In 1929, the French surrealist journal Variétés published photos of Violetta as though she were a living, breathing work of surrealistic art — which, if you think about it, she was.
Born Aloisia Wagner in 1907 in Bremen-Hemeligen, Germany, the woman who came to be known as Violetta the Trunk Woman came into the world without arms and legs but quite normal in all other respects. She began exhibiting herself at age 15 and moved to the U.S. in 1924 at the invitation of Samuel Gumpertz of the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in Coney Island. She was to be a mainstay of his show as well as the Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey sideshow. Because she had a comely face and a well-formed torso, she was presented as a beauty, a sort of living Venus de Milo (with an emphasis on Venus), with her hair styled, her face made up, her body wrapped in oddly revealing and suggestive diaphanous fabric and literally placed on a pedestal. In short, she was a bizarre sex object. She was well-spoken, did humorous patter about she didn’t think of much of limbs anyway, sang songs, hopped around, and did amazing tricks like threading a needle and sewing with it, drawing a picture with a pencil, and lighting and smoking a cigarette, all using only her mouth. Audience members were encouraged to come to the stage and touch her (to prove that she was real) but she drew the line at kissing her, which many people tried to do. Not only was such a thing an unthinkable liberty, but she happened to be married. (She wore her wedding band on a necklace). No one seems to know when she died; the latest reference to her I can find is from 1940.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc