The Flea Circus

One, two, three!
Watch the elephants standing
All the fleas jump
Watch out, here comes the trainer!

Vinicio Capossela, I pagliacci (2000)

Fleas that pull carriages and horses, fleas diving into a glass of water from the top of a trampoline, duelling with tiny swords, even shooting themselves from a miniature cannon just like the most famous human cannonballs.

The circus has always thrived on the most extreme, impossible challenges, as only the ordinary is left out of the Big Top. It is therefore only natural that classical animal trainers – who made dangerous and enormous beasts bend the knee – would be featured alongside the opposite end of the spectrum, those tamers who managed to make microscopic creatures perform exceptional stunts.
This is why the Flea Circus is one of the most enduring (albeit misunderstood) sideshow acts.

First of all, let’s address the question that might  already cross your mind: are there any fleas in these shows at all, or is it just an optical illusion?

The short answer is that yes, in the beginning real fleas would be used; then gradually the number slipped into the field of illusionism.
It is worthwhile, however, to enjoy the longer answer, retracing the fascinating story of this strange entomological circus – which was invented by an Italian.

A Brief History of the Microscopic Circus

It all started when, in 1578, a London blacksmith named Mark Scalliot, in order to show off his skill, built a tiny lock complete with a key made of iron, steel and brass, for the total weight of “a grain of gold”. He then forged a golden chain composed of 43 rings, so thin that it could be tied around the neck of a flea. The insect pulled the padlock and the key with it.

Almost two centuries later, in the attempt to replicate Scalliot’s publicity stunt, a watchmaker named Sobieski Boverick built an ivory mini-carriage “with figures of six horses attached to it—a coachman on the box, a dog between his legs, four persons inside, two footmen behind, and a postillion on the fore horse, all of which were drawn by a single flea”.

In the 1830s, inspired by these two predecessors, the Genoese emigrant Luigi Bertolotto employed the little pests for the first time in a circus context, exhibiting his trained fleas in Regent Street.
Following in Boverick’s steps, he too proposed the number of the flea pulling a carriage with horses – an element that would later become a mainstay of the genre – but his show went far beyond that: with the typical Italian taste for theatricality, Bertolotto turned his fleas into proper actors.

 

He made tiny custom-made suits, and delighted his audience with several tableaux vivants featuring several fleas at a time. First of all there was the Arab scene which saw the Sultan as protagonist, with his harem and the odalisques; then came the hematophagous version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
One of the highlights was when the insects did a pocket-size reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, in which the amused spectators could recognize Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and Prussian field marshal Blücher, all dressed in uniform. Another part of the show was the fancy ball, in which a pair of insects dressed in gorgeous clothes danced accompanied by an orchestra of 12 elements.
The public was astonished and laughed at the evident satire: here is the lavish world of high society, miniaturized and ridiculed; here are some great war heroes, personified by the lowest animals in all creation. You could have crushed with one finger even the Emperor himself.

Bertolotto became the first (and last) true flea superstar; his fortune was such that he left for an international tour, finally settling in Canada. Imitators soon began to appear, and although they never topped his fame they spread the flea taming act throughout the world.
There were many incarnations of the Flea Circus, ranging from the most basic street performance, often employing a simple suitcase as a stage where fleas made elementary stunts, to more elaborate versions.

The last great flea manager was in all probability William Heckler, a circus performer who at the beginning of the 20th century left his career as a strongman to devote himself full-time to fleas. After touring the United States far and wide, in 1925 his circus became part of the Hubert’s Museum in Times Square.

Here for a few dollars you could see Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar (who would later appear in Tod Browning’s Freaks), Olga the Bearded Woman, Suzie the Elephant-Skinned Girl, and snake charmer Princess Sahloo. Another, smaller princess performed in the museum’s cellar: Princess Rajah, the flea who played the role of the oriental dancer in Professor Heckler’s circus.

In addition to performing traditional athletic feats, such as jumping into a hoop or kicking a ball, Heckler’s fleas played a xylophone (allegedly made of nail clippings), juggled small balls, and staged boxing matches on a miniature ring. Heckler continued to work with his mini-cast until the 1950s: at the height of his success, his show could yield more than $250 a day, the current equivalent of  $3,000.

The Infernal Discipline, or How To Tame A Flea

Human fleas, in spite of their annoying bites and the fact that they can be carriers of plague and other dangerous diseases, are actually really extraordinary insects.

