the choice of leaving or waiting until the next show started so we could catch the acts at the beginning that we'd missed. Obviously, we stayed.
And so we watched Valenz jam a power drill up his nostril and turn it on. To disprove any doubters thinking it was all just an illusion, he proceeded to stick a massive nail up his nose, which he pounded in with a hammer.
We also caught the show's opening monologue, during which Valenz admitted that, yes, this was really weird. But hadn't we all just paid to watch them do this really weird stuff?
He had a point.
The brief intermission between the two shows had actually given us an opportunity to do some Googling: As it turned out, my mom's theory that the whole thing was smoke and mirrors was totally wrong.
Performing on stage as many as eight times a day, Ms. Hochendoner slides larger and larger swords down her throat, often letting them drop a few inches before catching them with her teeth, throat, and stomach muscles.
To achieve this she tilts her head back and relaxes her throat while suppressing the gag reflex. She navigates the blade down the esophagus, past the epiglottis, and into the chest, where it’s separated from her heart by about an eighth of an inch of tissue. From there, the sword is guided past the sternum, through the diaphragm, and past the liver and kidneys until it reaches the bottom of her stomach. [The New York Times]
Hochendoner told The New York Times she's only been injured once, when a sword "nicked the back side" of her stomach. "The scariest swords are the ones that stop right behind your heart," she said. "You can feel the temperature of the metal against that part of your body."
To celebrate the launch of our official Instagram account, we’ve put together a lil’ profile of one of the stars of our show and sideshow legend, @bettybloomerz! Come see Betty in action on our opening day, April 15, along with a cast of weird men and wild women. We’ll see you at the sideshow! #swordswallower #coneyisland #coneyislandcircussideshow #baconandeggs
The nail and hammer trick, known as the Human Blockhead, is also real — and risky. Every human has some empty spaces in his or her skull, including the nasal cavity, which starts at the the tippy top of the nose and opens up into an empty space that goes decently far back into the head. The mucous membranes lining the nose make it relatively easy to slide the nail right on in.
The trick of the Human Blockhead is judging the angle just right. While sword swallowers have to learn how to control their gag reflex, Human Blockheads have to learn how to suppress their urge to sneeze, lest the trick go terribly wrong. But that hasn't deterred people from doing it since 2000 B.C., when the trick reportedly originated in India.
The freak show business didn't start anywhere near that long ago, though it's still pretty old. The first freak show at Coney Island happened sometime in the late 1800s, and until the mid-1900s freak shows were all the rage across the U.S. But the business has a grisly, controversial history.
The people I was ogling in Coney Island are professionals who certainly seemed to take pride in their skills, but the shows of the past often featured people with disabilities or abnormalities who were put on display — sometimes against their will — for the masses to examine. A boy with stumps for arms became "Sealo the Seal Boy," a pygmy was exhibited in a cage, and people with microcephaly were flaunted as "pinheads."
With the exhibition of oddities now outlawed in some states, the sort of freak show that remains is more akin to a talent show, though people with deformities do still opt to perform. The number of these shows is dwindling. USA Today reported in 2013 that Coney Island's show is one of three remaining permanent freak shows in the country. There aren't many sword swallowers like Betty Bloomerz still in business, per the president of Sword Swallowers Association International.
So not only is the Coney Island Circus Sideshow incredible to watch, it's one of the last remaining vestiges of a dying form of entertainment. And if you squirmed through this article, perhaps you can take solace in the fact that you'll be giving to charity: When the audience was invited onstage to check out Betty Bloomerz contorted into the corner of a box, Ray Valenz was holding out a hat to collect donations for Coney Island USA, a not-for-profit arts organization that was established in 1980 to "defend the honor of American popular culture." The organization is responsible for producing the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, as well as several parades and festivals and a sideshow school.
And look, if Betty Bloomerz can swallow a sword, you can swallow your squeamishness and enjoy this fascinating slice of Coney Island history.