Signor Barnello, The Human Volcano: First Modern Fire Eater Act?

Just a few facts about Signor Barnello (Edward A. Barnwell, 1857-1910), born on September 8. Barnello was the best known fire-eater of his day. Originally from Decatur, Illinois, he was performing magic locally by age 12 or 13, and later toured with one Professor Morley, a Punch Man and Ventriloquist. He is next said to have traveled extensively through British Columbia, communing with Indians, and presumably this is where he picked up some of his marketable skills, for when he emerges at a San Francisco theatre in 1879 it was as a fire act. In addition to swallowing fire, he walked on hot coals and performed similar stunts. Houdini once joked that he was known for complaining to waiters about the hotness of his soup.

Barnello’s pitch cards survive, indicating that he worked the sideshows and dime museums, but he also seems to have worked in variety houses and vaudeville as well. He was one of the more entrepreneurial of his order, and is often cited to be the originator of the modern fire-eater act. In 1890 he published two books: The Red Demons or Mysteries of Fire and Barnello’s Voodoo Incantations: How to Eat Fire. In 1893 he briefly out out a magazine called The Magician, which was possibly the first magic magazine in the United States. When he died in 1910 he was relatively young (52). I have not yet been able to ascertain if this early death was work-related.

 

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