Friday, 30 September 2011

ELLA HARPER – The Camel Girl

camelgirl 731920 ELLA HARPER   The Camel GirlMost sources indicate that Ella Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee in 1873 – though there are some conflicting reports. What is not argued, however, is the fact that Ella was born with an unusual orthopedic condition resulting in knees that bent backwards. The nature of this unusual affliction is exceedingly rare and relatively unknown, however most modern medical types would classify her condition and a very advanced form of congenital genu recurvatum – also known as ‘back knee deformity’. Her unusually bent knees, coupled with her preference of walking on all fours resulted in her moniker of ‘The Camel Girl’.

In 1886, Ella was the star of W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus, often appearing accompanied by a camel when presented to audiences and she was a feature in the newspapers of every town the circus visited. Those newspapers touted Ella as ‘the most wonderful freak of nature since the creation of the world’ and that her ‘counterpart never did exist’.

The back of Ella’s 1886 pitch card is far more modest in its information:
ubl01016ej ELLA HARPER   The Camel Girl

‘I am called the camel girl because my knees turn backward. I can walk best on my hands and feet as you see me in the picture. I have traveled considerably in the show business for the past four years and now, this is 1886 and I intend to quit the show business and go to school and fit myself for another occupation.’

It appears that Ella did indeed move on to other ventures and her $200 a week salary likely opened many doors for her. After 1886, no further references to Ella ‘The Camel Girl’ can be found.

PASQUAL PINON – The Two Headed Mexican

pinon8ip 775056 PASQUAL PINON   The Two Headed MexicanPasqual Pinon, was known as The Two-Headed Mexican and he was a featured attraction with the Sells-Floto Circus in the early 1900s.

The story went that Pinon had fled Mexico after loosing his family ranch to Pancho Villa. Due to his unique deformity he was able to display himself for a substantial amount of money and support his family of seven. The secondary head was immobile – its mouth constantly agape and its eyes blank and expressionless. The lack of movement was attributed to being paralyzed after Pinon suffered a stroke at the age of 20. Pinon was not an entertainer and the bulk of his performance consisted of simply sitting and occasionally lifting his chin into the air to better display the tuberous connection between his natural head and his tiny secondary.

The entire story of his origin was, of course, false. While it is quite possible to have two complete heads, a condition known as craniopagus parasiticus, a true parasitic head is always situated upside-down on top of the main head – as is the case with The Two-Headed Boy of Bengal. The second head of Pinon was a gaff – a fake.The true story of Pasqual Pinon is actually more interesting in its strangeness. Pinon was actually a railroad worker from Texas who had a large benign tumor growing from the top of his head. He was discovered by a sideshow promoter in 1917 while splitting rails. For some reason the promoter decided that the huge tumor protruding for the head or Pinon was not odd enough and decided to create a fake face – a mask of wax. That mask was placed over the growth and The Two-Headed Mexican was born. There have been some rumors that the mask was made of silver and was actually surgically implanted under the skin of the tumor – however, that is highly unlikely. Further rumors claim that this silver plate caused Pinon to go insane. Again, this is most likely nothing more than a promoter’s embellishment.

What is factual is that after several years of popular touring, the Sells-Floto Circus manager paid to have the cyst removed and Pinon returned to Texas. What happened to Pinon after that is unknown. It is assumed that he either retired or returned to his life as a laborer – with a little less on his mind.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

NICHOLI – The Little Prince

nicholia 749785 NICHOLI – The Little PrinceMany have claimed to be ‘The World’s Smallest Man’ but The Little Russian Prince may have actually lived up to that billing. Allegedly, the tiny man weighed less than sixteen pounds and stood only eighteen inches in height.
According to ‘A Sketch of the Life of the Russian Prince’ – a lengthy biography found on the back of his pitch card – Nicholi was born in Siberia in the 1870′s to a Russian Military Officer implicated in an assassination plot against the Czar. Found guilty, his father and mother were moved into a Siberian penal settlement and 14 months later, little Nicholi was born. He was discovered at the age of 28 when the Governor of the colony observed that the boy had never reported for mandatory military enlistment at the age of 21. When the tiny Nicholi was brought before him, the Governor was amazed. Eventually the Czar heard of the tiny man and demanded that Nicholi be brought to him. While before the Czar little Nicholi begged so convincingly for the freedom of his family that stunned Czar granted his request.
Despite his well-padded biography, very little is known about Nicholi. His appearance is somewhat unusual when compared to other ‘midgets’ of the era and there has been much speculation that Nicholi was not a midget at all. Rather, some believe that Nicholi was actually a child afflicted with the rare aging condition known as progeria.Progeria causes children to undergo physical changes associated with aging but at a highly accelerated rate. Children afflicted loose their hair, their teeth, and develop physical ailments and conditions commonly attributed to the elderly. Stunted growth and a fragile appearance are also major symptoms of the syndrome.
While Nicholi was billed as being in this mid-thirties, if he did indeed have progeria, he was likely no older than 10. Most people with progeria die before the age of 13. Thus, as his pitch card claims that Nicholi spoke Russian, Hebrew, English, and German – skills very unlikely in a 10 year old – his entire biography comes into question. The modern diagnosis does answer several questions and observations and would also explain Nicholi’s sudden disappearance – he likely only had a career of one or two years.
It is also possible, and much more plausible, that Nicholi had primordial dwarfism. Most primordial dwarfs, in addition to being short in stature, also exhibit several skeletal and endocrine disorders. Their appearance is not unlike Nicholi’s. Furthermore, on average, the lifespan of a primordial dwarf is quite short as well.Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, there have been less than 100 confirmed cases of progeria since its discovery in 1886 and while primordial dwarfism is more common, it is still quite rare. The Little Russian Prince, born in the 1870′s, predated the discovery of one of the syndromes that possibly afflicted him. He may very well be the first photographed case of progeria.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

