He was one of a vanishing breed, a lifelong sideshow carny who
swallowed swords, ate fire and shoved sharp metal objects up his
nose. He smoked like a Frenchman, wore his hair long like a rock
star and had more tattoos than a sailor.
The Captain spent 42 years on the road. There isn't a circus
worth mentioning or a place worth seeing where he didn't perform.
He lived in a trailer, bathed from a bucket and stashed his pay in
a sock. Circus life was all he ever knew, or cared to.
"He loved it," said Henry Goldfield, a San Francisco tattoo
artist. He befriended the Captain 25 years ago when the sword
swallower started performing at Fisherman's Wharf. "He always said
that whenever he smelled elephants -- he knew he was home."
Donald Paul Leslie died June 4 at home in
Chico, six months after being diagnosed with throat cancer brought
on by decades of eating fire. He was 69, and his peers said his
death closes the golden age of sideshow sword swallowing.
"The Captain was old school," said Lady Diane Falk, a sword
swallower who worked with him for three years. "When you watched
Captain Don, you knew you were watching history."
Mr. Leslie is a legend among sword swallowers,
and there are as many variations on his story as there are people
to tell it. But they all begin in Boston with Mr. Leslie
running from a home broken by alcoholism.
Some say Mr. Leslie first sold hot dogs for
Ringling Brothers. Others say he ran the pony ride for King
Brothers. It was 1952, when circus sideshows still had bearded
ladies and elephant men and odd jobs for a 14-year-old on the run.
But selling hot dogs, running pony rides and following
elephants with a shovel was as lucrative as it was exciting.
The real money was in performing, so Mr. Leslie
billed himself as a fire-eater and joined the Christiani Brothers
Circus in 1954. He met Carlos Leal, a fire-eater and sword
swallower of some renown who was happy to have an apprentice.
"Carlos taught him the wrong way to swallow swords," said
Madame Chinchilla, a tattoo artist in Fort Bragg. She met Mr.
Leslie 21 years ago and is writing his biography.
"He told him to cough and gag and make a big production of it to
Fortunately, Harry Doll -- of the world-famous Doll family of
performing dwarves -- introduced Mr. Leslie to
"He saved the Captain's life," Madame Chinchilla said. "The
Captain would have died if he kept swallowing the way Carlos
Linton taught Mr. Leslie to swallow swords
smoothly, which is akin to having Joe Montana teach you how to
throw a football. Linton held the world sword-swallowing record --
four -- until 1981, when Mr. Leslie
simultaneously swallowed five. Each was 30 inches long.
Doll also christened Mr. Leslie "Captain"
Don after telling the young sword swallower he
needed a catchy stage name.
The Captain hung up his swords when he was 18 and did a brief
stint in the Marines, then picked up where he left off, Madame
He learned how to stick needles through his cheek and ice picks
up his nose. He mastered the art of lying on nails, walking on
glass and getting out of a straightjacket. He was the Bruce Jenner
of sideshows, a decathlete performing all 10 of the bizarre
routines promised by any show worth seeing.
When the big top came down and the sideshow packed up, the
Captain would spend the off-season working as a tattoo artist.
He'd been tattooed by the masters, including Carol "Smokey"
Nightingale and Lyle Tuttle, and knew enough to make a buck at it.
The Captain also would perform on the streets of Boston and was
a regular on Fisherman's Wharf for most of the 1980s. He also
appeared at the Exotic Erotic Ball a few times.
He was slowing down by then and had quit drinking, but he'd
still hit the road every spring. People loved to see him swallow
five swords simultaneously.
It was the grand finale to his show, and it almost killed him
in 1989. That was in Seattle, before a packed house. He'd done it
a million times, but this time, something slipped. The blades
parted as he pulled them from his throat, tearing his esophagus.
That was it for the Captain. He called it quits.
He gave most of his swords to Lady Diane, whom he'd met earlier
that year during a tour of the South Pacific. They worked together
for a time in Canada, where the Captain created a sideshow for
But performing was in his blood, and it wasn't easy to give it
up. He started swallowing swords again about a decade ago at
tattoo conventions, where he was something of a celebrity.
His last appearance was in February, but he didn't swallow his
sword. He was living on borrowed time by then. Cancer had already
ravaged his throat and jaw. He'd been diagnosed last winter. The
doctors gave him four months, tops. But the Captain was tough. He
hung on for six.
"He was a man of the world and an independent spirit," said his
son, David, "and he had one hell of a rollercoaster ride of a
The Captain is survived by his ex-wives, Sherry and Joannie,
and four children, Don Leslie of
Finland, Darryl Leslie of Phoenix, David
Leslie of Boston and Stephanie Leslie of
Plans for a memorial service are pending.
This article appeared on page B - 5
of the San Francisco Chronicle