London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Snake, Sword, and Knife-Swallower.

HE was quite a young man, and, judging from his countenance, there was nothing that could account for his having taken up so strange a method of gaining his livelihood as that of swallowing snakes.

He was very simple in his talk and manner. He readily confessed that the idea did not originate with him, and prided himself only on being the to take it up. There is no doubt that it was from his being startled by the strangeness and daringness of the act that he was induced to make the essay. He said he saw nothing disgusting in it; that people liked it; that it served him well in his "professional" engagements; and spoke of the snake in general as a reptile capable of affection, not unpleasant to the eye, and very cleanly in its habits.

I swallow snakes, swords, and knives; but, of course, when I"m engaged at a penny theatre I"m expected to do more than this, for it would only take a quarter of an hour, and that isn"t long enough for them. They call me in the perfession a "Sallementro," and that is what I term myself; though p"raps it"s easier to say I"m a "swallower."

It was a mate of mine that I was with that first put me up to sword-and-snake swallowing. I copied off him, and it took me about three months to learn it. I began with a sword first—of course not a sharp sword, but one blunt-pointed—and I didn"t exactly know how to do it, for there"s a trick in it. I see him, and I said, "Oh, I shall set up master for myself, and practise until I can do it."

At first it turned me, putting it down my throat past my swallow, right down—about eighteen inches. It made my swallow sore— very sore, and I used lemon and sugar to cure it. It was tight at first, and I kept pushing it down further and further. There"s one thing, you mustn"t cough, and until you"re used to it you want to very bad, and then you must pull it up again. My sword was about threequar- ters of an inch wide.

At first I didn"t know the trick of doing it, but I found it out this way. You see the trick is, you must oil the sword—the best sweet oil, worth fourteen pence a pint—and you put it on with a sponge. Then, you understand, if the sword scratches the swallow it don"t make it sore, "cos the oil heals it up again. When first I put the sword down, before I oiled it, it used to come up quite slimy, but after the oil it slips down quite easy, is as clean when it comes up as before it went down.

As I told you, we are called at concert-rooms where I perform the "Sallementro." I think it"s French, but I don"t know what it is exactly; but that"s what I"m called amongst us.

The knives are easier to do than the sword because they are shorter. We puts them right down till the handle rests on the mouth. The sword is about eighteen inches long, and the knives about eight inches in the blade. People run away with the idea that you slip the blades down your breast, but I always hold mine right up with the neck bare, and they see it go into the mouth atween the teeth. They also fancy it hurts you; but it don"t, or what a fool I should be to do it. I don"t mean to say it don"t hurt you at first, "cos it do, for my swallow was very bad, and I couldn"t eat anything but liquids for two months whilst I was learning. I cured my swallow whilst I was stretching it with lemon and sugar.

I was the second one that ever swallowed a snake. I was about seventeen or eighteen years old when I learnt it. The first was Clarke as did it. He done very well with it, but he wasn"t out no more than two years before me, so he wasn"t known much. In the country there is some places where, when you do it, they swear you are the devil, and won"t have it nohow.

The snakes I use are about eighteen inches long, and you must first cut the stingers out, "cos it might hurt you. I always keep two or three by me for my performances. I keep them warm, but the winter kills "em. I give them nothing to eat but worms or gentles. I generally keep them in flannel, or hay, in a box. I"ve three at home now.

When first I began swallowing snakes they tasted queer like. They draw"d the roof of the mouth a bit. It"s a roughish taste. The scales rough you a bit when you draw them up. You see, a snake will go into ever such a little hole, and they are smooth one way.

The head of the snake goes about an inch and a half down the throat, and the rest of it continues in the mouth, curled round like. I hold him by the tail, and when I pinch it he goes right in. You must cut the stinger out or he"ll injure you. The tail is slippery, but you nip it with the nails like pinchers. If you was to let him go, he"d go right down; but most snakes will stop at two inches down the swallow, and then they bind like a ball in the mouth.

I in generally get my snakes by giving little boys ha"pence to go and catch "em in the woods. I get them when I"m pitching in the country. I"ll get as many as I can get, and bring "em up to London for my engagements.

When first caught the snake is slimy, and I have to clean him by scraping him off with the finger-nail as clean as I can, and then wiping him with a cloth, and then with another, until he"s nice and clean. I have put "em down slimy, on purpose to taste what it was like. It had a nasty taste with it—very nasty.

I give a man a shilling always to cut the stinger out—one that knows all about it, for the stinger is under the tongue. It was this Clark I first see swallow a snake. He swallowed it as it was when he caught it, slimy. He said it was nasty. Then he scraped it with his nail and let it crawl atween his hands, cleaning itself. When once they are cleaned of the slime they have no taste. Upon my word they are clean things, a"most like metal. They only lives on worms, and that ain"t so nasty; besides, they never makes no mess in the box, only frothing in the mouth at morning and evening: but I don"t know what comes from "em, for I ain"t a doctor.

