The book traces the life of Julia Pastrana (Sinaloa, 1834 – Moscow, March 25, 1860), who suffered from hypertrichosis and gingival hypertrophy; as a famous circus performer and “curiosity of nature”, she toured extensively the US and Europe, first with her manager J.W. Beach, and then with her husband Theodore Lent. While on tour in Moscow she gave birth to a child, also suffering from hypertrichosis, who survived for only three days. Julia fell victim to puerperal sepsis and five days later she followed the same fate of her son. After her death, Theodore Lent had both mother and baby embalmed, and continued to exhibit the two mummies in London and across Europe until his own death in 1884. The body of Julia Pastrana was exhibited at various fairs in Norway from 1921 until the 70s, and was eventually forgotten inside a warehouse…
The vicissitudes this woman had to endure, both before and after her death, make her an absolutely unique and relevant figure, so much so that she still inspires artists from all over the world: I think her story is quite exceptional even compared to the already incredible ones of many other freakshow performers, because it contains the germs of many current issues.
To me, Julia Pastrana unwillingly embodied a sort of tragic heroine; and like all the best tragedies, her story is about human cruelty, the clash between nature and culture, the need for love and redemption — but also the ambiguity, the uncertainty of existence. To tell all this, an objective, classic essay would not have been enough. I felt I had to try a different direction, and I decided to let her tell us her story.
Using the first person singular was a rosky choice for two reasons: the first is that there are parts of her existence we know very little about, and above all we ignore what her true feelings were. But this actually allows for a modicum of speculation, and gave me a bit of room for poetic invention even when sticking to historical facts.
The second problem is of an ethical nature, and that is what worried me the most. ulia Pastrana has had to suffer various prejudices which unfortunately are not only a reflection of the era in which she lived: even today, it is hard to imagine a tougher destiny than being born a woman, physically different, and of Mexican nationality. Now, I am none of these three things.
To fully convey the archetypal significance of her life, I tried to approach her with empathy and humility, the only two feelings that allowed me to insert some touches of fantasy without lacking respect.
I really hope that the finished text bears the evidence of this scrupulousness, and that it might entice the reader to an emotional participation in Julia’s troubled life.
Fortunately, the task of doing justice to Julia did not fall on my shoulders alone: Marco Palena, a young and talented illustrator, graced the book with his wonderful works.
Right from our very first discussions, I immediately found he had that same meticulous carefulness — even a bit obsessive at times — that also guided me in reconstructing the historical context where the events took place. The result of this extreme consideration is evident in Marco’s illustrations, which I find particularly sweet and of a rare sensitivity.
Pastrana, who was unfortunate in life as in death, finally found peace in 2013 thanks to the joined efforts of artist Laura Anderson Barbata, governor Mario López Valdez and the Norwegian authorities: her body was transferred from Oslo to Mexico, and buried in Sinaloa de Leyva on February 12 in front of hundreds of people.
Our book is not intended to be yet another biography, but rather a small tribute to an extraordinary woman, and to the indelible mark that her figure left in the collective imagination.
Julia is still alive.
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.
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.
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.
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 thelast 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.
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.]
Some time ago I wrote a piece about those peculiar epiphanies linking different points on our mental map, which we thought were distant from each other, those unexpected convergences between stories and characters which at first glance appear to be unrelated.
Here’s another one: what do the preserved corpse of Jeremy Bentham (1), the famous Duchenne study on facial expressions (2), the amusement park museum in Paris (3) and anatomical waxes (4) have in common?
The link between all those things is one man: Jules Talrich, born in Paris in 1826.
The Talrich family came from Perpignan, in the Pyrenees. There Jules’s grandfather, Thadée, had been chief surgeon at the local hospital; there his father, Jacques, had worked as a military surgeon before moving to Paris, two years prior to Jules’ birth.
As a child, therefore, Jules grew up in contact with medicine and the anatomical practice. In fact, his father had become famous for his wax models; this renown earned him a post as official ceroplast at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in 1824. We can imagine little Jules running around in his father’s workshop, looking at his dad with admiration as he worked on his écorchés (flayed) models.
When he was only 6 years old, in 1832, Jules probably saw his father modeling the head of Jeremy Bentham.
