Bending over and eating glass – Extreme body use in history

Jacques de Falaise (1754 – 1825) was a French quarryman who gained fame in the early 19th century for his incredible ability to ingest various objects.

He was initially hired by the conjurer Louis Comte for his Parisian theatre in 1816, and soon became known for his “polyphagic experiments,” in which he consumed nuts, pipes, unshelled hard-boiled eggs, flowers with stems, watches, and even live animals such as mice, sparrows, eels, and crayfish. Despite suffering from several bouts of gastroenteritis and sustaining injuries, including a knife wound to his stomach, he continued his exploits until he eventually committed suicide in 1825.

Following his death, his autopsy was widely circulated in Europe, and it was concluded that Falaise did not possess exceptional digestive organs and that he engaged in his exercises to gain attention, rather than out of a depraved appetite.

Throughout history, there have been numerous examples of extreme body use that have pushed the limits of human physical ability through intense and often dangerous activities, behaviors, or performances. These include extreme sports, as well as abusive practices towards the body.

Eating glass and metal

An example of extreme body use is people who eat unusual materials.

Historic accounts report that there were several individuals like Falaise who engaged in the unusual practice of eating glass, also known as “glass-eaters.” This practice was often viewed as a form of entertainment or spectacle, and glass-eaters were sometimes paid to perform in public.

One famous example of a historic glass-eater is Anatole Kuragin, a character in Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace.” In the novel, Kuragin is described as having a bizarre fascination with eating glass, and the practice is used as a symbol of his reckless and impulsive nature.

Eating glass is extremely dangerous and can cause serious harm to the digestive system. The sharp edges of glass can tear the lining of the esophagus and stomach, leading to internal bleeding and infection. Ingesting glass can also cause blockages in the digestive system and lead to severe pain and discomfort.

My own grand-uncle used to eat glass for entertainment at parties. However, better known in modern times is the case of Michel Lotito, a French entertainer who was known for his ability to eat non-food items such as metal, glass, and rubber. Lotito reportedly consumed over 9 tons of metal during his lifetime and was able to “digest” these objects due to a rare medical condition known as pica.

Pica is a disorder characterized by the persistent consumption of non-food substances that have no nutritional value, such as dirt, hair, paper, soap, or paint. The disorder usually affects children, pregnant women, and individuals with developmental disabilities, but it can occur at any age and in otherwise healthy individuals.

1,440 items found in 1910 the stomach of a patient suffering from pica. Taken at the Glore Psychiatric Museum, Saint Joseph, Missouri.

The exact causes of pica are not well understood, but it has been associated with nutritional deficiencies, mental health conditions, and cultural or religious practices. For example, people with iron-deficiency anemia may develop a craving for non-food items such as ice, clay, or starch.

Several well-known people have openly discussed their struggles with pica, including Tempest Henderson, who made headlines in 2007 when she was featured on TLC’s “My Strange Addiction” for her habit of eating laundry detergent and soap. Khloe Kardashian revealed in a 2016 episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” that she had been eating paper for years and was working with a therapist to overcome her pica. In her 2017 documentary “Rainbow,” Kesha revealed that she had struggled with pica as a child and would eat toilet paper and chalk. Additionally, in his autobiography “Skywriting by Word of Mouth,” John Lennon wrote about his habit of eating paper, including cigarette packages and magazines.

In more historical times, it has been reported that the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had a habit of eating clay and chalk, possibly related to her chronic health issues.

The most famous case of a food craving in history, even if not related to pica, is that of Rapunzel’s mother.

In the fairy tale “Rapunzel” by the Brothers Grimm, Rapunzel’s mother craves the plant “rampion,” which is the reason why the mother sends her husband to steal from the witch’s garden according to the original Grimm’s story.

Swallowing swords

Sword swallowing is also an extreme practice. It was known in ancient Greece and Rome in the 1st century AD and mentioned in China in the 8th century. In Japan, it became a part of the Japanese acrobatic theatre, Sangaku, and in Europe, it was practiced by medieval jongleurs.

Sword swallowing was performed during the Middle Ages as part of street theatre and was popular at festivals and other large gatherings. According to an early 19th-century English magazine article, the abilities of sword-swallowers in India were considered incredible when first reported in England. In 1813, ‘swallowing the sword’ was advertised as one of the new and astonishing feats performed by the Indian Jugglers then appearing in London. The troupe was led by the famous juggler and sword swallower Ramo Samee, who continued to perform until his death in London in August 1850, having at times also toured Europe and America. The practice is still performed today.


Extreme stretching and bending of the body are instead common features in many circus acts, particularly those performed by contortionists. Contortionists are highly trained performers who can manipulate their bodies into seemingly impossible positions through a combination of flexibility, strength, and balance.

Contortion acts often involve twisting and bending the body into shapes that are visually stunning and physically impressive. This can include everything from simple backbends to more complex contortions where the performer can place their feet behind their head, for example.

To achieve this level of flexibility, contortionists typically begin training at a young age and undergo years of rigorous training to develop their skills. This may involve a combination of stretching exercises, strength training, and balance drills.

While contortion acts can be incredibly impressive to watch, they can also be quite dangerous. Extreme stretching and bending can put a great deal of strain on the body, and contortionists need to take special care to avoid injury. Many performers work closely with trainers and medical professionals to develop safe and effective training regimens.

Contortionism, or the art of extreme body manipulation, has a long and fascinating history. Contortionists have been featured in various forms of entertainment for centuries, including in ancient Indian and Chinese cultures, as well as in medieval Europe.

In India, contortionists were known as “nata,” and were highly regarded for their physical abilities. They were often featured in traditional Indian circuses and fairs, where they would perform acrobatic feats and contortion tricks.

In China, contortionism was also a popular art form, and it was often performed by women. The art of contortion was known as “xi shu,” and it was seen as a way for women to demonstrate their flexibility and grace.

In medieval Europe, contortionism was often associated with street performers and circus acts. Some of the most famous historical contortionists include Zazel (Rossa Matilda Richter), who became the first woman to be shot out of a cannon in the late 1800s, and Le Pétomane, a French performer who became famous for his ability to control his flatulence.

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