CARRIE AKERS – The Warthog

carriefc7 787687 CARRIE AKERS   The WarthogEvery once in awhile, a Human Marvel comes along who is a multiple attraction. Often a Human Marvel may learn a few traditional sideshow feats to pad their status as a crowd draw. The Tattooed Sword Swallower, the Fat Man Fire Eater, The Singing Midget or The Armless Man who can paint a portrait are all example of this trend and all were often quite successful. However, few persons have actually encapsulated the characteristics of two separate traditional human marvel displays into one presentation. There have been no ‘hairy giants’ for example or ‘dwarf stone men’. However, Carrie Akers was a double feature in the world of sideshow – she was both a midget and a Fat Lady.
While the date of her birth is not certain, Carrie did hail from Virginian. She weighed a purported 309 pounds and stood only 34 inches tall. These traits qualifed her as both a midget and a Fat Lady, thus a ‘double feature’. Unlike the usually ‘Jolly’ copious performers of her time Carrie, as evident in many of her cabinet cards, was considered a very sour and bitter person. So poor was her reputation that she was eventually shunned from the sideshow community and she had a serious falling out with P. T. Barnum – serious enough for the showman to drop the potentially profitable Carrie from his roster of performers. Furthermore, her unfortunate epithet of ‘The Warthog’ was given to her not only because of her dimensions but also due to this hot temper and extremely rude reputation.There exist a few rumors that Carrie was also becoming a legitimate bearded lady, whether via biological or gaffed means. This would have made her a triple feature in sideshow – however it appears that she retired from show business shortly after her problems with Barnum.Most of her cabinet photos date between 1888 and 1889 and few photos of her exist today. This indicates that her career was not a successful one, likely due to her gruff personality. Not much else is known about Carrie following her short carrier. However, if she had gotten a few tattoos she could very well have been a complete sideshow all on her own.

Monday, 26 September 2011

FANNY MILLS – The Ohio Bigfoot Lady

bigfoot6cz 779878 FANNY MILLS – The Ohio Bigfoot Lady
Fanny was born in England in 1860 and immigrated to to Sandusky, Ohio shortly after her birth. From an early age, Fanny began to show signs of Milroy’s Disease. Milroy’s is essentially a Lymphedema – a gross swelling, fluid building and discoloring of the soft tissue – localized only to the lower extremities. It is most common in women, with seventy to eighty percent of all those afflicted being female, and the severity of the inherited condition varies.
Although Fanny was a tiny woman, weighing in at a lithe 115 pounds, her feet expanded to require a size 30 shoe.
Fanny’s feet were said to have measured more that nineteen inches long and seven inches across. Her shoes – rumored to be made from the skins of three goats – were slipped on over pillowcase socks. She was unable to walk without assistance and, when she began exhibiting herself at Dime Museums in 1885, she brought along her friend Mary Brown to serve as a nurse and attend to her special needs.
It did not take very long for promoters to label fanny the ‘Ohio Bigfoot Lady’ and litter the areas surrounding the dime museums and the carnivals Fanny attended with posters and pamphlets. Promoters also began to issue a strange promotional challenge. A reward of five thousand dollars was put up to any man willing to marry the Ohio Bigfoot Lady.
The challenge was successful as droves of bachelors came out to the show to take a look at Fanny – all paying an admission fee to see her. Many of these men were hoping to marry Fanny. However Fanny was already married to a man named William Brown – a man who happened to be the brother of her friend and nurse, Mary Brown. Furthermore, he married her free of charge.At her peak she was earning more than $150 a week – a small fortune at the time. However after giving birth to a stillborn child in 1887, Fanny’s health began to fail. Her health eventually forced her to retire in 1892.
Fanny returned home to Ohio with her husband William. She died that same year.

