Escaped Crusader

Bob's scrapbook sits on his living-room table.
It contains many pictures from Bob's teen years, which were spent in the small, idyllic town of Springfield, Illinois. Bob, 33, flips proudly through the pages. There he is hanging out with his buddies. There he is smiling with a girl. There he is all dressed up in a tux.

And there he is on fire.
And there he is chained and padlocked into a glass cage being lowered into the dark waters of a frigid lake.

And, oh, there's another one; this time there's an eight-ton backhoe shoveling mountains of dirt on top of Bob, who is lying in a grave seven feet deep. Seems he is being buried alive.

It is true that most teens in Springfield--a state capital rich in agriculture and home of Abe Lincoln's law practice from 1837 to 1861--do not engage in such rituals. But then most teens in Springfield, or anywhere else for that matter, are not the Mystifying Gorsich.

Indeed, there is only one Mystifying Gorsich, gambler with death, scoffer at terror, ignorer of fear, king of crude but effective escapes devised in his backyard and performed at shopping centers, school auditoriums, county fairs, Kiwanis clubs, churches and Cub Scout meetings throughout the great state of Illinois, and in parts as far off and exotic as Minnetonka Beach, Minnesota.

And now the Mystifying Gorsich walks among us, right here in the Valley of the Sun. He has relocated to Gilbert, where he is so mystifying that no one knows who he is.

For the time being, the Mystifying One, who with his red hair and happy face looks Ron Howard-wholesome, is cleverly disguised as a salesman for a local furniture store. He's a regular guy who takes care of his family in a tidy little apartment where we find a wide-screen TV in the living room, pictures of his kids in the breakfast nook, and cages containing two doves, a hamster and a floppy-eared rabbit.

But even this apartment holds secrets.
In one closet lurks a disassembled guillotine--"for cutting off heads"--lengths of rusted shackles, and the Floating Lady Trick. In another there is a box used to slice people in half. On the back porch sits the custom-built glass water-torture cell. In the back bedroom, there is a straitjacket made by J.T. Posey Company of Arcadia, California. It is medium.

According to the Mystifying Gorsich, these tools of intrigue will not remain hidden for long; he is ready to escape from semiretirement, truly a difficult feat.

"My wife doesn't really like the idea of the escape stuff," admits the Mystifying Gorsich. "But I always talk about it and if someone said, 'Hey, we've got this thing we want you to do,' I'd be there. It wouldn't take me a second to think about it."

If you go to see David Copperfield perform, you will be dazzled. Not only by Copperfield's hypnotic powers of illusion, but by the fantastic props and sets, the high-tech sound and lighting, the Broadway-level staging, and the incredible army of beautiful women that assists him. All of this costs a great deal of money, which Copperfield obviously has.

If you go to see the Mystifying Gorsich, you will not see fantastic props and sets, staging or any of the rest. Instead of buxom assistants, there are guys in white jumpsuits and feed caps. Which don't cost a lot, as TMG does not have a lot of money.

But this is not to say that you won't be dazzled. In fact, judging by the scrapbook and a videotape I saw, a Gorsich show packs all of the big-time wallop, and adds some seductive, honest, gut-level horror Copperfield cannot begin to conjure up.

It's like the attraction of the midway versus Disneyland, the pure adrenal thrill that this is very, very real, and consequently something just might go very, very wrong.

So far, nothing has. Like Houdini and Henning and so many masters before him, Gorsich takes great care in planning his escapes (which he pronounces "excapes"). The burial stunt, for example.

"Most people, when they're buried alive--as far as for magical reasons--they're put in a box. And let's say you're in a six-foot grave and you're put in a three-foot-tall box. All you have to do is go through three feet of dirt, which is a little simpler than what I do," he explains. "You also have oxygen to breathe, and you have somewhere to displace the dirt. The way we did it, I was chained to a board, I was lowered into the grave and then bulldozers dumped the dirt on my body. It took me 10 minutes."

The artist reveals a series of snapshots of this feat. First, his hand emerging as a few people standing in an Illinois field look on. Then his head, then his assistants move in to yank him the rest of the way. His outfit is covered with soil. But it is no form-fitting Knievel jumpsuit, no Copperfield skintight black jeans with billowy pirate shirt.

The Mystifying Gorsich goes to work in a gray sweat shirt and blue jeans. Sometimes--when he lights himself on fire, for instance--he uses a sweat shirt with a hood. He is the Woody Guthrie of daredevils, the escape artist for the common man.

Gorsich did not become Mystifying until he was 14. He was doing simple magic tricks at age 7, but, influenced by a Houdini biography from the Springfield library, he began to yearn for more.

"When I started doing the escapes, they weren't death-defying ones, just stuff like getting out of a pair of handcuffs or locked in a box," says Gorsich of the days when he was just Bob. "When I was 16, I did a water-tank escape where I had to escape or else you drown. From 16 on, things just started going a lot different, it was all death-defying stuff."

Teenagers around the country regularly risk their lives in death-defying stunts, but these usually involve drug overdoses, driving while liquored up or frat-house initiations. Rarely do you find a 16-year-old whose idea of fun is to chain himself down by the neck to the bottom of a glass tank (built in his bedroom) filled with water, handcuff his ankles and wrists, and attempt to get out of all this before drowning. And in front of an audience.

