Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 15

  • Cogito, ergo… memento mori“: this Descartes plaster bust incorporates a skull and detachable skull cap. It’s part of the collection of anatomical plasters of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and it was sculpted in 1913 by Paul Richer, professor of artistic anatomy born in Chartres. The real skull of Descartes has a rather peculiar story, which I wrote about years ago in this post (Italian only).
  • A jarring account of a condition which you probably haven’t heard of: aphantasia is the inability of imagining and visualizing objects, situations, persons or feelings with the “mind’s eye”. The article is in Italian, but there’s also an English Wiki page.
  • 15th Century: reliquaries containing the Holy Virgin’s milk are quite common. But Saint Bernardino is not buying it, and goes into a enjoyable tirade:
    Was the Virgin Mary a dairy cow, that she left behind her milk just like beasts let themselves get milked? I myself hold this opinion, that she had no more and no less milk than what fitted inside that blessed Jesus Christ’s little mouth.

  • In 1973 three women and five men feigned hallucinations to find out if psychiatrists would realize that they were actually mentally healthy. The result: they were admitted in 12 different hospitals. This is how the pioneering Rosenhan experiment shook the foundations of psychiatric practice.
  • Can’t find a present for your grandma? Ronit Baranga‘s tea sets may well be the perfect gift.

  • David Nebreda, born in 1952, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 19. Instead of going on medication, he retired as a hermit in a two-room apartment, without much contact with the outside world, practicing sexual abstinence and fasting for long periods of time. His only weapon to fight his demons is a camera: his self-portraits undoubtedly represent some kind of mental hell — but also a slash of light at the end of this abyss; they almost look like they capture an unfolding catharsis, and despite their extreme and disturbing nature, they seem to celebrate a true victory over the flesh. Nebreda takes his own pain back, and trascends it through art. You can see some of his photographs here and here.
  • The femme fatale, dressed in glamourous clothes and diabolically lethal, is a literary and cinematographic myth: in reality, female killers succeed in becoming invisible exactly by playing on cultural assumptions and keeping a low and sober profile.
  • Speaking of the female figure in the collective unconscious, there is a sci-fi cliché which is rarely addressed: women in test tubes. Does the obsessive recurrence of this image point to the objectification of the feminine, to a certain fetishism, to an unconscious male desire to constrict, seclude and dominate women? That’s a reasonable suspicion when you browse the hundred-something examples harvested on Sci-Fi Women in Tubes. (Thanks, Mauro!)

  • I have always maintained that fungi and molds are superior beings. For instance the slimy organisms in the pictures above, called Stemonitis fusca, almost seem to defy gravity. My first article for the magazine Illustrati, years ago, was  dedicated to the incredible Cordyceps unilateralis, a parasite which is able to control the mind and body of its host. And I have recently stumbled upon a photograph that shows what happens when a Cordyceps implants itself within the body of a tarantula. Never mind Cthulhu! Mushrooms, folks! Mushrooms are the real Lords of the Universe! Plus, they taste good on a pizza!

  • The latest entry in the list of candidates for my Museum of Failure is Adelir Antônio de Carli from Brazil, also known as Padre Baloeiro (“balloon priest”). Carli wished to raise funds to build a chapel for truckers in Paranaguá; so, as a publicity stunt, on April 20, 2008, he tied a chair to 1000 helium-filled balloons and took off before journalists and a curious crowd. After reaching an altitude of 6,000 metres (19,700 ft), he disappeared in the clouds.
    A month and a half passed before the lower part of his body was found some 100 km off the coast.

  • La passionata is a French song covered by Guy Marchand which enjoyed great success in 1966. And it proves two surprising truths: 1- Latin summer hits were already a thing; 2- they caused personality disorders, as they still do today. (Thanks, Gigio!)

  • Two neuroscientists build some sort of helmet which excites the temporal lobes of the person wearing it, with the intent of studying the effects of a light magnetic stimulation on creativity.  And test subjects start seeing angels, dead relatives, and talking to God. Is this a discovery that will explain mystical exstasy, paranormal experiences, the very meaning of the sacred? Will this allow communication with an invisible reality? Neither of the two, because the truth is a bit disappointing: in all attempts to replicate the experiment, no peculiar effects were detected. But it’s still a good idea for a novel. Here’s the God helmet Wiki page.
  • California Institute of Abnormalarts is a North Hollywood sideshow-themed nightclub featuring burlesque shows, underground musical groups, freak shows and film screenings. But if you’re afraid of clowns, you might want to steer clear of the place: one if its most famous attractions is the embalmed body of Achile Chatouilleu, a clown who asked to be buried in his stage costume and makeup.
    Sure enough, he seems a bit too well-preserved for a man who allegedly died in 1912 (wouldn’t it happen to be a sideshow gaff?). Anyways, the effect is quite unsettling and grotesque…

  • I shall leave you with a picture entitled The Crossing, taken by nature photographer Ryan Peruniak. All of his works are amazing, as you can see if you head out to his official website, but I find this photograph strikingly poetic.
    Here is his recollection of that moment:
    Early April in the Rocky Mountains, the majestic peaks are still snow-covered while the lower elevations, including the lakes and rivers have melted out. I was walking along the riverbank when I saw a dark form lying on the bottom of the river. My first thought was a deer had fallen through the ice so I wandered over to investigate…and that’s when I saw the long tail. It took me a few moments to comprehend what I was looking at…a full grown cougar lying peacefully on the riverbed, the victim of thin ice.

Myrtle The Four-Legged Girl

Mrs. Josephine M. Bicknell died only one week before her sixtieth birthday; she was buried in Cleburne, Texas, at the beginning of May, 1928.

Once the coffin was lowered into the ground,her husband James C. Bicknell stood watching as the grave was filled with a thick layer of cement; he waited for an hour, maybe two, until the cement dried completely. Eventually James and the other relatives could head back home, relieved: nobody would be able to steal Mrs. Bicknell’s body – not the doctors, nor the other collectors who had tried to obtain it.

It is strange to think that a lifeless body could be tempting for so many people.
But the lady who was resting under the cement had been famous across the United States, many years before, under her maiden name: Josephine Myrtle Corbin, the Four-Legged Girl from Texas.

Myrtle was born in 1868 in Lincoln County, Tennessee, with a rare fetal anomaly called dipygus: her body was perfectly formed from her head down to her navel, below which it divided into two pelvises, and four lower limbs.

Her two inner legs, although capable of movement, were rudimentary, and at birth they were found laying flat on the belly. They resembled those of a parasitic twin, but in reality there was no twin: during fetal development, her pervis had split along the median axis (in each pair of legs, one was atrophic).

 Medical reports of the time stated that

between each pair of legs there is a complete, distinct set of genital organs, both external and internal, each supported by a pubic arch. Each set acts independently of the other, except at the menstrual period. There are apparently two sets of bowels, and two ani; both are perfectly independent,– diarrhoea may be present on one side, constipation on the other.

Myrtle joined Barnum Circus at the age of 13. When she appeared on stage, nothing gave away her unusual condition: apart from the particularly large hips and a clubbed right foot, Myrtle was an attractive girl and had an altogether normal figure. But when she lifted her gown, the public was left breathless.

She married James Clinton Bicknell when she was 19 years old, and the following year she went to Dr. Lewis Whaley on the account of a pain in her left side coupled with other worrying symptoms. When the doctor announced that she was pregnant in her left uterus, Myrtle reacted with surprise:

“I think you are mistaken; if it had been on my right side I would come nearer believing it”; and after further questioning he found, from the patient’s observation, that her right genitals were almost invariably used for coitus.

That first pregnancy sadly ended with an abortion, but later on Myrtle, who had retired from show business, gave birth to four children, all perfectly healthy.

Given the enormous success of her show, other circuses tried to replicate the lucky formula – but charming ladies with supernumerary legs were nowhere to be found.
With typical sideshow creativity, the problem was solved by resorting to some ruse.
The two following diagrams show the trick used to simulate a three-legged and a four-legged woman, as reported in the 1902 book The New Magic (source: Weird Historian).

