Friday, 30 December 2011

THE GREAT OMI – Tattooed Gentleman

omi 734505 THE GREAT OMI   Tattooed GentlemanThe Great Omi was one of the most popular tattooed men of all time. He was primitively tattooed over much of his body including his head and face, which was tattooed in bold black zebra-like stripes. Sometimes referred to as the ‘The Zebra Man’, Horace Ridler – the man who would become The Great Omi – was born in Surrey, England around 1892 to a wealthy family. He served twice in the British Army as a commissioned officer but left the military after the First World War with the rank of major.
Ridler may have gotten some tattoos during his many years in the British Army, but in 1922, in some financial trouble, Ridler decided that show business was the key to fame and fortune. He approached an unnamed tattooist who claimed to be Chinese and started turning himself into a tattoo attraction. This early tattooing was extremely rather crude, but Ridler was able to make a modest living at music hall and fairgrounds
But Horace Ridler had bigger plans and in1927 he began to visit London’s famed tattooist – George Burchett – with a plan that would transform him into the greatest modern tattoo attraction in the world. After much discussion and written approval from both Horace and his wife Gladys, Burchett began to work on Ridler.

The design of the wide black stripes would cover his old work and, by Burchett’s account, 150 hours later Horace Ridler became The Great Omi. As soon as the tattoo work was completed the job offers rolled in from Bertram Mills Circus, Robert Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not”, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Bellevue Circus. Gladys Ridler worked with her husband and became the Omette, introducing the Great Omi to the audiences of the world.
In homage to the tattooed workers who came before him, Omi concocted an elaborate back story to explain his appearance and claimed he had been forcibly tattooed by New Guinea savages. The story really boosted his popularity and he soon became one of the highest paid circus performers of hi time.
As the years wore on the Omi’s appearance became more and more outrageous as did his personality. He took to wearing lipstick and nail polish and signed his pitch cards, ‘the Barbaric Beauty’. Despite his appearance, “underneath it all, I’m just an ordinary man,” he insisted shortly before his death in 1969.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

JAMES MORRIS – The Rubber Man

morris 774784 202x300 JAMES MORRIS   The Rubber ManJames Morris was born in Copenhagen New York in 1859 and used his unique talent to amuse friends and coworkers from a young age. His ability to stretch his skin as much as eighteen inches from his body, with no perceivable pain, made him incredible popular with officers when he joined the military. Those officers invited reporters and journalists to witness Morris’s unusual talent and from there Morris was recruited by several circuses, sideshow and dime museums. By 1885 he was world traveled and joined up with the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
With Barnum and Bailey he was exhibited throughout North America and Europe and in 1898 he was featured in Scientific America as ‘The Rubber Man’. For the journal, he pulled the skin of his neck over his head to which it was reported to resemble ‘an elephant’s trunk’.

As detailed in an earlier post, ‘Rubber Men’ were afflicted with a condition known as cutis hyperelastica or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. The syndrome results in a defect in collagen synthesis which in turn results in overly stretchable, and elastic, fragile, soft skin that easily forms welts and scars.

While Morris earned good money in his first season with Barnum and Bailey his popularity quickly dwindled and, do to a slight drinking and gambling problem, he took a second job as a barber opening a shop in New York City.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

MELVIN BURKHART – The Anatomical Wonder

melvin 727051 MELVIN BURKHART   The Anatomical WonderBy all accounts Melvin was a show off. Shortly after his birth in 1907 in Kentucky he began entertain people any way he could. Melvin was able to contort his body in fantastic ways. He was ale to suck in his stomach to his spine, he could elongate his neck to an incredible degree and make his shoulder blades protrude grotesquely from the profile of his back. He was also able to control his facial muscles to a startling degree and contort his face into a harlequin mask – smiling on one side and frowning on the other.
He debuted his unusual skills to the public with an appearance in a visiting vaudeville act in the early 1920’s. He impressed the promoters so completely that he was asked to join. While traveling he continued to redefine his skills and add new sideshow feats to his repertoire. He was able to swallow swords, eat fire and throw knives with razor precision. At one point during the Great Depression, he performed as nine of the fourteen acts advertised at a one-ring circus. He became quite the talker and eventually he debuted an entirely new and unbelievable feat. Due to the fact that much of his nasal cavity and cartilage was destroyed during his time as a boxer with a 0-6 record, Melvin was able to pound things into his nose – using a mighty large nail aided by a hammer. Thus was born ‘The Human Blockhead’ a feat that truly defines description. The term blockhead, by the way, was coined by Ripley

