Sunday, March 11, 2007

Medusa Van Allen

Medusa Van Allen was nothing like the mythical Medusa, though she was equally as strange. Born in Ohio on March 19, 1908, the bones in Medusa’s body never grew, with the exception of her head. Because of her undeveloped bones, Medusa could never sit or stand. She could only lay flat. Doctors could do nothing for her bizarre condition.
As an adult, Medusa’s head was a normal size, yet her body remained like that of a baby. With the help of a private tutor her brain also reached an adult level. She exhibited herself as one of Ripley’s human oddities in the 1930s. In her pamphlet pitched at shows, Medusa said, “I enjoy life in much the same way as any normal person, and find life filled with really worthwhile pleasures.”

Friday, February 23, 2007

Carl Norwood - The Frog Boy

Born on March 4, 1939 in Atlanta, GA, Carl Norwood suffered from a case of parastremmatic dwarfism, resulting in a diminutive body with deformed, twisted limbs.
Norwood found work exhibiting his contorted frame with another human oddity -- the Half Man, Dick Hilburn. Billed as the Frog Boy, Norwood worked a Single-O show for many years until Hilburn’s death in 1971. Afterward, Hilburn’s wife helped him extend his amphibious career by sending him to Ward Hall’s sideshow. Norwood worked just two more seasons before retiring. He passed away just a few years later at home in Atlanta on Feb. 24, 1976.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Harry V. Lewis - The Thinnest Man in the World

Billed as the “Thinnest Man in the World,” Harry V. Lewis stood 5 feet, 7 1/2 inches and weighed 80 pounds. He didn’t always hold such a title. Born in 1895 in Leon, Iowa, Lewis was a normal boy until the age of 12. That was when he began to notice weakness in his shoulders and hips. Doctors diagnosed him with a juvenile form of muscular dystrophy. The illness spread and caused his body to waste away, emaciating him to the point where he became a frail, living skeleton. Lewis subsisted on a light diet of fruit, vegetables, milk, peas, beans, and occasionally an egg. His physicians recommended he stay on his feet to retain some form of strength. The thin man heeded this advice quite well working in the sideshow. Lewis stood on the platform all day, sometimes up to 12 hours. Sometimes called the “Shadow Man,” he worked briefly with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show. Unlike such distinguished Human Skeleton predecessors as James W. Coffey and Isaac Sprague, Lewis didn’t don any dapper outfits. Rather, he wore only a pair of boxer shorts, allowing people to witness exactly what they paid to see – skin and bones.

Photo courtesy of the collection of Milo Anthony and Cristina Boothe

Francis-Francine Hodgkiss

While many half-and-halfs were female impersonators, Francis-Francine was actually female. She just didn’t look very feminine. Born with abnormalities, Hodgkiss had an enlarged clitoris which looked like a penis. Upon hitting puberty, her body failed to grow breasts. Her rear end was round like a woman’s, yet her gait was manly.
As a young girl, Hodgkiss was ostracized by her peers. She often kept to herself and cried. By the age of 12, her mother arranged a doctor’s examination. The doctor brought in other doctors, and soon the poor girl was being shown at medical exhibitions and clinics. While accompanying her on one of these trips, her mother met a man at a clinic who performed in sideshows. He recommended her daughter join one. Mrs. Hodgkiss, who was enjoying the traveling, took the man’s suggestion, and Francis-Francine was born.
In the 1940s, the half-and-half Hodgkiss proved to be a boon for sideshow owners. Though naturally androgynous, Francis-Francine added silicone to her left breast to heighten the half-man/half-woman effect. Working the blow-off, she earned $500 a week and essentially supported the show for the entire cast. All she did was a simple striptease, which often left the crowds utterly confused.
Her fortune quickly attracted relatives eager to travel with her and get a cut of her earnings. The generous Francis-Francine not only obliged her flocking family, but she often showered young children with gifts – or had someone else shower them for her. The half-man/half-woman’s bizarre appearance frightened some kids, so Francis-Francine often employed a relative to hand out her treats as she watched nearby.
Daniel Mannix, author and sideshow performer, once called her the most successful freak he’d ever known.