Friday, 23 September 2011

FRANCES O’CONNOR – The Living Venus De Milo

oconnor 752516 FRANCES OCONNOR   The Living Venus De Milo
The promise of suggestive sexual content lured many warm blooded men to curiosity displays, carnivals, and sideshows. The Cooche Shows (exotic or burlesque shows) presented by carnivals in the first half of the 20th century proved incredibly successful. But the shy or modest man would often opt to take in the sideshow, where skin was often available for viewing in a more discreet situation. The idea of a seeing a tattooed woman in a revealing bathing suit, in an era when bathing suits looked more like dressing gowns, drew many men into the tents of the sideshow – sometimes even accompanied by their wives or sweethearts.
Frances O’Connor benefited from the innocent sexual undertones in her act. She was able to show a great deal of leg, more than was really appropriate in her prudish era, and she was never reprimanded for her actions. Frances showed her bare legs a lot – for they functioned as her arms.
Frances was born on September 8, 1914 in Renville County, Minnesota. Born without arms, she learned to use her feet in incredibly dexterous ways. Despite her physical condition, or perhaps because of it, Frances possessed a very outgoing personality. That combined with a natural beauty and the the sheer spectacle her legs created as they competed otherwise mundane daily chores, made her a natural for the sideshow.
Her sideshow career began in Wyoming with the Al G. Barnes Circus – her mother serving as her manager – and eventually she worked with Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey for over 20 years, until the mid 1940′s. She was given the moniker of ‘The Living Venus De Milo’ and, while not the first sideshow worker given this name, she was perhaps the best suited. By all accounts she was a very beautiful woman who attracted droves of men and eligible suitors to her shows. Not only was she beautiful, but her sweet disposition made many men swoon and it has been said that she turned down hundreds of marriage proposals during her career.
Frances and her incredibly dexterous legs and feet were featured in the 1932 film Freaks. In the film, she does such things as smoke a cigarette, drink from a cup, cut her food with a fork and knife and use a napkin to dab the corners of her mouth – all performed with a ballerina-like grace. Francis was so capable with her feet that she was able to sew and knit as a hobby.
Eventually, as she aged, Francis lost interest in traveling and the crowds lost interest in her. Shortly after her managing mother passed away she decided to completely retire from show business. Francis disappeared almost completely into obscurity overnight and, despite having many suitors in her prime, she never married or bore any children. She lived out the remained of her life alone in California before passing away in 1982 at the age of sixty-seven.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

BETTY LOU WILLIAMS – Ripley’s Four-Legged Wonder

bettylou2zz 726100 BETTY LOU WILLIAMS   Ripleys Four Legged Wonder
At the 1934 World’s Fair, Robert Ripley – of the famed Ripley’s ‘Believe It Or Not’ empire – unveiled to the public his very first Odditorium. Previously, Ripley was known for his “Believe It Or Not” comic strip in newspapers. However, his World’s Fair Odditorium featured real anatomical curiosities and the most spectacular of his presentations was an infant girl named Betty Lou Williams.
Betty Lou Williams was born Lillie B Williams in Albany, Georgia on January 10, 1932. She was the daughter of a poor farming family and the youngest of twelve children. She was also born attached at the side to a parasitic sibling that consisted of two legs, one tiny arm-like appendage and a more developed arm with three fingers. Despite the fact that the head of her twin was embedded deep within her abdomen, Betty Lou was a very healthy girl and doctors proclaimed that there was no reason she could not live a long and healthy life.
She was originally discovered at the age of one by a professional showman named Dick Best. Best changed the name of the little girl to Betty Lou – perhaps in an attempt to promote the parasite as a male, a lie that was popular in parasitic twin displays – and he began to display the infant in his New York Museum. It was there that she drew the attention of Ripley.Working for Ripley, at the age of two, Betty Lou made an astounding $250 a week. As she grew into adulthood, she made over $1000 a week. With her earnings she purchased a 260 acre ranch for her parents and sent all eleven of her siblings to college.
The jump in Betty Lou’s earnings was due in part to the fact that, as she matured, she developed into quite an attractive woman. Her beauty and generosity drew many male suitors and, at the age of twenty-three, she became engaged to one of her admirers. However the husband-to-be was little more than a heartbreaking thief. He left Betty Lou taking a great deal of money with him and, distraught over the breakup, Betty suffered a severe asthma attack at her home in Trenton, New Jersey.Betty Lou suffocated to death at the age of twenty-three.

