Photographs by Sean McCormick
As told to Kris Coronado
Frank Hartman, the sword swallower in the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, was leaving the show in 2000—he was getting married and moving out west. Frank and I shared an apartment in the amusement park. Before he left, he was going to teach me how to swallow swords. I had to be ready to take the stage in April 2001.
I’d stand in the kitchen five feet away from Frank, who’d be sitting on a sofa. The first many times I tried, I threw up in the sink. It’s the body’s natural reaction. You can’t stop before it makes you throw up. You have to push past that point in order to make progress.
You have to line the sword up just so. I’d be pushing it down and Frank would yell, “Oh, God, no! Not like that! You’ll kill yourself!”
The tricky part was that it kept getting caught right over the heart and at the entrance to the stomach. Everything in you says, “I just want to push it down and make this happen. I’m going to grin and bear it.” You can’t. If it’s getting caught, it’s getting caught on something.
It took three weeks before I was able to get the sword down. I started performing shortly thereafter. Coney Island is great because it’s often 15 shows a day and that’s 15 practice opportunities a day.
The first show was a big moment. Finally, I’m onstage at Coney Island doing the sword-swallowing act and the sword goes down. It goes down smooth—I feel great. The audience claps and I’m so happy. I thought: “That’s it! I’ve done it! I swallowed a sword onstage. I’ve gone through all the training. I’m there.”
I realized I was still in the learning process in the next show, when it didn’t go down right away. I had to pull it out, shake it off, tell a joke, and then try again. Often in the beginning it would get stuck part of the way down. That’s how the act got really strong, because it forced me to have jokes and to get comfortable with the audience.
It took about three years before I was really comfortable swallowing a sword. I’ve probably swallowed 15,000 to date.
Tyler Fleet—a.k.a. Tyler Fyre—performs with his wife, Jill Fleet (“Thrill Kill Jill”), in the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow. They live in Herndon.
This article appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.