For One Man, The Sword Is Mightier Than The Pen

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Tony Gangi gave up a successful career in publishing in order to impale himself.

With his wife Suzanne's permission, he went from having a secure 9-to-5 job to following his dream of wowing audiences by doing shock-worthy things to his own body.

"Ladies and gentlemen, what I'm about to do is a 4,000-year-old art, and it's known as sword swallowing," Tony, also known as The Amazing Human Head, tells a crowd at a Salem, Mass., performance. "Oh no!" a child in the audience exclaims.

From the outside, the Gangis' home in Beverly, Mass., looks pretty typical. Inside, too — minus the array of deathly devices laid out on their dining room table. They're the reason why the phrase "don't try this at home" exists. Seriously, don't try this at home.

Showing off his props, Tony snaps a mousetrap on his tongue, with a slight "ah!" of discomfort. "Ow," he squeals, as he crunches an animal trap onto his hand. "The tough part is always getting it off," he muses.

And then he pulls out what looks like a tiny sword. In his stage show, he invites some unsuspecting audience member to insert this 6-inch nail into his nose. In "the biz," this act is known as the "Human Blockhead." To demonstrate, he enlists his squeamish wife, Suzanne. He tips back his head, gingerly slips the implement in, then she removes it. Suzanne gasps, and Tony laughs. "And that is the Human Blockhead," he says.

"I have never had the privilege of actually being the one to pull it out of his nose," Suzanne says. "I usually avert my eyes and look somewhere else."

She has been doing that since 2006. That's when Tony said he wanted to give up a career in book publishing to attend the Coney Island Sideshow School. He was dying to learn how to slip sharp objects safely into his nasal passages, but Tony had to convince his wife to let him leave a stable job to do dangerous things to himself.

"There were a number of years where he was, you know, working in a career that really wore him down. And as a spouse you can see it, because he wasn't able to do what he wanted, and you know, you don't want them to be that miserable," Suzanne says.

So Suzanne agreed to support Tony and their son while her sideshow husband fulfilled his dreams. She has even accepted Tony's growing desire to swallow real swords, but made him promise one thing — and it's a familiar mantra around the couple's home:

"Well, at least I'm not going to be eating glass, and that seems to put her mind at ease," he says.

That said, Suzanne often stays home when Tony performs in his own show. He calls it "Lydia's Carnival Sideshow," inspired by the 1939 song "Lydia the Tattooed Lady."

There's an escape artist, a spoon-bender and Tony's own Human Blockhead routine — the kinds of acts audiences would have seen attached to traveling circuses during Victorian times. They have performed in small venues, at conventions, and wherever else he can get a gig. He has also written a book about the sideshow arts. And while plenty of his peers strive to gross out their audiences, his needs are tamer.

"I enjoy a good gasp," he says.

Copyright 2012 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

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