September 30, 2020

The man who swallowed 17 knives and lived to tell the tale (although not for long)

While documenting myself about the history of bismuth as a medicinal metal, I stumbled across a nineteenth-century clinical case starring a guy who, as soon as he drank a few extra glasses, had the curious habit of trying to impress their relatives swallowing large amounts of razors. And, no, I am not referring to the mollusk with the same name, but to the less suitable razors for human consumption: those that have steel blades and are folded on a wooden handle.

It goes without saying that the story of this good man did not have a happy ending, but even so, the case seemed worthy of mention for the curious chemical procedure that the doctors of the time came up with to try to cure him … And as a testament how resistant the human body can be.

The patient

In June 1799, a 23-year-old American sailor named John Cummings was walking with his companions along the coast of France when they stumbled upon a crowd in awe of a trickster who led them to believe that he was capable of swallowing knives. After returning to the ship and telling the story to the rest of the crew, a drunken Cummings claimed he was capable of the same feat, so he took his razor out of his pocket and swallowed it without issue. And, before an insistent audience that encouraged him to repeat the trick, that night he ended up swallowing a total of 4 knives.

Against all odds, Cummings suffered no adverse effects and “ejected” three of the razors in the days that followed. Admittedly, he never remembered ditching the fourth razor, but if he didn’t, it never bothered him.

In the absence of negative consequences, Cummings did not learn a valuable moral that day and repeated his show during another binge in Boston, in March 1805. After having gobbled up a record 14 knives, this time the consequences were far more serious: Cummings woke up with constant vomiting and stomach pain that kept him in the hospital “until got rid of his load on the 28th of the following month ».

Still, this bad experience didn’t take its toll on Cummings’ determination to swallow razors, either. In fact, in December 1805, he surpassed his personal brand once again, swallowing a total of 17 knives … And things got really bad.


The next day, Cummings woke up with intense abdominal pain and went to the ship’s surgeon for help, but the medicine he was given had no effect. In all, it took the sailor three months to notice an improvement, apparently caused by the consumption of “a certain amount” of oil. Still, the razors were still lodged in his digestive system, and the pain returned in June 1806, when he vomited a fragment from the handle of one of them. In November of the same year and February 1807, he excreted several additional fragments and his health began to deteriorate until, in June, he was expelled from the ship.

Almost immediately, Cummings traveled to London to be admitted to Guy’s Hospital, but his story about eating knives was so hard to believe that doctors spent a year taking him for a simple hypochondriac. After all, it was a time when his testimony could not be corroborated with a simple x-ray, because that technology had not yet been invented.

In the end, at Cummings’ insistence and the coherence that his testimony had preserved over time, in addition to the intense pain that he seemed to be suffering and the harshness that he presented in the region surrounding the colon, a certain Dr. Babington accepted him. as a patient. As soon as the doctor observed the intense black color of his excrement and confirmed the presence of at least a piece of razor stuck in his intestine by a rectal examination, there was no room for doubt. Cummings was telling the truth. He actually had a large amount of partially degraded ferrous material lodged in his intestines. Next, the question was to find a way to get all that metal out of there.

The treatment

Because it was impossible to surgically remove the razor shards, Dr. Babington decided that the best option was to give Cummings orally diluted acid. The intention was for the acid to chemically react with the iron in the razor and dissolve it completely, or at least wear down the sharp edges enough to make it safe for it to pass through the digestive system.

The idea made sense from a chemical point of view. For example, the reason that salt dissolves in liquid water is that water molecules are able to stick to the chlorine and sodium atoms that make up this solid and separate them. When the water molecules have just ripped each of the atoms out of each grain of salt and scattered them throughout the volume of the liquid, the salt is said to have dissolved.

Now, an iron mazacote will not dissolve in a glass of water, no matter how much it is stirred. The reason is that iron atoms are bonded together too tightly and cannot be separated by water molecules. This is where acids come in: substances that are capable of chemically reacting with iron, ripping their atoms from the metal’s surface and forcing them to combine with other elements that the acid contains, forming molecules in which iron atoms end up bound to those elements with much less force, so that water can separate and dissolve them.

Returning to Cummings’ case, the doctors provided him with diluted sulfuric and nitric acid with the intention of reacting with the iron and converting it into iron sulfate and iron nitrate, respectively. Like these two water-soluble compounds, razor fragments would lose iron as they reacted with the acid, and Cummings’s body could more easily expel them. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned.

The tragic outcome

Although the doctors maintained that his treatment allowed to extend the life of Cummings, this one passed away in 1809 and the autopsy revealed that the intestines were full of black iron oxide and pieces of metal stuck between its walls. In addition, 30 to 40 razor shards were found in his stomach and were later exposed in the hospital’s anatomical museum.

Was it a good idea to treat the Cummings case with acid? Although I have found other doctors of the time in which the dissolution of foreign bodies with dilute acid, such as chicken bones, is detailed, today this type of treatment would only be used in very extreme cases, since these acids also cause damage to the walls of the esophagus and the intestinal tract.

Today, a case like Cummings’ would be treated much more quickly and effectively in a modern hospital thanks to X-ray technology and less invasive surgical techniques. Still, just in case … You don’t gobble down knives.


  • Most faker tricks are not magic tricks. Sword swallowers go through their gullet with them, for example, and that is precisely why they are highly reckless shows that fans should not attempt.
  • Currently the impaction of a body in the digestive tract is only treated with acid when it is metallic and there is no other alternative.



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