Monday, 12 September 2011

MME. CLOFULLIA – The Bearded Lady of Geneva

madame 249x300 MME. CLOFULLIA   The Bearded Lady of GenevaLong before The Bearded Lady was a staple in the sideshow, bearded ladies were already revered in the mythology and folklore of the old world. In the fifth century B.C.E. Hippocrates himself, the father of modern medicine, documented a bearded priestess named Athena. It was believed that her beard empowered the priestess with special clairvoyant abilities. In the Middle Ages most bearded ladies were regarded as witches, however one 14th century Spanish nun – and bearded woman – was sainted. The festival of Saint Paula the Bearded is still celebrated every January 20th. Also, believe it or not, Saint Paula is not the only follicular endowed religious figure. July 20th is the Feast of St. Wilgefortis, she was the daughter of the King of Portugal and another rumored Bearded Lady. It has also long been rumored that the 15th century regent of the Netherlands, Margret of Parma, was bearded. However that tale is likely pure fiction. An embarrassing tale likely told by her detractors.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that Bearded Ladies began to exhibit themselves for profit. Julia Pastrana was likely the most famous of the Bearded Ladies. However Mme. Clofullia was a close second in her time.
Born in 1831 in the Swiss village of Versoix, Josephine Boisdechene was born covered with fine fur and she was bearded by the age of two. Today her condition is know as hirsutism, which is a variant of hypertrichosis. However, local doctors were baffled by her condition and most were hoping the young girl would simply ‘grow out of it’. It was recommended that she be taken to doctors in Geneva when she was older. At the age of eight her parents did just that however, by that age, her beard was already over two inches long. The Geneva doctors were baffled as well and Josephine’s parents did not know what to do, they even feared that shaving the beard would result in its growing back longer and thicker. Instead, they opted to hide Josephine as best they could and shipped her off to boarding school.
Boarding school provided Josephine with grace, charm and an elegant etiquette. Despite the fact that she was quite a fine lady, by the age of sixteen, Josephine’s beard measured over six inches and her appearance was drawing crowds. Attempting to make the best of her unique situation, she began to exhibit herself in Geneva and France with her father acting as her agent. It was in France that Josephine met a bearded artist named Fortune Clofullia. The two fell in love and were soon married. Now known as Madame Clofullia, Josephine attempted to quiet the rumors that she was a man by becoming pregnant and giving birth to a normal baby girl in 1851. The public and doctors were satisfied by this, however the infant died after only 11 months. She bore a second child, this time a boy named Albert, only a few months after the death of her daughter. Albert was quite a handsome and healthy boy, however he too sported a fine beard as an infant.
P. T. Barnum eventually signed Madame Clofullia in 1853 and she began to appear at his American Museum in New York as ‘The Bearded Lady of Geneva’. During her displays with Barnum, Josephine looked regal. Her femininity was accentuated by her Victorian wardrobe, her beard was styled after Napoleon III and it was often opulently adorned with jewels. As her popularity as an attraction grew, rumors again began to circulate that Josephine was a man. The issue eventually ended up in a court of law. The trail was a media frenzy. Doctors were eventually called to testify and three signed an absolute affidavit that ‘The Bearded Lady’ was indeed a complete female.
To this day, rumors persist that P. T. Barnum himself was the originator of those rumors. When one considers that during the trial over 3 million people paid Barnum to see Mme. Clofullia accompanied by her son Albert – as the ‘Infant Esau’, that hypothesis seems quite plausible.
Mme Clofullia continued be be popular for quite some time after her trial. However, despite her fame the happenings of her later years are unknown. Her later history is lost to time and her date of death is unknown.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

LOUIS CYR – The Strongest Man in History

cyr6ic 756965 LOUIS CYR   The Strongest Man in HistoryNot all Human Marvels are unique in appearance. Many are unique in their deeds. Some of the most unfathomable deeds and physical feats were performed by the strongmen of sideshow. Perhaps the most famous of these strongmen was the Canadian Colossus Louis Cyr.
Louis Cyr was born Cyprien-NoĆ© Cyr on October 10, 1863 in the Quebec town of St. Cyprien de Napierville. Louis was a large child, weighing close to 18 pounds at birth and, from an early age, those around him were impressed with his natural strength. At the age of twelve Louis was a lumberjack and stories of his strength became legendary amongst his peers and coworkers. In 1878, at the age of seventeen, Louis and his family immigrated to the United States. Standing just five feet and ten inches – but weighing in at over 230 pounds – Louis presented his first public display of strength in Boston during a strongest man competition. He stunned the crowd by lifting a horse clear off the ground.
Attempting to capitalize on his stunning performance, Louis returned to Quebec in 1882 and went on a brief tour of Quebec with his wife and family as ‘The Troupe Cyr’. At the conclusion of his tour, Louis became a police officer in Montreal.
Restless in his vocation, he entered another strongman competition in March of 1886 hosted by Quebec City. His competition was ‘World’s Strongest Man’ David Michaud and Louis Cyr bested Michaud easily. During the competition, Louis lifted a 218-pound barbell with one hand. The best Michaud could manage was 158 pounds. Louis also amazed is opponent by squatting a platform weighing 2,371 pounds. Louis was now ‘officially’ the strongest man in in the world.
It is important to note that the physical feats performed by strongmen are often exaggerated and Louis was no exception to this rule. There are stories surrounding Louis that border on the impossible. However many of his feats were formally documented by witnesses and officials. While touring the world Louis once squatted a platform holding 18 men. He also lifted a 500-pound weight with one finger and, in a stunning publicity stunt, pushed a freight car up an incline. His greatest feat of all occurred on October 12th 1891, in Montreal. On that occasion he legitimately won a tug-of-war against four horses.
Although Louis Cyr died of chronic nephritis on November 10th, 1912 his legacy lives on. He was dubbed ‘The Strongest Man in History’ for his amazing physical strength and today there is a district of Montreal named Louis-Cyr in his honor. It is located in Saint-Henri – the same area he patrolled as a police officer. There is also a park, the Parc Louis-Cyr, named after Louis and a statue of ‘The Strongest Man in History’ has stood in the Place des Hommes-Forts – ‘Strongman’s Square’ – since 1970.
The cause of his herculean strength is still unknown but during his remarkable lifetime Louis never backed down from a challenge and he was undefeated in Canada and abroad.

