THE END

DONALD PAUL LESLIE 1937-2007

Escape artist, master fire-eater, he was a sideshow legend. But sword swallowing was his passion.

NANCY MACDONALD July 23 2007
THE END

DONALD PAUL LESLIE 1937-2007

Escape artist, master fire-eater, he was a sideshow legend. But sword swallowing was his passion.

NANCY MACDONALD July 23 2007

DONALD PAUL LESLIE 1937-2007

Escape artist, master fire-eater, he was a sideshow legend. But sword swallowing was his passion.

THE END

Donald Paul Leslie was born the day after Christmas, 1937, at the city hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was the eldest of five, born to Stuart, an electrician originally from Nova Scotia, and Ruth, a short-order cook. His home was broken by Stuart’s alcoholism, and Don left at 14, finding a new family among circus hands. “Some people used to join the circus, and get homesick within 40 miles,” says Mr. G, a tattoo artist and close friend. “They were called ‘40 milers,’ and wouldn’t stick with it.” Not Don.

“Whenever he smelled elephant sh-, he knew he was home,” says Electric Inny, another tattoo artist and friend of 25 years.

It was the early 1950s, and travelling circuses were still criss-crossing the U.S. by rail and wagon, inviting thousands at a time to “step right up” and witness deathdefying daredevils, dancing elephants and bearded ladies. Don joined the King Brothers Circus, where he ran the pony ride. But his eye was on the sideshow tent, and during his breaks he would watch the sword swallower, Carlos Leal, also a master fire-eater.

Noting Don’s fixation, the Argentine offered to teach him, on one condition: he had to send his parents a telegram, telling them he was alive. Don agreed.

Leal, it turned out, was a better fire-eater than sword swallower.

“Carlos taught him the wrong way to swallow swords,” says Madame Chinchilla, a California tattoo artist and close friend, currently working on Don’s biography. He told him to choke and gag, for effect. “He would have died if he kept swallowing that way.” Fortunately, Harry Doll, of the famed family of performing dwarves (best known for playing Munchkins in The Wizard ofOz), stepped in. Doll, who renamed him “Capt. Don,” knew the technique was dangerously wrong, and set him up with renowned swordsman Alex Lang. He taught the circus hand to gently slide the cold blade behind his voice box, between the lungs, past the heart and liver, and down into the pit of his stomach.

Capt. Don began his professional career at 16 with the Christiani Brothers Circus, billing himself as a fire-eater. They toured from Maine to Florida and back, with Don occasionally sharing a railcar with elephants or driving a caravan full of horses. He was tattooed from head to toe, and became the king of the marvel acts, mastering all 10 sideshow staples—escaping from canvas straitjackets, lying

on beds of nails, and performing the human pincushion. “Is my bow tie on straight?” Capt. Don would quip, a thick needle stuck through a fold of skin on his neck.

In 1961, Don married Sherry, a non-performer he met while working in Key West, Fla. They had two sons, Don and Darryl. But life on the circuit took a toll on Capt. Don’s family, says Madame Chinchilla. The couple divorced after four years. By the late 1960s, Capt. Don

was travelling less, and began a 15year relationship with Joannie, a Boston homemaker. They didn’t marry, but had two children, Stephanie, now a nurse in Quincy, Mass., and David, a Boston truck driver. “Drinking got in the way,” says David, explaining the reason for his parents’ eventual split.

During his years with the circus, Capt. Don served three years in a federal penitentiary for robbery, the result of a failed attempt at safe-cracking while wintering in Florida. In prison, Capt. Don learned music theory. “If they hadn’t paroled him early for good behaviour, he would have been a hell of a guitar player, too,” says lifelong friend Lyle Tuttle, another tattoo artist, who graced the October 1970 cover of Rolling Stone.

David says the man behind the showman came to life in 1980, after Capt. Don conquered the alcoholism that plagued him for 20 years. “That’s when I got to know my dad.” His heart went out to people who were fighting addiction or were down and out, David says, because of his own struggles. Capt. Don became the “Pied Piper of the indigent,” says Tuttle, making time for “every lame bastard in the world.” He wrote poems about the glory days of the big top, and he read widely. But sword swallowing remained his passion. In 1981, he simultaneously swallowed five 30-inch blades—a world record. He almost died in 1989, performing his five-sword sandwich in Seattle. As he pulled the swords from his throat, they scissored, lacerating his esophagus. After four decades, the Capt. hung up his swords. “Fire-eaters are a dime a dozen,” he told an interviewer five years ago. “But sword swallowers are hard to find. There have never been more than a couple dozen of them at any given time over the past 300 years.” Six months ago, Capt. Don, among the last of the big top sword swallowers, was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died at home in Chico, Calif., onjune 4, 2007

NANCY MACDONALD