Burkhart spend thirty years in sideshow. He spent the bulk of that time with the James E. Strates sideshow but also did stints with Ringling Bros. and Ripley’s. Later in life, while in his eighties, he worked the Coney Island crowds. He became well know for his banter – cornball jokes between and during his stunts. He was also well known for his willingness to teach. He passed on his knowledge to perhaps hundreds.
While Burkhart officially retired to Gibsonton, Florida in 1989 with his wife Joyce, he continued to perform for tourists and journalists right up until his passing in November of 2001 at the age of ninety-four.
During his lifetime Melvin has a true professional and confidant to many fellow performers. He helped those less fortunate and entertained those who needed entertaining. Even in death, Melvin remains and inspiration to all who wander into the world of Sideshow.
Melvin was a true marvel among marvels.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Healthy two-headed baby born in Brazil

A two-headed baby born in Brazil is reportedly healthy

A Brazilian woman has given birth to a two-headed baby boy and doctors say the newborn appears to be in good health. Maria de Nazare has decided to name the pair, who share a heart, lungs, liver and pelvis, Emanoel and Jesus. "When doctors scanned her they realized that the baby had two heads and that a normal birth would be a great risk both for mother and baby," hospital director Claudionor Assis de Vasconcelos told Brazil's O Povo newspaper. "The caesarean took an hour because the baby was sitting down."
"Despite all the problems we have as a small interior hospital we managed to save both mother and baby, which was our aim," he said. "And for us it was a great surprise to find out that the child was in really good health."
De Nazare was expecting twins and only found out about the two-headed child minutes before doctors advised her to have a caesarean birth in order to save both her life and that of her baby. Along with two heads, the 9.9 pound newborns have separate spines.
In some two-headed births where one brain is less developed, one head is removed in order to save the child's life. But rarer cases like this one, where there are two functioning brains, complicates the decision making process for doctors.
"If both their brains are functioning, how are we going to choose which head to remove?" said Neila Dahas, director of the Santa Casa hospital. "We are not considering the possibility of surgery. What we've got to think about at this moment is to maintain the children in good condition and see how they will develop."

Conjoined twins sharing a body, but with separate heads, are extremely rare but not without precedent. This is the second such birth in Brazil this year. However, the other child died after a few hours because of a lack of oxygen to one of the child's heads.

Sunday, 11 December 2011


josef 701094 JOSEF BORUWLASKI   Midget MajestyIn his autobiography Memoirs, Count Josef Boruwlaski writes:
‘I was born in the environs of Chaliez, the capital of Pukucia in Polish Russia in November 1739. My parents were of middle size; they had six children, five sons and one daughter. Three of these children great to above the middle stature, whilst the two others, like myself, reached only that of children in general at the age of four or five.’ Toward the end of the seventeenth century it became incredibly fashionable for aristocrats and royalty to own a dwarf or midget for the purpose of entertainment. It was such a fad, in fact, that Catherine de’ Medici – the queen of France – attempted to breed a pair of her court dwarves. Many more attempts were made, most notable of which was done by Peter the Great in 1701 when he staged a grand wedding between two dwarves – an event not only attended by his courtiers, but by foreign ambassadors as well.
Therefore, one would expect the lives of those little people to be abject misery. However, the memoirs and life story of Count Josef Boruwlaski contradicts that assumption.
Boruwlaski was born a midget and into a very poor family. The financial situation only worsened when Josef lost his father at the age of nine. However through good fortune his mother happened to be of limited noble blood and had a patron in wealthy noblewoman, the Staorina de Caorliz. She took a shine to the tiny lad and convinced mother Boruwlaski to send the young man to live with her and be educated. Mother agreed and young Josef thrived in his new home. As a result, although he only stood two feet tall in his early teens, he possessed etiquette that would have shamed most artristrocrats and was a brilliant composer of music.
When the Staorina got married, Josef became the protégé of another even wealthier noblewoman, the Comtesse de Humiecka, and it is from there that Josef’s life became even more interesting.

The Comtesse had a great lust for travel and brought Josef along. He was able to grace the courts of the highest crust of noble society. Marie-Theresa – Her Imperial Majesty, Empress of all Austria and Hungary – was so delighted to meet him that she gave him one of her own diamond rings. Prince Kaunitz, of Munich, gave Josef a pension for life. He also met and entertained the exiled king of Poland, King Stanislaus, and the Duc d’Orleans in Paris. When Stanislaus II acceded to the throne of Poland, he took Boruwlaski under his protection.
Josef eventually left the wing of the Comtesse and married a noble woman after being granted another pension and title by the Polish King. He fathered a daughter, wrote his autobiography, and began to settle in England where he toured and performed compositions for the public. He retired to Durham, England where he passed away on September 5, 1837 at the age of 98.
Perhaps his most interesting meeting occurred in a visit to London.
‘Soon after my arrival in London, there appeared a stupendous giant; he was eight feet four inches high, well proportioned and had a pleasing countenance, and what is not common in men of his size, his strength was adequate to his bulk; many persons wished to see us in company, particularly the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. I went and I believe we were equally astonished. The giant remained sometime mute. Them stooping very low he offered me his hand, which I am sure would have enclosed a dozen like mine. He paid me genteel compliment and drew me near to him, that the difference in our size might strike the spectators the better; the top of my head not reaching his knee.’
The giant is unknown although a writing of the times states that the man was named O’Brien and called himself the ‘Irish Giant’. Believe it or not, there were at least four ‘Irish Giants’ parading about the United Kingdom at that time. Two of them were named O’Brien.