Friday, 9 September 2011

LALOO – The Handsome, Healthy, Happy Hindoo

laloo 209x300 LALOO   The Handsome, Healthy, Happy Hindoo
Laloo was born in Oudh, India as the second of four siblings in 1874. He was accompanied into this world by his parasitic twin brother who was little more than a headless mass of limbs attached to his breastbone.
Laloo’s brother consisted of two arms and two legs, a functioning penis with a complete urinary system and, although lacking testicles, the twin was quite capable of maintaining an erection at inopportune times. Unfortunately, the twin also needed to occasionally urinate and, although Laloo could detect tactile sensations through his brother, he was often only aware of his brother’s need to eliminate after the fact. Laloo took to diapering his sibling and, fortunately, the twin was unable to defecate.
Laloo was quite popular in nearly every big sideshow of his era, he traveled extensively and even worked with P. T. Barnum. His advertisements often billed him as the ‘Handsome, Healthy, Happy Hindoo’ – as ‘exotic’ acts and persons were all the rage in America at that time. Also, in a bit of common showmanship, he would often dress his brother as a girl and advertise the twin as his sister. That is, until that erection issue started to throw a wrench into the act.
Laloo was also something of an rights activist and, in 1889, he participated in a well orchestrated protest to have sideshow performers referred to as “prodigies” and not “freaks”. The protest was successful and the word ‘freak’ fell out of common practice for quite some time.
By 1894 Laloo was married, to a average woman, and well off financially. Not only did he command great sums from his sideshow ventures, he also padded his income by offering to display his body to physicians for examinations at a great profit. It has been said that Laloo lived a very lavish lifestyle.
Unfortunately, Laloo died an early death in a train wreck in 1905 while working for the Norris and Rowe circus in Mexico.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

DOLLY DIMPLES – The Dainty Fat Lady

dimples 705575 DOLLY DIMPLES   The Dainty Fat LadyWhile Dolly Dimples was not the most famous Fat Lady or even the most rotund, her story is almost unparalleled in the history of sideshow.

She was born Celesta Herrmann in Cincinnati on July 18, 1901. As a baby, her weight was average and her appetite was considered normal. It wasn’t until early childhood that Dolly began to pack on weight. Her early weight gain was contributed to the visitations of a family friend. This friend happened to be a butcher and he often played a game with young Dolly that involving dangling bits of butchered meat in front of her. Dolly loved the game. She was influenced so much by it that her first word was ‘meat’. Her fascination with food had begun and as she grew older, her appetite grew. Dolly would often stretch her allowance by buying day old baked goods and broken cookies. By the sixth grade she weighed 150 and she never finished high school due to the harassment and bullying she had to endure daily. When she dropped out of school she was just less than 300 pounds.
She met a man named Frank Geyer and, despite the fact that Frank was a slim and trim 135 pounds, he liked his ladies large and encouraged Celesta’s appetite. She gained a further 100 pounds in one year and the pair eventually married.
In 1927, the couple went to visit the traveling Happyland Carnival just outside of Detroit. The carnival owner spotted the colossal Dolly and noted that she outweighed his advertised Fat Lady by at least 50 pounds. He offered her a job on the spot and she accepted almost immediately.
She took the name Dolly Dimples – sometime Jolly Dolly – and she was billed as the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Fat Lady’. In an effort to become and even bigger attraction, Dolly began to ingest even larger quantities of food. Her daily diet also included pounds of potatoes, gallons of milk, multiple servings of meat and many loaves of bread. Her calorie intake was very close to 10,000, five times what is required daily. By the time she was touring with Ringling Bros. in the 30’s, standing only 4 foot 11 inches, she weighted in at 555 pounds. The dresses she wore on stage consisted of twelve yards of fabric.
In 1950, Dolly suffered a near fatal heart attack. Her doctors told her to alter her diet or she would die. Dolly was frightened by the prospect of death, she enjoyed live greatly, and so she paid attention to the advice in a most astounding fashion.
In fourteen months Dolly Dimples was gone, and in her place stood Celesta Geyer at a svelte 112 pounds. She had lost over 443 pound by limiting her diet to baby food. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this achievement as the greatest weight loss in the shortest period of time.
The now ‘Skinny Lady’ spent the rest of her life as the first diet guru. She wrote a best selling book called ‘Diet or Die: The Dolly Dimples Weight Loss Plan’ and followed that up with ‘The Greatest Diet in the World’.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