If you search for Myrtle Corbin’s pictures on the net, you can stumble upon some photographs of Ashley Braistle, the most recent example of a woman with four legs.
The pictures below were taken at her wedding, in July 1994, when she married a plumber from Houston named Wayne: their love had begun after Ashley appeared in a newspaper interview, declaring that she was looking for a “easygoing and sensitive guy“.

Unfortunately on May 11, 1996, Ashley’s life ended in tragedy when she made an attempt at skiing and struck a tree.

Did you guess it?
Ashley’s touching story is actually a trick, just like the ones used by circus people at the turn of the century.
This photographic hoax comes from another bizarre “sideshow”, namely the Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid known for publishing openly fake news with funny and inventive titles (“Mini-mermaid found in tuna sandwich!” “Hillary Clinton adopts a baby alien!”, “Abraham Lincoln was a woman!”, and so on).

The “news” of Ashley’s demise on the July 4, 1996 issue.

 

Another example of a Weekly World News cover story.

To end on a more serious note, here’s the good news: nowadays caudal duplications can, in some instances, be surgically corrected after birth (it happened for example in 1968, in 1973 and in 2014).

And luckily, pouring cement is no longer needed in order to prevent jackals from stealing an extraordinary body like the one of Josephine Myrtle Corbin Bicknell.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 8

Here we are for a new edition of LC&MW, the perfect column to dawdle and amaze yourself at the beach!
(It is also perfect for me to relax a bit while writing the new book for the BB Collection.) (Speaking of which, until Septembre 15 you can get 20% discount if you buy all 4 books in one bundle — just insert the coupon BUNDLE4 at check out. Comes with a free Bizzarro Bazar Shopper.) (Oh, I almost forgot, the above chameleon is a hand, painted by great Guido Daniele, whose job is to… well, paint hands.)
Alright, let’s begin!

  • In Mexico City, at the Templo Mayor, archeologists finally found one of the legendary Aztech “towers of skulls” that once terrorized the Spanish conquistadores. These racks (called tzompantli) were used to exhibit the remains of warriors who valliantly died in battle, or enemies and war prisoners: they were descibed in many codices and travel diearies. The newly-discovered “tower” could well be the famed Huey Tzompantli, the biggest of them all, an impressing rack that could hold up to 60.000 heads, according to calculations (just imagine the nightmarish view).
    On this new site 650 skulls have been found, but the number is bound to increase as the excavation proceeds. But there’s a mystery: the experts expected to find the remains, as we’ve said, of oung warriors. Until now, they have encountered an unexplicable high rate of women and children — something that left everyone a bit confused. Maybe we have yet to fully understand the true function of the tzompantli?
  • One more archeological mystery: in Peru, some 200km away from the more famous Nazca lines, there is this sort of candelabra carved into the mountain rock. The geoglyph is 181 meters high, can be seen from the water, and nobody knows exactly what it is.

  • During the night on August 21, 1986, in a valley in the north-west province of Cameroon, more than 1700 people and 3500 cattle animals suddenly died in their sleep. What happened?
    Nearby lake Nyos, which the locals believed was haunted by spirits, was responsible for the disaster.
    On the bottom of lake Nyos, active volcanic magma naturally forms a layer of water with a very high CO2 concentration. Recent rainfalls had facilitated the so-called “lake overturn” (or limnic eruption): the lower layer had abruptly shifted to the surface, freeing an immense, invisible carbon dioxide cloud, as big as 80 million cubic meters, which in a few minutes suffocated almost all living beings in the valley. [Discovered via Oddly Historical]

If you find yourself nearby, don’t be afraid to breathe. Today siphons bring water from the bottom to the surface of the lake, so as to free the CO2 gradually and constantly.

  • Ok — what the heck is a swimsuit ad (by Italian firm Tezenis) doing on Bizzarro Bazar?
    Look again. That neck, folks.
    Photoshopping going wrong? Maybe, but I like to think that this pretty girl is actually the successor of great Martin Joe Laurello, star of the freakshow with Ringlin Bros, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Barnum & Bailey and other travelling shows.
    Here you can see him in action, together with fellow performer Bendyman.

  • The latest issue of Godfrey’s Almanack (an installation by the creator of the wonderful Thinker’s Garden) is devoted to the sea, to ancient navigation, to sea monsters. And it is delightful.
  • Say what you wish about Catherine The Great, but she surely had a certain taste for furniture.
  • Meanwhile in Kenya there’s a lawyer who (for the second time!) is trying to sue Israel and us Italians for killing Jesus Christ. That should teach us a lesson. You can murder, plunder and destroy undisturbed for centuries, but never mess with somebody who has connections at the top.
    P.S. An advise for Greek friends: you may be next, start hiding all traces of hemlock.
  • On this website (click on the first picture) you can take a 360° tour through the crytpt of Saint Casimir, Krakow, among open caskets and exposed mummies.

  • The above pic shows one of the casts of Pompeii victims, and it has recently gone viral after a user speculated ironically that the man might have died in the midst of an act of onanism. You can figure out the rest: users making trivial jokes, others deploring the lack of respect for the dead… Now, now, children.
  • If you’re on vacation in Souht East Asia, and you’re thinking about purchasing a bottle of snake wine… well, think again. The practice is quite cruel to begin with, and secondly, there have been reports of snakes waking up after spending months in alcohol, and sending whoever opened the bottle to the hospital or to the grave.

  • From July 21 to 24 I will be at the University of Winchester for the conference organised by Death & The Maiden, a beautiful blog exploring the relationship between women and death, to which I had the pleasure of contributing once or twice. The event looks awesome: panels aside, there will be seminars and workshops (from shroud embroidery to Victorian hairwork techniques), guided tours to local cemeteries, concerts, art performances and film screenings.
    I am bringing my talk Saints, Mothers & Aphrodites, which I hope I will be able to take on tour throughout Italy in autumn.

That’s all for now, see you next time!

Freaks: Gaze and Disability

Introduction: those damn colored glasses

The image below is probably my favorite illusion (in fact I wrote about it before).

At a first glance it looks like a family in a room, having breakfast.
Yet when the picture is shown to the people living in some rural parts of Africa, they see something different: a family having breakfast in the open, under a tree, while the mother balances a box on her head, maybe to amuse her children. This is not an optical illusion, it’s a cultural one.

The origins of this picture are not certain, but it is not relevant here whether it has actually been used in a psychological study, nor if it shows a prejudice on life in the Third World. The force of this illustration is to underline how culture is an inevitable filter of reality.

It reminds of a scene in Werner Herzog’s documentary film The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969), in which the doctors find it hard to explain to the population that flies carry infections; showing big pictures of the insects and the descriptions of its dangers does not have much effect because people, who are not used to the conventions of our graphic representations, do not understand they are in scale, and think: “Sure, we will watch out, but around here flies are never THAT big“.

Even if we would not admit it, our vision is socially conditioned. Culture is like a pair of glasses with colored lenses, quite useful in many occasions to decipher the world but deleterious in many others, and it’s hard to get rid of these glasses by mere willpower.

‘Freak pride’ and disability

Let’s address the issue of “freaks”: originally a derogatory term, the word has now gained a peculiar cultural charm and ,as such, I always used it with the purpose of fighting pietism and giving diversity it its just value.
Any time I set out to talk about human marvels, I experienced first-hand how difficult it is to write about these people.

Reflecting on the most correct angle to address the topic means to try and take off culture’s colored glasses, an almost impossible task. I often wondered if I myself have sometimes succumbed to unintended generalizations, if I unwillingly fell into a self-righteous approach.
Sure enough, I have tried to tell these amazing characters’ stories through the filter of wonder: I believed that – equality being a given – the separation between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary could be turned in favor of disability.
I have always liked those “deviants” who decided to take back their exotic bodies, their distance from the Norm, in some sort of freak pride that would turn the concept of handicap inside out.

But is it really the most correct approach to diversity and, in some cases, disability? To what extent is this vision original, or is it just derivative from a long cultural tradition? What if the freak, despite all pride, actually just wanted an ordinary dimension, what if what he was looking for was the comfort of an average life? What is the most ethical narrative?