Esther Lester

Like most hermaphrodites in the sideshow, Esther Lester was merely a female impersonator, named Eddie Lester. He claimed to born in Seattle, Washington in 1910 with both male and female sexual organs.
Esther Lester began his/her career in the mid-1930s and worked with a variety of showmen, including Harry Leonard, Whitey Sutton, and Slim Kelly. Audiences were told Lester was considered a girl until the age of 13, at which point puberty got confused and developed her left side as a man and the right side as a young woman. Early in his/her career, Esther Lester was scantily clad in a bikini, obviously hiding fake breasts. Later, as sex shows faded from the sideshow circuit due to the proliferation of local competition, Esther Lester’s act changed to a more literal half-and-half act. He/she appeared as a half man, half woman and lectured the crowd in what has been described as an exaggerated and ridiculous accent. Esther’s half of the face was shaven and sported a feminine hairdo. Lester’s half was unshaven and featured a male hairstyle. Off stage, Lester lived in drag. She was always elegant and charming, and simply known as Esther.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Lucasie Family

P.T. Barnum struck gold during a visit to Amsterdam in 1857. Not only did he find a bushy-haired albino – he found an entire family of them. Rudolph Lucasie, along with his wife and child accompanied Barnum back to America to cash in on their pigment-free peculiarities.
Advertisements claimed the Lucasies were of “black Madagascar lineage” and slept with their pink eyes wide open. Though this was typical Barnum hype, the Lucasies’ pure white hair, skin, eyebrows, and eyelashes was not. Their albinism made them a well-paid, popular exhibit at the American Museum for three years.

Ada Briggs

The 500-pound Ada Briggs hailed from Pulaski, NY. Both beautiful and bountiful, she spent the late 1800s bouncing from Barnum’s museum to various other dime museums. Her corpulence reportedly earned her $60 a week.
In 1885, at 536 pounds, Briggs served as president of a convention of fat women held in Baltimore. According to A. W. Stencil’s Seeing is Believing, fat lady conventions became a dime museum craze featuring obese women competing in outlandish spectacles, such as a 50-yard dash. The show must have been a crowd pleaser – provided the crowd wasn’t trampled. Briggs’ career last through the turn of the century, at which time she was a star attraction at Huber’s 14th Street Museum in New York.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Roy Bard – Ossified Man

Born in Bryan, Ohio on April 1, 1889, Roy Bard never suspected he would one day end up in a sideshow. Bard was completely normal until the age of 24. A stiffness began in his left hip and progressed for four years until his entire body was completely rigid. This put an end to his career as a telephone lineman, but eventually opened the door to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium where he was exhibited as The Ossified Man during the 1930s. Bard had become much like a board, lying flat in the same position for 25 years. He was said to be otherwise healthy.

In 1937, Bard was involved in an automobile accident on his way to a gig at a Milaca, MN carnival. Unable to recover from the injuries, he died on August 9. Roy Bard’s ossified body was buried in Los Angeles.

Dave Ballard - The Texas Giant

When the 7-foot, 7-inch Dave Ballard was born in Commerce, Texas in 1905, he weighed a not-so-giant 10 pounds. Over his growth-happy years, he added another 340 to support his lofty frame. Ballard graduated high school and attended Austin College until he could no longer afford tuition. So he turned to his size to raise money.

The giant worked in numerous jobs, including positions as a haberdashery clerk and a movie doorman. But at more than seven-and-a-half feet, Ballard eventually found his way into entertainment. In addition to the obvious role of a giant in vaudeville, he also acted as a pirate and a Keystone Cop at cocktail parties. And in 1947, Ballard played the “king-sized Kris Kringle” at a Christmas Land exposition in New York. The role required extreme patience, not because of curious kids, but due to eager adults asking unoriginal questions like “Raining up there, Bud?” and “Where’d ya get the stilts, Mac?”