KRAO – The Missing Link

karo 713925 KRAO   The Missing LinkDarwin’s theory of evolution – and man’s implied ascendancy from an ape-like creatures – is controversial. When it was first introduced to the public, most people though the idea was preposterous. Until the apparent ‘missing link’ between man and ape appeared in a Philadelphia dime museum.
Krao was born is Siam, modern day Thailand, in 1876. From birth, the girl was completely covered with hair, including a mane-like track of hair flowing down her back from between her shoulder blades. She was discovered at the age of six by a promoter exuberantly named the Great Farini. Farini took the girl on a successful tour of Europe before starting a tour in the United State. While the dime museum was a starting point, it wasn’t long before Krao was a sought after marvel featured by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
While often called ‘The Ape Woman’ Krao was principally advertised as ‘Darwin’s Missing Link’. To all those who saw her, she was proof of Darwin’s ideas. It was claimed, somewhat ridiculously, that Krao was of a race of tree dwelling, ape-like people but many bought the story – including noted naturalists and scientists. Numerous papers were written on Krao and her role as Darwinian proof. In the 1896 tome Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, the authors noted her many ape qualities including her ‘prehensile feet’. In reality Krao was a young woman of above average intelligence who was both well read and multilingual. She just happened to suffer from an advanced form of hypertrichosis.
Unlike Julia Pastrana, Krao was fortunate in that she was never exploited. She performed and displayed herself in her own terms for most of her adult life. She was free to do as she pleased and spent the last 20 years of her life in a private apartment, entertaining guests and neighbors with her cooking and charming personality.

Krao never married, although she had admirers, and she passed due to influenza on April 16th, 1926.
krao1aeao2yc KRAO   The Missing Link
Images: Krao later inlife.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


violetanddaisyhilton3up 702297 THE HILTON SISTERS   Chained For LifeContrary to popular belief, outright exploitation was not very common in sideshow. The majority of human marvels displayed themselves for their own reasons and quite often reaped massive financial and personal rewards for doing so. However, of the few performers who were exploited against their will, the tale of Daisy and Violet Hilton ranks as one of the worst.
Daisy and Violet were conjoined twins born in Brighton, England on February 5, 1908. The sisters were born pygopagi, joined at the posterior. The sisters shared no internal organs and all that was truly uniting them was bone, muscle and skin. Their birth name was Skinner however their impoverished and unmarried mother, Kate, could not fathom the responsibilities involved in raising a pair of girls joined. She sold the twins to her boss and midwife Mary Hilton.
Williams instantly saw potential profit in the twins.
According to many sources, including the autobiography written by the Hilton sisters in 1942, Mary Hilton was a strict, physically abusive, exploitive and corrupt human being. The twins were ‘trained’ and ‘groomed’ to sing and dance in the vaudeville tradition. While this training was in progress the horrific abuse and dehumanizing continued. When the girls finally began touring, they were seen as little more than possessions by the Hiltons.
The twins proved to be hugely successful and the toured extensively beginning at the age of three. On stage, the pair likely looked like dolls, their blond hair in curls and bows on their shoes. Violet played the piano while Daisy played the violin.
Billed as ‘The United Twins’, their tours of Germany, Australia and the USA often saw record crowds. The twin brought in enormous amounts of money. Mary Hilton kept every penny.
When Mary finally died in Birmingham, Alabama, the guardianship of the twins fell to Mary’s daughter Edith and Edith’s husband, Meyer Meyers. They were even worse than Mary as they controlled every movement the twins made. They also proved to be poor agents as they insisted on keeping the girls ‘dolled up’ as little girl well past the age it was acceptable. Critics took notice and the twins were allowed to grow up, but only a little.
The mistreatment and corruption continued under the dictatorship of Edith. Edith purchased a mansion in San Antonio with the money the twins earned as a headquarters as the twins spent much of the 1920’s touring the United States on vaudeville circuits. It was on these circuits that they met Bob Hope and their dear friend Harry Houdini. Their popularity, at this point was near its peak and as a result they became subject to scandal.
The twins had befriended their advance agent, William Oliver. Oliver’s wife Mildred was suspicious of the relationship and accused William of improper acts. A postcard from the twins signed to William ‘with love’ prompted Mildred to file for divorce and sue the twins for $250,000. Oddly enough, this frivolous lawsuit was the catalyst for the Hilton’s freedom.
During a visit to San Antonio lawyer, Martin J. Arnold, the truth came out. As the Meyer’s were out of the room the Hilton sisters told the lawyer of their life of abuse and captivity. The lawyer was flabbergasted and immediately took on the twins’ case. He took the twins into protective custody.
In April of 1931 Judge W.W. McCrory awarded a large sum of money – some reports say as much as $100,000, to the sisters and granted the pair their freedom.
The girls had spent 21 years in abject slavery.
Daisy and Violet became citizens of the United States and returned to show business. They hosted their own show, ‘The Hilton Sisters’ Revue’, and stared in the 1932 film Freaks.
Everything seemed to be perfect in the life of the Hilton sisters; however the pair soon began to self destruct. Due to too many years of solitude, suppression and deprivation the girl wallowed in excess. They had numerous affairs, legal problems, clashes with that media and a couple of short publicity marriages. Their popularity nosedived. In 1950, the sisters appeared in their final film Chained for Life. It flopped and the pair further failed in an attempted food franchise. By the 1960’s the pair were nearly penniless.
The Hiltons’ last public appearance was at a drive-in movie theater in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1962. Their tour manager abandoned them there, as the tour was a failure and he was tired of losing money. He left them without any money or transportation and the twins simply decided to settle in Charlotte. A kind grocery store manager hired the sisters to work in his shop, where they checked and bagged groceries.
On January 6, 1969, the twins failed to report for work and were found dead in their pious home. They had no surviving family.
Despite the sad end to their lives, the memory of the Hilton sisters still lives on. In 1997, a Broadway musical loosely based on the sisters’ lives, Side Show, with lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, received four Tony nominations.

