King of Fire

French magician Ivan Chabert was famous in the 19th century CE for his feats with heat: sitting in an oven, putting melted lead in his mouth, and bathing his feet in molten metal.

Hameltion [CC BY-SA]
I like magicians with a constant theme: Ivan Chabert’s was fire. Also known as the Human Salamander, his performances incorporated heat in clever ways. For a full account, read Harry Houdini’s book Miracle Mongers and their Methods (linked below), but to give you a taste of what he did – and how he did it – read on.

In one performance he would melt lead, then pick it up and put it into his mouth. He would then remove the (now cool and solid) metal and give it to a spectator. This one was easy: he only picked up a tiny piece of lead, and cooled it by squeezing it between his thumb and finger prior to putting it into his mouth.

Bathing his feet in molten metal was apparently achieved by using metal alloys with exceptionally low melting points. I don’t know which alloys these might have been, but solder for example can melt at temperatures as low as 90°C. I just hope he wasn’t using mercury!

The oven was Chabert’s signature act. He would get into a hot oven holding some uncooked meat. He would hang the meat in the middle of the oven, next to a thermometer, and then retreat to the corner of the oven and cover himself with a blanket. The thermometer read 600°F (315°C), the meat cooked, and then he would get out of the oven and pass the meat around for spectators to taste.

So, how did he pull that off? First of all, as with most ovens, the heat was not evenly distributed. Some of the oven was closer to 90°C, and the area where he lay would have been cooler still. The blanket helped insulate him, and he breathed through a tube (which he also used to speak to the audience).

Ta da.


4 Replies to “King of Fire”

  1. I have to admit to some equivocation about this one – there aren’t many online sources about Ivan Chabert. Ricky Jay’s book “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women” is worth a look if you want to know more.

      1. It is, but as far as I can tell that temperature is tolerable for short periods. A Finnish sauna can get up to 110°C – and that’s a wet heat whereas Chauvert’s oven would have been dry heat.

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