The famous utilitarian philosopher had decided, a couple of years before he died, that his body should have been publicly dissected, embalmed and exposed in a case. But the process of mummification on his head, carried out by an anatomist friend of Bentham, Southwood Smith, had not given the expected results: the skin on his face had become dark and shriveled, and was judged excessively macabre. So Jacques Talrich – whose reputation as a ceroplast extended across the Channel – had been commissioned a wax reproduction of Bentham’s head. The so-called “auto icon” is still exhibited today in a hallway at the University College of London.
So it was that the young Jules grew up surrounded by wax models, and taking part in his father’s dissections of corpses in the Faculty of Medicine. When he was little more than a boy, he began working as a “prosector”, i.e. dissecting and preparing anatomical pieces to be used during class at the University; in his dad’s laboratory, he soon learned the art of replicating with molten wax the most intricate muscular and vascular structures of the human body.
When Jacques died in 1851, Jules Talrich inherited the family business. In 1862 he was appointed ceroplast at the University, the same place that his father had occupied for so many years; and just like his father, Jules also became renowned for his wax and plaster anatomical models, both normal and pathological, which on the account of their exquisite workmanship were commissioned and exhibited in several museums, and turned out a huge success in several Universal Expositions.
Besides a vast scientific production, the Maison Talrich provided services in the funeral business, modeling funeral masks or reconstructing illustrious faces such as that of Cardinal Richelieu, realized from his embalmed head. The ability of the French ceroplast also turned out to be useful in some criminal cases, for example to identify the corpse of a woman cut in half which was found in the Seine in 1876. Talrich’s waxes were also highly requested in the religious field, and the company made several important wax effigies of saints and martyrs.
However, Talrich also influenced the world of entertainment and traveling fairs, at least to some extent. At the beginning of 1866 on the Grands Boulevards he opened his “Musée Français”, a wax museum in the spirit of the famous Madame Tussauds in London.
Talrich’s exhibition had a markedly mainstream appeal: upstairs, the public could see aome literary, historical and mythological characters (from Adam and Eve to Don Quixote, from Hercules to Vesalius), while for a surcharge of 5 francs one could access the underground floor, by descending a narrow spiral staircase. Here, in a calculated “chamber of horrors” atmosphere, were collected the most morbid attractions — torture scenes, pathological waxes, and so on. The visit ended with the illusion of the “Talking Head” illusion, patented by Professor Pepper (also inventor of the Pepper’s ghost); unfortunately the public soon realized that the effect was achieved by hiding an actor’s body behind two mirrors, and in a short time the real entertainment for the crowd became throwing paper balls on the poor man’s head.
The fact that a renowned and serious ceroplast, with a permanent job at the University, devoted himself to this kind of popular entertainment should not be astonishing. His museum, in fact, was part of a larger movement that in the second half of the 19th century brought anatomy into circuses and traveling fairs, a kind of attraction balancing between science, education and sensationalism.
In those years nearly every sideshow had a wax museum. And in it,
pedagogical figures had to provide information on distant populations and on the mysteries of procreation, they had to explain why one needed to wash and abstain from drinking too much, to show the perils of venereal diseases and the ambiguities of consanguinity. It was an illustrated morality, but also an opportunity to gaze at the forbidden in good conscience, to become a voyeur by virtue. A summary of the perversities of bourgeois civilization.
A strange and ambiguous mixture of science and entertainment:
Traveling anatomical museums found their place at the fair, alongside the pavilions of scientific popularization, historical wax museums and other dioramas, all manifestations of the transition from high culture to popular culture. These new types of museums differed from the pedagogical university museums on the account of their purpose and the type of public they were intended for: contrary to academical institutions, they had to touch the general public of traveling fairs as lucrative attractions, which explains the spectacular nature of some pieces. And yet, they never completely lost their pedagogical vocation, although retranslated in a moralizing sense, as testified by the common collections about “social hygiene”.
The Musée Français was short-lived, and Talrich was forced to close after less than two years of activity; in 1876, he opened a second museum near Montmartre, this time a more scientific (albeit still voyeuristic) installation. Almost 300 pathological models were exposed here, as well as some ethnological waxes.
But besides his own museums, Jules Talrich supplied waxworks and plaster models for a whole range of other collections — both stable and itinerant — such as the Musée Grevin, the Grand Panopticum de l’Univers or the very famous Spitzner Museum.