Monday, 5 September 2011

PRINCE RANDIAN – The Human Caterpillar

randianonbench8at PRINCE RANDIAN   The Human Caterpillar
The man who would become Prince Randian was born in 1871 in Demerara, British Guiana to Indian slave parents.Despite being born without arms or legs he was incredibly self sufficient.
Randian was brought to the US in 1889 and, while he performed at many dime shows and museums, he gained most of his fame performing for P. T. Barnum. In front of the large crowds Barnum provided Randian demonstrated the ease in which he was able to shave, paint, write and even roll cigarettes. Not only was he able to roll a cigarette, he was also able to pull a match from its box, strike it, and light his freshly rolled cigarette.
Randian had many nicknames during his career. Randian’s typical costume consisted of a striped wool garment and his main mode of transportation was writhing about on the ground in a worm-like fashion. These two visuals led to his most common nickname – ‘The Human Caterpillar’ – and he went on to appear in a variety of carnivals and sideshows, including Coney Island, for a forty five year stint.
Randian had a role in the 1932 film freaks, in which he demonstrates his cigarette rolling skills and utters a single unintelligible line. Oddly enough, it is said that he spoke several languages including Hindi, French, English and German.
By all accounts, he was a bright and charming man with a great sense of humor. Both of these talents helped him land a wife and make use of his one remaining appendage.
He and his wife had five children.
Eventually Radian retired to Paterson, New Jersey and in 1934 he died at age 63 of a heart attack following a comeback performance.
Call him what you like: The Living Torso, The Snake Man, The Human Worm, The Human Cigarette Factory or the Amazing Caterpillar Man. Radian was a man who, despite his physical limitations, truly lived live to his fullest.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

ISAAC W. SPRAGUE – The Original Living Skeleton

isaac w sprague 211x300 ISAAC W. SPRAGUE   The Original Living Skeleton

Isaac W. Sprague was born on May 21, 1841 in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. According to one of his early cabinet cards, he was a normal and active child until the age of twelve – when he began to rapidly lose weight.
His concerned parents, alarmed by his weight lost, forbade young Isaac from high energy activities. Despite this, the boy continued to loose weight and his now terrified parents took Isaac to the best doctors they could find. Unfortunately the doctors were also baffled and Isaac continued to wither away despite a healthy appetite. As an adult, Isaac apprenticed under his father as a cobbler and later worked as a grocer. However, as his emaciation continued, Isaac found his energy depleted. It soon became too difficult for Isaac to continue working – it was then that the world of sideshow came calling.
In 1865, during a visit to a local carnival a promoter spotted Isaac and offered him a job. At first, the young man refused. But he soon realized that he could earn a good living by capitalizing on his looks. He began touring as ‘The Living Skeleton’ and quickly rose in popularity. In less than a year he auditioned for P. T. Barnum and was hired on a salary of $80 a week.
His career with Barnum was brief as Barnum’s American Museum burned down for the second time in 1868. The skeletal Isaac barely managed to escape the museum alive – following his escape, he left sideshow for awhile.
During his premature retirement, he met and married a Miss Tamar Moore and had three healthy sons. In dire straights due to poor financial decisions, he resumed touring with Barnum and others. His financial problems, and perhaps a gambling addiction, continued and ultimately resulted in Isaac W. Sprague dying in poverty on January 5, 1887 in Chicago.
While his weight varied over his career, an official measurement was taken by a physician when Isaac was forty-four. At a height of five feet and six inches, Isaac weighed only forty-three pounds.
Despite numerous medical exams during his lifetime, his condition was never officially identified. He was labeled as having ‘an extreme case of progressive muscular atrophy’. As a result Isaac was required to eat constantly. In fact, he was well known to carry a flask of sweetened dairy milk around his neck – drinking from it to from time to time to keep himself alive and conscious.
Believe it or not, the ‘Living Skeleton’ came to be a fairly common sideshow attraction. In fact, it was not uncommon, in a feat of inspired promotion, for a sideshow Skeleton Man to marry the local Fat Lady in an extravagant ceremony. The local press was, of course, always invited to attend.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

