Dying To Impress – Ryan Sprague’s Hidden Auditorium

Ryan Sprague

Ryan Sprague

Illusions that Permanently Disappeared their Creators

When I was twelve years old, my father brought me to my first magic show. I’d never really paid attention to the act of magic, save a few amateur shows at birthday parties growing up. Suffice to say, I was not entirely impressed. But as I entered the Landmark Theater in my hometown of Syracuse, NY that night, my impression of magic took on a whole new light. I watched as famed magician, David Copperfield, performed feats of the impossible that stunned and astounded. His final illusion of the night included not only levitation, but flying across the proscenium stage and out into the audience. While even a young version of myself was more than skeptical of this seemingly “no stings attached” illusion, it didn’t stop my mouth from gaping wide and my eyes remaining fixated on the flying man above me. And as he seamlessly seemed to soar hundreds and hundreds of feet above, I wondered what would happen, if by some horrible accident, he suddenly fell to the ground. Not only would it most likely be the end of his career, but perhaps even the end of his life. And as my fascination for magicians grew, their death-defying illusions continued to both excite and terrify me, even up until today. This eventually led me to finally face the horrifying aspect that sometimes these illusions didn’t go according to plan. And the illusionists below unfortunately didn’t live to tell the tale.

Karr vs. Car

Charles Rowen was a South African magician known for extremely dangerous stunts. Most notably were his escapes from straight jackets and diving in to piles of broken glass. But it was one single escape that would leave Rowen, better known as Karr the Mysterious, bracing for impact with the last escape of his life.

It was in 1930 when Rowen performed for a large crowd in Springfontein, Orange Free State, in South Africa. In front of stunned spectators, including many young children, Rowen explained to the audience that a car would be traveling towards him from about two hundred yards away at forty miles per hour. Rowen, strapped tightly into a straight jacket, then explained that he would escape from the jacket in time to dodge the oncoming car. Given the distance and speed of the car, he would have as little as fifteen seconds to complete the escape.

The audience looked on as Rowen desperately tried to escape the jacket. The car picked up speed, barreling towards him. And it soon became clear that Rowen was too slow to get the jacket off. He wasn’t able to dodge the car, and it hit him at full impact, completely severing his leg. The head-on collision led to his death. But before he seemingly met his maker, Rowen made it clear that this was his own wrongdoing, and completely exonerated the driver of the car from any responsibility. Karr the Mysterious was now gone. But his legacy, for those who witnessed his demise that day, lived on in grisly detail.

Buried Alive, Exhumed Dead

“I consider myself a master of illusion and escape artist. I believe I’m the next Houdini and greater.” These were the words of Joseph Burrus, or better known by his stage name, Amazing Joe. And as he pronounced these ambitious words to the crowd that night, Burrus had no idea how eerily right he actually was. But it was the last comparison to Houdini that he could possibly have wanted.

It was Halloween night of 1992 in Fresno, California. Burrus was performing at a local amusement park where hundreds of witnesses, including news cameras, watched as he explained his grandiose escape. He was to be buried in a plastic and glass coffin about seven feet down, and then several tons of cement and dirt were to be poured on top of him. Handcuffed, he would have to escape both his restraints, the coffin, and then make way to the surface. Many believed this feet to be impossible. One reporter even mentioned that the cement on the bottom would dry fast, leaving no way for him to break through. With no illusion to be had, Burrus legitimately believed he could survive this great escape unscathed. But logic, physics, and carelessness got the best of him.

After the dirt and cement were poured on, a loud crack and the shattering echoes of glass were heard. It was soon clear that the coffin had caved in, literally burying Burrus alive. By the time rescuers could dig up the dirt and cement, it was already too late. The weight of the cement and dirt had crushed him, leaving no chance of revival. It was on that fateful Halloween night that Burrus had perished, dying on the same night as Harry Houdini almost seventy years prior.

Six Feet Under(water)

It was on July 7th, 1984. Jeff Rayburn Hooper was practicing an escape stunt outside Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the deep waters of Lake Winona. The stunt involved Hooper being handcuffed and submerged into the water. He would then have to escape the restraints and swim to safety. The stunt was to be officially performed at the Winona Lake Bible Conference later that day. But Hooper wanted to attempt a rehearsal by himself to get it right. Unfortunately, the rehearsal would prove deadly, and Hooper would’t make it to the actual performance.

