Bookworm Hienrichs: Well, I think we’ll get started.
Welcome, everyone, to this month’s Aether Salon! Our usual host, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, is unfortunately unavailable today, so you’ll have to put up with me.
Bookworm Hienrichs grins.
Bookworm Hienrichs: Today, Jimmy Branagh – and Billy – will regale us with carnival tales, focusing on the life of the “Special People.”
And now, our speakers.
Jimmy Branagh, as a fixture in New Babbage, certainly needs no introduction. He’s a well-known researcher and designer of flying vehicles, has been a captain of the New Babbage air corps, and has always been in the forefront in protecting the city from dangers. And now, he brings us another facet in his knowledge arsenal. As for our other speaker… I’ll leave that introduction to Jimmy. Please welcome him!
Jimmy Branagh: Oy will drop me usual accent, as there ain’t no interpreter available
Gertruda: Thank God
Jimmy Branagh: Good evening everyone, and thank you for coming. Most of you know me, but before we begin I’d like to introduce my little brother Billy. Say Hi to the nice people, Billy!
Billy: Hi to the nice people, Billy!
Jimmy Branagh: Now Billy, be polite.
Gertruda glares at Billy
Billy fingerwaves with his tiny little hand.
Jimmy Branagh: As you’ve probably guessed, Billy doesn’t get out too often.
I had hoped to have more guests onstage with us today, but unfortunately there were many conflicts with performance schedules. We do however have The Aztec Girls Pip and Flip, and Lil’ Zeb, who tends bar over at the Rangoon Pandemonium.
Also, as a special treat please welcome to my left the lovely and vivacious Miss Gertruda, The Queen of the Steamland Circuses!
Gertruda grins and waves her hand graciously
Jimmy Branagh: Billy! That’s terrible!
Billy sniffs and makes a face.
Jimmy Branagh: Anyway, today I’d like to talk about some of the “special people” in society. Generally they are folks who are so disfigured as to be unable to get work under normal circumstances, and so, gradually over the years they earned money by exhibiting themselves, entertaining people who would pay for the shock of viewing such an unfortunate, and for a chance to say “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Jimmy Branagh: Also, the picture viewer is malfunctioning …
Jimmy Branagh looks at Billy …
Gertruda: That’s probably his fault
Jimmy Branagh: So I will simply change the picture now and then.
Jimmy Branagh: The general belief is that these “special people” lived in poverty and were shunned by society, but they often became quite wealthy and popular.
Gertruda: Especially when they’re just a head and hand
Jimmy Branagh: In the mid-16th century, freak shows became popular pastimes in England. Deformities began to be treated as objects of interest and entertainment, and the crowds flocked to see them exhibited. A famous early modern example was the exhibition at the court of Charles I of Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, two conjoined brothers born in Genoa, Italy. The upper body of Joannes Baptista (named after John the Baptist) and his left leg stuck out of his mobile brother. He did not speak and kept his eyes closed and mouth open all the time. According to a later account by Copenhagen anatomist Thomas Bartholinus, if someone pushed the breast of Joannes Baptista, he moved his hands, ears and lips.
To make a living, Lazarus toured around Europe and visited at least Basel, Switzerland and Copenhagen, Denmark before he arrived in Scotland in 1642 and later visited the court of Charles I of England. They also visited Gdansk, Turkey and Denmark, and toured Germany and Italy in 1646.
Contemporary accounts described Lazarus as courteous and handsome but for his brother who just dangled before him. When Lazarus was not exhibiting himself, he covered his brother with his cloak to avoid unnecessary attention. Later accounts claim that Lazarus married and sired several children, none with his condition. His engraved portrait depicts him in a costume of a courtier of the period of House of Stuart. The brothers’ exact date of death is unknown.
