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Sword Swallower Makes Triumphant Return As He Battles Severe Health Issues

Johnny Fox hugs a fan at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. This fall, Fox has made a triumphant comeback even as he battles with health issues.
Mark Mitton
Johnny Fox hugs a fan at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. This fall, Fox has made a triumphant comeback even as he battles with health issues.

When Johnny Fox was a boy, all his friends were obsessed with superheroes.

"Friends of mine were reading comics about Superman and Batman and I thought, 'You know, this is cartoons and made-up stories,' " he says. "I want a real superhero. There's got to be real superheroes out there."

When he was 8 or 9, his parents took him to the Eastern States Exposition near Springfield, Mass. That's where he found those real superheroes.

"I saw these big banners," he says. "One of them said: 'The Giant From Rekjavik, Iceland, 8 foot-8,' and it said 'Alive.' Another one said: 'The Lobster Boy, Alive.' Another one said: 'The Monkey Girl, Alive.' "

More than a half century later, Fox — now a sword swallower and audience favorite at the Maryland Renaissance Festival — still remembers when he first saw the giant, a man named Jóhann Pétursson.

"He stood up from his chair, and he came walking very slowly to the edge of the stage," he recalls. "And so I'm looking up at this man who's probably about 7-foot-7 ... and I'm telling my dad, 'Hey, is this guy real? What's going on?' And he says, 'That's not a robot, that's a real man.' "

Fox was fascinated by these performers.

"Those people have the courage and the bravery to go up on stage and say, 'This is who I am.' They seemed just like ordinary people with a story to tell," he says.

Fox eventually became a sideshow performer himself; a magician who would gather crowds on the streets of Boulder, Colo., with a fire-eating performance.

One night as he performed, the winds shifted just as he blew a fireball into the air. It burned the left side of his face and marked an end to that aspect of his show. But he still wanted to include an element of danger in his act, so he started looking for other options.

"I was thinking, you know, sword swallowing, I haven't seen sword swallowing in a long time," he says.

Johnny Fox performs at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, where he's been a sword swallower for decades.
Mark Mitton / NPR
Johnny Fox performs at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, where he's been a sword swallower for decades.

Fox gave himself six months to learn sword swallowing. He got a sword and smoothed down any rough spots to reduce the risk of injury while practicing. He also began studying human anatomy and, as he regularly tells audiences, developed the ability to control muscles in his throat.

"Those are the muscles above the esophagus, and that's where the blade goes, into the esophagus," he said during one performance. "Longer blades will go further down into ... into other areas like, I don't know, the fallopian tubes, I guess."

Fox is best known for his long tenure at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, where he has been performing since the early 1980s. Over the years, he's swallowed not just swords, but also a giant mixing spoon, an oversized screwdriver and balloons.

"It's gross," he acknowledges to his audiences. "But you'll watch it."

And he's right. Those who have watched Fox perform for decades speak with emotion about the first time watching his show, and of the feeling they get when bringing their own children or other loved ones to experience his mix of wisecracks, bravado and charm.

"I was first brought to the Renaissance Festival when I was 18 years old and I saw his show," says Virginia resident Crystal Barltrop. "I was absolutely smitten with it. It's a lost art. It's iconic, it's amazing."

Barltrop came from the Richmond area twice this year to see Fox perform, and like many festival patrons, she's been closely monitoring a Facebook page called Friends of Johnny Fox. For much of the past year, Fox's friends and fans have been receiving updates there about the serious health issues that he's been struggling with.

Fox says those issues began during last year's Renaissance Festival. He wasn't feeling well and got tested for Lyme disease. That's when doctors discovered that he actually had Hepatitis-C.

"They told me, they said, not only do you have Hep-C, but you have cirrhosis of the liver and you have tumors," he says.

One night, as Fox was coming to terms with the diagnosis, he slipped on black ice at his home in Connecticut. He got up and went inside but could not get out of bed the next day. Or the day after that.

"The pressure of falling and hitting my back squarely on the ground made all the blood that was in my liver burst and go into my esophagus," he says.

He eventually slipped into a coma and was unconscious for several days. When he woke up, the prognosis was grim. Friends and loved ones who had gathered around his hospital bed asked him if he wanted hospice care.

"And he's like, 'Well, I don't want hospice, but I might have to get it just to get out of here,'" recalls his friend Susanna Mitton. "He's like the ultimate escape artist."

The place Fox wanted to escape to was a cancer treatment facility in Arizona that specializes in alternative medicine. Fox's friends began working to help him get there. They launched a GoFundMe page for his medical care, and organized a fundraiser performance. Several of them accompanied him in an RV on the cross-country trip.

Once he arrived in Arizona, Fox says he began treatments that included a combination of low-dose chemotherapy, high doses of Vitamin C and B-17, medical-grade turmeric, among other therapies. Slowly, he says, his health started to improve. One day, he was able to get out of his wheelchair and walk.

"And then I realized that I could swim. One day I challenged myself to see if I could swim a couple laps, and I swam a lap and felt really good. Like, wow, I can swim," he says.

As his strength came back, so did his drive to make it to this year's Renaissance Festival to see fans who have been rooting for his recovery. In recent weeks, many of those fans have given him standing ovations from the moment he walks on stage. They've stood in long lines after his show, waiting for the opportunity to wish him well, give him a hug and get an autograph for their kids.

Johnny Fox, middle, gives a thumbs up with fans at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
Mark Mitton / NPR
Johnny Fox, middle, gives a thumbs up with fans at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.

"How did I deserve all this help behind me?" he asked after a recent show, his voice cracking. "There's no way I'm going to stop now. I'm going to live to be 200!"

Fox says he was determined to perform this fall because the Maryland Renaissance Festival is a special community. It's the place he keeps coming back to, even as he's pared back performances in other parts of the country.

"The people that come out to this fair — a lot of them have classified jobs that they can't talk about in D.C. So they put on costumes and really get into enjoying their time here at the fair," he says. "They'll come every weekend, and they have their little groups and cliques that hang out."

During most of his performances, Fox routinely pauses to pour what he jokes is protective "water from India" around himself. This fall, audiences have cheered particularly loudly as he goes through that ritual, and Fox himself says he's "fiercely optimistic" about his future.

"Gratitude and optimism and being content have gotten me through so much of my life, and if I can share those things with others and help each other out ... we're all in this crazy world together," he says.

"There's love, and there's fear. I choose love."

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Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.