In fact, many of the pieces circulating in amusement parks were made by Talrich; and some of these anatomical waxes, together with real pathological and teratological preparations, are now kept in a “secret cabinet” inside the Musée des Arts Forains at the Pavillons de Bercy in Paris. (This museum, entirely dedicated to traveling carnivals, is in my opinion one of the most marvelous places in the world and, ça va sans dire, I have included it in my book Paris Mirabilia).
Jules Talrich retired in 1903, but his grandchildren continued the business for some time. Jules and his father Jacques are remembered as the greatest French ceroplasts, together with Jean-Baptiste Laumonier (1749-1818), Jules Baretta (1834-1923) and Charles Jumelin (1848-1924).
In closing, here’s one last curiosity — as well as the last “convergence”, of the four I mentioned at the beginning.
Several photographs of Jules Talrich exist, and for a peculilar reason. A lover of physiognomy and phrenology himself, Jules agreed in 1861 to take part in Guillaume Duchenne‘s experiments on how facial expressions are connected to emotions. The shots depicting Talrich were included by Duchenne in his Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, published the following year.
But Jules’ beautiful face, with his iconic mustache, is also visible in some plasterwork, which Talrich provided with his own features: whether this was simply an artist’s whim, or a symbolic meditation on his own mortality, we will never know.
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).
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.
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.
New miscellanea of interesting links and bizarre facts.
There’s a group of Italian families who decided, several years ago, to try and live on top of the trees. In 2010 journalist Antonio Gregolin visited these mysterious “hermits” — actually not as reclusive as you might think —, penning a wonderful reportage on their arboreal village (text in Italian, but lots of amazing pics).
An interesting long read on disgust, on the cognitive biases it entails, and on how it could have played an essential role in the rise of morals, politics and laws — basically, in shaping human societies.
Are you ready for a travel in music, space and time? On this website you get to choose a country and a decade from 1900 to this day, and discover what were the biggest hits back in the time. Plan your trip/playlist on a virtual taxi picking unconceivably distant stops: you might start off from the first recordings of traditional chants in Tanzania, jump to Korean disco music from the Eighties, and reach some sweet Norwegian psychedelic pop from the Sixties. Warning, may cause addiction.
Speaking of time, it’s a real mystery why this crowdfunding campaign for the ultimate minimalist watch didn’t succeed. It would have made a perfect accessory for philosophers, and latecomers.
The last issue of Illustrati has an evocative title and theme, “Circles of light”. In my contribution, I tell the esoteric underground of Northern Italy in which I grew up: The Only Chakra.
During the terrible flooding that recently hit Louisiana, some coffins were seen floating down the streets. A surreal sight, but not totally surprising: here is my old post about Holt Cemetery in New Orleans, where from time to time human remains emerge from the ground.
In the Pelican State, you can always rely on traditional charms and gris-gris to avoid bad luck — even if by now they have become a tourist attraction: here are the five best shops to buy your voodoo paraphernalia in NOLA.
Those who follow my work have probably heard me talking about “dark wonder“, the idea that we need to give back to wonder its original dominance on darkness. A beautiful article on the philosophy of awe (Italian only) reiterates the concept: “the original astonishment, the thauma, is not always just a moment of grace, a positive feeling: it possesses a dimension of horror and anguish, felt by anyone who approaches an unknown reality, so different as to provoke turmoil and fear“.
Which are the oldest mummies in the world? The pharaohs of Egypt?
Wrong. Chinchorro mummies, found in the Atacama desert between Chile and Peru, are more ancient than the Egyptian ones. And not by a century or two: they are two thousand years older.
Some days ago Wu Ming 1 pointed me to an article appeared on The Atlantic about an imminent head transplant: actually, this is not recent news, as neurosurgeon from Turin Sergio Canavero has been a controversial figure for some years now. On Bizzarro Bazar I discussed the history of head transplants in an old article, and if I never talked about Canavero it’s because the whole story is really a bit suspect.
Let’s recap the situation: in 2013 Canavero caused some fuss in the scientific world by declaring that by 2017 he might be able to perform a human head transplant (or, better, a body transplant). His project, named HEAVEN/Gemini (Head Anastomosis Venture with Cord Fusion), aims to overcome the difficulties in reconnecting the spinal chord by using some fusogenic “glues” such as polyethylene glycol (PEG) or chitosan to induce merging between the donor’s and the receiver’s cells. This means we would be able to provide a new, healthier body to people who are dying of any kind of illness (with the obvious exception of cerebral pathologies).
