Tuesday, April 29, 2008
The Socially Inclined
There were many people of the sideshow circuit who had nothing wrong with them, but traveled as freaks for the profit and publicity. Perhaps the most popular of these characters was the tattooed ladies. Beginning in 1882 with Nora Hildebrandt, a handful of women became heavily tattooed so that they could travel with circuses and carnival sideshows. Their appeal superseded that of tattooed men for the titillation they engendered in their audiences; not only were "tattooed women" publicly displaying themselves with fewer clothes than women in any other line, but also the stories describing how they became tattooed typically consisted of kidnapping. Nora Hildebrandt's father owned the first tattoo shop in America. Her story was that she and her father were kidnapped by Sitting Bull, who, along with his tribe, forced father to tattoo daughter. Every day for a year, so the story goes, she was tied to a tree until she was tattooed from head to toe. Cesare Lombroso was one of the first "criminal anthropologists" and through his studies he publicly concluded that tattooed people were instinctive criminals. Lombroso's work vindicated all those disgusted or otherwise put off by tattoos, but for the sideshow stage his work was useful because it provided scientific backing for tales of savagery, criminality, and decadence. Hildebrante was only one of hundreds of tattooed performers of her time. During the Depression many tattoo artists were forced to close their shops so they joined traveling circuses and sideshows to support themselves. Jean Furella became a tattooed lady for love. She was a bearded woman when she met her future husband but he would not become involved with her because of her beard. So she shaved her beard and to stay in the business had her body covered in tattoos.
In today's society, the use of mentally challenged or physically handicapped people as circus sideshows is largely frowned upon, if not prohibited. But those who scrutinize this history might not have looked closely enough. Many of these freaks enjoyed happy and long lives, perhaps longer than they would have lived otherwise.
Prince Randian was billed by P.T. Barnum in the late 1800s as the "human caterpillar." After years in the circus business he was married to a devoted wife and had five children. He spoke four languages and his personal philosophy was that "no physical handicap need matter if the mind is dominant."
Another performer named Schlitze was born with microcephaly. This disease caused severe retardation and in turn a small cranium, which led to the nickname of "pinhead" in the circus scene. Schlitze performed in the circus for thirty years and was unusually intelligent in spite of his condition. He was able to dance, sing, count to ten, and was said to be friendly and affectionate. When his guardian and manager died he was forced into an institution where he nearly died of loneliness until a Canadian Circus Promoter found him and bargained for his care. Shlitze traveled the country until his death at the age of 80, which is an unusually long life for a microcephile.
Frances O'Conner was born without arms and toured with the Cole Brother's Circus for many years. She skillfully used her feet to dress herself, sew, and was said to enjoy her life to the fullest, never emitting a hint of self-pity. She was billed as "The Living Venus de Milo."
Johnny Eckhardt was the second son of twins and his brother was physically normal. As their interest in circus life grew they began touring as a magic act. Johnny's brother Robert pretended to saw him in half and a midget posing as his legs ran off the stage chased by Johnny. Johnny developed many exceptional talents and excelled in school. During the circus off-season Johnny toured with his own twelve-piece orchestra in which he led with the piano. He made a few film appearances, including the film Freaks in 1932. He withdrew from public life after his home was burglarized in the early 1980's. One burglar sat on him as the other robbed his house in front of his eyes. After this traumatizing experience his remaining years were spent in bitter seclusion. Johnny is quoted as saying, "If I want to see freaks, all I have to do is look out the window."