His first attempt at this little number was live onstage at Springfield High Auditorium.

"It was in 1980, and we sold out the whole place. We went and tried the trick an hour before the show and I couldn't get out," reveals TMG. "So we had to start tearing things apart, finding what was wrong. Then I did the escape again successfully, and it was 10 minutes before showtime. I remember the crew just dressing me where I was standing, blow-drying my hair, everyone cleared the stage and I went on." The Mystifying One pauses for a chuckle. "It went fine, but everyone was pretty nervous--back in my younger days, I probably took more chances than I would now, but that's just being a kid."

Perhaps rarer still are the parents who would let a child take such risks.
"They were pretty concerned about it," Gorsich admits. "They knew they weren't going to change my mind, so they didn't interfere a lot."

So Bob and his pals would gather after school in his backyard and practice burying him alive, lighting him on fire, timing how long a rope holding back spikes aimed at his head and chest would take to burn through, and if he could wriggle out of a straitjacket in time to avoid them. The spikes, that is.

Here's another story from Bob's early days, when most kids his age were dealing with hormonal changes instead of a possible garish show-biz death. This time he was shackled in a sealed packing crate and lowered into a lake. And, yes, the Mystifying Gorsich was actually frightened.

"One of the scariest parts of that effect was just being in the box while they were nailing it shut," he says. "I had three people nailing, and I never even thought of what it would sound like, this echoing beating."

Scary, perhaps, but not scary enough.
"At that point, you have to do it. I can't explain it, you just have to do it. The first time I was dropped in a lake, the box was halfway lowered in, and my crew guy yelled, 'Bob, are you ready?' and I yelled back, 'No, I don't want to do this!' I was very nervous. And he goes, 'I can't hear you!' And at that split instant I just yelled, 'Go ahead, I'm ready!'

"Then when the box was lowered in the water, it just kept getting darker and darker as it sunk. The way I did it, when my nose touched the top of the box, that's when I sucked in as much air as possible. That's when they released it, and there's no going back at that point.

"Another problem was that the box flipped over as it sunk, so when I tried to get out of the box, nothing was like I thought. It took me several seconds to try and reason what had gone wrong, why I couldn't get out of this box. When I realized I was sitting on the top, then I was able to perform the escape and get out. I was out in less than a minute."

Lest you think that Gorsich's risk-filled escape career is more stupidity than stupendous, he emphasizes that he does months of planning before taking a trick public. According to him, in the "hundreds" of death stunts he has done, the Mystifying One has only suffered "blood poisoning from a blister I got in a fire, and some burned facial hair."

Incidentally, for his stunts, Gorsich had a life-insurance "stuntman's policy," and a "hold harmless clause" in his general insurance policy to alleviate his hirer from liability.

Now, here's how a trick becomes a trick.
"First I make a list of things of danger," he reveals. "Electricity, fire, water, drowning, spikes, gallows, whatever the case is. Then the idea goes from there. There are other stages, how you're going to present it, what you want the audience to see. We did one, the Human Sacrifice, and we wanted to make it look like things went terribly wrong. We had people crying in the audience."

The Human Sacrifice involved Gorsich chained atop what looked like a triple bunk bed that was torched. You've probably seen dead people disposed of in this ritual fashion on National Geographic specials. The audience was told he would have a minute to break free before the flames reached him; he was engulfed in about 15 seconds.

"A lot of people thought it was a 911 situation," he says, laughing. "But we never did that again."

For Buried Alive, Gorsich and his loyal crew of buddies "would go out on construction sites and talk to the backhoe operators, and we did some small rehearsals, never at that depth [of seven feet]. I needed to know what it was like to be covered with dirt. That was important, so your mind knows what to expect. Three days after we did Buried Alive, a guy did it in California and died. He was in a box and they poured concrete on him. It didn't seem like he researched it very well."

Right now, the Mystifying Gorsich is in something of a holding pattern. He can't fit into his straitjacket anymore (it's a medium, remember) but he's hardly ready to slide back into making balloon animals at birthday parties. He misses the fumes of the gas as it soaked into his sweat shirt, the way the blood rushed to his head as he hung upside down from a crane 50 feet in the air, yanking his arms out of bondage. The creative mind of a dyed-in-the-wool escape man is always churning.

"I've got a list of ideas," he says. "There's one where I pump water into a glass tank and struggle to get out from a straitjacket or shackles or whatever. The tank slowly starts to fill up, and the audience can watch me take that last breath and finish the escape. You know, that's one idea."

Audience belief is something that is paramount to Gorsich's personal code of mystification.

"I feel that if you're in a grave or something like that, the audience should see you digging through. With Copperfield or someone, sometimes they're put into one situation and all of a sudden they come walking out of the crowd, or a helicopter lands and they come out of that; there's a lot of flash and flair. I like the more ruggedness of it where they see you go in, they see you come out."

So, Mystifying Gorsich, so, Bob: why, why, why, why, why?
He seems a bit puzzled anyone would even ask.
"I'm a thrill seeker. I guess that's the best way to describe it."


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