This doubt, I think, arose from a paragraph by Fredi Saal, born in 1935, a German author who spent the first part of his existence between hospitals and care homes because he was deemed “uneducable”:

No, it is not the disabled person who experiences him- or herself as abnormal — she or he is experienced as abnormal by others, because a whole section of human life is cut off. Thus this very existence acquires a threatening quality. One doesn’t start from the disabled persons themselves, but from one’s own experience. One asks oneself, how would I react, should a disability suddenly strike, and the answer is projected onto the disabled person. Thus one receives a completely distorted image. Because it is not the other fellow that one sees, but oneself.

(F. Saal, Behinderung = Selbstgelebte Normalität, 1992)

As much as the idea of a freak pride is dear to me, it may well be another subconscious projection: I may just like to think that I would react to disability that way… and yet one more time I am not addressing the different person, but rather my own romantic and unrealistic idea of diversity.

We cannot obviously look through the eyes of a disabled person, there is an insuperable barrier, but it is the same that ultimately separates all human beings. The “what would I do in that situation?” Saal talks about, the act of projecting ourselves onto others, that is something we endlessly do and not just with the disabled.

The figure of the freak has always been ambiguous – or, better, what is hard to understand is our own gaze on the freak.
I think it is therefore important to trace the origins of this gaze, to understand how it evolved: we could even discover that this thing we call disability is actually nothing more than another cultural product, an illusion we are “trained” to recognize in much the same way we see the family having breakfast inside a living room rather than out in the open.

In my defense, I will say this: if it is possible for me to imagine a freak pride, it is because the very concept of freak does not come out of the blue, and does not even entail disability. Many people working in freakshows were also disabled, others were not. That was not the point. The real characteristics that brought those people on stage was the sense of wonder they could evoke: some bodies were admired, others caused scandal (as they were seen as unbearably obscene), but the public bought the ticket to be shocked, amazed and shaken in their own certainties.

In ancient times, the monstrum was a divine sign (it shares its etymological root with the Italian verb mostrare, “to show”), which had to be interpreted – and very often feared, as a warning of doom. If the monstruous sign was usually seen as bearer of misfortune, some disabilities were not (for instance blindness and lunacy, which were considered forms of clairvoyance, see V. Amendolagine, Da castigo degli dei a diversamente abili: l’identità sociale del disabile nel corso del tempo, 2014).

During the Middle Ages the problem of deformity becomes much more complex: on one hand physiognomy suggested a correlation between ugliness and a corrupted soul, and literature shows many examples of enemies being libeled through the description of their physical defects; on the other, theologians and philosophers (Saint Augustine above all) considered deformity as just another example of Man’s penal condition on this earth, so much so that in the Resurrection all signs of it would be erased (J.Ziegler in Deformità fisica e identità della persona tra medioevo ed età moderna, 2015); some Christian female saints even went to the extreme of invoking deformity as a penance (see my Ecstatic Bodies: Hagiography and Eroticism).
Being deformed also precluded the access to priesthood (ordo clericalis) on the basis of a famous passage from the  Leviticus, in which offering sacrifice on the altar is forbidden to those who have imperfect bodies (P. Ostinelli, Deformità fisica…, 2015).

The monstrum becoming mirabile, worthy of admiration, is a more modern idea, but that was around well before traveling circuses, before Tod Browning’s “One of us!“, and before hippie counterculture seized it: this concept is opposed to the other great modern invention in regard to disability, which is commiseration.
The whole history of our relationship with disability fluctuates between these two poles: admiration and pity.

The right kind of eyes

In the German exhibition Der (im)perfekte Mensch (“The (im)perfect Human Being”), held in 2001 in the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden, the social gaze at people with disabilities was divided into six main categories:

– The astonished and medical gaze
– The annihilating gaze
– The pitying gaze
– The admiring gaze
– The instrumentalizing gaze
– The excluding gaze

While this list can certainly be discussed, it has the merit of tracing some possible distinctions.
Among all the kinds of gaze listed here, the most bothering might be the pitying gaze. Because it implies the observer’s superiority, and a definitive judgment on a condition which, to the eyes of the “normal” person, cannot seem but tragic: it expresses a self-righteous, intimate certainty that the other is a poor cripple who is to be pitied. The underlying thought is that there can be no luck, no happiness in being different.

The concept of poor cripple, which (although hidden behind more politically correct words) is at the core of all fund-raising marathons, is still deeply rooted in our culture, and conveys a distorted vision of charity – often more focused on our own “pious deed” than on people with disabilities.

As for the pitying gaze, the most ancient historical example we know of is this 1620 print, kept at the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck, which shows a disabled carpenter called  Wolffgang Gschaiter lying in his bed. The text explains how this man, after suffering unbearable pain to his left arm and back for three days, found himself completely paralyzed. For fifteen years, the print tells us, he was only able to move his eyes and tongue. The purpose of this paper is to collect donations and charity money, and the readers are invited to pray for him in the nearby church of the Three Saints in Dreiheiligen.

This pamphlet is interesting for several reasons: in the text, disability is explicitly described as a “mirror” of the observer’s own misery, therefore establishing the idea that one must think of himself as he is watching it; a distinction is made between body and soul to reinforce drama (the carpenter’s soul can be saved, his body cannot); the expression “poor cripple” is recorded for the first time.
But most of all this little piece of paper is one of the very first examples of mass communication in which disability is associated with the idea of donations, of fund raising. Basically what we see here is a proto-telethon, focusing on charity and church prayers to cleanse public conscience, and at the same time an instrument in line with the Counter-Reformation ideological propaganda (see V. Schönwiese, The Social Gaze at People with Disabilities, 2007).

During the previous century, another kind of gaze already developed: the clinical-anatomical gaze. This 1538 engraving by Albrecht Dürer shows a woman lying on a table, while an artist meticulously draws the contour of her body. Between the two figures stands a framework, on which some stretched-out strings divide the painter’s vision in small squares so that he can accurately transpose it on a piece of paper equipped with the same grid. Each curve, each detail is broke down and replicated thanks to this device: vision becomes the leading sense, and is organized in an aseptic, geometric, purely formal frame. This was the phase in which a real cartography of the human body was developed, and in this context deformity was studied in much the same manner. This is the “astonished and medical gaze“, which shows no sign of ethical or pitying judgment, but whose ideology is actually one of mapping, dividing, categorizing and ultimately dominating every possible variable of the cosmos.

In the wunderkammer of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria (1529-1595), inside Ambras Castle near Innsbruck, there is a truly exceptional portrait. A portion of the painting was originally covered by a red paper curtain: those visiting the collection in the Sixteenth Century might have seen something close to this reconstruction.

Those willing and brave enough could pull the paper aside to admire the whole picture: thus the subject’s limp and deformed body appeared, portrayed in raw detail and with coarse realism.

What Fifteen-Century observers saw in this painting, we cannot know for sure. To understand how views are relative, it suffices to remind that at the time “human marvels” included for instance foreigners from exotic countries, and a sub-category of foreigners were cretins who were said to inhabit certain geographic regions.
In books like Giovan Battista de’ Cavalieri’s Opera ne la quale vi è molti Mostri de tute le parti del mondo antichi et moderni (1585), people with disabilities can be found alongside monstruous apparitions, legless persons are depicted next to mythological Chimeras, etc.

But the red paper curtain in the Ambras portrait is an important signal, because it means that such a body was on one hand considered obscene, capable of upsetting the spectator’s senibility. On the other hand, the bravest or most curious onlookers could face the whole image. This leads us to believe that monstrosity in the Sixteenth Century had at least partially been released from the idea of prodigy, and freed from the previous centuries superstitions.

This painting is therefore a perfect example of “astonished and medical” gaze; from deformity as mirabilia to proper admiration, it’s a short step.

The Middle Path?

The admiring gaze is the one I have often opted for in my articles. My writing and thinking practice coincides with John Waters’ approach, when he claims he feels some kind of admiration for the weird characters in his movies: “All the characters in my movies, I look up to them. I don’t think about them the way people think about reality TV – that we are better and you should laugh at them.

