Juggling Related Injuries And Deaths

If you’ve been juggling for any reasonable length of time, you’ve probably had an injury or two as a result. Club juggling can result in bruises, black eyes, and bloody lips. Rings are notorious for cracked fingernails, bloody fingers, and cut webbing between the thumb and first finger. Diabolo string can give rope burn if you’re not careful. However, there are injuries far more serious that jugglers have suffered for the sake of their art.

Cuts are not uncommon for those performers who cater to the public’s never ending desire to see danger juggling. One fairly well known performer proudly shows off a 27 year old scar, complete with stich lines, from an adolescent juggling adventure. He was performing in a show with a partner and fancied a young dancer in the same show. Five minutes prior to the start of the show, the 15 year old juggler approached the blonde dancer and said, “Hey, watch me try a trick with these machetes I’ve never tried before.” The attempt at back crosses with the rusty and quite sharp implements resulted in a bad cut to his right index finger that required four stiches and a painful tetanus shot. Meanwhile, the juggler’s partner went on without him and got to spend some alone time with the attractive dancer. They ended up dating for five months!

Martin Hungerford reports catching a sickle on the sharp end and having it cut down to the bone. Many other jugglers report less serious nicks and cuts from assorted sharp implements.

I (David Cain) suffered a bad cut on my forehead earlier this year while practicing for a world record. I was a balancing a forty foot tall telescoping pole on my head when the top 35 feet of it decided to collapse, shooting down through the bottom five feet onto my skull. I ended up with a perfectly round, bleeding scar on my forehead.  For the next several weeks when I was asked what happened, I simply said that I had my unicorn horn removed!

Perhaps the greatest cutting injuries related to juggling were not made by a prop, but in the making of props. Legendary club maker Harry Lind lost three fingers over the years hollowing out his clubs with a rotary burr. Now that’s dedication to your craft.

Burns are less common, but still occur from time to time for those juggling torches and other fire props. Jesse Joyner, a professional juggler from Richmond, VA, tells of juggling impromptu torches on a camping trip made from sticks and a torn t-shirt. During the campfire performance, a piece of the flaming t-shirt flew off and landed on his face, leaving a visible red scar. Juggler Paul Stephens reports suffering a second degree burn on his left hand after catching a gasoline fueled torch upside down while practicing triples.  Many similar stories exist.

Dental injuries can be serious as well. One juggler was hit in the teeth by a passed club and required a root canal to deal with the resulting pain to one damaged tooth. Michael Ferguson broke off one of his teeth at the 2000 Madfest attempting a difficult five club trick.

Several jugglers have experience serious eye injuries as a result of practicing their craft. Dan Menendez, the piano juggler, suffered from a detached retina from a club juggling accident that left him with a permanent, large blind spot in that eye.  Another detached retina was reported by a juggler trying a back to back star formation with four other colleagues.

Juggling games can often result in injury, as is the case in any athletic endeavor. Incidents of sprained thumbs and broken noses during combat / gladiators have occurred over the years.  A torn ligament in the thumb that resulted from a game of volleyclub required surgery for Jeff Lutkus.

Other random injuries reported include broken noses from club collisions, blows to the back of the head from poorly aimed donkey kicks with clubs, and lost fingernails as a result of rings landing between the nail and the finger.

One serious injury was witnessed by a large group of jugglers in San Francisco when Donnia Ray Smith attempted to cascade five 10 pound bowling balls. Two of the balls collided in the air with one ricocheting onto the top of Donnia’s head. Unfortunately, the resulting trauma is said to have permanently changed the performer’s personality and resulted in the eventual end of his career.

Not all juggling related injuries happen to the juggler.  One performer’s insurance company advertises that its policy covered a clown who struck an audience member with a juggling knife. Volunteers from the audience have been struck while being passed around by inexperienced jugglers. Another performer reports striking a bird with a diabolo tossed high into the air. David Schoenewolf tells of practicing a diabolo high toss indoors when the power went out mid trick. The lights went out and then a grunt was heard nearby. The errant prop had struck an onlooker in the pitch darkness!

One common type of injury for jugglers is Repetitive Stress Disorder. This occurs when a juggler overuses a particular part of the body beyond what it can withstand. Such injuries are not new for jugglers, as a 1908 magazine from France describes.  During the turn of the century diabolo craze, doctors reported seeing a very high number of diabolists with wrist and neck strain from too strenuous of play. Well known and world record holding jugglers Daniel Eaker and  Thomas Dietz both suffered wrist injuries from overuse involving numbers juggling. Peter Bone injured his side from over exertion while practicing 11 balls. In 1997, legendary Russian juggler Evgeni Bilyauer was warming up for a performance and heard a crack in his shoulder.  He could not lift his arm as his rotator cuff had given out after years of overuse. This ended his long career.

Other juggling pursuits end in not just the injury, but the death of the juggler or others. Perhaps the best known example in the juggling community is the death of Enrico Rastelli in 1931. While in his hometown of Bergamo, Italy, this most legendary of all jugglers slightly cut his mouth with his juggling mouth stick. The cut became infected and Rastelli eventually died as a result.

Rastelli’s death was not the last that resulted from the art form. Just five years later, 22 year old female heavyweight juggler Paula Deluca, who performed with her sister Elsa, misjudged a neck catch with an iron ball during a performance. The 60kg cannonball struck her in the back of the head, resulting in injuries that caused her death three days later.

In 2001, a college student in the Croatian city of Vidovci killed himself and injured six others when his attempt to juggle a live hand grenade ended in an explosion.

Perhaps the strangest juggling related death happened to famed saxophonist and composer Charlie “Bird” Parker. Parker died in 1955 while watching the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on television. He was watching the Piero Brothers, a South African juggling act, and started laughing. The laughing turned to choking and Parker, already in very poor health due to multiple ailments, died. Who knew that juggling could be deadly from such a great distance!

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world’s only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 15 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of sixteen books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

Comments 0

  1. I broke a tooth in a five club practice a year or so ago.

    Luckily, though, I was in my hometown and had access to my childhood dentist! I made a phonecall, packed up my props (and parts of that tooth, too!), and was off to the dentist’s chair not forty-five minutes later.

    Photo:
    http://i.imgur.com/RQEI2.jpg

  2. There was also Ben Linder, who moved to Nicaragua and used his unicyclist and juggling skills to become friends with villagers in order to use his engineering skills to help them. He was shot by Contras in 1987, 27 years old. Also in the 80’s, an American juggler named Marcus went busking in Germany. In front of a large crowd, he was in mid performance when hit by an asthma attack. He tried to ask for help, but there was a language barrier and by the time people realized that his distress was not part of his act, it was too late.

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