Imagine you could jump more than 90 meters vertically, leaping over the Statue of Liberty, and 230 meters horizontally. This, in proportion, is the ability of the pulex irritans.
The muscles of its hind legs are not the only ones responsible for this incredible propulsive force: in fact they prepare the jump by compressing and slowly distorting an elastic pad composed of resilin, which during this “charging” phase is kept locked by a tendon, and can thus store muscle energy. When it comes to jumping, the tendon snaps back into position therefore releasing the pad. The flea takes off with a dizzying acceleration of 100 times the force of gravity. To put things in perspective, a person can only withstand a vertical acceleration of 5g before passing out.

You might then understand how the first and biggest problem a trainer had to solve was how to convince his fleas not to jump off the scene.

For this purpose the insects were kept for a long time in a test tube: they would hit their heads on the glass until they learned that jumping was not an appropriate behavior. A more drastic remedy consisted in gluing them onto the stage or tying them to some object, but this could only work for those elements of the “cast” that were supposed to remain still (for instnace the orchestra players).
As for all the other fleas, which had to perform more complex actions, it was necessary to select those that showed a more docile character (usually females); the bridle was assigned only to the slower ones, which were destined to pull carriages and carts, while the more lively ones became soccer players or divers. All this, of course, if we are to trust the literature of the time on the subject.

In order to force these little daredevils to perform their stunts, various techniques were used – although, to be honest, it’s a bit difficult to view these tricks as a proper “training”.
In fact, if you look at it from a flea’s point of view, the circus appears to be a place of cruelty and terror, in which a sadistic and gigantic jailer is subjecting his prisoners to an endless series of tortures.

Towing fleas were harnessed with a very thin thread of cloth or metal passed around their head; once positioned, this leash would remain there for the insect’s entire life. The difficult part was to exert the right binding pressure, because if the thread was fastened too tight then the flea could no longer swallow, and died.
As for saber-fencing fleas, two small pieces of metal were glued to their frontal limbs; naturally the insects tried to get rid of them, shaking their paws in vain, thus giving the impression of dueling each other.


Soccer players were selected among the fleas that jumped higher: a ball was soaked in insect repellent (often citronella oil, or a disinfectant like Listerine), then pushed towards them as they were kept in a vertical position, and they kicked it away with their hind legs.
Similar trick was used for juggling fleas which were fixed or glued on their back, with their paws up in the air; as they tried to get rid of the toxic ball that was placed over them, they made it roll and spin.

As for the musicians and dancers, an article from 1891 describes the show in detail. Two “dancers” are glued each to one end of a piece of golden paper:

They are placed in a reversed position to each other – one looking one way, the other another way. Thus tied, they are placed in a sort of arena on the top of the musical box; at one end of the box sits an orchestra composed of fleas, each tied to its seat, and having the resemblance of some musical instrument tied on the foremost of their legs.The box is made to play, the exhibitor touches each of the musicians with a bit of stick, and they all begin waving their hands about, as performing an elaborate piece of music. The fleas tied to the gold paper feel the jarring of the box below them, and begin to run round and round as fast as their little legs will carry them. This is called the Flea’s Waltz.

To balance all this horror, let us point out that the flea trainer personally nourished all his precious professionals with his own blood. For the parasites it was certainly a rough and hectic life, but at least they never skipped a meal.

Now you see me, now you don’t:
Illusory Fleas & The Zeitgeist

There does not seem to be a vast literature on fake fleas.
What is certain is that “flea-circuses-without-fleas” began to exist alongside the authentic ones as early as the 1930s. The circus act continued shifting towards the sphere of illusionism and magic until the 1950s, when particularly elaborate versions of the trick began to appear and trainers stopped using real fleas.

Michael Bentine, one of the members of the Goons, had his own circus in which non-existent fleas pushed balls along inclined planes, jumped on a table covered with sand (each jump was “visualized” via a puff of sand), climbed a ladder by “pressing” one step at a time, and splashed into a glass of water. Other fake trainers used magnets and wires to drop the obstacles allegedly knocked off by running fleas, while electric or mechanical gimmicks operated the trapeze and moved the fake fleas balancing on a wire; some mentalists even exploited invisible “telepathic fleas” to read in the minds of the spectators.

Today only one well-known circus still uses real fleas: it is the Floh Circus, which makes its appearance every year at Oktoberfest.
The rest of the few circuses in circulation are all based on illusion: one of the most famous is the Acme Miniature Flea Circus, run by Adam Gertsacov. According to him, this type of show is the purest and most suitable for our times, precisely because it is based on uncertainty:

People watching say, ‘What am I really seeing?’ I like that. You haven’t really been to a flea circus unless you’ve been bamboozled by the flea-circus guy. It would be interesting to watch real trained fleas, but only for three or four minutes. That’s not enough these days when you can Google insects and see them mating, up close and personal. My show is about showmanship.