And yet, here we run the risk of falling into the opposite trap, an excessive idealization. It may well be because of my peculiar allergy to the concept of “heroes”, but I am not interested in giving hagiographic versions of the life of human marvels.

All these thoughts which I have shared with you, lead me to believe there is no easy balance. One cannot talk about freaks without running into some kind of mistake, some generalization, without falling victim to the deception of colored glasses.
Every communication between us and those with different/disabled bodies happens in a sort of limbo, where our gaze meets theirs. And in this space, there cannot ever be a really authentic confrontation, because from a physical perspective we are separated by experiences too far apart.
I will never be able to understand other people’s body, and neither will they.

But maybe this distance is exactly what draws us together.

“Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world…”

Let’s consider the only reference we have – our own body – and try to break the habit.
I will borrow the opening words from the introduction I wrote for Nueva Carne by Claudio Romo:

Our bodies are unknowable territories.
We can dismantle them, cut them up into ever smaller parts, study their obsessive geometries, meticulously map every anatomical detail, rummage in their entrails… and their secret will continue to escape us.
We stare at our hands. We explore our teeth with our tongues. We touch our hair.
Is
this what we are?

Here is the ultimate mind exercise, my personal solution to the freaks’ riddle: the only sincere and honest way I can find to relate diversity is to make it universal.

Johnny Eck woke up in this world without the lower limbs; his brother, on the contrary, emerged from the confusion of shapes with two legs.
I too am equipped with feet, including toes I can observe, down there, as they move whenever I want them to. Are those toes still me? I ignore the reach of my own identity, and if there is an exact point where its extension begins.
On closer view, my experience and Johnny’s are different yet equally mysterious.
We are all brothers in the enigma of the flesh.

I would like to ideally sit with him  — with the freak, with the “monster” — out on the porch of memories, before the sunset of our lives.
‘So, what did you think of this strange trip? Of this strange place we wound up in?’, I would ask him.
And I am sure that his smile would be like mine.

The premature babies of Coney Island

Once upon a time on the circus or carnival midway, among the smell of hot dogs and the barkers’ cries, spectators could witness some amazing side attractions, from fire-eaters to bearded ladies, from electric dancers to the most exotic monstrosities (see f.i. some previous posts here and here).
Beyond our fascination for a time of naive wonder, there is another less-known reason for which we should be grateful to old traveling fairs: among the readers who are looking at this page right now, almost one out of ten is alive thanks to the sideshows.

This is the strange story of how amusement parks, and a visionary doctor’s stubbornness, contributed to save millions of human lives.

Until the end of XIX Century, premature babies had little or no chance of survival. Hospitals did not have neonatal units to provide efficient solutions to the problem, so the preemies were given back to their parents to be taken home — practically, to die. In all evidence, God had decided that those babies were not destined to survive.
In 1878 a famous Parisian obstetrician, Dr. Étienne Stéphane Tarnier, visited an exhibition called Jardin d’Acclimatation which featured, among other displays, a new method for hatching poultry in a controlled, hydraulic heated environment, invented by a Paris Zoo keeper; immediately the doctor thought he could test that same system on premature babies and commissioned a similar box, which allowed control of the temperature of the newborn’s environment.
After the first positive experimentations at the Maternity Hospital in Paris, the incubator was soon equipped with a bell that rang whenever the temperature went too high.
The doctor’s assistant, Pierre Budin, further developed the Tarnier incubator, on one hand studying how to isolate and protect the frail newborn babies from infectious disease, and on the other the correct quantities and methods of alimentation.

Despite the encouraging results, the medical community still failed to recognize the usefulness of incubators. This skepticism mainly stemmed from a widespread mentality: as mentioned before, the common attitude towards premature babies was quite fatalist, and the death of weaker infants was considered inevitable since the most ancient times.

Thus Budin decided to send his collaborator, Dr. Martin Couney, to the 1896 World Exhibition in Berlin. Couney, our story’s true hero, was an uncommon character: besides his knowledge as an obstetrician, he had a strong charisma and true showmanship; these virtues would prove fundamental for the success of his mission, as we shall see.
Couney, with the intent of creating a bit of a fuss in order to better spread the news, had the idea of exhibiting live premature babies inside his incubators. He had the nerve to ask Empress Augusta Victoria herself for permission to use some infants from the Charity Hospital in Berlin. He was granted the favor, as the newborn babies were destined to a certain death anyway.
But none of the infants lodged inside the incubators died, and Couney’s exhibition, called Kinderbrutanstalt (“child hatchery”) immediately became the talk of the town.

This success was repeated the following year in London, at Earl’s Court Exhibition (scoring 3600 visitors each day), and in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1900 he came back to Paris for the World Exhibition, and in 1901 he attended the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY.

L'edificio costruito per gli incubatori a Buffalo.

The incubators building in Buffalo.

The incubators at the Buffalo Exhibition.

But in the States Couney met an even stronger resistence to accept this innovation, let alone implementing it in hospitals.
It must be stressed that although he was exhibiting a medical device, inside the various fairs his incubator stand was invariably (and much to his disappointment) confined to the entertainment section rather than the scientific section.
Maybe this was the reason why in 1903 Couney took a courageous decision.

If Americans thought incubators were just some sort of sideshow stunt, well then, he would give them the entertainment they wanted. But they would have to pay for it.

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Couney definitively moved to New York, and opened a new attraction at Coney Island amusement park. For the next 40 years, every summer, the doctor exhibited premature babies in his incubators, for a quarter dollar. Spectators flowed in to contemplate those extremely underweight babies, looking so vulnerable and delicate as they slept in their temperate glass boxes. “Oh my, look how tiny!“, you could hear the crowd uttering, as people rolled along the railing separating them from the aisle where the incubators were lined up.

 

In order to accentuate the minuscule size of his preemies, Couney began resorting to some tricks: if the baby wasn’t small enough, he would add more blankets around his little body, to make him look tinier. Madame Louise Recht, a nurse who had been by Couney’s side since the very first exhibitions in Paris, from time to time would slip her ring over the babies’ hands, to demonstrate how thin their wrists were: but in reality the ring was oversized even for the nurse’s fingers.

Madame Louise Recht con uno dei neonati.

Madame Louise Recht with a newborn baby.

Preemie wearing on his wrist the nurse’s sparkler.

Couney’s enterprise, which soon grew into two separate incubation centers (one in Luna Park and the other in Dreamland), could seem quite cynical today. But it actually was not.
All the babies hosted in his attractions had been turned down by city hospitals, and given back to the parents who had no hope of saving them; the “Doctor Incubator” promised families that he would treat the babies without any expense on their part, as long as he could exhibit the preemies in public. The 25 cents people paid to see the newborn babies completely covered the high incubation and feeding expenses, even granting a modest profit to Couney and his collaborators. This way, parents had a chance to see their baby survive without paying a cent, and Couney could keep on raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of his method.
Couney did not make any race distinction either, exhibiting colored babies along with white babies — an attitude that was quite rare at the beginning of the century in America. Among the “guests” displayed in his incubators, was at one point Couney’s own premature daughter, Hildegarde, who later became a nurse and worked with her father on the attraction.

Nurses with babies at Flushing World Fair, NY. At the center is Couney’s daughter, Hildegarde.

Besides his two establishments in Coney Island (one of which was destroyed during the 1911 terrible Dreamland fire), Couney continued touring the US with his incubators, from Chicago to St. Louis, to San Francisco.
In forty years, he treated around 8000 babies, and saved at least 6500; but his endless persistence in popularizing the incubator had much lager effects. His efforts, on the long run, contributed to the opening of the first neonatal intensive care units, which are now common in hospitals all around the world.

After a peak in popularity during the first decades of the XX Century, at the end of the 30s the success of Couney’s incubators began to decrease. It had become an old and trite attraction.
When the first premature infant station opened at Cornell’s New York Hospital in 1943, Couney told his nephew: “my work is done“. After 40 years of what he had always considered propaganda for a good cause, he definitively shut down his Coney Island enterprise.

Martin Arthur Couney (1870–1950).