Freak shows were popular in the taverns and fairgrounds where the freaks were often combined with talent displays. For example in the 18th century, Matthias Buchinger, born without arms or lower legs, entertained crowds with astonishing displays of magic and musical ability, both in England and later, Ireland. An artist and performer, he demonstrated his accomplishments at many courts and became known as the “Little Man from Nuremberg”. He travelled to England trying to get a court appointment with King George I; unsuccessful, he then moved to Ireland where he gave public demonstrations, in Dublin in 1720 and in Belfast in 1722.
Buchinger was married four times and had at least 14 children (by eight women). He is also rumored to have had children by up to 70 mistresses. Buchinger’s fame was so widespread that in the 1780s the term “Buckinger’s boot” existed in England as a euphemism for the vagina (because the only “limb” he had was his penis).
In addition to conjuring, Buchinger enjoyed a great reputation as an engraver and an artist. Buchinger died in Cork. Despite his having small, finlike appendages for hands, his engravings were incredibly detailed. One such engraving, a self-portrait, was so detailed that a close examination of the curls of his hair revealed that they were in fact seven biblical psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, inscribed in miniature letters.
Despite his handicap Buchinger was an accomplished magician, causing balls to disappear from under cups and birds to appear from nowhere. It was also said that he was unbeatable at cards and would dazzle audiences with his amazing displays of marksmanship. Buchinger liked to build ships in a bottle. He had tremendous dexterity, in spite of his disability. Buchinger’s musical skills included the ability to play a half-dozen musical instruments including the dulcimer, hautboy, trumpet, and flute, some of which he invented himself.
It was in the 19th century, both in England and the United States, where freak shows finally reached maturity as successful commercially run enterprises. P. T. Barnum in the United States was a major figure in popularizing the entertainment. In 1842, Barnum introduced his first major hoax, a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish, known as the “Feejee” mermaid. The Feejee mermaid was an object comprising the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a fish. It was a common feature of sideshows, where it was presented as the mummified body of a creature that was supposedly half mammal and half fish, a version of a mermaid.
The original object was exhibited by P. T. Barnum from 1842 until the 1860s when it was destroyed in a fire. The original had fish scales with animal hair superimposed on its body with pendulous breasts on its chest. The mouth was wide open with its teeth bared. The right hand was against the right cheek, and the left tucked under its lower left jaw. Several replicas and variations have also been made and exhibited under similar names and pretexts.
Barnum followed that with the exhibition of Charles Stratton, the dwarf “General Tom Thumb” who was then four years of age but was stated to be 11. Stratton was a son of a Bridgeport, Connecticut, carpenter named Sherwood Edward Stratton. Sherwood was the son of Seth Sherwood Stratton and Amy Sharpe. Sherwood married his first cousin Cynthia Thompson, daughter of Joseph Thompson and Mary Ann Sharpe. Charles Stratton’s maternal and paternal grandmothers, Amy and Mary Ann Sharpe, were allegedly small twin girls born on July 11, 1781/83 in Oxford, New Haven, Connecticut.
Born in Bridgeport to parents who were of medium height, Charles was a relatively large baby, weighing 9 pounds 8 ounces at birth. He developed and grew normally for the first six months of his life, at which point he was 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds. Then he stopped growing. His parents became concerned when, after his first birthday, they noticed he had not grown at all in the previous six months. They showed him to their doctor, who said there was little chance Charles would ever reach normal height. By late 1842, Stratton had not grown an inch in height or put on a pound in weight from when he was six months old. Apart from this, he was a totally normal, healthy child, with several siblings who were of average size.
Barnum, a distant relative (half fifth cousin, twice removed), heard about Stratton and after contacting his parents, taught the boy how to sing, dance, mime, and impersonate famous people. Barnum also went into business with Stratton’s father, who died in 1855.
Stratton made his first tour of America at the age of five, with routines that included impersonating characters such as Cupid and Napoleon Bonaparte as well as singing, dancing and comical banter with another performer who acted as a straight man. It was a huge success and the tour expanded. A year later, Barnum took young Stratton on a tour of Europe making him an international celebrity. Stratton appeared twice before Queen Victoria. He also met the three-year-old Prince of Wales, who would become King Edward VII. In 1845, he triumphed at the Théâtre du Vaudeville (France) in the play Le petit Poucet of Dumanoir and Clairville. The tour was a huge success, with crowds mobbing him wherever he went.
