In the early twentieth century, there was a man of unusual talent known as the Great Regurgitator. His real name was Hadji Ali, and he was born in Egypt in 1892. In his time, he was a sensation as an American vaudeville artist. His act consisted of swallowing a series of objects— items such as coins, watermelon seeds, imitation jewels ,and peach pits— and then regurgitating specific items in order as requested by his audience. Occasionally he would do the act with live goldfish.
But his act didn’t end there. His grand finale was to have an assistant set up a small metal castle on stage while Ali drank a gallon of water followed by a pint of kerosene. To the accompaniment of a drum roll, in an amazing display of accuracy, Ali would eject the kerosene in a six-foot arc and ignite the tiny castle in flames. As the flames grew he would then eject the gallon of water and extinguish the fire. He performed his act twenty-two times a week, sometimes more. This was all made possible by the fact that kerosene floats on water, even in the harsh environment of an Egyptian’s belly.
Ali’s act was immortalized in a Laurel and Hardy movie which was only made in Spanish. He also appeared in a contemporary documentary called Gizmo. He died in 1937. Ali belonged to a group of performers known as “water spouters.” Another famous spouter was Harry Morton, “The Human Hydrant.” Morton’s act consisted of downing up to 300 small mugs of beer on stage and regurgitating them before he became intoxicated. His popularity was in its peak in the 1920s.
Harry Morgan and Hadji Ali were pretty much the last of the vaudeville water spouters. But these men were certainly not the first to ply the regurgitating trade. There were water spouters as far back as the mid 17th century, when a few were prosecuted for witchcraft. One famous spouter in that time, Jean Royer of France, was more concerned about duration than quantity and would continue a flow “for as long as it took the recite the 51st Psalm or walk 200 paces.” Another spouter, Blaise Manfre, would drink water and bring up wine. Harry Houdini later claimed that Manfre swallowed Brazil wood extract, a natural red dye, before coming on stage. The extract would stain the regurgitated water into a deep red wine color.
Houdini was not a fan of the water spouters and gave the reason for their demise in his book, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods. It was simply that the acts were too disgusting for the “lily-livered” audiences to stomach. One unpleasant byproduct of their acts was foul-smelling, yellow-tinged digestive fluids lingering on the stage after a performance. Houdini said the act “could not fail to disgust a modern audience.” Vaudeville historians state that booking the regurgitators almost always had the effect of killing their supper shows.
A few regurgitators appeared in the 1950s that preferred to work “dry” with objects like coins, rings and once again, goldfish. One performer did the act with half-grown live frogs. But they’re all gone now except for Stevie Starr, who has appeared on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman. He has reportedly regurgitated a billiard ball and can bring up a sugar cube completely dry.
The trick of a regurgitator’s act is simply a matter of controlled vomiting— learning to exercise the muscles of the stomach and throat at will, particularly the esophageal sphincters. But some performers were known to use substances to induce violent stomach spasms while retaining firm lip control. And of course you can’t classify vomiting as entertainment unless it is executed with great flair and style.
For now, these uniquely talented people all but gone, but perhaps one day the regurgitators will make a comeback. It seems almost inevitable.