When I exhibit, I first holds the snake up in the air and pinches the tail, to make it curl about and twist round my arm, to show that he is alive. Then I holds it above my mouth, and as soon as he sees the hole in he goes. He goes wavy-like, as a ship goes,—that"s the comparison. You see, a snake will go in at any hole. I always hold my breath whilst his head is in my swallow. When he moves in the swallow, it tickles a little, but it don"t make you want to retch. In my opinion he is more glad to come up than to go down, for it seems to be too hot for him. I keep him down about two minutes. If I breathe or cough, he draws out and curls back again. I think there"s artfulness in some of them big snakes, for they seem to know which is the master. I was at Wombwell"s menagerie of wild beasts for three months, and I had the care of a big snake, as thick round as my arm. I wouldn"t attempt to put that one down my throat, I can tell you, for I think I might easier have gone down his"n. I had to show it to the people in front of the carriages to draw "em in, at fair time. I used to hold it up in both hands, with my arms in the air. Many a time it curled itself three or four times round my neck and about my body, and it never even so much as squeeged me the least bit. I had the feeding on it, and I used to give it the largest worms I could find. Mr. Wombwell has often said to me, "It"s a dangerous game you"re after, and if you don"t give the snake plenty of worms and make it like you, it"ll nip you some of these times." I"m sure the snake know"d me. I was very partial to it, too. It was a furren snake, over spots, called a boa-constructor. It never injured me, though I"m told it is uncommon powerful, and can squeege a man up like a sheet of paper, and crack his bones as easy as a lark"s. I"m tremendous courageous, nothing frightens me; indeed, I don"t know what it is to be afraid.

The one I was speaking of I have often held up in the air in both hands, and it was more than four yards long, and let it curl round my neck in five or six twirls. It was a boa-constructor, and I believe it know"d me, and that"s why it didn"t hurt me, for I feed him. He had nothing but long great worms, and he grew to know me.

My performance with the snake is always very successful. The women is frightened at first, but they always stop to see, and only hide their eyes. There"s no danger as long as you keep hold.

I generally perform at concert-rooms, and penny theatres, and cheap circuses, and all round the country, such as in the street, or at farm-houses, or in tap-rooms. I have done it in the streets of London too, and then I"m dressed--up in fleshing tights, skin dress, and trunks. I carry the snake in a box. When I swallow it some holloa out, "O my God, don"t do that!" but when I"m finished, they say, "It"s hardly wonderful to be believed," and give money.

I generally mix up the sword-and-snake performances with my other ones; and it"s the same in the streets.

Sometimes I go out to tap-rooms in my every-day dress, with the snake in my pocket, and a sword. Then I go and offer to show my performance. First I"ll do some tumbling, and throw a somerset over a table. Then I takes out the snake and say, "Gentlemen, I shall now swallow a live snake, anybody is at liberty to feel it." I have—according to the company, you know—made such a thing as five shillings, or one shilling and sixpence, or whatever it may be, by snake-swallowing alone.

I"m the only one in London who can swallow a snake. There"s nobody else besides me. It requires great courage. I"ve great courage. One night I was sleeping in a barn at a public-house, called the Globe, at Lewes, seven miles from Brighton. A woman who had cut her throat used to haunt the place. Well, I saw her walking about in a long white shroud, the doors opening and shutting before her. A man who was in the room with us jumped up in his bed and cried, "Tumblers!"

"I must tell you thing before you finish, just to prove what tremendous courage


I"ve got. I was out showing the swordand- snake swallowing in the country, and I travelled down to near Lewes, which is miles from Brighton, and there I put up at a house called the Falcon. We slept in a barn, and at night, when all was asleep except myself, I see a figure all in white come into the room with her throat cut, and her face as white as chalk. I knowed she was a apperition, "cos I"d been told the house was haunted by such. Well, in she come, and she stopped and looked at me, seeing that I was awake. The perspiration poured out of me like a shower; but I warn"t afeard, I"ve that courage. I says, "God help me!" for I knew I"d done no harm as I could call to mind; so I hadn"t no fear of ghosts and such-like spirits. No, I"m certain it wern"t no fancy of mine, "cos others see it as well as me. There was a mate in the same room, and he woke up and sees the ghosts, and up he jumps in bed and cries out: "Tumblers! Tumblers! here"s a woman haunting us!" I told him to lie down and go to sleep, and hold his noise. Then I got out of bed, and it wanished past me, close as could be,—as near as I am to this table. The door opened itself to let her out, and then closed again. I didn"t feel the air cold like, nor nothing, nor was there any smell or anythink. I"m sure I wasn"t dreaming, "cos I knows pretty well when I"m awake. Besides the doors kept bouncing open, and then slamming--to again for more than an hour, and woke everybody in the room. This kept on till o"clock. Yet, you see, though the sweat run down me to that degree I was wetted through, yet I had that courage I could get out of bed to see what the spirit was like. I said, "God help me! for I"ve done no harm as I knows of," and that give me courage."

Whilst the "Salamentro" told me this ghost story, he spoke it in a half voice, like that of a nervous believer in such things. When he had finished he seemed to have something on his mind, for after a moment"s silence he said, in a confidential tone, "Between ourselves, sir, I"m a Jew." I then asked him if he thought the ghost was aware of it, and had visited him on that account, and the following was his reply: "Well, it ain"t unlikely; for, you see, some of our scholars know what to say to the poor things, and they know what to do to rest "em. Now, pr"aps she thought I knew these secrets,—but, I"m no scholard—for, you see, we Jews always carry prayers about with us to keep off evil spirits. That"s reason why I was so bold as to go up to her."

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men