The majority of information in this post comes from the most accurate study on the subject, by Dr. William A. Silverman (Incubator-Baby Side Shows, Pediatrics, 1979).

(Thanks, Claudia!)

Il corpo del gigante

We have already told many stories about the big family of human wonders, those unique and peculiar people that we call freaks – but in the affectionate meaning, to claim diversity as a value, as something to be proud of.
As happens to many freaks, the life of Edouard Beaupré began in a completely ordinary way and without any presage of an extraordinary future. Born on January 9, 1881, Edouard was the first child baptized in the small community of
Willow Bunch, in the Canadian prairies, that today has less than three hundreds inhabitants.

He was the eldest of the twenty children of Florestine Piché and Gaspard Beaupré, and during the first three years of his life, he didn’t show any distinguishing mark; but things were soon to change. The child began to grow at incredible speed: at the age of nine, he was already 1.83 metre tall. The boy’s body continued to steadily grow in weight and stature, and it was impossible to check his prodigious development.

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All things considered Edouard was still a handsome boy, sweet and kind, a very skilful rider, and dreamt of becoming a cowboy. But luck was definitely not on his side: one day, while he was trying to tame an over-excited horse, the animal planted a violent kick on his face and the hoof broke his nasal septum.

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Now the giant was also disfigured. Pressed by his parents, he therefore decided to enter the show business, relying on his extraordinary body, in order to financially support his family.
Edouard started touring Canada and the United States and his popularity grew until he was even hired by Barnum & Bailey, the biggest and most popular of all circuses.

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Gigantism often involves bone and muscle problems and most giants, in spite of their body size, are very fragile and weak. This was not the case of Edouard Beaupré, whose physique was at the heart of his show: he merged, so to speak, two different traditional sideshow figures in one single performer – he was at the same time a giant and a strongman.

His show consisted of several trials of strength and weightlifting. But it was the final coup de théâtre that invariably left the audience amazed and breathless. Edouard had one of his beloved horses called on the track. He playfully explained that, when he was a boy, he had given up on his dream of becoming a cowboy because, even when he was riding the tallest horse, his legs touched the ground; now he used the animal to keep himself fit… this said, Edouard bent under the horse and, shouldering the beast, lifted it above the ground. Thus lifting more than 4 hundred kilos.

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On the 25th March 1901 Edouard, although exhausted by a disease that the following year would turn out to be tuberculosis, had a wrestling match with Louis Cyr, who is still considered the strongest man of all times – he could lift 227 kilograms with a finger and carry almost two tons on his back. On that occasion Edouard was officially measured: he was 2.37 metres tall. The match lasted a very short time: the giant was defeated in the twinkling of an eye because he did not even dare touch the great champion. According to those who knew him well, maybe Edouard – who was kind by nature – was afraid to hurt his opponent.

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On the 3rd of July 1904, after his usual performance at the Saint Louis World’s Fair, Beaupré collapsed. The steady and inexorable growth, and tuberculosis had prevailed over his physique and caused a pulmonary hemorrhage. When he was carried to the hospital, Edouard was at death’s door and just had the time to mutter how sad it was to die so young and so far from his parents. So the famous Willow Bunch Giant passed away, when he was only 23.
But this was not the end of his story.

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A certain Dr. Gradwohl carried out a post-mortem on his corpse and, as expected, found a pituitary tumour that had probably caused Edouard’s gigantism. Then the corpse was entrusted to the care of a funeral firm, Eberle & Keyes, to be embalmed and prepared for burial. The corpse should have returned to Edouard’s home village, but the circus manager, William Burke, convinced the Beaupré family that costs would be too high and that Edouard would be given a proper burial also where he was. When his parents gave their consent, they didn’t suspect that Burke was not willing to pay a penny. Burke cut and ran after making his parents believe that the funeral had been held and that their son was buried in St. Louis cemetery. He left the corpse at the funeral home and left again with the circus heading to another town.

The managers of the funeral home, enraged because they hadn’t been paid, decided to display the giant’s body in the shop window in order to recover the expenses for the embalming. This did not last for long, because after a few days the police asked to remove it from the public views. So began the odyssey of Edouard’s corpse: at the beginning it was sold to a traveling showman, then was brought back to Montréal by a friend of the Beaupré family, Pascal Bonneau. There it was exhibited for six months at the Eden Museum in Rue St. Laurent, a sort of squalid wax museum; and yet the queue people formed to see the giant was so long that it blocked the street. Around 1907 the corpse became the propriety of the Montréal Circus, another waning reality. Exhibited on a catafalque, the embalmed corpse was an easy prey to dampness, that damaged it, until the circus went bankrupt. Accused of “unauthorised corpse exhibition”, the proprietors left Edouard’s remains in a shed in Bellerive city park. Horrified, some children discovered it, while they were playing in the park.

Huge body of man found by children to Bellerive Park – a lush but poor part of town. The local doctor was called, and I was notified that it was in the presence of a giant human. The condition of the remains is not specified. I bought this amazing discovery with high hopes for the search and examination. The doctor asked me for sneaking that can cost such a treasure. I told him to bring the corpse, a lot.These words were noted down on the journal of Dr. Louis-Napoléon Délorme – who was fond of deformities – that paid 25 dollars for Edouard’s body. Considering the poor conditions of the corpse, he went on to mummify it, and used it for several dissections with his students at the Montréal University. The giant finally found a new accommodation, at the Faculty of Medicine, where it was potted in a display cabinet.

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Edouard Beaupré remained there until the 1970s, when his nephew Ovila Lespérance asked the University to return the remains of the giant of Willow Bunch to his family. In 1989 the academic committee consented to the cremation of Edouard’s remains, that on the 7th of July 1990 were finally inhumed in the small Canadian town. Today a life-size statue reproduces Beaupré’s features and tourists can also compare their own feet to the track left by a shoe of the gentle giant. Who, after 85 years of vicissitudes, rests in peace at last.

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The contents of this article are mostly taken from The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré, by Sarah Kathryn York.

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On the Midway

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Abbiamo spesso parlato dei sideshow e dei luna-park itineranti che si spostavano di città in città attraversando l’America e l’Europa, assieme ai circhi, all’inizio del secolo scorso. Ma cosa proponevano, oltre allo zucchero filato, al tiro al bersaglio, a qualche ruota panoramica e alle meraviglie umane?
In realtà l’offerta di intrattenimenti e di spettacoli all’interno di un sideshow era estremamente diversificata, e comprendeva alcuni show che sono via via scomparsi dal repertorio delle fiere itineranti. Questo articolo scorre brevemente alcune delle attrazioni più sorprendenti dei sideshow americani.

Step right up! Fatevi sotto signore e signori, preparate il biglietto, fatelo timbrare da Hank, il Nano più alto del mondo, ed entrate sulla midway!

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All’interno del luna-park, i vari stand e le attrazioni erano normalmente disposti a ferro di cavallo, lasciando un unico grande corridoio centrale in cui si aggirava liberamente il pubblico: la midway, appunto. Su questa “via di mezzo” si affacciavano i bally, le pedane da cui gli imbonitori attiravano l’attenzione con voce stentorea, ipnotica parlantina e indubbio carisma; talvolta si poteva avere una piccola anticipazione di ciò che c’era da aspettarsi, una volta entrati per un quarto di dollaro. Di fianco al signore che pubblicizzava il freakshow, ad esempio, poteva stare seduta la donna barbuta, come “assaggio” dello spettacolo vero e proprio.
A sentire l’imbonitore, ogni spettacolo era il più incredibile evento che occhio umano avesse mai veduto – per questo il termine ballyhoo rimane tutt’oggi nell’uso comune con il significato di pubblicità sensazionalistica ed ingannevole.

