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Swallowing Clasp Knives

The Mirror, Saturday November 9, 1822.

'Every man to his taste,' - Old Proverb.

The following singular case is abridged from the account drawn up by Dr. Marcet, and inserted in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, for October:

In June, 1799, John Cummings, an American sailor, aged about 23, being with his ship on the coast of France, and having gone on shore with some of his shipmates, about two miles from Havre-de-Grace, he and his party directed their course towards a tent which they saw in a field, with a crowd of people round it. They found within the tent a man, who was entertaining the audience by pretending to swallow clasp-knives1. They returned on board and spoke of what they had seen; when Cummings, who had been drinking freely, boasted that he could swallow knives as well as the Frenchman. He was challenged to do it. Thus pressed, and though, as he afterwards acknowledged, not particularly anxious to take the job in hand, he did not like to go against his word, and having a good supply of grog inwardly, he took his own pocket knife, and on trying to swallow it, it slipped down his throat with great ease, and by the assistance of some drink, and the weight of the knife, it was conveyed into his stomach.

The spectators, however, were not satisfied with one experiment, and ask the operator—whether he could swallow more? His answer was—all the knives on board the ship; upon which three knives were immediately produced, which were swallowed in the same way as the former; and by this bold attempt of a drunken man (to use his own expressions) the company was well entertained for that night. The next day he passed one of the knives, which was not the one he swallowed and the day afterwards he passed two knives at once, one of them being that which he first swallowed. The other, according to his knowledge, remained in the stomach, but he never felt any inconvenience from it. After this extraordinary performance, he thought no more of swallowing knives for the next six years.

In March, 1805, being then at Boston, in America, he was one day tempted, while drinking with a party of sailors, to boast of his former exploits, adding, that he was the same man still, and ready to repeat his performance. A small knife was thereupon produced, which he instantly swallowed. In the course of the evening he swallowed five more.—The next morning crowds of visitors came to see him; and in the course of that day he was induced to swallow eight knives more, making in all fourteen! He, however, paid dearly for this frolic. He was seized with constant vomiting and pain in his stomach; but, as he related, between that time and the 28th of the following month, he got rid of the whole of his cargo.

At Spithead, December 4, in the same year, he was challenged to repeat his feats, and 'disdaining to be worse than his word,' in the course of the evening he swallowed five knives. The ship's company, next morning, expressed a great desire to see him repeat the performance, and he complied with his usual readiness; and ' by the encouragement of the people, and the assistance of good grog, he swallowed that day, as he distinctly recollects, nine clasp-knives, some of which were very large; and he was afterwards assured by the spectators that he had swallowed four more; which, however, he declared he knew nothing about, being, no doubt, at this period of the business too much intoxicated to have any recollection of what was passing.—This, however, is the last performance recorded ; it made at least a total of thirty-five knives swallowed at different times; and the last attempt, ultimately, put an end to his existence. On the following 6th of December he became much indisposed, and after various applications, about three months afterwards, he felt, as he expressed himself, the knives 'dropping down his bowels.' He continued dreadfully ill. In 1807 he was in Guy's Hospital, under Dr. Babington; and he there continued, intervals excepted, under Dr. Babington, and afterwards under Dr. Curry, until March, 1809. After having gradually and miserably sunk under his suffering, he then died, in a state of extreme emaciation.

The account is followed by a letter from Surgeon Lana, who was on board the vessel where Cummings performed his last feat, and by Cummings' own narrative, drawn up in Guy's Hospital. Many knives and fragments of knives left this extraordinary character, in the course of 1807. Dr. Marcel's account does not state whether the body was opened.

1) A clasp knife is a pocket knife with a folding blade.


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