Ballard also earned a living as a sideshow giant. In the late 1950s he appeared with the Cristiani Brothers Circus. He later worked as the Texas Giant with Ward Hall.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Carrie Holt

Born in 1894 in Michigan, young Carrie was always a chubby girl. By the time she was 21 she weighed a rugged 321 pounds. Despite her stout stature, she landed a nice, thin husband. However, his love wasn’t strong enough to support his ever-growing wife. He left, and Holt joined the circus. Weighing 468 pounds, she served as a fat lady in the 1920s for Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey and at Coney Island. Some reports say she eventually eclipsed the 500-pound mark. Still, she was practically a twig next to fellow fatter lady, 689-pound Jolly Irene. But unlike Irene, Holt could waddle about with relative ease. Perhaps this helped her land a role over her portly peer in Broadway’s Sunny at the New Amsterdam Theatre.
According to one medical account, Holt had “insufficient thyroid secretion, which may be due to excessive secretion of some other gland or it may be due to a small, inactive thyroid.” That, and a very hearty appetite.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Hazel and Jackie Morris - The World’s Smallest Mother and Daughter

Hazel and Jackie Morris were billed as the World’s Smallest Mother and Daughter. It’s unlikely any other mother-daughter duo could have challenged them for the title. Deformed, underdeveloped limbs prevented them from walking and relegated them both to wheelchairs. Hazel sat a mere 18 inches tall. Her daughter was even smaller, sitting only 15 inches high. Hazel’s husband was a relative giant, standing 5 feet. He and Hazel had been divorced since the late 1930s and he did not tour with his family.
The Morris’ toured together in their own single-o show with various sideshows, including the World of Today Show and the Cristiani Brothers Circus in the 1940s and ‘50s. This tiny team lasted until 1959, when Hazel fell ill while performing with Cristiani Brothers. Two weeks later she passed away. Hazel was penniless at the time, but was given a respectable burial thanks to a financial donation by the Showman’s Association. Jackie later rejoined the circus.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Percy Pape - The Human Skeleton

Born in the early 1920s, Percy Pape grew up -- but not out -- in Lima, Ohio. The Human Skeleton reportedly fluctuated between 68 pounds and a slightly heftier 71 pounds. Pape came from a wealthy family and could have hidden his thin frame at home and avoided the work force. But he enjoyed show business and took advantage of his ability to be a part of it. Unfortunately, he could only exhibit himself when he was healthy enough to do so. Or when the wind wasn’t too strong. According to an acquaintance: “The wind would actually blow him away.” When the paper thin Pape was in a condition to brave the elements, he worked with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey show in the 1950s and at Hubert’s Museum in New York City. Pape wore tights to demonstrate just how thin he was. Nothing is known of his love life, except that he was at one time “married” to the Ossified Woman, Dolly Regan, to garner publicity. Regan had several real husbands, but Pape was not one of them.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Ted Evans - The Tallest Man Alive

Ted Evans was born in Derbyshire, England in 1924. He never enjoyed an average size, rather he managed to live both in petite and gigantic extremes. At the age of 14, Evans was only 77 pounds. The lightweight teenager had the size and desire to be a jockey. But an athletic injury caused him to suddenly grow like a garden weed. According to Evans, the injury upset his glands in some manner.
Once the abnormal growth came to an end, Evans claimed to be an astounding 9 feet, 3 inches. Either he got a bit carried away when describing his height, or he had some confusion converting from the metric system. No giant has ever listed himself at a greater height. When Evans came to America in 1952 with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show, an agent for the circus only wanted to bill him as 8 feet, 11 inches. Most likely that was still a great exaggeration. The Guinness Book of World Records lists his actual height at 7 feet, 8 1/2 inches. Though Evans had gained extraordinary altitude, he maintained his thin frame. At his supposed 9 feet, 3 inches, he only weighed 392 pounds.
“The Tallest Man Alive” used his great size to help New York City promote its Spring clean-up drive in 1953. During a “Parade on Wheels” Evans clutched a 20-foot broom to help support the city’s slogan, “Keeping New York Clean is a Giant-Sized Job.” Evans was on loan from Ringling, but surely promoting the show as well.
Like many giants, he stood extraordinarily tall, but his years were short. Ted Evans passed away in 1958 at only 34.

