On Delno Fritz and Some Sword Swallowing Successors

We have written about thousands of performers here on Travalanche, but Delno Fritz (1876-1925) is only our third swallower, after Chevalier Cliqout and Mimi Garneau (apart from some contemporary sideshow people, such as the late Johnny Fox, who tend to be multiskilled). Delno, whose real name was William Sherman Fritz, hailed from Ashley, Pennsyvania, near Wilkes-Barre. At the age of eleven he lost a leg in a railway accident on the so-called Ashley Planes, a cable railroad that served the mountainous mining area. This probably saved him from a life working in the mines. As a boy he ran off with circuses repeatedly; at a certain point his parents simply stopped coming after him. Fritz appears to have learned his trade from Cliquot in the early 1890s. He initially performed with the John Robinson Circus, but later became more famous with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, and also worked the Al G. Barnes and Hagenbeck-Wallace shows as well as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Ranch. He is known to have played New York’s Hippodrome Theatre, and to have performed before Queen Victoria. And there’s this, indicating that he also worked dime museums.

For an extended period, he performed at Huber’s Museum in New York. While there, he married an actress named Maud Churchill. He also worked the Ninth and Arch Museum in Philadelphia. Playing these venues is probably how became friends with Houdini.

“Delno” is an interesting stage name to have chosen. There is a town in Pennsylvania called Delano, possibly the source. As with FDR’s middle name, it is a variation on “De Lannoy”, a family which emigrated to Plymouth in the days of the Pilgrims. Fritz’s mother was from Cornwall. His travels brought him to tour the music halls of the U.K., where he lived for over ten years, eventually owning several theatres of his own in Scotland. Here, he married a Maud D’Auldin, who became partner in his act. By the 1920s, he was living in Los Angeles, where he advertised that he would give lessons in sword swallowing at the World Museum. By this time he was partnered with his niece, Edna Price, who became his successor, playing Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and world’s fairs and such for years afterward as the Queen of the Sword Swallowers.

The Guy in Freaks

Fritz himself passed away in 1925, as was widely reported in newspapers at the time. Now comes the confusion. Throughout his life, he had sometimes been billed as DELMO Fritz, whether in error or by choice we do not know, but it happened pretty frequently. And a performer by that name performs in three Hollywood movies: The Unholy Three (1925), The Man Who Laughs (1928), and Freaks (1932), which is what sent me on this merry chase. Two of these films were by Tod Browning, an old carnival hand. But who this Delmo Fritz is, and what his relationship to Delno is, I canna say. One possibility is that it is the actual Delno in the two silent films (with his scenes for The Man Who Laughs having been shot when he was still alive), and that Browning just credited the sword swallower in Freaks as Delmo Fritz in homage. There is an answer, but for the nonce we must cross the midway and see what the Reader and Advisor can tell us.

For more on the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.