I came across this image while browsing in the online collection of the Wellcome Library (heaven only knows what my search terms were). Even in the often-bizarre world of the Wellcome’s collection, with wood engravings of eyes swollen shut by a witch’s curse and pictures of possessed men spitting up nails, this image stood out.
Regurgitating, spitting, expectorating—it all gets a pretty bad rap. About the only time it’s marginally socially acceptable is when done by cute babies. (Witness the time one of my daughters (in the interest of familial harmony, I won’t identify which one), age 12 months, spit up on her grandfather just as my camera was clicking to take their picture. I now have a permanent record of the look of satisfaction on her face and the blend of surprise, disgust, and great good humor on his.)
In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, some performers were able to take the act of regurgitation to a whole new level.
Popular entertainer Blaise Manfrede was known for his ability to seemingly transform the vast amounts of water he swallowed into other liquids like milk or wine. His student, Floram Marchande, the subject of the above engraving, was known for turning water into a variety of wines, each in its own arc spit high above the crowds.
According to Joe Mitchell in Secrets of the Sideshows, Manfrede and Marchande employed special mouthpieces to help them spit the water in such dramatic fashion, and as for turning the water into wine—given that the “wine” got paler and paler the longer the act went on, it’s likely that Marchand ingested a red dye made from brazil nuts beforehand.
Though perhaps not as popular as it once was, the art of regurgitation has never really been abandoned. For example, in the 1920s and 30s, a Vaudeville performer named Hadji Ali was famous for swallowing and regurgitating water, nuts, smoke, handkerchiefs, and kerosene (which he would then spit out on a lit fire). You can see highlights of his act here:
Continuing the regurgitation tradition (if that can be said to be a thing), Glasgow-born Stevie Starr has made a career of regurgitating all sorts of items: broken glass, balloons, goldfish, and dry sugar. In 2010, he appeared on Britain’s Got Talent and flummoxed the audience by swallowing Amanda’s ring, a key, and a lock, and the regurgitating the ring—which was hooked onto the lock, presumably while in his stomach. Here it is (and oh my god, Amanda, are you really going to let the symbol of your enduring love be regurgitated by that man? Really, Amanda?):
Honestly, it’s enough to give a gal heartburn.