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Aggirandosi fra gli schiamazzi, la musica di calliope e i colori della midway, si poteva essere incuriositi dalle ultime “danze elettriche”: ballerine i cui abiti si illuminavano magicamente, emanando incredibili raggi di luce… il trucco stava nel fatto che l’abito della performer era completamente bianco, e un riflettore disegnava pattern e fantasie sul suo corpo, mentre danzava. Con l’arrivo dei primissimi proiettori cinematografici, l’idea divenne sempre più elaborata e spettacolare: nel 1899 George La Rose presentò il La Rose’s Electric Fountain Show, che era descritto come

una stupefacente combinazione di Arte, Bellezza e Scienza. Lo show è l’unico al mondo equipaggiato con un grande palco girevole che si alza dall’interno di una fontana. Nel turbinare dell’acqua stanno alcune selezionate artiste che si producono in gruppi statuari, danze illuminate, danze fotografiche e riproduzioni dal vivo dei più raffinati soggetti.

Lo show contava su effetti scenici, cinematografici e si chiudeva con l’eruzione del vulcano Pelée.

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L’affascinante e tenebroso esotismo delle tribù “primitive” non passava mai di moda. Ecco quindi i Musei delle Mummie (in realtà minuscoli spazi ricavati all’interno di un carrozzone) che proponevano le tsantsa, teste rimpicciolite degli indios Jivaro, e stravaganze mummificate sempre più fantasiose. Si trattava, ovviamente, di sideshow gaff, ovvero di reperti falsificati ad arte (ne abbiamo parlato in questo articolo) da modellatori e scultori piuttosto abili.

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Uno dei migliori in questo campo era certamente William Nelson, proprietario della Nelson Supply House con cui vendeva ai circhi “curiosità mummificate”. Fra le finte mummie offerte a inizio secolo da Nelson, c’erano il leggendario gigante della Patagonia a due teste, King Mac-A-Dula; King Jack-a-Loo-Pa, che secondo la descrizione avrebbe avuto una testa, tre volti, tre mani, tre braccia, tre dita, tre gambe, tre piedi e tre dita dei piedi; il fantastico Poly-Moo-Zuke, creatura a sei gambe; il Grande Cavalluccio Marino, ricavato a partire da un vero teschio di cavallo, la cui coda si divideva in due lunghe pinne munite di zoccoli; mummie egiziane di vario tipo, come ad esempio Labow, il “Doppio Ragazzo Egiziano con Sorella che gli Cresce sul Petto”.

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Più avanti la cartapesta verrà soppiantata dalla gomma, con cui si creeranno i finti feti deformi sotto liquido, e dalla cera: nel decennio successivo alla Seconda Guerra, famose attrazioni includevano il cervello di Hitler sotto formalina, e riproduzioni del cadavere del Führer.

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Altri classici spettacoli erano le esibizioni di torture. Pubblicizzati dai banner con toni grandguignoleschi, erano in realtà delle ricostruzioni con rozzi manichini che lasciavano sempre un po’ l’amaro in bocca, rispetto alle raffinate crudeltà annunciate. Ma con il tempo anche i walk-through show ampliarono l’offerta, anche sulla scia dei vari successi del cinema noir: ecco quindi che si poteva esplorare i torbidi scenari della prostituzione, delle gambling house in cui loschi figuri giocavano d’azzardo, scene di droga ambientate nelle Chinatown delle grandi città americane, dove mangiatori d’oppio stavano accasciati sulle squallide brandine.

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La curiosità per il fosco mondo della malavita stava anche alla base delle attrazioni che promettevano di mostrare straordinari reperti dalle scene del crimine: la gente pagava volentieri la moneta d’entrata per poter ammirare l’automobile in cui vennero uccisi Bonnie e Clyde, su cui erano visibili i fori di proiettile causati dallo scontro a fuoco con le forze dell’ordine. Peccato che quasi ogni sideshow avesse la sua “autentica” macchina di Bonnie e Clyde, così come circolavano decine di Cadillac che sarebbero appartenute ad Al Capone o ad altri famigerati gangster. Anzi, crivellare di colpi una macchina e tentare di venderla al circo poteva rivelarsi un buon affare, come dimostrano le inserzioni dell’epoca.

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Nulla, però, fermava le folle come il frastuono delle moto che giravano a tutto gas nel motodromo.
Evoluzione di quelli progettati per le biciclette, già in circolazione dalla metà dell’800, i motodromi con pareti inclinate lasciarono il posto a loro volta ai silodrome, detti anche Wall of Death, con pareti verticali. Assistere a questi spettacoli, dal bordo del “pozzo”, era una vera e propria esperienza adrenalinica, che attaccava tutti i sensi contemporaneamente con l’odore della benzina, il rumore dei motori, le motociclette che sfrecciavano a pochi centimetri dal pubblico e gli scossoni dell’intera struttura in legno, vibrante sotto la potenza di questi temerari centauri. Con lo sviluppo della tecnologia, anche le auto da corsa avranno i loro spettacoli in autodromi verticali; e, per aggiungere un po’ di pepe al tutto, si cominceranno a inserire stunt ancora più impressionanti, come ad esempio l’inseguimento dei leoni (lion chase) che, in alcune varianti, vengono addirittura fatti salire a bordo delle auto che sfrecciano in tondo (lion race).

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Ogni sideshow aveva i suoi live act con artisti eclettici: mangiaspade, giocolieri, buttafuoco, fachiri, lanciatori di coltelli, trampolieri, uomini forzuti e stuntman di grande originalità. Ma l’idea davvero affascinante, in retrospettiva, è l’evidente consapevolezza che qualsiasi cosa potesse costituire uno spettacolo, se ben pubblicizzato: dalla ricostruzione dell’Ultima Cena si Gesù, ai primi “polmoni d’acciaio” di cui si faceva un gran parlare, dai domatori di leoni alle gare di scimmie nelle loro minuscole macchinine.

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Certo, il principio di Barnum – “ogni minuto nasce un nuovo allocco” – era sempre valido, e una buona parte di questi show possono essere visti oggi come ingannevoli trappole mangiasoldi, studiate appositamente per il pubblico rurale e poco istruito. Eppure si può intuire che, al di là del business, il fulcro su cui faceva leva il sideshow era la più ingenua e pura meraviglia.

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Molti lo ricordano ancora: l’arrivo dei carrozzoni del circo, con la musica, le luci colorate e la promessa di visioni incredibili e magiche, per la popolazione dei piccoli villaggi era un vero e proprio evento, l’irruzione del fantastico nella quotidiana routine della fatica. E allora sì, anche se qualche dime era speso a vanvera, a fine serata si tornava a casa consci che quelle quattro mura non erano tutto: il circo regalava la sensazione di vivere in un mondo diverso. Un mondo esotico, sconosciuto, popolato da persone stravaganti e pittoresche. Un mondo in cui poteva accadere l’impossibile.

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[Gran parte delle immagini è tratta da A. W. Stencell, Seeing Is Believing: America’s Sideshows]

Testa di Legno

Melvin Burkhardt è stato, a suo modo, una leggenda. Ha lavorato nei principali luna park e circhi americani dagli anni ’20 fino al suo ritiro dalle scene nel 1989.

Nel mondo dei sideshow americani, lo spettacolo di Mel faceva parte dei cosiddetti working act, ossia quelle esibizioni incentrate sulle abilità dell’artista piuttosto che sulle sue deformità genetiche o acquisite. Ma quello che davvero lo distingueva da tanti altri performer specializzati in una singola prodezza, era l’incredibile ecletticità del suo talento: nella sua lunghissima carriera, Burkhardt ha ingoiato spade, lanciato coltelli, sputato fuoco, combattuto serpenti, eseguito innovativi numeri di magia, resistito allo shock della sedia elettrica.

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È stato anche la prima “Meraviglia Anatomica” della storia del circo, grazie alla sua capacità di risucchiare lo stomaco dentro la gabbia toracica, allungare il collo oltre misura, far protrudere le scapole in maniera grottesca, torcere la testa quasi a 180°, “rigirare” lo stomaco sul suo stesso asse. Mel sapeva anche sorridere con metà faccia, mentre l’altra metà si accigliava preoccupata (provate a coprire alternativamente con una mano la foto qui sotto per rendervi conto della sua incredibile abilità).

