Two weeks ago at the Saint Nicholas of Tolentine summer carnival, Tom Hill walked across a bed of broken glass. Then he lay chest down on the glass and had his assistant place a board full of three-and-a-half-inch roofing nails on top of him, points down. While sandwiched between the two hazards, he asked a volunteer--someone under 200 pounds--to place a bucket on the board of nails and sit on top.
Hill, a 19-year-old student at Monmouth College, went to school at Saint Nick's, and he works summers there as a custodian. For five years running, he's also done his sideshow act at the summer carnival. "Once I lay down on the glass it isn't too bad," he says. "Then the bed of nails comes on, and if I move I can feel them scrape into my back. Once a person is added, the first thing I feel is glass starting to cut underneath me, and then the nails above starting to push into me."
The secret is to breathe carefully and not move. "The bed of nails is physics," he adds, noting that his homemade board has some rough spots. "If the nails are spaced properly, you don't feel them on you. But any movement or motion can cause me to get cut by either the glass or the nails.
"The dangerous part for the performer is when the person sits down or moves. That's when the bed will start to shift weight. If it shifts while they're sitting on it, it can cause a huge laceration, which is not a good sight. That's the part you leave up to chance."
Hill, who grew up in West Lawn, got his first taste of showbiz at the age of seven, when a magician pulled him onstage to help with a card trick. "Ever since then I wanted to be able to do that kind of stuff," he says. His parents started giving him magic kits for birthdays, and by the time he was nine he'd put together a 45-minute show. After that "friends of the family always asked me to perform," he says. "I'd get a little money from them, and it felt like I was a real magician."
He perfected a signature piece involving a swatch of silk and a plastic egg that turned into a real egg. But after a few years of performing he hit a wall. "I didn't feel that magic was what I really wanted to do anymore. I loved it and felt the adrenaline rush, but I wanted something more--something that people would remember."
He'd begun to experiment with juggling, escape tricks, and fire eating when he heard about Calcutta-based magician Arun Bonerjee, a household name in Indian magic circles and author of the how-to book Show Us a Trick.
"I wanted to get to know more magicians, and a friend gave me a list of names and phone numbers and addresses," Hill says. "I'd call up and find out what they knew. I saw this guy's name and I was like, 'I'm not going to call him in India, let alone I don't know if he speaks English.'" He sent his first letter to Bonerjee in 1994, when he was 13, "telling him about the escapes I was doing and some of the escapes I would like to try."
To his surprise, Bonerjee, then in his early 80s, wrote back, telling him which stunts would fly and which "would be rather stupid and dangerous." (Swallowing swords, for example, often has an adverse effect on the vocal chords and esophagus.) They began to correspond regularly, and Bonerjee explained how to walk on glass, juggle and eat fire, lie on nails, and eat glass and straight pins. He even enclosed diagrams. "He didn't say it," claims Hill, "but he wanted to see this style of performance carry on, and he was looking for someone to carry his torch."
He met his mentor in 1996, when Bonerjee came to Chicago for a convention. During his two-and-a-half-week stay the two practiced tricks in Grant Park. "He taught me the proper ways of doing things and the traditional way that he was taught," Hill says. Among other things, Bonerjee encouraged him to learn to meditate and gave him a list of books to read. "It's more about having mental awareness and knowing how the body works before you go into the tent swallowing a sword or sticking fire down your throat," says Hill.
Bonerjee has dubbed his protege "the youngest sideshow entertainer of modern times." They still keep in touch, and Hill has returned the favor by helping the elder man improve his English: he photocopies Bonerjee's letters, corrects his grammatical errors in green ink, and sends them back.
Hill absorbed Bonerjee's teachings and then "started taking it up a notch and combining things. It's not just me going up there and performing one stunt and putting it away and doing another. You see the old stunt happening while a new one is beginning."
His newest obsession is a 45-gallon metal milk jug that was advertised on MagicAuction.com as having been used by Harry Houdini. "I was reading Houdini's journal, and it was in there. I've always thought it was a very interesting escape," Hill says. In the original trick, Houdini would get into the container, which was filled with cold water. Assistants would then secure the lid with four padlocks and draw a curtain in front of the jug. Houdini would pick the locks and emerge from behind the curtain about four minutes later, wet but unscathed.
Hill says he spent more money on the can than he cares to divulge, only to learn afterward that it never belonged to the famous escape artist but was actually a prop from the 1998 TV movie Houdini, starring Johnathon Schaech. Hill found out after asking the seller about two pennies he discovered in the bottom of the jug. Turns out they were put there for luck--one by Schaech, and one by the previous owner. "Right now there are three pennies in the bottom," Hill says.
He's spent the better part of the summer in his parents' backyard, practicing such things as holding his breath underwater in the pool (he's up to nearly two minutes) and escaping from the jug. It won't fit through a regular door, so he keeps it in his parents' garage.
His parents aren't exactly thrilled about his work. Nonetheless they were on hand when he debuted the milk can escape at Saint Nick's carnival. "I don't like it when they attend my shows," says Hill. "It makes me a little nervous." Especially when they're standing in back, holding cell phones to their ears, poised to call friends who work at a nearby hospital.
The jug trick was the finale, coming after Hill had escaped from a straitjacket, eaten fire, and performed his nails-and-glass sandwich combo stunt. The jug sat behind a black curtain bearing a sign that said, "'Failure to Escape Could Result in Drowning Death'--Houdini." Hill says he took the wording from an original flyer for the stunt.
After his helpers filled the jug with water and padlocked him in, the curtain was drawn. Hill's assistant, his college roommate Anthony Zepeda, explained the risks to the audience as he counted down the time. Just as things were getting juicy--Hill had just passed a minute and 40 seconds underwater--the curtain slipped open, and part of the audience saw the jug shaking and bobbing. Zepeda, looking worried, grabbed a hatchet and first aid kit and went behind the curtain to break the padlocks and rescue Hill. Hill emerged from behind the curtain a short time later, soaked and shivering, and crumpled into a heap in front of the jug.
Still sopping wet, he took the mike. "Thanks for coming out," he said breathlessly. "The water was a little too cold for me. Hypothermia can set in. That's why I had them break me out."
Later he mentions that he was disappointed that his "people" had allowed the curtains to part.
And how does he know they were open, if he was in the tank?
"I'm informed of everything that happens," he says coyly.
Though he's fully insured and has performed at his college campus and a long list of other venues (including a gig at Union Station in Washington, D.C., for members of the House of Representatives and their families), the Saint Nick's carnival is one of his few regular gigs. Because of the liability issues, it's hard for Hill to find places that want to book him.
"It's such a novelty act. It's almost to the point where it's too novel." That's why he still performs magic tricks. "I know I can do a magic show and put in one stunt at the end for a big finale."
When he can't perform his sideshow act Hill hosts fire rituals and body piercing parties; he has three piercings of his own, one on each nipple and a third in his nether regions. And he's toying with the idea of adding another performer to his show. It's his own protege--a fellow student who taught herself to throw knives and ropes out of boredom. "I've been teaching her how to do it as entertainment instead of a thing to pass time," he says. "She knows how to rope real well. I gave her a whip to see what she can do with that. I'm trying to work it into the show and make it really entertaining."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.