Friday, 9 December 2011

MATTHEW BUCHINGER – The Little Man of Nuremberg

mb 738289 MATTHEW BUCHINGER   The Little Man of Nuremberg
‘The tricks he plays at cups and balls,
Tis wrong in any man, who calls,
Them slight of hand, as he gives out,
Their slight of stumps, and are no doubt …
I’m sure that’s the worst thing about his life,
that he had to suffer these terrible poems.’
- from a handbill dating from 1726
Matthew Buchinger was born in Anspach, Germany in 1674 and was one of the most well known performers of his day. He played over a dozen musical instruments, danced the hornpipe, and was an expert calligrapher, magician, and bowler, built magnificent ships in bottles, and stunning marksman with a pistol. All of those accomplishments are even more impressive when you realize that he had no arms or legs and stood only 28 inches high.

His skills certainly seemed to impress ladies as he was married at least four times and fathered eleven children. There is a story that one of his wives was abusive and insulting – he put up with the behavior until he simply snapped and he knocked her to the ground and thrashed her publicly. The event was immortalized in the form of a caricature published in the newspaper the following day.
During his lifetime, Buchinger performed for many kings – three successive kings of Germany – and several times before King George.
He died in Cork, Ireland in 1732

Thursday, 8 December 2011

ROBERT WADLOW – The Tallest Man

RWadlow 786742 ROBERT WADLOW   The Tallest ManThe tallest man in recorded history, Robert Wadlow, spent less than a year in the circus – and none of it officially in the sideshow. Wadlow, and those who today watch over his legacy, are adamantly against associating Robert with the sideshow or the word freak.
While Wadlow was a giant, he was far from being a freak. In fact aside from his remarkable height he was beyond normal. He was a kind, intelligent man who is still remembered as a gentleman some 60 years after his passing.
He was the first born of a normal sized couple and was born on Feb. 22, 1918. By all accounts, Robert was a normal sized baby at eight pounds and six ounces but he quickly began to grow – within twelve months he ballooned to just over forty-four pounds. At the age of five he was five and a half feet tall and at the age of 9 he stood six feet, two inches.
His family was constantly hounded by showmen begging for a chance to display the human marvel. However the Wadlow family insisted that Robert experience as average an upbringing as possible – given the circumstances. Wadlow even joined the Boy Scouts when he was thirteen and became the largest Boy Scout in history – he was seven feet, one inch and weighed 340 pounds.
In high school Robert was popular and active in many extracurricular activities, even serving as the advertising manager for the yearbook. He was completely accepted by his peers. However, when he attended college he lost that acceptance and struggled with the stares. It bothered him so much that he dropped out and returned to his parents quite penniless.

That is when his brief stint with Ringling Bros. began. His 1937 contract was brief and had strict conditions and terms. First, Robert would only attend shows at Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden. He would display himself only two times a day for three minutes. He refused to allow any exaggeration of his height via media releases or standard height enhancing sideshow trickery like platform shoes, top hats and trick photography. Furthermore, Robert would only display himself in the centre ring and refused any association with the sideshow. Despite all of these restrictions, Robert proved to be incredibly popular.
Robert was so popular that following his time with Ringling Bros. he signed a fabulous contract with The International Shoe Company. The deal included quite a bit of travel and personal appearances and in just under a year Robert had made over 800 appearances and traveled over 300,000 miles. Perhaps most importantly, the company provided Robert with free shoes – a big deal when you are a size 37 and your shoes cost over $100 a piece.
Robert’s feet always gave him a lot of trouble and due to the weight they had to support, they formed blisters often. Believe it or not, it was a blister that killed the gentle giant.
On July 4th, 1940 – after appearing in a Forth of July – Robert developed a blister. That blister became infected and Robert was unable to check into a hospital as they could not accommodate a man of his size. The infection progressed as Robert was attended to in a makeshift medical facility based in Robert’s hotel room. Surgery, antibiotics and blood transfusions were not enough and Robert passed away on July 15th, 1940 at 1:30am. He was only twenty-two and stood eight feet, eleven inches.
His funeral was attended by 40,000 mourners. It took twelve pallbearers to hoist his thousand pound casket. A life sized statue of Robert Wadlow still stands in his hometown of Alton, Illinois.
It is a testament to a man who was the very definition of a Human Marvel.