Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Another Collection of "Freaks".

I finished Bill Carmichael's "Incredible Collectors, Wierd Antiques and, Odd Hobbies today". I t was a quick read, quirky, and a written in a manner reminiscent of tabloid journalism. Several times throughout the book, it seemed like Carmichael was using the various categories of collectibles as a vehicle to share triva about arcane subjects such as vinous grapes, bawdy-house tokens, World Fairs, death masks, glass eyes and barbed wire. Certainly he was, more often than not, able to make this information interesting, but the approach seemed to dehumanize the collectors involved in these obscure pursuits.

Particularly intriuguing to me was a chapter about two different men that collected photographs of "human oddities" (or freaks), that were sold by these performers to supplement their incomes on the circus and carnival circuits. Carmichael was consistent in this chapter's presentation- he got so wrapped up in the stories of the individual freaks, that he gave short shrift to the collectors. It worked out for my benefit as I learned of several historical figures I had not yet been aware of... and additional information about some whom I had heard about.

1. Emma Leach- A dwarf whom George Washington made inquiries into meeting. Washington was actually present at the first circus put on in the US (1793). That adds significant respect to my estimation of our founding father.

2. Grace McDaniels- The original "Mule-Faced woman"- billed as the ugliest woman who had ever lived. Evidently she wasn't ugly on the inside- she received many marriage proposals, and eventually accepted one, and had a son of "normal" appearance.

3. Miss Caroline Akers- At barely over three hundred pounds, she would not have been an impressive "fat lady", if not for the fact that she was a mere thirty-four inches tall, and she had a beard.

4. Chang and Eng Coffin - Sure... everyone knows the most famous "Siamese Twins" of all time. But did you know that they were originally kidnaped from China? Did you know they despised each other, and often got into physical fights in public? Did you know that Chang was a drunk lecher, and that Eng was an intellectual vegetarian? Did you know they hated P.T. Barnum, their employer?

5. The Toccis Twins- Born in Turin, Italy, and exhibited in 1875, this oddity consisted of two heads on a single torso. Each of its legs was governed by a different brain, which made walking difficult.The Toccis learned to play handball, dance, and sing duets (with each other).

6. Myrtle Corbin- With four legs, and two sets of sexual organs below the waste, she was quite the phenomenon. She was married and gave birth to five children... three delivered from one vaginal canal, and the remaining two from the other.

7. William H. Jackson - Also known as "Zip the What's It?", he was Barnum's favorite microencephalic, and was given his moniker by the Prince of Wales. Throughout his long life (he died at age 84) he was under the happy impression that he was the owner of every traveling outfit and museum he ever worked for.

8. Jean Libbera and Piramel - Both of these men had parasitic siblings sticking out, neck-first, from beneath their breastplates. The parasites had names, fully developed bodies (other than heads) and were said to be aware of what was happening in the outside world. They also each shared their sibling's bloodstream and nervous system. They could move their arms and legs "upon command".


Blogger Dagrims said...

I've always been disturbingly fascinated with oddities. Ripley's Believe it or Not - the books, the museum, the newspaper cartoon - will have a place in my heart forever.

The link for Grace McDaniels has information that contradicts your comment (taken from Carmichael's book, I'm sure) about her getting married. The story regarding her child per the link seems much more reasonable, although it seems ironic to be questioning the believability of a story given the subject matter.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

The information in my post does indeed come from the book by Bill Carmichael. The contradictions in accounts are indeed almost requisite when it comes to exploiting human oddities for profit. i.e.- "If you don't wonder what we are making up, then we aren't doing our job right."

8:37 AM  
Anonymous jefg said...

I too have always been curious about the curious. When I was in my teens, I used to go into the sideshows at the fair by myself, wondering if the hooks outside (the exaggerated paintings, the talented barker), would be a fair representaion of what was inside. In my opinion, up into the 1950's, you actually got what you thought you would. A true tall man, a midget or dwarf, a true fat lady, a bearded lady (often the same woman as the fat lady), a sword swallower, a man laying on his belly sans arms and legs. The limbless man and the bearded lady remained in my head for some time afterwards. However, the oddest of all in my opinion was the pinheaded lady. Of all of them, she was the one that stuck in my memory as a true freak long after the fair was over. She elicited pity as well as a touch of uneasiness. She, and those like her, were likely the cause of the demise of the true side show, for reasons that were certain understandable yet in some ways debatable.

By the way, I recently saw a short documentary about William Jackson, and by most accounts he was not microencephalic in the true sense. He had a mishaped head, but could converse and had a relatively strong self-will. In some accounts, he and his "agent" put one over on the public for years. However, as you say, who really knows what to believe when the premise is to present the unbelievable.

Lastly, I would LOVE to attend a performance of the Grim Brothers Sideshow. I e-mailed them for a 2007 schedule, but to date have not received a reply.

7:17 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

Somewhat off topic, but over the weekend I was in the midst of so many men of all shapes and sizes wearing cowboy hats and 2' by 3' shiny belt buckles, it was hard to tell the cowboys from the tourists. I concluded that the cowboys were most likely the ones stepping out of the pickups with gun racks, while the tourists were the ones tranfixed on the sidewalk, watching a "herd" of ten steer march one block down a paved street at a pace of about one mph. This was preceeded by a barker announcing the 4pm cattle drive over the area's loudspeaker.

While there were no apparant freaks, it was very much a sideshow.

This section of Fort Worth bills itself as "Where The West Begins". For me, it was time to get back East.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Whatever happened to that t-shirt you were telling me about?

Interesting what you say about Jackson, because I seem to remember reasing something similar in a different source. What I wrote came out of the Carmichael book.

Boy I wish I could find more pictures from late-era side shows.
How truly odd it feels to be envious of you b/c you got to see a pinhead live!

PS: I have no doubt that Texas is chock full of freaks.

10:03 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

I contribute to your blog and all you can start with is where's my freakin t-shirt? (laughing here) I forgot to order it, so there! Now that it's ordered, I'll send it when it gets here, along with another one I picked up in Rehoboth, DE. It has nothing to do with freaks, though the name conotes possibilities (dog-fish?).

10:23 AM  
Anonymous jefg said...

Have you ever checked out E-Bay, and the extremely interesting assortment of things on sale relating to sideshow and freaks? Books, comic books, photos...I didn't know there was so much around (then again, I had never looked for any). The photos of Barnum's collection of human oddities from the 40's is fascinating.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


You built the tip, turned it, and then gave me the classic "blow-off". Where's my durn t-shirt?!

I hope you enjoyed the beer in Rehoboth. It's surely good stuff.

No... I haven't spent much time at all on ebay... seems like a trap I would have difficulty extricating myself from.

4:23 PM  

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