It is with with an unprecedented amount of hometown pride that I share this post about classic era sword swallower Marie De Vere (Marie Ellmore, 1874-1941). I’ve written about countless performers from Providence, and about the influential Byrne Brothers, from nearby Norwich, Connecticut. But De Vere lived in the area of Hope Valley, Rhode Island, one town over from me, and was laid to rest in Westerly, the town where I was born. That’s passing close-ish! De Vere was advertised to be able to swallow up 15 swords at one time. But how many quahogs and johnnycakes?, this Rhode islander wants to know.
There is a good amount of mystery about De Vere’s origins. She is thought to have immigrated to the U.S. from either Ireland or England; relatives continue to seek a definite answer. She may have started out in burlesque or musical comedy, for there is lore than she had danced in choruses and cavorted in comedy sketches, and the first recorded reference to her swallowing swords isn’t until she was over 30 years old. She is also said to have modeled in ads for Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Tonic, and she may been a relation of Battlin’ Jack West, Mae West’s father. She was promoted to have studied sword swallowing with a star of that art form Edith Clifford, who was actually about a decade younger than De Vere. From roughly 1905 through 1928 she is recorded to have worked the major dime museums like Huber’s, Austin and Stone’s, and 9th and Arch, circus sideshows like those of John Robinson’s, Cole Bros, Irwin Bros. and Barnum and Bailey’s, amusement parks like Revere Beach, Palisades Park and Coney Island’s Dreamland Circus Sideshow, and wild west shows.
In 1920 she was photographed with Jolly Irene. Irene is seated, Marie is holding the dog (behind her is a very scary looking bearded man, woman, or monster):
De Vere’s last known performances in 1927-28 were with a traveling sideshow run by the he-she Josephine/ Joseph, whom you may know from the 1932 movie Freaks.
In 1910 she bought a farm with some friends in Rhode Island, which is where she settled down and retired to two decades later. Most of this info come from the indispensible Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame.
For more on the history of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,
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