Michael Costello (1922-1996), fairground performer and escapologist, was born at a fairground in Dublin, Ireland in August 1922; both his parents were fairground novelty acts from Tralee, his father a strongman and his mother a fortune teller. He had no formal education and spent his formative years on the fairgrounds of Ireland and England. At 13 he left his family and began his career as the world’s youngest sword-swallower. Two years later he added fire-eating to his act. However, after his sister fell to her death during her trapeze act, he left the fairgrounds and spent many years as a drifter, mostly around Dublin.
In 1939 Costello moved to London and worked for a time with a quack, selling health potions. With the onset of the second World War he joined the British army as an infantryman. After the war he returned to the business of entertaining. He became an escapologist, learned the art of self-hypnosis, developed into a strongman and was also an explosives expert. His stunts included lying on a bed of nails and inviting people to walk on him, pulling a Rolls-Royce with his teeth and lying in a coffin filled with explosives and blowing it up.
He toured the world under the name the Amazing Blondini, and his death-defying stunts attracted audiences of more than 10,000 people. He was constantly inventing new stunts and acts: at Bellevue fairground in Manchester in 1975 he was buried alive for 78 days. His acts were not illusions, and on one occasion he was badly burned after his exploding coffin trick went wrong; however, he continued to perform the trick well into his 60th year.
Described as “one of the worlds greatest circus performers”, Costello appeared in fairgrounds and theatres in Asia, the US, South Africa and Europe. He also worked as a film stuntman for actors such as Alan Ladd and Victor Mature and appeared on many British television shows, including The Billy Cotton Band Show, Sunday Night at the London Palladiumand The Russell Harty Show.
Costello died on November 20th 1996 in Wicklow and is buried in Greystones. He had been visiting his friend and biographer Gordon Thomas and was thinking of retiring to Ireland. He was survived by his common-law wife, Sally. (Adapted from the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.)
“…the Coffin of Death… was a deceptively simple stunt in which Blondini climbed into a plywood coffin lined with explosive… (he) lit the fuse and pulled the rug over his head. The explosion broke glass in the Law Courts, a hundred yards away. When the smoke cleared, the awed and dazed audience ran forward and carried the semi-conscious Blondini (bleeding from both ears) shoulder high.” Excerpt from: “Granada Television – The First Generation” by John Finch, Michael Cox, Marjorie Giles
A bed of nails is an oblong piece of wood, the size of a bed, with nails pointing upwards out of it. It appears to the spectator that anyone lying on this “bed” would be injured by the nails, but this is not so. Assuming the nails are numerous enough, the weight is distributed between them such that the pressure exerted by each nail is not enough to puncture the person’s skin.
One use of such a device is for magic tricks or physics demonstrations. A famous example requires a volunteer to lie on a bed of several thousand nails, with a board on top of him. Cinder blocks are placed on the board and then smashed with a sledgehammer. Despite the seemingly unavoidable force, the volunteer is not harmed: the force from the blow is spread among the thousands of nails, resulting in reduced pressure; the breaking of the blocks also dissipates much of the energy from the hammer. This demonstration of the principles of weight distribution requires that the weight of the volunteer be spread over as many nails as possible. The most dangerous part is the moment of lying down or getting up, when one’s weight may briefly be supported on only a few nails. Some “beds” have rails mounted at the sides to help users lie down and get up safely. The bed of nails is used by some for meditation, particularly in Asia, and for certain health benefits, such as back pain relief, see acupressure mat.
Sources / More to Read:
Irish Times: Irish Lives – Michael Costello
Wikipedia: Bed of Nails
Mashable: Bed of Nails
The Illusionist – A Journey in Local Magic, an Interview with Jim Doherty