As he was not taken seriously, Canavero gave it another try at the beginning of 2015, announcing shortly thereafter that he found a volunteer for his complex surgical procedure, thirty-year-old Russian Valery Spiridonov who is suffering from an incurable genetic disease. The scientific community, once again, labeled his theories as baseless, dangerousscience fiction: it’s true that transplant technology dramatically improved during the last few years, but according to the experts we are still far from being able to attempt such an endeavour on a human being — not to mention, of course, the ethical issues.
At the beginning of this year, Canavero announced he has made some progress: he claimed he successfully tested his procedure on mice and even on a monkey, with the support of a Chinese team, and leaked a video and some controversial photos.
As can be easily understood, the story is far from limpid. Canavero is progressively distancing himself from the scientific community, and seems to be especially bothered by the peer-review system not allowing him (shoot!) to publish his research without it first being evaluated and examined; even the announcement of his experiments on mice and monkeys was not backed up by any published paper. Basically, Canavero has proved to be very skillful in creating a media hype (popularizing his advanced techinque on TV, in the papers and even a couple of TEDx talks with the aid of… some picturesque and oh-so-very-Italian spaghetti), and in time he was able to build for himself the character of an eccentric and slightly crazy genius, a visionary Frankenstein who might really have found a cure-all remedy — if only his dull collegues would listen to him. At the same time he appears to be uncomfortable with scientific professional ethics, and prefers to keep calling out for “private philantropists” of the world, looking for some patron who is willing to provide the 12.5 millions needed to give his cutting-edge experiment a try.
In conclusion, looking at all this, it is hard not to think of some similar, well-known incidents. But never say never: we will wait for the next episode, and in the meantime…
…why not (re)watch The Thing With Two Heads (1972), directed by exploitation genius Lee Frost?
This trashy little gem feature the tragicomic adventures of a rich and racist surgeon — played by Ray Milland, at this point already going through a low phase in his career — who is terminally ill and therefore elaborates a complex scheme to have his head transplanted on a healthy body; but he ends waking up attached to the shoulder of an African American man from death row, determined to prove his own innocence. Car chases, cheesy gags and nonsense situations make for one of the weirdest flicks ever.
The billboards for Sparks World Famous Shows, which appeared in small Southern American towns a couple of days before the circus’ arrival, seem quite anomalous to anyone who has a familiarity with this kind of poster design from the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Where one could expect to see emphatic titles and hyperbolic advertising claims, Sparks circus — in a much too unpretentious way — was defined as a “moral, entertaining and instructive” spectacle; instead of boasting unprecedented marvels, the only claim was that the show “never broke a promise” and publicized its “25 years of honest dealing with the public“.
The reason why owner Charlie Sparks limited himself to stress his show’s transparency and decency, was that he didn’t have much else to count on, in order to lure the crowd.
Despite Sparks’ excellent reputation (he was among the most respected impresarios in the business), his was ultimately a second-category circus. It consisted of a dozen cars, against the 42 cars of his main rival in the South, John Robinson’s Circus. Sparks had five elephants, Robinson had twelve. And both of them could never hope to compete with Barnum & Bailey’s number one circus, with its impressive 84-car railroad caravan.
Therefore Sparks World Famous Shows kept clear of big cities and made a living by serving those smaller towns, ignored by more famous circuses, where the residents would find his attractions worth paying for.
Although Sparks circus was “not spectacularly but slowly and surely” growing, in those years it didn’t offer much yet: some trained seals, some clowns, riders and gymnasts, the not-so-memorable “Man Who Walks on His Head“, and some living statues like the ones standing today on public squares, waiting for a coin.
The only real resource for Charlie Sparks, his pride and joy widely displayed on the banners, was Mary.
Advertides as being “3 inches taller than Jumbo” (Barnum’s famous elephant), Mary was a 5-ton indian pachyderm capable of playing different melodies by blowing horns, and of throwing a baseball as a pitcher in one of her most beloved routines. Mary represented the main source of income for Charlie Sparks, who loved her not just for economical but also for sentimental reasons: she was the only real superior element of his circus, and his excuse for dreaming of entering the history of entertainment.