Le sue specialità erano talmente tante che, durante la Grande Depressione, Burkhardt riuscì a sostenere da solo ben 9 dei 14 numeri proposti dal circo per cui lavorava. Praticamente un one-man show, tanto che alle volte qualcuno fra il pubblico lo punzecchiava ironicamente gridandogli: “Vedremo qualcun altro, stasera, oltre a te?”
Ma il suo maggiore contributo alla storia dei circhi itineranti è senza dubbio il numero chiamato The Human Blockhead – ovvero, la “Testa di Legno Umana”. La genesi di questo stunt, come tutto quello che concerneva Burkhardt, è piuttosto eccentrica. Ad un certo punto della sua vita, Melvin si era lasciato prendere dalla velleità di diventare un pugile professionista; purtroppo però, dopo la sesta sconfitta consecutiva, si ritrovò con i denti rotti, il labbro tumefatto e il naso completamente fracassato. Finito sotto i ferri del chirurgo, Burkhardt stava contemplando la rovina della sua carriera agonistica mentre il medico, con pinze ed altri strumenti, estraeva dalle sue cavità nasali dei sanguinolenti pezzi di osso. Eppure, mentre veniva operato, ecco che piano piano si faceva strada in lui un’illuminazione: i lunghi attrezzi del medico entravano così facilmente nel naso per rimuovere i frammenti di turbinati fratturati, che forse si poteva sfruttare questa scoperta e costruirci attorno un numero!

Detto fatto: Melvin Burkhardt divenne il primo performer ad esibirsi nell’impressionante atto di piantarsi a martellate un chiodo nel naso.

Lo spettacolo dello Human Blockhead fa leva sulla concezione errata che le nostre narici salgano verso l’alto, percorrendo la cartilagine fino all’attaccatura del naso: l’anatomia ci insegna invece che la cavità nasale si apre direttamente dietro i fori del naso, in orizzontale. Un chiodo o un altro oggetto abbastanza sottile da non causare lesioni interne può essere inserito nel setto nasale senza particolari danni.

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Proprio come accade per i mangiatori di spade, non c’è quindi alcun trucco: si tratta in questo caso di comprendere fino a dove si può spingere il chiodo, come inclinarlo e quale forza applicare. La parte più lunga e difficile sta nell’allenarsi a controllare ed inibire il riflesso dello starnuto, che potrebbe risultare estremamente pericoloso; altri rischi includono infezioni alle fosse nasali, ai seni paranasali e alla gola, rottura dei turbinati, lacerazioni della mucosa e via dicendo (nei casi più estremi si potrebbe arrivare addirittura a danneggiare lo sfenoide). Un lungo periodo di pratica e di studio del proprio corpo è necessario per imparare tutte le mosse necessarie.

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Mel Burkhardt, però, non era affatto geloso delle sue invenzioni, anzi: con generosità davvero inusuale per il cinico mondo dello show business, insegnava tutti i suoi trucchi ai giovani performer. Così, lo Human Blockhead divenne uno dei grandi classici della tradizione circense, replicato ed eseguito infinite volte nelle decadi successive.

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Anche oggi, dopo che nel 2001 Melvin Burkhardt ci ha lasciato all’età di 94 anni, innumerevoli performer e fachiri continuano a piantarsi chiodi nel naso, nella cornice degli ultimi, rari sideshow – così come nella loro moderna controparte, i talent show televisivi da “guinness dei primati”. Moltissime le varianti rispetto al vecchio e risaputo chiodo: c’è chi nel naso inserisce coltelli, trapani elettrici funzionanti, lecca-lecca, ganci da macellaio, e chi più ne ha più ne metta. Ma nessuno di questi numeri può replicare la sorniona e consumata verve del vecchio Mel Burkhardt che, a chi gli chiedeva se ci fosse un trucco o un segreto, rispondeva serafico: “Uso un naso finto”.

La donna scimmia

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Abbiamo più volte ricordato, su queste pagine, come le esistenze delle cosiddette “meraviglie umane” all’interno dei freakshow fossero più dignitose di quanto ci si potrebbe aspettare e che, anzi, il circo permetteva spesso a uomini e donne dotati di un fisico fuori dall’ordinario di condurre una vita normale, accettati da una comunità, di girare il mondo e di raggiungere un’indipendenza economica che non avrebbero potuto nemmeno sognare al di fuori dei baracconi itineranti. Eppure non tutte le storie dei freaks sono così positive: ce ne sono alcune che spezzano il cuore, come ad esempio quella di Julia Pastrana.

Nel suo saggio La variazione degli animali e delle piante allo stato domestico (1868), Charles Darwin la descriveva così:

Julia Pastrana, una danzatrice spagnola, era una donna rimarchevole, ma aveva una fitta barba mascolina e una fronte pelosa; […] ma quello che ci interessa è che in entrambe le mascelle, inferiore e superiore, aveva una doppia fila di denti, una dentro all’altra, di cui il Dr. Purland ottenne un calco in gesso. A causa dei denti in sovrannumero, la sua bocca sporgeva in fuori, e la sua faccia assomigliava a quella di un gorilla.

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La Pastrana in realtà non era spagnola, come riteneva Darwin, ma era nata nel 1834 in Messico, nello stato di Sinaloa. Fin da piccola il suo corpo e il suo volto erano completamente ricoperti da un folto pelo bruno. In aggiunta allo sviluppo abnorme di peluria (il termine medico odierno è irsutismo), il naso e le orecchie di Julia erano ingrossati e i suoi denti irregolari, tanto da farla assomigliare a una specie di strana scimmia. Ma la sua intelligenza non era stata scalfita da queste menomazioni: Julia sapeva cantare e danzare.

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Un giorno l’impresario Theodore Lent la scoprì in un remoto villaggio messicano e la acquistò da una donna che con tutta probabilità era sua madre. Sotto la protezione di Lent, Julia raffinò l’arte del canto e del ballo, e imparò a parlare, leggere e scrivere in tre lingue diverse. In numerosi spettacoli circensi in Nord America e in Europa, Theodore la esibì con nomi d’arte quali “la donna barbuta e pelosa”, la “donna-orso”, e “l’anello mancante”.

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La fece esaminare da diversi medici, la cui diagnosi – letta al giorno d’oggi – ci lascia piuttosto interdetti. Secondo il dottor Alexander B. Mott, Julia era sicuramente “il risultato di un accoppiamento fra un uomo e un orango-tango”. Secondo un altro medico, era appartenente a una specie “differente” da quella umana. Certo, vi furono anche medici che riconobbero subito che Julia era semplicemente una “donna indiana messicana deforme”, ma a costoro non venne dato molto credito: per lo show-business, era essenziale mantenere viva la leggenda di una autentica donna-scimmia.

Per Theodore Lent, il manager di Julia Pastrana, gli affari andavano a gonfie vele: gli ingaggi si susseguivano con profitti sempre maggiori. A poco a poco, egli divenne geloso, e sospettoso che la sua miniera d’oro potesse venirgli sottratta. Decise quindi che c’era un solo modo per mantenere la donna-scimmia legata a sé per sempre.

Un bel giorno, si dichiarò a Julia e le chiese di sposarlo. I due convolarono a nozze, e pare che il giorno del matrimonio Julia abbia dichiarato: “Lui mi ama per quello che sono, soltanto per quello che sono”. Forse è ingiusto giudicare questa unione in maniera negativa, senza elementi, a più di un secolo di distanza; probabilmente Lent fu persino un marito premuroso. Ma la piega che presero le cose più tardi sembra supportare l’idea che egli avesse in mente qualcosa di diverso dal puro amore.

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Nel Marzo del 1860, infatti, Julia e Theodore si trovavano a Mosca per un tour. La donna era incinta del loro primo, e unico, figlio. Ricoverata in una clinica,  e pregando che non avesse il suo stesso tipo di problemi genetici, diede alla luce un bambino. Purtroppo, il piccolo mostrava già i segni della malattia della madre, e dopo tre soli giorni morì. Per le complicanze del parto, anche Julia Pastrana lo seguì, due giorni dopo.

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Ma Lent, nonostante la morte della moglie e del figlio neonato, non aveva alcuna intenzione di chiudere baracca: mentre si trovava ancora in Russia, contattò il professor Sokulov all’Università di Mosca e lo assunse affinché imbalsamasse i corpi di Julia Pastrana e del suo bambino.