Photo: Kobel Collection, courtesy of Bob Blackmar

Martha Morris - The Armless Wonder

Born in Chicago in the early 1900s, Martha Morris was deprived not only of her arms, but a portion of her legs as well. Her feet appeared just below the hips, leaving her unable to walk or dress herself. Morris got around with the aid of a wheelchair and someone to push it.
Known professionally as Martha the Armless Wonder, Morris was a featured attraction at Coney Island and the traveling Freak City Show in the 1920s. While on exhibit she would demonstrate remarkable dexterity with her feet by writing and typing with her toes as if they were full-fledged fingers. Morris also appeared in 1932’s Freaks, alongside another famous armless wonder, Frances O’Connor. This must have been very special to Morris, as going to the movies was one of her favorite things to do. According to her father, she wanted to go to the theater every night she wasn’t working.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mimi Garneau

Mimi Garneau was born as Hazel Jude Thomas in 1890 (also reported as 1894) near Phillipsburg, PA. The young woman learned to swallow swords and began performing under the name Jude by the late 1920s. She soon gained acclaim by becoming the first woman to swallow a neon sword. By the early 1930s Jude met her husband-to-be, Fred Garneau. It’s unknown why she eventually adopted the first name Mimi.
Garneau’s early sword swallowing career included performances with Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and with the Al G. Barnes, Sells-Floto, and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey shows. In addition to guzzling steel, she also occasionally operated a flea circus and managed a sideshow.
The early 1940s proved to be a difficult period for Garneau. Her husband died in ‘41, and her son from a previous relationship, Billee Hamilton, was drafted into World War Two and killed in Sicily.
Garneau persevered and continued performing for several decades, and even made an appearance on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen in 1961. Toward the end of the ‘60s she finally hung up her swords. Garneau continued to perform with her flea circus, complete with specially designed props and real fleas. She traveled for several years with her talented parasites before finally retiring in the mid-1970s.
Garneau spent her final years in Tampa, FL, where she passed away on Feb. 22, 1986.

Photo courtesy of Ward Hall's collection.

Bill Cole - The Quarter Man

Hailing from Buffalo, NY, Bill Cole didn’t join the sideshow until midlife. Born normal, he left home as a young man and rode freight trains as a hobo. He lived this carefree life until the age of 32, when the tables were suddenly turned as a train took a ride on him. Cole had accidentally fallen asleep on the railroad track and awoke in the hospital. His legs weren’t with him. Rather than seek pity, Cole was intent on taking care of himself and living as normally as possible. With the aid of small crutches, he learned to compensate for his lost limbs.
Billed as the Quarter Man, Cole found work doing chin-ups and handstands with Pete Kortes’ sideshow in the 1960s. With Sam Alexander’s show he entertained crowds by playing the harmonica. His next stop on the circuit was with the Hall and Christ sideshow. Chris Christ remembered his first day when Cole arrived ready to riff on his harmonica. Dismayed, Christ quickly spiced up the act by building a set of parallel bars. The Quarter Man polished up a new, more exciting presentation within days and performed on the bars for the next dozen years.

