George Williams, alias “Turtle Boy”
Usually, the zoological nickname of a sideshow anomaly bears some relation to the performers’ physical appearance. The Alligator Girl has scales; the Leopard Woman has spots; the Penguin Boy has stunted legs and waddles. George Williams (1859-?) was billed in sideshows as the “Turtle Boy”, but the reasoning for the nickname is elusive. Certainly he had no shell on his back. He couldn’t retract his head into his neck. Perhaps he moved slowly? At any rate, the man was 18 inches tall, with curved, malformed legs and arms. If that says “Turtle” to you, well, okay.
He was a staple of Huber’s 14th Street Museum in New York, although he worked at other dime museums and side shows over the years. He enhanced his act with musicianship, playing both the harmonica and the flute. His act was very popular, yet he was underpaid, probably due to the fact that he was an African American. He first appears in the historical record in the 1880s and steps off around 1920, when he sued the city for an injury he sustained while spilling out of his wheelchair due to a fault in the sidewalk.
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out 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