ramen and pickles

science, technology, and medicine served up with some tasty noodles

Human Pincushion: Mirin Dajo

I’m sure you’ve seen examples of “human pincushions“, namely people putting spikes, hooks or other sharp objects through their skin. Often it is part of a circus sideshow type of performance, or maybe part of a religious rite. Usually the spikes are put through the cheeks, or through layers of skin on the back, but there are very few examples of these spikes apparently going through solid organs. One startling counter-example is Mirin Dajo, who repeatedly put swords (primarily fencing foils) straight through his abdomen.

Mirin Dajo (Arnold Gerrit Henskes) was a post WW2 performer and spiritualist who had a brief (1946-1947) career focussed in Holland and Switzerland where he would do performances and give talks/lectures about his spiritualist/paranormal philosophy.

There is a lot written about him on the web. Of course, you need to take all of it with a good dose of skepticism, but there is a decent amount of (silent) footage of him doing his feats.  Some accounts describe how he was invited to perform demonstrations at medical schools and hospitals in Leiden, Bern, Basel and Zurich.  According to one account, during a demonstration, the physicians and surgeon in attendance wanted to X-ray him to see the passage of the sword, but were somewhat confused about how to transport him to the radiology equipment, as he couldn’t easily fit on a stretcher or gurney with the foil protruding through his midsection.   However, he easily obliged them by just walking to the instrument.  Their immediate assumption was that the sword was acting as a tamponade on the puncture wound and providing compression.  They, naturally enough, believed that when the sword was extracted, he would begin to hemorrhage and need immediate surgery.  However, the sword was extracted without significant ill effect.  In any event, you can look at some of the (silent footage yourself), including watching him jogging around with the sword piercing straight through.  In some examples, there seems to be some fluid coming out of the puncture, but there definitely is not a ton of bleeding.

In the beginning of this video he can be seen to be sweating quite a bit, although it is unclear if that is from the stress and pain or if he is under very bright/hot lights:

Another one shows similar footage, including a piercing going through the coronal plane instead of anterior/posterior.  The X-ray shown seems to be taken with the sword in that position:

There is a lot of overlap in the videos, showing the same material.


So the question is, how did he do it?  There is a lot of discussion on the web about this and that, but most of the consensus seems to be that he had established a fistula through his abdomen over a long period, and that is what we are seeing in the videos and that presumably even had to do things like sleep with a rod through this fistula to keep it open.  The many scars on his back are taken as evidence of failed attempts at establishing a fistula.  This is a plausible hypothesis, however, we must conclude that created several different fistulas, as we can see the swords passing through him in two perpendicular directions in the videos.


He was known for having pierced himself through with three hollow tubes, allowing flowing water to pass through them turning himself into a human fountain, something shown in this photograph.


The multiple scars on his back although taken to demonstrate numerous failed attempts to establish a successful fistula, but it is important to keep in mind that his filmed demonstrations are not his only performances.  He gave many public demonstrations, perhaps up to 500 different ones with different assistants, and in the different videos and pictures the swords often seem to be passing through quite different regions.  People in the piercing and body modification community seem to dispute the fistula idea and given modern examples of “skewer play“.  Again, he may have established many different fistulas, or at least established tracks for passage of the swords.  In some of the videos and pictures the sword passes up through his chest, in one case emerging directly under the right nipple. Presumably this is passing right below the diaphragm, as passing above would cause a pneumothorax.  However, the blade would also have to avoid the liver and gallbladder.


If he was creating fistulas before performances, this would have to be done very carefully and slowly, as a puncture of his intestines would lead very rapidly to sepsis as the bacteria filled contents fill his peritoneum.  Also, rupturing the gallbladder, stomach or pancreas would leak very dangerous material (acid or powerful enzymes) in the same space.  As mentioned, he would also have to avoid getting into the pleural space (where the lungs are in the thorax), as that would likely collapse his lung.

According to profiles online, he died of an aortic rupture at the age of 36.  One might think that he might have damaged his descending aorta in the course of his piercings.  However, aortic rupture at this (relatively) young age also raises in my mind the idea that maybe he suffered from some sort of genetic disorder of his connective tissue making the establishment of the fistulas or passage of the swords in general more easy.  For example, in Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, characterized by variation in one of the collagen subtypes or Marfan syndrome.  On the surface, these syndromes which increase blood vessel fragility, would seem counter to the ability of Dajo to deal with puncture wounds without massive hemorrhage, and I’m not claiming propose an exact mechanism, but it is possible that he had some sort of variation in the fibers of his connective tissues making his body more tolerant or more likely to establish scarring around attempts to establish fistulas.  In any event, an autopsy was apparently done, and I would like very much to learn more about what was found in his abdomen.

Overall, it is an interesting example of the resilience of the human body.  We also can’t exclude that it may be a clever illusion.  Tahir Shah accounts many such illusions done by fakirs in India, such as stopping the heart, stopping breathing, etc. that are often cited as examples of miraculous control of human physiology which are essentially done as magic tricks (e.g. stopping the radial pulse can apparently be done by putting a rock in the armpit and cutting off some of the arterial flow to the arm by pressing down).  However, that seems unlikely given the widespread documentation, evidence and medically skilled eyewitness reports.

Although Dajo seems to stoically accept the piercings, there are some signs of discomfort.  There is a good example of how humans can resist pain, including serious punctures in the British television program Medicine Men Go Wild, featuring twin physician brothers Chris and Alexander (Xand) Van Tulleken.  Episode 2 of Season 1 is about pain resistance without anesthetic and shows the two brothers going to India to take part in a religious ceremony where they are each pieced in the face and tongue.  I found the narration and description of their different preparations very insightful.




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