On his return home from his second tour in 1847, aboard the Cambria, he attracted the attention of the explorer John Palliser who “was not a little surprised, on entering the state-cabin, to hear the most unnatural shrill little pipe exclaiming, “Waiter! bring me a Welsh rabbit”. During the voyage, General Tom Thumb contributed to a collection for the relief of famine victims in Ireland.
In 1847 he started to grow for the first time since the first few months of his life, but with extreme slowness. In January 1851 Stratton stood exactly 2 feet 5 inches tall. On his 18th birthday, he was measured at 2 feet 8.5 inches tall. Stratton became a Freemason on October 3, 1862. Stratton, by now 2 feet 11 inches tall, was Initiated with a man 6 feet 3 inches tall.
Stratton’s marriage on February 10, 1863, to another dwarf, Lavinia Warren, became front-page news. The wedding took place at Grace Episcopal Church and the wedding reception was held at the Metropolitan Hotel. The couple stood atop a grand piano in New York City’s Metropolitan Hotel to greet some 10,000 guests. The best man at the wedding was George Washington Morrison (“Commodore”) Nutt, another dwarf performer in Barnum’s employ. The maid of honor was Minnie Warren, Lavinia’s even smaller sister. Following the wedding, the couple was received by President Lincoln at the White House. Stratton and his wife toured together in Europe as well as Bangladesh.
Under Barnum’s management, Stratton became a wealthy man. He owned a house in the fashionable part of New York and a steam yacht, and he had a wardrobe of fine clothes. He also owned a specially adapted home on one of Connecticut’s Thimble Islands. When Barnum got into financial difficulty, Stratton bailed him out. Later, they became business partners. Stratton made his final appearance in England in 1878.
On January 10, 1883, Stratton was staying at the Newhall House in Milwaukee when a fire broke out, which Milwaukee historian John Gurda would call “one of the worst hotel fires in American history”. More than 71 people died, but Tom and Lavinia were saved by their manager, Sylvester Bleeker.
Six months later, Stratton died suddenly of a stroke. He was 45 years old, 3 ft 4 inches tall and weighed 71 lb. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. P. T. Barnum purchased a life-sized statue of Tom Thumb and placed it as a grave stone at Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut. When she died more than 35 years later, Lavinia Warren was interred next to him with a simple grave stone that read: “His Wife”. In 1959, vandals smashed the statue of Tom Thumb. It was restored by the Barnum Festival Society and Mountain Grove Cemetery Association with funds raised by public subscription.
Billy: They sure wouldn’t miss you!
Jimmy Branagh: Billy!
Gertruda: EH! Stop that!
Jimmy Branagh: Quiet!
Blossom Love: Billy is being a bad bad seed!
Jimmy Branagh: ‘ee’s a little pimple sometoimes
Gertruda: He’s jealous he’s not as famous as Tom Thumb or me
Jimmy Branagh: The cause of Stratton’s extreme shortness is still unknown. X-rays were not discovered until 1895, 12 years after Stratton’s death, and the medical techniques of the day were unable to ascertain the pathology underlying his dwarfism.
In 1860, Barnum introduced the “man-monkey” William Henry Johnson, a microcephalic black dwarf who spoke a mysterious language created by Barnum. In 1862, he discovered the giantess Anna Swan and Commodore Nutt, a new Tom Thumb, with whom Barnum visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. During the Civil War, Barnum’s museum drew large audiences seeking diversion from the conflict.
