Today, this video may be considered a tutorial on how not to parent. But in the 1950s, it was just another day of family fun for Luella Gallagher, a knife thrower extraordinaire, who demonstrated her skills in a backyard in Austin, TX, using her two young daughters as her “target girls.”
Since the late 1800s, knife throwing has been considered one of the premiere impalement arts. At circuses around the country, performers demonstrated their skills with the blade as squeamish onlookers in the audience gasped. But no act was quite as nerve-racking as that of Mama Gallagher, who showed off her precision by putting children, five-year-old Connie Ann and two-and-a-half year-old Colleena Sue, in the hot seat.
Any family involved in the circus is one that’s a little bit renegade to begin with, but the Gallaghers took their unique act a step further. The typical knife throwing duo involves a male star using a woman — sometimes his wife in family acts — as his “target girl.” But in the Gallagher’s case, Luella took center stage as the expert knife thrower, and she used her young daughters as her human guides.
Luella and her daughters were known to tour sideshows, and, at least for a time, they managed their own line-up of acts. In the October 23, 1948 issue of Billboard, the Gallagher Side Show was reported to be appearing on H.B. Rosen’s Magic Midway. In addition to young Colleena Sue appearing in the impalement act, there was to be a magician, a human pin-cushion, illusionists, and a showcase for big snakes. The circus bug apparently ran in the family; “Mrs. Gallagher’s father operates the Animal Show on the Rosen midway,” Billboard reported.
Michelle Bordeaux featured as the most accident prone human target in a knife-throwing act, Trio Fantastic, which toured the clubs and sidehow alleys of Australia in the mid-sixties. Partner Bob McGowan, often as not
blindfolded, threw the knives and fired bullets at Michelle but had a bad habit of hitting what he was trying to miss. Three times in [the decade], Michelle became a human dart-board. Each time she dismissed the accident as an occupational hazard.
December 1964, Melbourne. Two successive knives gashed her left arm. A crowd of 300 saw McGowan, blindfolded, wound Michelle twice with 30 centimeter knives. She made no sound as the blades slashed her arm and the thrower did not learn of his mistake until his blindfold was removed.
June 1966, Auckland. Michelle was shot in the face during a show at Heathcote Services and Citizen’s Club. She put her hand to her face and said “Oh” before running from the stage with blood streaming from her wound. A bullet from the .22 calbre rifle passed through the side of her cheek.
November 1966, Adelaide. Six stitches were inserted in a wound across Michele’s left hip after a knife went off target during an act at the Port Adelaide Football Club’s premiership dinner.
“In this business you have to expect this sort of thing,” Michelle said. “The audience makes me much more nervous that the knives or bullets. The audience just let out a gasp when it happened. I think they enjoyed it.”
David Adamovich, The Great Throwdini, didn’t start throwing knives until he was 50 years old. He admits that in his career as a thrower he’s “scraped” a girl. But “I’ve never impaled the girl,” he says. “And I don’t want to either.”
Question: How did you discover your talent for knife-throwing?
David Adamovich: I was the director of a graduate program in exercise physiology at Long Island University, from there I went out with a friend who had an emergency medicine practice where he would oversee the physicians in an Emergency Department at different hospitals. So I left the university to work with him. I stayed with him for about five years and then went out on my own and decided to open a pool hall. And within the first years of running the pool hall, one of the guys I shoot pool with, Joe Tauraka came in with a small knife; showed it to me and I had no idea what it was. And he said, “Let’s go outside and I’ll show you.” So, we walked outside the pool hall, across the street to a tree and I threw the knife, stuck it into the tree, and said, “I could do that.” It was just natural for me. And believe it or not, I was 50 years old at the time. I never even saw a throwing knife before then, or would have known what it was when he was showing it to me. It just came as a natural, easy talent for me. As soon as it left my hand, I knew it was going to stick and I understood the physics and the mechanics of how to throw a knife. I believe that everyone has a natural talent; they just have to find what that talent is in, and for me it was definitely knife throwing Question: How do you deal with the risk involved with throwing knives at another human being?
So, I always use the expression, “I throw around my target, I don’t throw at.” Simply because they last a lot longer if you throw around them than if you throw at them. There’s a risk involved, it’s an incredible risk, and it’s really the target girl that takes the risk. Not me. And the most important thing of my act, I can’t express it any other way than to say, I think of the girl’s safety 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Any stunt I devise, anything I doing, I understand the risk that’s involved, just how close I can throw, how close I shouldn’t throw depending on the stunt, but always what can happen if something goes wrong as to where that girl is up at the board. Always think about it.
Question: Have you ever had a knife-throwing accident?David Adamovich: Well, there’s two or three questions I’m always asked, one of them is, “Do you do the wheel?” Yes, I do the Wheel of Death. The other question is, are the knives real? Do they come from your hand, or the back of the board? Yes, they’re real, and they do come from my hand. They do not come from the back of the board. And the third question always is, have you ever hit the girl? So I have to answer honestly and say, yes, we’ve had some incidents and I have scraped a girl, I admit it. I got a little closer, I was a little out of control on a fast stunt where I’m throwing at about a half second per knife and after I released that knife I have to come down to my hand to get the next one, and as I do that, sometimes I pulled in a little too fast as the knife was released and then the knife hit her dress, instead of the board. So, yes, I admit, there have been some incidences, scrapes only. I’ve never impaled the girl. And I don’t want to either.
Recorded on July 15, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Gustavo Arcaris, better known as “The Great Arcaris” was discovered by PT Barnum in Italy in the late 1880’s. Barnum brought him to the US to act as a show man for the Barnum circus. The woman shown in photos is Gustavo’s sister Kate: a brave woman!
“The Great Arcaris”. The Great Arcaris was Gustavo Arcaris a well known knife thrower who worked for P. T. Barnum Circus. He came from Naples, Italy in 1887, first lived in Illinois and then settled in Detroit, Michigan. The lady who was the recepient of the knives was his sister Kate.