Uncle Billy Turner, The One-Armed Sword Swallower

We’ll expend just a few lines on William Henry (“W.H.”) Turner (1845-1941), for that’s about all we have!

As Delno Fritz also shares this birthday, February 20 is apparently a very good day for sword swallowers. The above photo was taken in 1938, at the historic 75th anniversary reunion of veterans (from both sides) of the Battle of Gettysburg. The dramatic image of the 93 year old man was printed in newspapers throughout the country. If you’re like me, you immediately assume that, much like Professor De Houne, the one-legged Jewish tightrope walker of Texas, that Mr. Turner lost his arm in the war. But no, the loss happened in a belt sander accident in 1888, when the man was in his 40s!

Turner was a Yankee, born in New York State, but later moved to Connecticut, for he served in the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery during the Civil War. After the cessation of hostilities he settled in Lebanon, Missouri, spending the rest of his life in that area. Several sources say he performed in circuses, but that may be just an assumption drawn from the nature of his craft. What is known with more confidence is that he traveled with his own medicine show, hawking a concoction called Wahoo Indian Medicine, supposed to cure  sciatica, rheumatism, cancer, kidney trouble, etc, and that it consisted of herbs that you mixed with water and drank, and naturally it tasted awful. Of equal interest was the fact that he was a circuit court judge. So his travels were doubly lucrative: in each town he would hear cases, but he would also do his shows and sell medicine. This unlikely combination of activities undoubtedly made him more respectable in his community than many such itinerant characters are. He was both a judge and a “man of medicine”. We’ll not speculate about how honest he was in any of these employments.

I first learned about Mr. Turner from the invaluable Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame, though you can also get much more at this family web site and on CivilWarTalk.com, albeit you will find these sites much more informative about all facets of his life except his performances, about which there are only a few scattered facts. The most enjoyable anecdote concerns him sticking a sword down his throat on one occasion, spearing a cheese sandwich he had just eaten, and bringing it back up in order to silence a naysayer who didn’t believe he really swallowed swords. That’ll learn ’em.

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