Perhaps these fake flea circuses imprudently rely on a kind of naivety which no longer exists.
Yet it is true that, in a time when our perception is constantly challenged, these deceptive gadgets take on an unexpected symbolic meaning. Although designed to be harmless and amusing, they are based on the same principles as the far more menacing deep fakes and all those hate and fear narratives we are daily subjected to: every illusion really only works if we want to believe it.

And while Gertsacov and his colleagues continue to claim the superiority of the art of story-telling over mere reality, the fleas – the real ones – are thankful it’s all over.

Most of the information in this article comes from Dr Richard Wiseman’s Staging a Flea Circus, which contains many other curiosities (for example on the difficulties of finding flea supplies), and from Ernest B. Furgurson, A Speck of Showmanship, in The American Scholar, June 3, 2011.
A good study directory on fleas and their history is The Flea Circus Research Library.

Rita Fanari: The Last of the Dwarfs

ROLL UP! ROLL UP! The great phenomenon of nature, the smallest woman in the world, 70 cm tall, 57 years old, weighing 5 Kg. RITA FANARI, from UXELLUS. She has been blind since the age of 14 and yet she threads yarn throug a needle, she sews, and all this in the presence of the public. She responds to any query. Every day at all hours you can see this great phenomenon.

So read the 1907 billboard announcing the debut on the scene of Rita Fanari. Unfortunately it was not a prestigious stage, but a sideshow at the Santa Reparata fair in the small town of Usellus (Oristano), at the time a very remote town in Sardinia, a community of just over a thousand souls. Rita shared her billboard – and perhaps even the stage – with a taxidermy of a two-headed lamb: we can suppose that whoever made that poster added it because he doubted that the tiny woman, alone, would be able to fascinate the gaze of passers-by… So right from the start, little Rita’s career was certainly not stellar.

Rita Fanari was born on 26 January 1850, daughter of Appolonia Pilloni and Placito Fanari. She suffered from pituitary dwarfism, and her sight abandoned her during adolescence; she lived with her parents until in 1900, when they probably died and she was adopted, at the age of fifty, by the family of Raimondo Orrù. This educated and wealthy man exhibited her in various fairs and village festivals including that of Santa Croce in Oristano. Since she had never found a husband, Rita used to appear on stage wearing the traditional dress for bagadia manna (elderly unmarried woman), and over time she gained enough notoriety to even enter vernacular expressions: when someone sang with a high-pitched  voice, people used to mock them by saying “mi paris Arrita Fanài cantendi!” (“You sound like Rita Fanari singing!”).

Rita died in 1913. Her life might seem humble, as negligible as her own stature. A blind little woman, who managed to survive thanks to the interest of a landowner who forced her to perform at village fairs: a person not worthy of note, mildly interesting only to those researching local folklore. One of the “last”, those people whose memory is fogotten by history.

Yet, on closer inspection, her story is significant for more than one reason. Not only she was the only documented case of a Sardinian woman suffering from dwarfism who performed at a sideshow; Rita Fanari was also a rather unusual case for Italy in those years. Let’s try to understand why.

Among all congenital malformations, dwarfism has always attracted particular attention over the centuries. People suffering from this growth deficiency, often considered a sign of good luck and fortune (or even divine incarnations, as apparently was the case among the Egyptians), sometimes enjoyed high favors and were in great demand in all European courts. Owning and even “collecting” dwarfs became an obsession for many rulers, from Sigismund II Augustus to Catherine de’ Medici to the Tsar Peter the Great — who in 1710 organized the scandalous “wedding of dwarfs” I mentioned in this article (Italian only).

The public exhibition of Rita Fanari should therefore not surprise us that much, especially if we think of the success that human wonders were having in traveling circuses and amusement parks around the world. A typical American freak show consisted exactly in what Fanari did: the deformed person would sit on the stage, ready to satisfy the curiosity and answer questions from the spectators (“she responds to any query“, emphasized Rita’s poster).

Yet in the early 1900s the situation in Italy was different compared to the rest of the world. Only in Italian circuses, in fact, the figure of the dwarf clown had evolved into that of the “bagonghi”.

The origin of this term is uncertain, and according to some sources it comes from the surname of a Bolognese chestnut street seller who was 70 centimeters high and who in 1890 was hired by the Circus Guillaume. However, this nickname soon became a generic name identifying a unique act in the circus world. The bagonghi was not a simple “midget clown”, but a complete artist:

The bagonghi does not merely display his deformity, he performs – leaping, juggling, jesting; and he needs, therefore, like any other actor or clown, talent, devotion and long practice of his art. But he also must be from the beginning monstrous and afflicted, which is to say, pathetic. Indeed, there is a pop mythology dear to Italian journalists which insists on seeing all bagonghi as victims of their roles.

