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The Mysterious Case of Mirin Dajo, the Human Pincushion

by Brian Dunning, May 13 2010

I can scarcely think of a way I’d less rather die than having a sword run through my abdomen. Yet Dutchman Mirin Dajo did it every day.

In the 1940’s, Dajo was known for his stage performances, in which he’d stand barechested while his assistant would take fencing foils, and one by one, run him through. The show was appalling and horrible to watch, but Dajo never flinched, never showed the slightest pain. The curious were invited to watch as closely as they liked, and to examine the blades even while they were stuck through him.

Doctors wanted to know more, so he was invited to a medical center for tests. In front of the doctors’ scrutiny, Dajo’s assistant stuck a foil into his back, and then pressed it all the way through. The doctors watched in amazement as the skin pushed outward on his chest and the foil finally broke through. Despite all the doctors’ tests, Dajo seemed quite well. With the foil stuck through him, Dajo walked to their X-ray lab, where they took shots verifying that there was no trickery. The foil did indeed pierce his abdomen all the way through, passing through and among major organs.

Professional magicians have offered explanations of their own. They believe it’s real, and that Dajo had simply learned a mental technique for coping with the trauma. Dajo often told of having visited India and learned from fakirs, mystics who perform similar but much less dramatic feats. Generally speaking, performers who do self-mutilation are actually doing what they appear to be doing; they’re just well practiced, well disciplined, and used to it. But nobody had ever heard of a case as dramatic as Mirin Dajo. Studying from the fakirs was as plausible an explanation as anyone could come up with.

And though it has the sound of a bogus cover story, it may indeed be the way he learned how to do what he did. Some fakirs would pierce their own bodies in the same way that westerners pierce their ears or other body parts. When you do this, it creates what’s called a fistula, a tunnel of scar tissue. So long as you keep the fistula open by having something inserted through it, like an earring, it won’t close up. Modern doctors and bodypiercing professionals agree that’s probably how Dajo did it. Little by little, he and his assistant would drive a sharp object a little further into a hole in his abdomen, leaving it in place, letting it heal, and then driving it in a little further. Photos of Dajo’s back show it riddle with scars and holes, which are probably failed fistulas where their efforts were blocked by bones, nerves, major organs, or something too painful to get past. Eventually Danjo had at least four fistulas that went all the way through. He probably lived with metal bars inserted through them all the time, and when it came time for a performance, these were removed. His assistant had only to carefully slide the fencing foils through the fistulas at the proper angles, as they’d practiced together many times.

And thus were the doctors fooled, the magicians stumped, and the audiences thrilled. It was perhaps not the best career choice, though, as Dajo died at age 35 from an aortic rupture, resulting from swallowing a long steel needle. Guess the fakirs hadn’t clued him in on that one.

29 Responses to “The Mysterious Case of Mirin Dajo, the Human Pincushion”

  1. Benny says:

    That is totally fascinating! It seems plausible as an explanation, though still creeps me out completely.

  2. CW says:

    Would the fistulas explain why no blood ever came out?

    • Seth says:

      Most likely. If the scars were maintained in such a manner, it’d be like having pierced ears through your whole body.

  3. Alex says:

    Thank you for ruining my appetite.

    … there’s no business like show business!

  4. Nexus says:

    The idea that someone could do this through their own abdomen is astonishing. If you moved while the swords were inside (even after forming a fistula) would having a metal extending through your body cause you pain if you moved?

  5. rob says:

    i have to wonder what the guy ( be it him or someone who passed on the knowledge) who discovered you could do this was up to.
    seeing as he died swallowing a large steel needle i am thinking he may have being trying to create a new opening vertically through his body. that would have been impressive the hilt of the sword in his mouth and the point somewhere else completely.;)

  6. Jim says:

    Was that Liam Neeson?

  7. MadScientist says:

    Hah, talk about rippin’ yourself a new one – you say he had at least four?

  8. tmac57 says:

    I can just imagine how a conversation with his high school career counselor might have gone: “Well,young Mirin, have you pinned down what you want to do with your life?” No, not yet.I would like to do something on the cutting edge,but I am really open to anything”.”Have you thought about taking a stab at Holistic medicine?” “Not really.It seems kind of pointless”.”I see.Well,Mirin,you’re a sharp young man,and a deep thinker,and what ever you decide,if you just stick to it,you will be successful”.

  9. Dylan says:

    Amazing! I wonder how he suvived the unsuccessful attempts in creating the holes. He must have nicked or pierced some of his organs quite a bit. Nevermind, I don’t want to dwell on that…

  10. Craig Sachs says:

    Thanks Brian for doing the research about this guy. The self mutilation thing has always fascinated me. From plain old earrings to nailing yourself on a cross for a religious parade. Personalty my favorite feat is the human blockhead. Where the performer nails a six inch nail into his skull through their nose With a hammer.

    • Stephen M. says:

      If you want to see the human blockhead routine done by a pro, look for Brian Brushwood on YouTube. He is a fellow skeptic, a fantastic magician, and the host of Scam School. On one of the Scam School episodes, he shows how to do the human blockhead trick.

  11. Sorenzo says:

    You know, I think there are people born with a syndrome that makes them less able, or unable, to feel pain, but they often die early because they don’t learn much from their mistakes.

    Maybe this guy just couldn’t feel pain and thus had no immediate reason not to do insane experiments.

  12. Carlos Puig says:

    Ok, about the sindrome that makes a person not feel pain – those poor kids die completely mutilated at young ages such as 8 and 9; it is the thing with leprosy – it does not cause the wounds, it only causes the impairment of feeling any pain… there is an interesting book on the subject (it is “inspirational christian stuff” I shall warn you) by Paul Yancey, The Gift of Pain.

