Johnny Fox, known as the King of Swords, passed away on December 17th, 2017 after what he called a “dance” with liver cancer.
Earlier in the year, Fox had been given two weeks to live. Never one to give up, and always a believer in the power of the mind, Fox decided the only place he was going was away from the hospice. So he left Connecticut, with his longtime friends and fellow performers, Glenn Singer, Tomas Kubinek, Tammy Calvert and Scott Houghton.
They drove him to a clinic called The Oasis of Healing in Mesa, Arizona for alternative treatments. There, he regained enough health to return to the Maryland Renaissance Festival this past summer, where he’d performed annually for the last thirty seven years. Though he did not swallow swords, in his final season, he shared his inspirational story and performed magic as deftly as ever.
From 1999-2005, Fox operated a museum to display his extraordinary sideshow collection. The Freakatorium – El Museo Loco, was located on New York City’s Lower East Side. I first met him in ’99, and shortly after interviewed him for a zine I published at the time, Backwash (issue #15). I’ve reproduced the article and interview below:
Freaks are all over New York. There always people meandering around midtown with missing arms or legs. St. Mark’s Place is full of kids with spiky Mohawks, multiple tattoos, and piercings wherever possible. But to find the stuff of true freakery, head down to the Lower East Side to Johnny Fox’s Freakatorium – El Museo Loco.
Fox’s tribute to these incredible men and women includes various posters lining the walls, portraying such performers as the armless knife thrower and the man who swallows his nose. Glass display cabinets are packed with freakish artifacts and memorabilia. There’s the Giants and Little People section, where you’ll see articles of clothing that once belonged to everyone’s favorite midget, Tom Thumb. Fox has his tiny vest, gloves, a cane, and his wife’s locket (which is about one inch tall, and folds out accordion style with tiny photos). Then stare at pictures of the World’s Strangest Married Couple — 8 ft.-4 1/2 in. Al Tomaini and the half-woman Jeanie. Fox has even collected rings of giants, such as the 8 ft.-8 in. “Icelandic Giant” Johann Petursson. Some of the rings measure two inches in diameter.
Other displays are filled with exhibits of deformed people and other freaks. There are carvings by the armless man, Charles Tripp—and letters of documentation written with his feet that talk about those pieces. Old photographs feature a variety of famous freaks. There’s Jo-Jo “The Dog-face Boy”, Lionel “The Lion-faced Boy”, the conjoined Tocci Brothers (who had two heads, four arms, two legs, and one reproductive system) and an autographed glossy of the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Keep looking around and you’ll notice Sammy Davis Jr.’s glass eye staring back at you.
The Freakatorium doesn’t just showcase human oddities. Nature’s fun with animals is also highlighted. When you walk in you’ll immediately notice the two-headed cow head and the two-headed snake. Resting atop the cow heads is a cane made from a bull’s penis—enough to emasculate the manliest of men (even the giants). When your imagination has stopped running amuck, take a look down. At the bottom of a cabinet lies a mummified cat from an Egyptian tomb. And of course, what freak museum would be complete without conjoined baby piglets in a jar?
What are your hopes for the Freakatorium?
I want to find an angel to take this place to its next incarnation. The seed has been planted for the Freakatorium. It started years ago, I had all this stuff and I was thinking, New York needs a place where people can come see the history of freakdom. People that were born with deformities that were still amazing and sensitive people and they allowed themselves to be viewed and exhibited. They made a good living off doing that. Those people were to be commended for their courageousness and bravery for standing in front of people. Then sideshows went out because some little girl was offended because she thought the only place she could work was the sideshow. Her mother thought it was disgraceful that people exhibited themselves so she started calling the governor and state’s attorney trying to get sideshows banned. I think it was Florida or South Carolina. It started happening in other states. They said no exhibiting human anomalies. These people who had been working in sideshows for years had their livelihood taken away from them. What now, they’re supposed to go be institutionalized?
So that’s what Freakatorium stands for. The humanitarian side of things. Don’t judge a book by its cover. We have stuff like the carved pieces from Charles Tripp he carved with his feet with two pairs of scissors, two compasses and a chain. They’re all whittled by an armless man with his feet. There’s two letters of documentation that were written with his feet talking about that very piece. Then there’s crazy stuff like Sammy Davis’ glass eye.
It’s a dream of mine to be able to buy a castle called The Cresche that the Elephant Man made in his last days living in the hospital. But it’s gonna take some serious money, and then to have the piece insured. To have that in the next Freakatorium — that’s the vision, to move into the next space with a couple thousand square feet, sideshow banners, bigger exhibits. The castle would be the masterpiece. People would come from all over the world to see that.
Where is it right now?
I’m not telling you! I can’t talk about that kind of stuff. Good try.
I don’t want any of this stuff ever to be sold. Maybe the museum has to go as a not-for-profit organization, and pay myself a salary and get a board of directors just for it to all stay together. Because when I’m gone, what? Does this get sold off to an estate sale? That’s not what I want to see. I put the collection together and I want it to stay together. I want it to continue to bring happiness, or wonder, or awe, or disgust to people. Whatever it stirs up. Something like that should always be in Manhattan. People come to New York and they look for stuff like this and they’re disappointed when they can’t find it. They wanted to see something freaky. So this is a prototype. I’m looking for a team of people that see the vision that want to see it through. I want to go on television and work my performing skills into promoting it. I’ll only be performing for another 20 years, probably. So within those 20 years I want to get it going. It’s a mission in life, what I’m here for. I’m here for the long haul.
How many years have you been performing?