MIGNON – The Penguin Lady

mignon4vh 718555 MIGNON   The Penguin LadyMignon was born in the early 1900′s, likely around 1910, with a condition called phocomelia. Phocomelia typically results in the stunting of limbs and the fusion of digits. In Mignon’s case her fingers were fused in such a way as to resemble flippers. Furthermore, as her truncated limbs forced Mignon to waddle rather than walk – her stage name of ‘The Penguin Lady’ was both apt and easily assigned.
Her name, Mignon, was not her birth name. Most reports indicate that her given name was Ruth. Mignon is the French word for ‘cute’ and she likely adopted it early in her career. In fact, for quite some time she was know as ‘Mickey Mignon’ and even today her true surname is debatable.
While Mignon often wore a two piece bathing suit to show off her unique physique, she was not content to rely on appearance alone. She learned to play the rather exotic marimba, an African instrument similar to a xylophone. She proved to be very proficient as she was not only featured in numerous sideshows, her act was also featured at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fairs in New York.
Mignon married twice in her lifetime. She had a healthy son with her first husband, a ‘normal’ man by the last name of LaArgo and in the 1950′s she married fellow sideshow performer Earl Davis, a gnarled and crippled former acrobat known as ‘Hoppy the Frog Boy’. The two performed together for close to a decade.

Friday, 2 September 2011


williams3vt 764443 GEORGE WILLIAMS   The Turtle Boy
George Williams, The Turtle Boy, was born in 1859 in Arkansas. He was born with a rare form of dwarfism known as parastremmatic dysplasia. Not only does this form of dwarfism stunt growth, Williams was only eighteen inches tall, but it also twists and contorts the bones of the body into grotesque spirals.
Williams was incredibly popular during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. He primarily worked carnivals and dime museums but he was best known for his lengthy tenure at Huber’s 14th Street Museum in New York.
Despite really looking nothing like a turtle, Williams was often depicted with a shell in pamphlets and advertisements. He was not content to simply allow patrons to view him; he preferred to earn his money by performing. Overcoming his severe deformities, Williams became a very accomplished musician on the harmonica and flute and, in contrast to his diminutive size, he possessed a rich and wonderful baritone singing voice.
Williams had a reputation of being a bit of a pool shark. Often, he played lengthy games with fellow Marvel Laloo, who conceded several rule modifications to Williams – such as allowing the Turtle Boy to shuffle along the felt table itself or sit along the edge of the table.
During his peak, Williams earned $75 a week. This sum was considerably less than many of his sideshow counterparts. This may have been due to his race but regardless he was a content and fulfilled man. He was able to purchase a 160-acre farm near Wheaton, Illinois. In 1920, he was injured in New York when his wheelchair was overturned due to a defect in the sidewalk. He sued the city for $10,000 but lost.
It was the last time George Williams made any appearance in the media. The details of the remainder of his life are unknown.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

FRIEDA PUSHNIK – The Little Half Girl

pushnik1mb 761586 FRIEDA PUSHNIK   The Little Half GirlFrieda Pushnik was born without arms or legs on Feb. 10, 1923 in Conemaugh, Pennsylvania. She claimed that her condition was due to a botched appendectomy conducted on her pregnant mother. The validity of this statement is questionable, however considering no lawsuit was filed – the story is most likely a case of sideshow creativity.
Frieda was a testament to human willpower. By all accounts she never considered herself disabled. She accepted her condition as a matter of fact and strived to live as everyone else did. Her mother was the driving force behind this aspiration and it wasn’t long before Frieda was feeding herself, sewing, crocheting and playing as children do. Remarkably, by holding a pen between her shoulder and chin, Frieda was not only able to write legibly – she actually won several awards for penmanship. Because Frieda was limited in movement, her mother would carry her to school daily and her brother or sister would carry her back.
In 1933, Robert L. Ripley, of ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,’ heard of Frieda and visited her and her family. He illustrated her story in one of his nationally syndicated cartoons, calling her ‘The Little Half Girl’, and he eventually asked her to appear at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933.
At the age of 9, accompanied by her mother and sister, Frieda began appearing in Ripley’s ‘Odditorium’ with fellow child marvel Betty Lou Williams. Her act was little more than an introduction and a demonstration of her typing and writing skills but audiences were completely floored. She would repeat the five-minute show many times each hour through what was often a 16-hour day. In the six years she was on tour with Ripley, she was seen by millions. To make extra revenue, she would sell her pitch cards – a variety of portait photos. For a few dollars more she woould personally sign her photos.
After a brief retirement, she joined up with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Her sister and mother again joined her. This time her sister actually performed with the circus as a skilled trapeze acrobat and dancing girl and even her mother worked for the circus office as a secretary. In 1944, the circus suffered a spectacular fire which claimed the lives of 167 people. Frieda was luckily carried to safety by a member of the minstrel show.
Despite that frightening experience, Frieda returned again to the circus and continued to perform until 1955, when ‘politically correct’ laws effectively forbid the display of human marvels and killed her livelihood. She retired to Costa Mesa California – fairly well off financially – where she lived quietly, adorning her home with her own oil paintings.
On Christmas Eve, 2000 the remarkable live of Frieda Pushnik ended. She passed away at the age of 77 – the victim of bladder cancer. She had never married, and despite being out of the public eye for decades, the news of her passing was the subject of many news stories. Even in death, ‘The Little Half Girl’ remains a testiment to human spirit.