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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

The Lost Sword Swallower

The mystery of Sena Sama
By R. Benedito Ferrão |
AUGUST 11, 2020
Indian sword swallower postcard (1904)
The 1812 Wickham House in Richmond, Virginia stands as a repository of artefacts of upper crust Southern American life. It was once the home of prominent Virginians, John and Elizabeth Wickham. The former was the lawyer who in 1807 defended Aaron Burr. The then-Vice President had killed his opponent Alexander Hamilton in a duel, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical recounts. Purchased by Mann Satterwhite Valentine, Jr. in 1882, the house is part of The Valentine Museum which was established in 1898. Several portraits line the hallways of the Wickham residence. Expectedly, there are paintings of the erstwhile owners as also the Valentines. No images are to be seen of the enslaved Black servants who were employed by the Wickhams. Nonetheless, standing in sharp relief against the portraits of the white faces on the walls is a picture of a sword-holding, turbaned dark-skinned man, hung high up above a doorway.

The placard accompanying the image explains that it was painted by the English-born portraitist James Warrell around 1817 and that it depicts “Sena Sama (also spelled Senaa Samma) from Tamil Nadu, India, [who] was said to be the first known sword swallower in America.” This first public demonstration of sword-swallowing occurred in New York City on November 25, 1817, the sign goes on to state by quoting a newspaper article. The performer “worked a short time with Pepin’s Circus in 1818 and continued to perform until 1843,” we are told.
Sena Sama portrait at the Valentine Museum
But what happened to him after that year? How old was the man when he arrived in the United States and what made him come here? Till what age did he swallow swords, and what made him stop? My interest piqued, I began to look for more information about the traveling artiste. While traces of him show up in a couple of different sources about the American circus, his presence is also obscured because there is some confusion about whether he might have gone by another name.

As professor and blogger Amardeep Singh notes in a May 26, 2006 online post, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs (1848) makes mention of an Indian juggler named Ramo Samee. Note the similarity of name to Sama’s. Singh writes that Samee lived in England with his wife between approximately 1819 and 1851, when he died. But, as the Sword Swallower’s Hall of Fame, a website dedicated to the history of this skill and its performance speculates, Samee’s prior travels may have taken him to America where he could have performed as a sword-swallower in 1817. This was the same year Sama performed in New York, giving rise to claims that Samee and Sama may have been the same person.

In Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns (2018), John Zubrzycki ascertains that Ramo Samee sailed to Boston in September 1819. Two years prior, Sama would have made his debut in New York, and it is also the approximate time at which Warrell would have captured his likeness in paint. In addition to being a juggler, Samee “was particularly famous for his trick of knife swallowing,” John Sutherland chronicles in his notes to the 1978 edition of Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs.

Despite both having performed in America, given their memorable acts, it is highly unlikely that Sama and Samee were the same person. Rather, Sama and Samee’s travels highlight a curious fact of nineteenth century entertainment. Not only did South Asian performers journey to the Atlantic world to ply their crafts, but also enjoyed great popularity. Sama worked with Pepin’s Circus until 1843, while Samee returned to England in 1820, according to Zubrzycki, operating there till mid-century.

Ramo Samee came to be a cultural sensation in England and finds mention in the writing of the British social commentator, William Hazlitt. So moved was he by the performance, George Speaight declares in A History of the Circus (1980), that in his 1821 essay “The Indian Jugglers,” in the book Table-Talk, Hazlitt compares Samee’s jugglery to a cosmic feat wherein he kept “balls revolving ‘like the planets in their spheres … There is something in all of this which he who does not admire may be quite sure he never really admired anything in the whole course of his life’.”

What is also to be gleaned from the title of Hazlitt’s gushing essay is that there was more than one practitioner of the art that the Englishman admired, with Samee being the most well-known of the Indian jugglers of his day in England. Additionally, in the related spheres of the circus and sideshows, there were other South Asians in the realm of nineteenth century public entertainment in the Western world, and Sama and Samee – while oddities – would not have been alone in their difference. If anything, it was their very difference as dark-skinned performers that would have lent itself to a budding entertainment scene at the time. This growing desire for amusement unexpectedly sprung from a rising interest in science.

Robert Bogdan deduces in his book Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (1988) that an increasing public interest in science would have given rise to museums in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century America. Bogdan finds that this was because “Christian convention frowned on theatre and other forms of pure recreation” while science and other kinds of edification were commended instead. To give the public the entertainment they still desired, “the museum provided a cover of ‘rational amusement’” which might have included scientific lectures for the sake of keeping up appearances.

“Drama and musical productions, freaks, and other more entertainment-oriented features gradually took over the program,” Bogdan reveals. These productions offered a spectacle of difference to the viewers that gathered to see them. Entertainment and pseudo-science were readily conflated, as were ideas of able-bodiedness and whiteness. Freaks were the other to the audiences that gathered to see them, the racialization of these entertainers being a huge part of the draw.

It was by way of these early museums, that emerged from scientific curiosity, that “freaks” and entertainers gathered into collectives that would allow them to eke out more stable livelihoods and to find a sense of community. In time, circuses provided a similar function, and so it is no surprise that Sena Sama joined Pepin’s Circus in 1818. Ramo Samee was similarly employed on the other side of the ocean.

