Stone Eaters and Their Tales in the 1700s and 1800s

Stone eaters earned a living by “swallowing pebbles, and champing to pieces and swallowing bits of stone.”[1] They were particularly plentiful during the Georgian Era, although the existed into the Regency and Victorian eras. They could also be found exhibiting themselves in all countries and cities. Spectators were often encouraged to bring their own stones for the stone eaters to swallow.

Newspapers of the times also carried ads decrying the stone eaters’ performances and popularizing the idea that people ate and survived on rocks. For instance, in March of 1774, a Mr. Frederick was advertised in an Oxford newspaper as a “‘Dexterity and Balance-master and Stone-eater’ [who ate] … 150 stones, each as big as a pigeon’s egg, or bigger, with his hands tied behind.”[2]

Unlike Mr. Frederick, most stone eaters were not noted by name but rather by grand titles; There was the “extraordinary stone eater,” “celebrated stone eater,” or “amazing stone eater.” There was also “The Original Stone-Eater, The Only One in the World.” He advertised in London, performed every day except Sunday, and was found on the Strand at Mr. Hatch’s, a trunk maker. In addition, there was “The Most Famous Stone-eater” who never visited London nor Westminster, as “his food was to be found in greater plenty … in many other parts of the United Kingdom.”[3]

Eighteenth and nineteenth century people were so interested in these stone eaters, there were numerous books and articles written about them. Among the most popular of these eaters were three: an Italian named Francis Battalia, a stone eater discovered on an island, and a stone eater born near a rocky cave. He was born in the seventeenth century and claimed to “have eaten half a peck of stones a day.”[4]

Stone-eater Francis Battalia, Public Domain

Stone-eater Francis Battalia. Public domain.

Dr. John Bulwer claimed in his Artificial Changeling that he saw Battalia in London when he was about thirty years of age. Claims were that Battalia was “born with two stones in one hand, and one in the other,”[5] and that supposedly he would not nurse or take nourishment until he was given a stone in a drink. Bulwer also maintained:

“[Battalia] put three or four stones into a spoon, and so putting them into his mouth together, he swallows them all down one after another; then (first spitting) he drinks a glass of beer after them. He devours about a half a peck of these stones every day, and when he chinks upon his stomach, or shakes his body, you may hear the stones rattle as if they were in a sack, all [of] which in twenty-fours are resolved. Once in three weeks he voids a great quantity of sand, after which he has a fresh appetite for these stones, as we have for our victuals.”[6]

However, at some point, Battalia was decried to be an impostor. He was “shut up for month, with the allowance of two pots of beer and half an ounce of tobacco every day, but was afterwards acquitted from all suspicion and deceit.”[7]

John Bulwer, Courtesy of Wikipedia

John Bulwer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Battalia was not the only stone eater claimed to be “legitimate.” A “lithophagus, or stone-eater” was found on an island by a Dutch ship on Good Friday in 1757, which was two years after Marie Antoinette was born. He was brought back to Avignon in May of 1760 where Father Paulian observed that the man “not only swallowed flints … but such stones as he could reduce to powder, such as marble, pebbles, &c., he made into paste, which was to him a most agreeable and wholesome food.”[8] When the man was examined it was discovered:

“[H]is gullet [was] very large, his teeth exceedingly strong, his saliva very corrosive, and his stomach lower than ordinary … He would drink water, wine, and bray, which last liquor gave him infinite pleasure. He slept at least twelve hours a day, sitting on the ground with one knee over the other, and his chin resting on his right knee. He smoked almost all the time he was not asleep, or not eating. Some physicians at Paris got him blooded, the blood had little or no serum, and in two hours’ time became as fragile as coral. He was unable to pronounce more than a few words …. [and according to Father Paulian] The respect he shows to ecclesiastics, and his ready disposition to please them, afford me the opportunity of satisfying myself as to all these particulars; and I am fully convinced that he is no cheat.”[9]

The Surprising Stone Eaters, Courtesy of the British Museum

The Surprising Stone Eater, Courtesy of the British Museum

Another unnamed stone eater (whom I shall call Henry for clarity’s sake) was born by the side of a rocky cave in the “Peak of Derbyshire” in the 1700s. It was claimed of him that from a very early age he began to eat stones and that the stones doubled as “a plaything” and “sweetmeat.” When at last Henry acquired teeth, he declared:

“I nibbled at every pan and mug that came within my reach, in such a manner, that there was scarcely a whole piece of earthenware to be found in the house.”[10]

Apparently, his nibbling of the earthenware, so infuriated his mother, she forced him “to seek subsistence out of the house,”[11] which one day resulted in Henry being mistaken for a sheep thief. A farmer who had lost his sheep, found Henry breaking his fence, and “would hardly be persuaded that [Henry] had no design upon his mutton … [and meant only] to regale…upon his wall.”[12] Henry claimed he was popular with his classmates as he would eat the stones in pies rather than the fruit, but he also confessed he had caused “great havock [sic] among the marbles, of which I swallowed as many as the other boys did of sugar-plums.”[13] A diet of stones was what Henry claimed to have eaten for thirty years, and he insisted they were “the most cheap, wholesome, natural, and delicious of all food[s].”[14]

Spectators by the late 1800s began to question the authenticity of stone eaters. One spectator noted of them, “these phenomenal gentry [used to maintain] … to subsist entirely on stones, but their modern followers hardly dare make such claims, so that the art has fallen into disrepute.”[15]

Stone eating was such an unusual way to earn a living thousands of spectators flocked to see stone eaters in action. But how did they do it? Harry Houdini, the well-known Hungarian-American illusionist and sensational stunt performer, declared he knew their secret:

“I learned the method of swallowing quite large objects and bringing them up again at will. For practice very small potatoes are used at first, to guard against accident; and after one has mastered the art of bringing these up, the size is increased gradually till objects as large as the throat will receive can be swallowed and returned.”[16]

Houdini Poster, Author's Collection

Houdini poster. Author’s collection.

In 1895, however, Houdini also noted that he watched a stone swallower in the London and stated:

“[He] swallowed half a hatful [sic] of stones, nearly the size of hen’s eggs, and then jumped up and down, to make them rattle in his stomach. I could discover no fake in the performance, and I finally gave him two and six for his secret, which was simple enough. He merely took a dose of powerful physic to clear himself of the stones, and was then ready for the next performance.”[17]

References:

  • [1] Vieth, Gerhard Ulrich Anton, The Pleasing Preceptor, 1801, p. 145.
  • [2] “Oxford, March 4,” in Oxford Journal, March 4, 1774, p. 2.
  • [3] Fielding, J., The European Magazine, and London Review, Vol. 50, 1806, p. 269.
  • [4] Hone, William, The Table Book, 1827, p. 178.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Houdini, Harry, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, 1920, p. 155-156.
  • [7] Wilson, Henry, The Book of Wonderful Characters, 1869, p. 24.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 24-25.
  • [10] Hone, William, p. 177.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 178.
  • [15] Houdini, Harry, p. 160.
  • [16] Ibid., p. 161.
  • [17] Ibid.

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