Roy Bard – Ossified Man

Born in Bryan, Ohio on April 1, 1884, Roy Bard never suspected he would one day end up in a sideshow. Bard was completely normal until the age of 24. A stiffness began in his left hip and progressed for four years until his entire body was completely rigid. This put an end to his career as a telephone lineman, but eventually opened the door to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium where Bard was exhibited as The Ossified Man during the 1930s. He had been lying in the same position for 25 years, much like a flat board. Bard was said to be otherwise healthy.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Alice from Dallas

Born in 1893, Alice Dunbar grew up to be a mighty big girl. Nicknamed “Alice from Dallas,” she worked for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey for nearly 20 years. Her peak weight was typically billed at 685 pounds, though she was once listed at 702 pounds. Any dresses or muumuus measured six feet around the waist to fit over her stomach. In addition to the Ringling shows, Alice also exhibited her heaping flesh at Coney Island and in her hometown at the Texas Centennial Exhibition in 1940 and at the World’s Fair Museum in 1943.
Outside the circus tent, Alice from Dallas took another name, Alice Julian. The successful fat lady married a circus tattoo artist, named Frank Julian. Happily married, they retired from show business in the mid-1940s. Alice began losing weight, but still left plenty of love handles, having only dieted down to 425 pounds. That was as light as she got. On November 25, 1955, the 62-year-old Alice from Dallas died, appropriately enough, in Dallas.

Charles Decker

Born in 1855, little Charles Decker eventually grew to a height of only 32 inches and a weight of 45 pounds. Naturally, he claimed to be the Smallest Man in the World. When touring dime museums throughout the country, Decker took a cue from other popular little people and often bestowed a military rank upon himself. The midget was often called Major or more prestigiously, General.
In addition to being known for his size, Decker was also known for his intelligence and was said to have been a mechanical genius. Unfortunately, the little man with the big brain had his life cut short. Charles Decker passed away in Chicago at the age of 38, on Oct. 28, 1893.

Alice Bounds – The She Bear

Born in Calcutta, India, Alice Bounds had elbows where her wrists should have been and knees taking the place of ankles. Her unusual joint structure allowed her to walk on all fours.
In 1880, Bounds’ talented gait brought her halfway around the world to the Dreamland Circus Sideshow at Coney Island. There, she became known as the She-Bear and Ursa the Bear Girl. A fur coat helped her live up to her stage names. Bounds continued performing through the first two decades following the turn of the century.

Charles H. Perry - The Living Skeleton

At 6-foot, 1-inch and 80 pounds, Charles H. Perry was one of the chunkier living skeletons. He spent 16 years as The Skeleton Man in various circuses. He was married and had a son and daughter. Perry spent his later years as a hermit in the outskirts of Providence, RI. He passed away in a lonely hut on Dec. 29, 1907.

Lottie Swartwood

Charlotte “Lottie” Naomi Swartwood is best known as Admiral Dot’s wife. Born in 1869, she met the Admiral when she was a teenage performer with the Lilliputian Opera Company. They were married in 1892. The tiny couple toured America and Europe before settling down in White Plains, NY and operating the Admiral Dot Hotel until 1907. In 1918, Admiral Dot passed away. Swartwood, who had cracked the four-foot barrier by reaching a height of 50 inches, remarried years later, in 1943, to a six-foot-tall man named Edward Lappe. The marriage was short-lived, as Lappe died two years later. Swartwood survived as a widow for another five years, until her passing on Dec. 12, 1950.

Otto Tolpefer – The Man with Two Mouths

In the late 1880s, New York’s Bowery featured an unusual attraction alongside its armless wonder, two-headed cow, and other oddities: Otto Tolpefer, the Man with Two Mouths.
Tolpefer was born with the superfluous mouth, which was located just below the chin. The blonde, smooth-faced Tolpefer sat on a platform drinking water with one mouth and simultaneously smoking a cigarette with the other. When speaking, he used the top mouth and closed the second one with his fingers. A New York Times reporter covering the act described his speech as poor, because “the tracheal bellows gives his voice a strange and unreal whispering sound like that of a sexton at a funeral.” The second mouth was unable to speak or eat and was fitted with brass lips.
The reporter further remarked that “Otto is not a pleasant object to gaze at excessively, and as a wall decoration he would not succeed.”

The above information was found in an article from the Nov. 23, 1887 edition of the New York Times.