AUGUSTA — The last guy who attempted Nick Penney’s world-record-setting feat of doing a cartwheel while swallowing a flaming sword burned his eyebrows off.
Penney, 29, whose eyebrows are just fine, says he avoids that same fate by stapling a postcard to his forehead so it dangles down and shields his brows.
Sitting at his kitchen table, sipping Mountain Dew, he’s so matter-of-fact, it’s easy for you to think you misheard.
Real staples? Yes. On your forehead? Yes. The postcard’s treated, laminated, something? No.
And, preferably, he lets someone in the audience staple it to his forehead, with a staple gun, because, he said, that doubles as a great way to earn tips. (After performances, he encourages people to staple money.)
It doesn’t hurt, but “you’ve got to be a bonehead to do it,” Penney said. “They staple a $100 bill to my forehead, or $2s and $5s to my chest, arms. A lot of people can’t do it, they just can’t hurt someone. ‘Can I just put it in a bucket? Just take it.’ No, no, no, don’t be afraid, staple me.”
On the eve of World Sword Swallowers Day — Feb. 24 for anyone celebrating — Penney sat down to talk about his nearly 12-year career, organ-piercing injuries, why he stopped chewing glass and his latest stunt in development, which feels like “swallowing an air conditioner.”
According to Sword Swallowers Association International, Penney holds the record for the most swords swallowed while doing cartwheels (three swords, two cartwheels) and the most swords swallowed while hanging upside down (three). He also set the original record for the most consecutive push-ups while sword swallowing (three; the current record is 21).
Recordsetter.com lists his record for the most consecutive cartwheels while swallowing a sword with the pommel on fire and has the video, along with a strongly worded caution not to try this at home.
When he was 12, Penney, an Augusta native, caught a Discovery Channel docu-series on magic. That sparked an interest in the sideshow, fire-eating and sword-swallowing. By the age of 17, he’d chosen his career.
He spent a year and a half reading anatomy books, performers’ interviews and anything he could find on sword swallowing before attempting it himself.
Once Penney swallows a sword — he licks the blade twice, then it seems to slide down pretty seamlessly — he said it passes down his esophagus, between his lungs, pushes his heart slightly to the side, passes through the sphincter muscle at the top of the stomach and drops down into the stomach.
“If you watch very carefully, you can see the blade moving with my heartbeat,” he said. “The only thing that separates the heart from the sword is the wall of the esophagus and the wall of the esophagus is as thin as a hot dog casing. Once it’s into the stomach, you have to repress the reflex to wretch, otherwise the stomach will lift up and it will hit against the bottom of the blade, which isn’t good.”
It’s all psychological, he said, likening it to potty training, teaching muscles to do what needs to be done.
Or, in a pinch, if he’s at a show, he can hypnotize someone, and voila!
“I’m insured to do it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it,” Penney said. “It’s safe. The blade is 18 inches, about three-quarters of an inch wide. It’s worked flawlessly every time. I’ve done it to 19 people now.”
He performs 18 to 24 times a year, most frequently out of state, at festivals, private parties, corporate events and even bar mitzvahs. Rates range from $800 to $8,500 depending upon the number of days and the length of the performance.
Penney has badly injured himself twice, one time pinching his esophagus between two blades and once puncturing his stomach lining.
For the latter, “all they did was give me medication (at the hospital) to subside the (stomach) acids and said, ‘Good luck,’ pretty much,” Penney said. There was also a little advice: “‘Don’t swallow swords any more.'”
Another time, an errant sword knocked out his front tooth during an appearance for “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not” in New York City. Embarrassed to let the gap show, he walked around with an interpreter all day to do his talking for him. (Penney appears in Ripley’s “Eye-Popping Oddities!” book.)
Maine is home to four sword swallowers, according to Penney, including his now-retired sister Laura, one of his students, Kiara Lewis, and The Amazing Ducky out of the Bangor area.
Worldwide, about 130 people belong to Sword Swallowers Association International. To stand out in the crowd, Penney bills himself as “America’s only acrobatic sword swallower,” referencing his mad cartwheel skills.
During shows, he also breathes fire and performs the human blockhead, pounding nails into his nose. He’s given up chewing glass — it was murder on his teeth, as are the fire and creeping stomach acid. He’s also stopped a human pincushion gig of shoving needles through pockets of skin.
“That’s just a really painful act and people don’t want to pay enough for it,” Penney said. “At least with a staple gun, people are paying me to do it.”
He’s at work now perfecting his next world-record attempt, the record for the coldest sword ever swallowed.
“I’ve got (the blade) down to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said.
He’s shooting for minus 29.
Penney has baked bread in Augusta for the past 11 years as a day job. He’d like to perform twice as much so sword-swallowing pays the bills. Though he’s not yet traveled outside the country, his goal is to travel the world performing for people who haven’t yet seen, for example, someone doing a cartwheel with a flaming sword in his mouth.
Asked if he’s generally fearless, he says, just as matter-of-factly, no.
“I would say that I have a lot of fears,” Penney said. “I have a fear of driving; I’ve never had a license. I had a really big fear of flying. I got over that. The paychecks to get me to the show helped.”
Finally, on being a performer: “I like giving people a good time and pulling them away from their distractions of life for a few moments.”
Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, unexplained and intriguing in Maine. Send ideas and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nick Penney swallows the newest sword in his collection in Augusta this week. It was given to him by the head of the Sword Swallowers Association International. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Nick Penney displays his collection of swallowing swords. The three on the left, which he swallows all at once, were made for him by the man who holds the world record for lifting the most weight from his pierced nipples. “When he retired from performing, he started making props for other people in the industry,” Penney said. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)