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Così, esponendo sul palco i corpi mummificati di Julia e del neonato in una teca di vetro, Lent continuò a girare l’Europa con diversi circhi. Più tardi sembra che sia riuscito a scovare una nuova donna-scimmia, a sposare anche lei e ad esibirla con il nome di Zenora Pastrana, arricchendosi notevolmente. Ma anche la sua fortuna stava per declinare, e nel 1884 venne rinchiuso in un manicomio in Russia, completamente pazzo. Vi morirà poco dopo.

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Le mummie di Julia Pastrana e del suo figlioletto passarono di mano in mano, da impresario ad impresario, fino a scomparire misteriosamente all’inizio del ‘900. Nel 1921 vennero riscoperte in Norvegia, ed esibite per circa 50 anni: quando venne proposto un tour americano delle spoglie imbalsamate, l’opinione pubblica insorse e l’indignazione portò addirittura ad alcuni atti di vandalismo, durante i quali la mummia del bambino venne mutilata. I resti rimasero nascosti e in balìa dei topi, finché nel 1979 la mummia di Julia venne trafugata. Riportata all’Istituto Forensico di Oslo, non venne identificata fino al 1990, dopodiché rimase chiusa in una bara nel Dipartimento di Anatomia dell’Università di Oslo fino al 1997.

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A seguito di una complessa battaglia burocratica durata quasi vent’anni, finalmente il 12 febbraio del 2013 i resti di Julia Pastrana sono stati sepolti con rito cattolico in un cimitero a Sinaloa de Leyva, in Messico, vicino a dove la famosa donna-scimmia era nata.

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La storia di Julia Pastrana ha ispirato il capolavoro La donna scimmia (1964) in cui queste vicende, trasportate nella Napoli degli anni ’60, sono lo spunto per denunciare con compiacimento grottesco e spietato le miserie del nostro paese e, come sempre in Marco Ferreri, divengono metafora del difficile rapporto fra i sessi. Nei panni di Julia (Maria, nel film), una coraggiosa e splendida Annie Girardot; Lent (ribattezzato Antonio Focaccia) è invece affidato all’interpretazione magistrale di Ugo Tognazzi, che ritrae il personaggio del marito-manager come il tipico italiano medio, né buono né cattivo, ma la cui ambiguità apre un abisso morale che inghiotte lo spettatore e che rende lo sfruttamento di un altro essere umano un evento banale – e, per questo stesso motivo, ancora più inquietante.

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(Alcune delle immagini nell’articolo sono tratte dal documentario prodotto da HBO Some Call Them Freaks – grazie Silvia!)

Puntaspilli e fontane… umani

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Human pincushion. Puntaspilli umani. Questo è il nome che veniva dato a quegli artisti che, all’interno dei sideshow, si conficcavano spilli e lame nella carne. Si trattava di un tipo di spettacolo estremo, affine a quello dei fachiri mediorientali, che come spesso accadeva nell’ambito circense faceva bella mostra dei limiti insospettabili del corpo umano.

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Esattamente come succedeva per i mangiatori di spade, anche qui non si trattava di un trucco: i performer si bucavano veramente la pelle, avendo scoperto i punti che in misura minore rispondevano alla violenza degli spilloni, e si procuravano delle ferite superficiali non molto distanti dagli odierni piercing. Ma all’epoca un simile spettacolo causava spesso malori nel pubblico, se non (a detta degli organizzatori) dei veri e propri infarti.

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Ma, tra tutte le decine di “puntaspilli umani” che calcavano i palcoscenici di mezzo mondo, ce n’erano un paio di davvero incredibili. Erano le “fontane umane”, come ad esempio il misterioso Mortado.

La vita di Mortado rimane in gran parte sconosciuta: secondo la biografia che veniva raccontata nel sideshow, egli era nato a Berlino ed aveva combattuto durante la Prima Guerra Mondiale; si era esibito per la prima volta nel gennaio del 1929 prima di incontrare un agente di New York che gli aveva fatto firmare un contratto con il Dreamland Circus per la stagione estiva del 1930. Ma è difficile prendere per oro colato queste informazioni, visto che la stessa biografia sosteneva che le sue ferite fossero il risultato delle torture di fantomatici “selvaggi nativi”.

Fatto sta che Mortado aveva dei buchi nei palmi delle mani e dei piedi: quando non stava recitando sul palco, manteneva queste ferite aperte inserendovi dei tappi di sughero. Una volta iniziato lo spettacolo, si sedeva su un trono speciale dotato di tubi di rame che, inseriti nelle ferite aperte, lo trasformavano in una vera e propria fontana umana.

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Mortado, di tanto in tanto, proponeva una crocifissione biblica in diretta. Piazzava delle piccole sacche di liquido rosso nelle sue ferite, e lasciava che un assistente gli piantasse dei chiodi nelle mani e nei piedi: i sacchetti si rompevano, il sangue finto scorreva, e diverse persone nel pubblico svenivano.

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Mentre la fama di Mortado diminuiva, fino a farlo scomparire nell’oblio, un altro uomo diveniva celebre per le sue doti sovrannaturali: l’olandese Mirin Dajo.

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Il suo nome d’arte, in esperanto, significa “il meraviglioso”. Era nato nel 1912 a Rotterdam, con il nome di Arnold Gerrit Henskes. Mirin Dajo portò l’arte del puntaspilli umano a vette inarrivabili, eppure nascondeva un segreto molto più interessante.

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Il suo spettacolo era davvero estremo: Mirin Dajo, con l’aiuto di un assistente, si faceva trapassare da una vera spada. La lama attraversava diversi organi vitali, senza sortire effetti nefasti. Le ferite, che avrebbero portato alla morte certa qualsiasi altro essere umano, sembravano non preoccupare Dajo che riusciva a camminare e muoversi perfino quando la spada aveva infilzato reni, fegato, polmoni o (secondo alcuni testimoni) addirittura il cuore. Senza la minima traccia di sangue.

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In diverse occasioni alle lame vennero sostituiti dei tubi che, un po’ come faceva Mortado, pompavano acqua rendendo il corpo di Dajo una spettacolare fontana.

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Tra i fachiri orientali non è inusuale un tipo di impresa simile: ma normalmente essi si trapassano gli strati grassi e “sicuri” del corpo, là dove una spada risulta, se non innocua, perlomeno non fatale. Mirin Dajo, invece, si bucava proprio nei punti più pericolosi. Come faceva? questione di fortuna, di fede, o di un apparato biologico unico?
Venne sottoposto a diversi test medici, a Basilea, per cercare di comprendere quale fosse il segreto della sua peculiare abilità. I dottori dell’epoca, nonostante le radiografie e le analisi, non riuscirono a capire come potesse Dajo sopravvivere a simili ferite traumatiche.

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Ma Mirin Dajo aveva uno scopo ben più nobile. Era estremamente religioso, e convinto di essere in contatto con tre angeli custodi con i quali comunicava telepaticamente: si era risoluto ad entrare nel mondo dello spettacolo non perché lo amasse, ma semplicemente perché gli sembrava il modo più facile e veloce per diffondere il messaggio che sentiva di dover consegnare all’umanità. Un messaggio di pace, di amore e di abbandono del materialismo. Dopo ogni performance, cercava di impartire un breve e ispirato discorso al suo pubblico. Era sicuro che, di fronte al suo corpo indistruttibile, la gente avrebbe cominciato a credere a una forza che andava al di là della pura materia. Che il suo esempio sarebbe stato un simbolo dell’uomo che resiste alla morte, e avrebbe reso futili le guerre, l’odio, la violenza.

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Purtroppo si trovò ben presto frustrato dallo show business, che non sapeva che farsene delle sue prediche misticheggianti; la sua carriera durò soltanto tre anni (come quella di Cristo, noteranno i più cinici), prima che Mirin Dajo morisse il 26 maggio del 1948, a causa di una perforazione dell’arteria aortica, forse proprio in seguito a uno dei suoi spettacoli “sovrumani” in cui aveva ingerito un chiodo che gli risultò fatale.