    But there is some people aflicted by Personality Disorders, mostly the commonly cited Border Line Personality Disorder that are not much afflicted by pain, these people seem to find confort in it – hence they self-mutilate.

    (please excuse my language mistakes, I´m brazilian)

  13. MrsDonut says:

    Anyone have any updates on this? Wish to know more.

  14. John says:

    Nice explanation, except for the fact that when he was x-rayed in Switzerland the blade actually went through vital organs.

  15. skepticblog

    Dear Brian Dunning,
    thank you very much for divulgating this interesting case.
    I am a MD, a psychologist and an acupuncturist. I too think Mirin Dajo really did those foil piercings. I do piercings on myself, at a much lesser lever, without leaving scars on my body, but using the very little needles of acupuncture 0,27mm x 30mm or a bit longer. Specially, I pierce the skin between my thumb and forefinger, where the pincer muscle is larger, I enter the needle from the palmar side (more painful but only at the beginning) so I make my friends and collegues stupefied, while they are seeing in a few seconds the needle tip to rise on the hand dorsal side. If you do it very slowly there are no problem also if you penetrate a nerv or a vessel (hwr at that point they are always very little). The foil in effect is not a sword :-), which has one or two sharp blade, it is just a foil: its section is perfectly circular and it is made exactly like a very long pin or the acupuncture needle It is a cilinder ending with a cone. When the cone has passed, the entire cilinder can pass, not through the bone of course, but never say never. You can obtain a fistula in two three hours at least, the operation must be very slow to give tissues and cells the time to organize the repair. I think the fistula hypotesis for Mirin Dajo’s case quiet possible. Please read closely the following article:
    Best regards,
    Stefano Marcelli MD
    Darfo Boario Terme BS

  16. A quick trip to videoland shows Mirin Dojo being perforated with a Sabre.This along with his apparent willingness to let MD.s install the foil makes the fistula hypothesis seem a bit of a stab at things.

  17. j pond says:

    i’d like the good doctor(?) from italy to explain how sword over and inch wide through your lung could create a fistula and not a collapsed lung. the rapier would do the same thing, yet the guy does not appear to suffer a collapsed lung after each are removed. you also couldn’t guide them through a lung.

    p.s. this is the video you need to watch:

  18. j pond says:

    ah, forgot to say that it makes no sense that a wide fistula would heal on the skin, leave no scar, but internally the fistula remains.

  19. paul says:

    Mirin Dajo did this over 60 yrs ago no one has done anything this extreme since. The Skeptics denounce everything that seems impossible to our limited understanding of reality as a trick. Yet for all their expounded theory never ever show us how it can be done .One highly self esteemed medical doctor from Italy boasts how he can pass a very fine needle through the skin between his finger and thumb, this hardly qualifies as an act worthy of an audience ( I cannot imagine a hall full of doctors desperate to see him perform ). All I ask is for just one skeptic to demonstrate how Mirin Dajo did it especially the sword through his heart “trick ” don,t tell me , just show me!. thanks, Paul

    • DGChaos says:

      Nobody is denouncing it. I certainly think this is an impressive feat.

      People are only trying to figure out how he may have managed to do it. A fistula seems to be the most plausible explanation among the ones offered so far.

      Why has no one done it? For the simple reason that it’s not at all easy. Mirin Dajo somehow figured out how to overcome the various parameters for this feat. He made sacrifices that most people would never make. Mirin Dajo was clearly a very talented person in this regard.

  20. Yael says:

    These fistula’s that he supposedly created, why did they not kill him? Stabbing yourself and leaving a metal rod in it sound like something that would cause internal bleeding and death. Also, wouldn’t the other stab wounds have killed him?

  21. luke says:

    interesting and fascinating story.. i also read his biography..
    but there’s one problem with your fistula-theory:
    you can clearly see the foil coming out through the skin from various angles, theres absolutely no hole or something like an earring-type of open pre-made fistula.. it needs to pierce through the skin. everytime.

    and, besides trying to explain how, better ask yourself WHY!: whats the point in makin a huge effort like doin all those painful fistulas over YEARS, without taking any money for the shows after, or taking any money for his seminars where he talked about the power of mind over matter and peace between all humans by invulnerability. this guy didnt want to get rich nor famous. he wanted to bring a message to the people.

    i think dajo was able to do some things we cant understand with our point of view. we possibly can never explain it with our scientific materialistic way of thinking.
    if you show this video to people in india, no one will wonder. its kind of usual there, many indian yogis can walk through fire without getting hurt and create things out of nowhere, be in two places at the same time and other “unexplainable” things without any cheap tricks. i’ve seen it with my own eyes. in western civilization we still not understand those things.
    maybe we will one day.. ;-)

  22. Valentino says:

    That’s a lot of great explanation, but you should read more about him, some of documented experiments were shoting him in the head, pouring hot iron on him… how do you expalin those?

  23. Valentino says:

    Also the wounds he was inflicted with, woud close after that, they werent quite open as you said.

  24. Stefan says:

    How about his side stab, that doesn’t look like it has any holes. Or when he was stabbed with a flat sword. That looked like he was doing it for the first time, I mean the skin looked intact, and that occurred in many other stabs. If your answer is that skin simply sticked to the blade, then the scar tissue must have had this kind of resistance as well, so putting a sword to a tunnel would be very dangerous. The blade could redirect its course. And, why did he swet that much? And why was there no blood if his skin got pierced? And why did he have to acquire such a stance when getting pierced when sword should be flowing so smoothly through his fistula?
    Interesting theory by the way. I like it.
    P.S. I watched a youtube video where a magician expert says it’s not a trick, that he is actually getting pierced. And in Ripleys belive it or not I heard that he was stabbed more than 500 times.