I started in ’73, working tables performing comedy magic. Then I started buying books on everything about performing, whether it was acting, comedy, Italian comedia, tracing everything back to its roots. I loved being on stage doing stuff. I had a vision of where I wanted to go with it. I was aware that my physical body wasn’t trained to stand up before an audience, my voice wasn’t trained, my speaking skills needed more training. I’m a high school dropout. I was a class clown fuck off in school. But I got a good education. I grew up in Connecticut, I had great schools to go to. They wouldn’t graduate me because I needed four more credits. But I knew I was more intelligent than my friends. I said fuck it, I don’t need a diploma. It was discipline—they weren’t going to give me a diploma unless “you come back because you were goofin’ around.” I was like, “Fuck you, I’m gonna keep fuckin’ around, I don’t need you, thank you for everything you’ve given me.” I realized what I needed to read was old books on magic and theater. So I’d spend all my money on books. I’d read them and read them again. I said shit, I’ll write my own courses.
How did you start sword swallowing?
I have memories of swallowing spaghetti and bringing it back up after reading a book on Houdini where he swallowed a key on a string that was a piece of potato cut in the shape of a key. I thought, wow, that was brilliant, if it got dislodged he could digest it. So I swallowed spaghetti. But I was always goofin’ off. I’ve always been real flexible. I used to bend myself around in knots and tie myself, I was Rubber Boy, Pretzel Boy. I used to amuse friends at school. I hung around pool halls learning trick shots in pool, I learned coin tricks and card tricks, learning hustles, obscure knowledge, martial arts, street fighting. Then magic became real lame and wanky. The secrets were sold off to yuppies that had trust funds. They had no stage presence, no respect for presenting anything. They just wanted to learn tricks to pick up girls in bars. “Yeah, I wanna learn that one Copperfield just did.” “It’s gonna cost you $1,500.” “No problem, here’s $1,500.” Then they’d share it with their friends. So right now all the people exposing shit, I really don’t care about it. It’s gotten so diluted, people gave away secrets, they didn’t guard it.
Did you see FOX’s Street Magician’s Secrets Revealed?
I heard all about it. No respect. That’s FOX saying to NBC, Fuck you, we’re gonna expose your guy. David Blaine was developing this whole following of people, now kids are gonna look at him and laugh, ha ha ha, we know how you did that. No fuckin’ respect. But you know what? Can’t say that about me. Because those swords go down. I hammer a spike in my nose, it goes in.
You do that, too?
A lot people have done that. But it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. I can do all the body stuff. Contortionism, turning the arm around.
How did you decide to start hammering spikes in your head?
Well blockhead hadn’t been touched in years and years and years. This old man named Melvin Burkhart coined the phrase “The Human Blockhead.” He was also the Anatomical Wonder in sideshows. He worked 65 years in sideshows. And if you ask him who the best sword swallower he ever saw, he’ll tell you yours truly. I’m working on a documentary with him. He’s 93, he still stands up and performs. And the reason this guy is in as good of shape as he is at 93 is because of all the physical stuff he did to his body, it’s like yoga. The guy has a great sense of humor. He’s brought a lot of joy and laughter. I didn’t know about Melvin when I first started. Had I known, I would have got in touch with him a lot sooner. I started doing the hammering the spike in the nose when I saw a picture of Leo Kongee, he used to hammer spikes in his nose in the ’20s and ’30s. So I started messing around with it. I was using a spike, which was really like a nail. I noticed people in the audience were grossed out and disgusted. So I stopped doing it. Then I saw a picture of Melvin. He was using a spike that had a head the size of a pickle. And I said, motherfucker, that’s the way to sell that trick. That way people from the back row can see it. You hit that with a hammer and you hear tink, tink. But I came up with my own routine. I hammer a spike, and the spike is measured to go back just so far so I can take my nostril and pull it over so you can’t see it. So I hammer that thing all the way in.
So where does the spike go?
It goes right over the roof of the mouth. If you look at the skull, there’s a triangular shape right where the nose is. It goes straight back over the roof of the mouth.
What does that feel like?
Well, in the beginning it’s real uncomfortable. It can be painful. I wanted my spike to be as big as possible. Melvin does the biggest spikes. There’s a reason for that. His septum is gone. Melvin was once a sword swallower. He stopped doing it. He had wives that were sword swallowers. He trained them. I trained all mine but they didn’t perform on stage.
Have you ever hurt yourself?
Severe enough to where I couldn’t eat solid foods for four, five days. Three or four times. I don’t recommend people try it. I don’t like teaching people how to do it. Or inspiring other people to do it. I’ve inspired people to do it and they can’t do it anymore because they got fucked up really bad. I got two letters last month from people in the hospital. One was about three months ago, he swallowed a curved sword and punctured his esophagus and filled his right lung with blood.
Any new stunts?
I started doing a new stunt where I swallow a giant spoon, bend over and crack an egg into it, then cook the egg while the spoon’s down the throat. It’s hard to come up with original material, so much stuff has already been done. But let’s take it to another level, that way it progresses.
Johnny Fox is also featured in my book, American Sideshow (Tarcher/Penguin, 2005), which wouldn’t exist had I not met him all those years ago.
A celebration of Johnny’s life will take place on January 6, 2018 in Annapolis, MD, beginning at 3:00 pm at the Maryland Hall for the Performing Arts in the main auditorium.
The video below was taken on October 1, 2017 at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, where I had the privilege of watching one of Johnny’s last performances. This is his amazing cups and balls routine. Please watch it through to the end—it’s well worth it.
Johnny Fox swallows a sword at the 2010 Maryland Renaissance Festival.