Sama and Samee were not the only South Asians engaged by circuses and freak shows. For instance, there was also the famous “Handsome, Healthy, Happy Hindoo,” Laloo, who was born in Oudh, India, in 1874, and worked for P. T. Barnum, the American showman. Laloo found employment in several other sideshows, too, and was an attraction because growing from his abdomen was a parasitic miniature twin. The employment of figures like Sama, Samee, and Laloo by circuses and sideshows lends further evidence to the racial tinge of the pseudo-scientific fascination of the day. As Bogdan remarks in Freak Show, such interest was capitalized upon by the early museums that contained “[h]uman curiosities … relevant to debates concerning the classification of human races…”

In Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (1997), Rosemarie Garland Thomson examines the popularity of freak shows in the American milieu of the late nineteenth century as “in the ambitious project of American self-making…, freak shows were to the masses what science was to the emerging elite: an opportunity to formulate the self in terms of what it was not.” And in this fledgling sense of self, what the American public of the nineteenth century “was not,” Thomson argues, was informed by “the ancient and medieval traditions of imagining foreign races as monstrous, all the bodily characteristics that seemed different or threatening to the dominant order merged into … [the] physical difference on the freak show stage.” A figure like Laloo, then, readily fit into racialized expectations of monstrous difference, but so also the acts of sword- and knife-swallowing which were presented as macabre exotic acts by foreigners.

Insomuch as American views of the self as distinct from the racially “monstrous” other were influenced by earlier European beliefs, the decidedly localized understanding of such difference was manifested in the parlance of the time. In fact, legends associated with the American freak show drew heavily from the American history of slavery. As Extraordinary Bodies puts it, known as “‘Nig shows’ in circus lingo, freak shows traded indiscriminately in both cultural and corporeal otherness.” It is therefore perhaps no coincidence that Barnum’s inaugural exhibit, much before he had hired Laloo, was Joice Heth, a Black woman who was rumoured to be George Washington’s 161-year-old wet nurse.

Thomson describes Heth as “[a] black, old, toothless, blind, crippled, slave woman” who was “the direct antithesis of the able-bodied, white, male figure upon which the developing notion of [Americanness] was predicated.” Never mind the irony that, had the rumour been true, Heth’s Black bosom would have provided the sustenance for the white child who would become the Father of the American nation. This insight I owe to Bettina Judd, whose poem “Joice Heth Catalogues the Skin,” in her book Patient. (2014), resurfaces the possible truths Heth would have held closest to herself. Speaking for herself in the poem, Heth proclaims, “Time and skin are my business.” Though far less storied than Joice Heth, in presenting Laloo’s body as freakishly other because of his parasitic twin, the profitable theme of racialized difference would have served Barnum and other circus-masters well. The prerogative of such ventures was to cater to white audiences seeking the titillation of viewing racialized bodies deemed freakish. To this end, institutions like Pepin’s and Barnum’s brought together several non-white performers of different races. Consider that in addition to Sena Sama, though not necessarily at the same juncture, Pepin’s also had on staff one Peter (or Pitre), the Young African, a vaulter. Likewise, Barnum’s enterprises included Heth, Laloo, and famed conjoined “Siamese” twins, Chang and Eng. History only allows us to conjecture about the interactions of non-white performers. That they occupied the same space guarantees that much might have transpired behind the scenes and away from their white employers and audiences in the nineteenth century.

Museums, from which freak shows and circuses took cue, comparably serve both as a record of past lives as well as obscure them. For example, the 1812 Wickham House, where I first learned of Sena Sama, bears no physical evidence of the enslaved Black people who would have been part of the Wickham household in the early nineteenth century. And while the fact of these Black lives is absented, in its rebranding as a museum, the Valentine exhibits objects relating to the cultures of Native America as well as racial groups from other parts of the world. Acquisitions of the Valentine family in the latter half of the nineteenth century, these artifacts appear in several cabinets of curiosities. They mark the collectors not only as cultured elites, but additionally define their civilized white Americanness in contrast to these relics of the “primitive” racial other.
The Valentine Museum
As I previously indicate, this was the same function that freak shows performed by putting freakish bodies on display in the early nineteenth century. But following the era of Reconstruction (1865-77), the history of slavery had become an inconvenient one and would have no room in the self-making project of a prominent Southern white family like the Valentines. Therefore, the Valentine Museum has much to show of cultural objects, but these function to make invisible the historical presence of racialized bodies such as those of the enslaved. However, this vacuum is ruptured by the portrait of Sena Sema, an object that renders its racial subject conspicuous.

Purchased by the Valentines, the picture of the sword swallower dating back to c. 1817, gestures to that moment and its untold stories – of slavery and the intersecting racial history of nineteenth century freaks. While made hypervisible due to his ability to swallow swords, it is also the color of his skin that made Sama exotic to the painter who recorded the artist’s presence in America. His portrait over the doorway at the Wickham House causes one to reckon with his existence despite his disappearance, making it a lasting act of his showmanship.

R. Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at William and Mary, Virginia and a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, Goa.