Jimmy Branagh: Barnum’s English counterpart was Tom Norman, a renowned Victorian showman, whose traveling exhibitions featured Eliza Jenkins, the “Skeleton Woman”, a “Balloon Headed Baby” and a woman who bit off the heads of live rats—the “most gruesome” act Norman claimed to have seen. Other acts included fleas, fat ladies, giants, dwarves and retired white seamen, painted black and speaking in an invented language, billed as “savage Zulus”. He displayed a “family of midgets” which in reality was composed of two men and a borrowed baby. He operated a number of shops in London and Nottingham, and exhibited travelling shows throughout the country.
Most famously, in 1884, Norman came into contact with Joseph Merrick, known as “The Elephant Man”. Merrick was born in Leicester, Leicestershire and began to develop abnormally during the first few years of his life. His skin appeared thick and lumpy, he developed enlarged lips, and a bony lump grew on his forehead. One of his arms and both of his feet became enlarged and at some point during his childhood he fell and damaged his hip, resulting in permanent lameness.
When he was 10, his mother died, and his father soon remarried. Merrick left school at 13 and had difficulty finding employment. Rejected by his father and stepmother, he left home. In late 1879, Merrick, aged 17, entered the Leicester Union Workhouse.
In 1884, after four years in the workhouse, Merrick contacted a showman named Sam Torr and proposed that Torr should exhibit him. Torr agreed and arranged for a group of men to manage Merrick, whom they named the Elephant Man. After touring the East Midlands, Merrick traveled to London to be exhibited in a penny gaff shop on Whitechapel Road which was rented by Tom Norman. Norman’s shop, directly across the street from the London Hospital, was visited by a surgeon named Frederick Treves, who invited Merrick to be examined and photographed. Soon after Merrick’s visits to the hospital, Tom Norman’s shop was closed by the police, and Merrick’s managers sent him to tour in Europe.
Dr. Henry Jekyll: Closed by the police? What happened?
Jimmy Branagh: Public Morality
Jimmy Branagh: In Belgium, Merrick was robbed by his road manager and abandoned in Brussels. He eventually made his way back to London; unable to communicate, he was found by the police to have Dr. Treves’s card on him. Treves came and took Merrick back to the London Hospital.
Although his condition was incurable, Merrick was allowed to stay at the hospital for the remainder of his life. Treves visited him daily, and the pair developed quite a close friendship. Merrick also received visits from the wealthy ladies and gentlemen of London society, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.
Merrick died on 11 April 1890 at age 27. The official cause of death was asphyxia, although Treves, who dissected the body, said that Merrick had died of a dislocated neck. He believed that Merrick—who had to sleep sitting up because of the weight of his head—had been attempting to sleep lying down, to “be like other people”.
At this time, however, public opinion about freak shows was starting to change and the display of human novelties was beginning to be viewed as distasteful. After only a few weeks with Norman, the Elephant Man exhibition was shut down by the police, and Norman and Merrick parted ways. Treves later arranged for Merrick to live at the London Hospital until his death in 1890. In Treves’ 1923 memoir, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences made Norman infamous as a drunk who cruelly exploited Merrick. Norman counteracted these claims in a letter in the World’s Fair newspaper that year, as well as his own autobiography. Norman’s opinion was that he provided Merrick (and his other exhibits) a way of making a living and remaining independent, but that on entering the London Hospital, Merrick remained a freak on display, only with no control over how or when he was viewed.
These changing attitudes about physical differences led to the decline of the freak show as a form of entertainment towards the end of the 19th century. As previously mysterious anomalies were scientifically explained as genetic mutations or diseases, freaks became the objects of sympathy rather than fear or disdain. Laws were passed restricting freak shows for these reasons. For example, Michigan law forbids the “exhibition [of] any deformed human being or human monstrosity, except as used for scientific purposes”. However, in many places freak shows are still popular features.
Now a few words about two most memorable performers.
Prince Randian, who was also known as The Snake Man, The Living Torso, The Human Caterpillar and a variety of other names was an Guyanese American performer with tetra-amelia syndrome and a famous limbless sideshow performer of the early 1900s, best known for his ability to roll cigarettes with his lips. He was reportedly brought to the United States by P.T. Barnum in 1889 and was a popular carnival and circus attraction for 45 years. Prince Randian can also be seen in the 1932 film Freaks.