Anxious earlier in the day to get the escape right, Hooper handcuffed himself, jumped into the water, and swam about a hundred yards out, soon sinking to the bottom. Completely submerged, he struggled to get his wrists free of the restraints. Soon, he was able to successfully do so and swim to the surface. He began to yell to his assistant back on land, but the harsh winds muffled his shouts for help. The wind also made it impossible for Hooper to swim to shore. Rescuers weren’t able to make it to Hooper in time, and he drowned about six feet underwater, proving yet again, that sometimes, practice doesn’t always make perfect.

One More Bullet for the Road

The “Bullet Catch” has always been a favorite amongst magicians and audiences alike. The danger and split second anticipation of a human being stopping a bullet after being fired comes with great risk, no matter how prepared the shooter and receiver may be. And for one magician, that risk backfired in the most tragic of ways.

William Elmsworth Robinson, a Brooklyn-based magician, had assumed the identity of an ancient Chinese illusionist, never speaking English during his performances. Known as Chung Ling Soo, he’d cover his face in yellow paint and would speak completely in false Mandarin. He’d have an interpreter “translate” everything to is adoring fans, never once speaking English in front of a crowd. At the peak of his career, being one the most famous magicians in the world at the time, Robinson would perform one of his most enticing illusions on March 23rd, 1918. At Woodgreen Empire, in London, England, he began his version of the bullet catch, in which a blank shot would be fired, and he would “catch the bullet.” However, the gun, having not been properly cleaned from the last performance of the illusion, caused a build-up of gunpowder in the chamber, and the spark of the blank actually ignited the live bullet, and the bullet was actually fired. It hit Robinson straight in the chest, piercing his lung.

In the heat of the moment, and knowing something had gone wrong, Robinson broke character for the very first time, yelling to his assistant, “Oh my God, bring down the curtain. Something has happened.” Robinson was rushed to the hospital, but was unable to be saved. He died early the next day. Many believe that Robinson had this coming, as many who knew he was American found his racist act deplorable. Others believe he was lazy and cheap by leaving one live bullet in the chamber of the gun because he never wanted to replace it with a new one. Either way, Robinson had caught the bullet indeed, but it cost him his life.

A Hard Trick to Swallow

If anyone should know not to stick things in their mouth that isn’t food, it should be a practitioner of dentistry. But this clearly wasn’t the case for Dr. Vivian Hensley, an oral surgeon out of Brisbane, Australia. Little did he know that as he tried to impress his young son one evening, he would be leaving that very son fatherless in doing so.

It was July 6th, 1938. Hensley, an amateur magician, wanted to perform a rather disturbing slight-of-hand trick for his young son. He called it, “Swallowing the Rusty Razor Blade”. The plan was to slyly slip the razor blade into the sleeve of his coat while miming that it went into his mouth. But perhaps moving too quickly, Hensley actually dropped it into his mouth and indeed swallowed the razor blade.

Hensley’s wife, terrified, forced Hensley to swallow cotton balls as they rushed to the hospital. One can only assume she was hoping the cotton would cover the blade, protecting him from any internal lacerations. Despite her quick-thinking, many x-rays, and two surgeries, the doctors were unable to locate the razor blade. And four days later, Hensley died of internal injuries. While scarred from the inside, it was clear that Hensley’s family would also be scarred in the most emotional of ways.


It has been said by many escape artists, magicians, and illusionists throughout time that to “die” on stage is the fullest expression of failure; but to “kill” during a performance is the highest achievement. As we have seen through the lens of these tragic figures, sometimes the ends don’t always justify the means, and when it comes to the art of magic, the figurative death becomes startlingly literal. And although we may be filled with wonder and awe as a spectator, the fear of death also lingers dark in the corner of our minds. And with the cautionary tales above, I’m sure it lingers just as bleak for the magician on stage as well.

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Ryan Sprague is a professional playwright & screenwriter in New York City. He is also an investigative journalist, focusing on the topic of UFOs. He is the author of the upcoming book, “Somewhere in the Skies: A Human Approach to an Alien Phenomenon”, published by Richard Dolan Press. He co-hosts the podcasts, Into the Fray and UFOmodPod, both available on iTunes. His other work can be found at: www.somewhereintheskies.com