The history of medicine is not alien to bizarre medical cases. Most of these cases are a consequence of psychiatric disorders. However, this unique case of John Cummings did not occur due to any such illness; rather amuse an audience.
In the summer of 1799, John Cummings, a 23-year old American sailor, was on a ship to France. During their journey, the sailors on board saw a tent in a field nearby. This led them to direct their ship towards that field. On approaching the tent, the sailors were welcomed with entertainment. A man was pretending to swallow clasp knives and amusing the audience.
Too drunk to function: John Cumming’s astonishing claim
The sailors returned to the ship after the show was over. Most of them had had too much to drink that night. While discussing the events of the night, particularly the clasp-knife swallowing Frenchman; John Cummings made an astonishing claim. Under the alcohol influence, he claimed to possess the same “knife-swallowing skill”. The fellow sailors were not convinced and asked him to showcase his skill. Eager to be a man of his word, Cummings removed his pocketknife and swallowed it. He then washed it down with some more alcohol.
On further persistence of his comrades, he gulped down 3 more pocketknives.
Knife-swallowing: an illusion or reality?
The next morning, his bowel movements were uneventful. However, he passed one of the knives in his stool. Moreover, he passed two more knives in his stool the next day. The fourth and final knife never made its way out of his bowels and also did not prove to be of any inconvenience for him. Over the next 6 years, the young man did not practice this skill again.
The return of the knife-swallowing man
In March 1805, while drinking in a gathering of sailors, Cummings boasted about his former skills. He was encouraged to display the act in front of the crowd. A knife was brought, and he swallowed it instantly. Throughout the evening he swallowed five more knives. The following morning, word had spread about his tactics the previous night. Many visited him during the day, and he was obliged to swallow 8 more! The tally of the total knives he had swallowed now stood at 14!
Luck or coincidence?
He awoke the next morning with extreme pain and with continuous bouts of vomiting. He was taken to Charleston Hospital and was discharged with no complications.
The consequences: third time’s a charm.
A few months later in December 1805, John Cummings was on a ship, when the topic of his skills was brought up yet again. He swallowed 4 knives that night. Additionally, on being persuaded by his colleagues he swallowed 13 more.
No more knives
The consequences that followed put an end to his reckless activities. He described his condition as a “feeling of death” and consulted the ship’s surgeon. Therefore, the surgeon gave him a laxative which did not help. 3 months after the incident, he reported feeling his “bowels drop’.
A tragic ending
Over the course of 3 and a half years, he consulted several doctors and was admitted to the hospital on numerous occasions. During this period, he vomited and defecated many knife fragments. In his final moments, he was sent home and was deemed “incurable” by the doctors. Unfortunately, in March of 1809, he succumbed to his injuries and passed away.