For his act, Randian wore a one-piece wool garment that fit tightly over his body, giving him the appearance of a caterpillar, snake or potato and would move himself around the stage by wiggling his hips and shoulders. His best-known ability was rolling and lighting cigarettes using only his lips, but he was also capable of painting and writing by holding a brush or stylus with his lips and of shaving himself by securing a razor in a wooden block. He kept all of the props and materials used in his act in a wooden box that he reportedly constructed, painted and affixed a lock to by himself.
Gertruda: I am a big fan of Prince Randian
Billy: big is right …
Gertruda: I can’t see who just talked! You’re so small Billy!
Jimmy Branagh: Randian died at 7:00 PM on December 19, 1934 shortly after his last performance at Sam Wagner’s 14th Street Museum. He was 60 years old.
Most of you no doubt have heard of Schlitzie. Schlitzie was an American sideshow performer and occasional actor, best known for his role in the 1932 movie Freaks and his lifelong career on the outdoor entertainment circuit as a major sideshow attraction with Barnum and Bailey, among others.
Schlitzie’s true birth date, name, and location are unknown. The information on his death certificate and gravesite indicate that he was born on September 10, 1901, in The Bronx, New York, though some sources have claimed that he was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Claims that he was born in Yucatán, Mexico, are mistaken reflections of Schlitzie’s occasional fanciful billing as “Maggie, last of the Aztec Children”. Schlitzie’s identity may never be known, the information having been lost as he was handed off to various carnivals in a long line of mostly informal guardianships throughout his career.
Schlitzie was born with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder that left him with an unusually small brain and skull, a small stature (he stood about four feet tall), myopia, and moderate to severe mental retardation. It is possible that these features may have been caused by Seckel syndrome. It was said Schlitzie had the cognizance of a three-year-old: he was unable to care fully for himself and could speak only in monosyllabic words and form a few simple phrases. However, he was able to perform simple tasks and it is believed that he could understand most of what was said to him, as he had a very quick reaction time and the ability to mimic. Those who knew Schlitzie described him as an affectionate, exuberant, sociable person who loved dancing, singing, and being the center of attention, performing for anyone he could stop and talk with.
On the sideshow circuit, microcephalics were usually promoted as “pinheads” or “missing links”, and Schlitzie was billed under such titles as “The Last of the Aztecs”, “The Monkey Girl”, and “What Is It?”. In some sideshows, he was paired with another microcephalic. Schlitzie was often dressed in a muumuu and either presented as female or androgynous to add to the mystique of his unusual appearance. Those who knew him alternately used masculine and feminine pronouns. His urinary incontinence, which obligated him to wear diapers, made dresses practical for his care needs, although it is possible that the incontinence didn’t develop until later in life, and was simply a side-effect of age.
The sideshow circuit was a tremendous success for Schlitzie; throughout the 1920s and 1930s he was employed by many upscale circuses, including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, Crafts 20 Big Shows, and Foley & Burke Carnival. In 1928, Schlitzie made his film debut in The Sideshow, a drama set in a circus, and which featured a variety of actual sideshow performers.
Schlitzie landed his most-known role as an actor in Tod Browning’s 1932 horror film, Freaks. Like The Sideshow, Freaks takes place at a carnival, and features a number of genuine sideshow performers: conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, “The Living Torso” Prince Randian, and dwarf siblings Harry and Daisy Earles among them. Schlitzie has a scene of unintelligible dialogue with actor Wallace Ford. Two other “pinheads” also appear in the film. When referring to Schlitzie, other actors use feminine pronouns. When Freaks premiered in 1932, cinema audiences were scandalized by the appearance of sideshow performers. The United Kingdom banned the film for 30 years. The film was a financial failure, and Browning was never hired by a major studio again.