And in a sense it is because of Mary if Sparks is still remembered today, even if not for the reason he might have suspected or wanted.
On September 11, 1916, Sparks pitched his Big Top in St. Paul, a mining town in Clinch River Valley, Virginia. On that very day Walter “Red” Eldridge, a janitor in a local hotel, decided that he had enough of sweeping floors, and joined the circus.
Altough Red was a former hobo, and clearly knew nothing about elephants, he was entrusted with leading the pachyderms during the parade Sparks ran through the city streets every afternoon before the show.
The next day the circus moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, where Mary paraded quietly along the main street, until the elephants were brought over to a ditch to be watered. And here the accounts begin to vary: what we know for sure is that Red hit Mary with a stick, infuriating the beast.
The rogue elephant grabbed the inexperienced handler with its trunk, and threw him in the air. When the body fell back on the ground, Mary began to trample him and eventually crushed his head under her foot. “And blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street“, as one witness put it.
Charlie Sparks immediately found himself in the middle of the worst nightmare.
Aside from his employee’s death on a public street — not really a “moral” and “instructive” spectacle — the real problem was that the whole tour was now in jeopardy: what town would allow an out-of-control elephant near its limits?
The crowd demanded the animal to be suppressed and Sparks unwillingly understood that if he wanted to save what was left of his enterprise, Mary had to be sacrified and, with her, his personal dreams of grandeur.
But killing an elephant is no easy task.
The first, obvious attempt was to fire five 32-20 rounds at Mary. There’s a good reason however if elephants are called pachyderms: the thick skin barrier did not let the bullets go deep in the flesh and, despite the pain, Mary didn’t fall down. (When in 1994 Tyke, a 3.6-ton elephant, killed his handler running amok on the streets of Honolulu, it took 86 shots to stop him. Tyke became a symbol for the fights against animal cruelty in circuses, also because of the heartbreaking footage of his demise.)
Someone then suggested to try and eliminate Mary by electrocution, a method used more than a decade before in the killing of Topsy in Coney Island. But there was no nearby way of producing the electricity needed to carry out the execution.
Therefore it was decided that Mary would be hung.
The only gallows that could bear such a weight was to be found in the railyards in Erwin, where there was a derrick capable of lifting railcars to place them on the tracks.
Charlie Sparks, knowing he was about to lose an animal worth $20.000, was determined to make the most out of the desperate situation. In the brief time that took for Mary to be moved from Kingsport to Erwin, he had already turned his elephant’s execution into a public event.
On September 13, on a rainy and foggy afternoon, more than 2.500 people gathered at the railyards. Children stood in the front line to witness the extraordinary endeavour.
Mary was brought to the makeshift gallows, and her foot was chained to the tracks while men struggled to pass a chain around her neck. They then tied the chain to the derric, started the winch, and the hanging began.
In theory, the weight of her body would have had to quickly break her neck. But Mary’s agony was to be far from swift and painless; in the heat of the moment, someone forgot to untie the animal’s foot, which was still bound to the rails.
“When they began to lift her up — a witness recalled — I heard the bones and ligaments cracking in her foot“; the men hastily released the foot, but right then the chain around Mary’s neck broke with a metallic crack.
The elephant fell on the ground and sat there upright, unable to move because in falling she had broken her hip.
The crowd, unaware that Mary at this point was wounded and paralyzed, panicked upon seeing the “murderous” elephant free from any restraint. As everyone ran for cover, one of the roustabouts climbed on the animal’s back and applaied a heavier chain to her neck.
The derrick once more began to lift the elephant, and this time the chain held the weight.
After she was dead, Mary was left to hang for half an hour. Her huge body was then buried in a large grave which had been excavated further up the tracks.
Mary’s execution, and the photograph of her hanging, were widely reported in the press. But to search for an article where this strange story was recounted with special emotion or participation would be useless. Back then, Mary’s incident was little more than quintessential, small-town oddity piece of news.
After all, people were used to much worse. In Erwin, in those very years, a black man was burned alive on a pile of crosstiles.
Today the residents of this serene Tennessee town are understandably tired of being associated with a bizarre and sad page of the city history — a century-old one, at that.
And yet still today some passing foreigner asks the proverbial, unpleasand question.
“Didn’t they hang an elephant here?“
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.
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.
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 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).