(L. Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, 1978)

A few examples: the bagonghi Giuseppe Rambelli, known as Goliath, was an acrobat as well as an equestrian vaulter; Andrea Bernabè, born in Faenza in 1850, performed as an acrobat on the carpet, a magician, a juggler; Giuseppe Bignoli, born in 1892 – certainly the most famous bagonghi in history – was considered one of the best acrobatic riders tout court, so much so that many circuses were fighting for the chance to book him.

Giuseppe Bignoli (1893-1939)

After the war Francesco Medori and Mario Bolzanella, both employed in the Circo Togni, became famous; the first, a skillful stunter, died trying to tame a terrible fire in 1951; the second hit the headlines when he married Lina Traverso, who was also a little person, and above all when the news brok that a jealous circus chimpazee had scratched the bride in the face. A comic and grotesque scene, perfectly fitting with the classical imagery of the bagonghi, who

can be considered as a sort of Harlequin born between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, and that quickly became a typical character, like those of the commedia dell’arte. The bagonghi is therefore a sort of modern masked “type” that first appeared and was developed within the Italian circus world, and then spread worldwide.

(M. Fini, Fenomeni da baraccone. Miti e avventure dei grandi circensi italiani, Italica Edizioni, 2013)

Going back to our Rita Fanari, we can understand why her career as a “great phenomenon of nature” was decidedly unusual and way too old for a time when the audience had already started to favor the show of diversity (a theatrical, choreographic performance) over its simple exhibition.

The fact that her act was more rudimentary than those performed in the rest of Italy can be undoubtedly explained with the rural context she lived in, and with her visual impairment. A handicap that, despite being advertised as a doubtful added value, actually did not allow her to show off any other skill other than to put the thread through the needle’s eye and start sewing. Not exactly a dazzling sight.
Rita was inevitably the last among the many successful dwarfs, little people like her who in those years were having a huge success under the Big Top, and who sometimes got very rich ( “I spent my whole life amassing a fortune”, Bignoli wrote in his last letter). As she was cut off from actual show business, and incapacitated by her disability, her luck was much more modest; so much so that her very existence would certainly have been forgotten, if a few years ago Dr. Raimondo Orru, the descendant and namesake of her benefactor, had not found some details of her life in the family archives.

But those very circumstances that prevented her from keeping up with the times, also made her “the last one” in a more meaningful sense. Perhaps because of the rustic agro-pastoral context, her act was very old-fashioned. In fact, hers may have been the last historical case in Italy of a person with dwarfism exhibited as a pure lusus naturae, an exotic “freak of nature”, a prodigy to parade and display.
In mainland Italy, as we said, things were already changing. Midgets and dwarfs, well before any other “different” or disabled person, had to prove their desire to overcome their condition, making a show of their skills and courage, performing exceptional stunts.
Along with this idea, and with the definitive pathologization of physical anomalies during the twentieth century, the mythological aura surrounding exceptional, uneven bodies will be lost; and a gaze of pity/admiration will become established. Today, the spectacle of disability is only accepted in these two modes — it’s either tragedy, the true motor of charity events and telethons, or the exemplum, the heroic overcoming of the disabled person’s own “limits”, with all the plethora of inspirational, motivational, life-affirming anecdotes that come with it.

It is impossible to know precisely how the villagers considered Rita at the time. Was she the object of ridicule, or wonder?
The only element available to us, that billboard from 1907, definitely shows her as an admirable creature in herself. In this sense Rita was really someone out of the past, because she presented herself in the public eye just for what she was. The last of the dwarfs of times past, who had the capacity to fascinate without having to do acrobatics: she needed nothing more than herself and her extraordinary figure, half old half child, to be at least considered worthy the price of admission.

On the ethics of our approach to disability, check out my article Freaks: Gaze and Disability.
I would like to thank Stefano Pisu, beacuse all the info on Rita Fanari in this article come from a Facebook post he wrote on the page of the Associazione culturale Julia Augusta di Usellus.
Pictures of the original billboard are shown here courtesy of Raimondo Orru; his findings on Rita’s life are included in the book Usellus. Costume popolare e matrimonio (Edizioni Grafica del Parteolla, 2000).

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 7

In the seventh episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the tragic and startling story of the Sutherland Sisters; a piece of the Moon which fell to Earth; a creature halfway between the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

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

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!


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.


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.

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.

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”.

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.


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.

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.

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).

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.


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.

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.

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