Schlitzie appeared in bit roles in various movies, and is credited with a role in the 1934 exploitation film Tomorrow’s Children, as a mentally-defective criminal who undergoes forced sterilization. He is often widely cited as appearing in 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, in a seconds-long role as “Furry Mammal”, However, there has been some debate about whether the performer in these films is Schlitzie or a lookalike. While Schlitzie was performing with the Tom Mix Circus in 1935, George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer with a trained-chimp act in the show, adopted him, becoming his legal guardian. In 1941, Schlitzie appeared in his final film role as “Princess Bibi”, a sideshow attraction, in “Meet Boston Blackie”.
In his later years, Schlitzie lived in Los Angeles, occasionally performing on various sideshow circuits both locally and internationally. He frequently performed in Hawaii and London, and his last major appearance was at the 1968 Dobritch International Circus held at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Schlitzie also became a notable attraction performing on the streets of Hollywood, his caretakers selling his stock carnival souvenir pictures. Schlitzie spent time in his final days living on Santa Monica Boulevard. He liked going to MacArthur Park at Alvarado Street and Wilshire Boulevard where he would visit the lake with his guardian, feeding the pigeons and ducks and performing for passersby.
On September 24, 1971, at age 70, Schlitzie died from bronchial pneumonia at Fountain View Convalescent Home. His death certificate listed his official name as “Shlitze Surtees” and his birth date as 1901. Schlitzie was initially interred in an unmarked grave at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights. In 2009, a fan took up a collection to have a marker placed at his grave.
And so, we come to the end of our presentation. Alas, there are many more famous performers whose stories are as facinating as those of the “special people” we’ve covered today, but time flies, and they are as close as your public library. Thank you for your kind attention.
Jimmy Branagh: Billy will entertain any questions you may have.
Gertruda: Billy couldn’t answer if you asked him his name, he has no head!
Dr. Henry Jekyll: Excuse me, but do you have any idea what living conditions were like for the preformers?
Gertruda: I can’t complain
Jimmy Branagh: Most sideshow performers were well treated, like any other circus performer. Management for the most part knew they brought in the money
Jimmy Branagh: Most of them did quite well until the do-gooders and busybodies destroyed their livelihoods.
Jimmy Branagh: I guess the Ladie’s Auxiliaries back then thought the performers would be better off on the street than earning a living
Ceejay Writer: I would LOVE to read essays or accounts by the wives/lovers of some of the more … adventurous freaks.
Dr. Henry Jekyll: Like whom, Ceejay?
Ceejay Writer: Earlier in the salon, was mention of one with like seven wives and a zillion kids. I know freaks have a strange allure, too.
Gertruda: He was a handsome fellow
Gertruda: I have myself several suitors
Gertruda looks around the room
Billy: Ya mean they’re suing you?
Dr. Henry Jekyll nervously clears his throat.
Gertruda: Go back to the hole you came from Billy!
Eilidh McCullough: Does Billy have an agent yet?
Jimmy Branagh: Well, no
Gertruda: Nobody wants to be an agent for him, they know he wouldn’t get any money in
Dr. Henry Jekyll: He and Jimmy might go under the same agent, I assume.
Bookworm Hienrichs: By the way, if you want another 16th century example, check out this: http://new.artsmia.org/blog/stories/the-hairy-family-and-the-habsburgs/
Polly: does Miss Gertruda have any relatives in New Babbage?
Gertruda: I have a big family tree
Gertruda: There are probably some of my cousins around
Dr. Henry Jekyll: Well, I saw another fat lady attend Ceejay’s Book club a month ago.
Gertruda: Are you calling me FAT???
Dr. Henry Jekyll: NONONONONO
Polly: there goes Dr Jekyll’s chance of a date
Gertruda: Oh no, he didn’t say “fat”, I can still give him a chance
Bookworm Hienrichs: Well, thank you all for coming, and I hope we’ll see you again next month! Hopefully, the topic is fencing. If not that, then… something else.