A gingerly nod of the head today to Joseph Milana (1884-1959), a.k.a. Ajax the Great, Professor Ajax or the Mighty Ajax.
A native of Washington DC, Milana began working in dime museums as a teenager training pigeons, presumably for magic acts. Around the turn of the century he taught himself sword swallowing, initially travelling with the Big Southern Railroad Shows and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. He toured Europe and performed for George V. From 1917 through the 1940s he worked at the Dreamland Circus Sideshow and Sam Wagner’s World Circus Sideshow in Coney Island. In 1928 Edward Kelty made this x-ray of Ajax with a sword down his throat:
As the great Rudy Cheeks used to say back in Providence, “That proves it!”
In the later years of his life Ajax worked as a “Punch Man” in Punch and Judy Shows, presumably a less hazardous job of work for an older man.
Milana’s son married a daughter of “The Handless Wonder” DeWise Purdin (1906-1985) who performed a sharpshooter act despite the absence of anything below the wrists, and was also a ride operator. Purdin’s wife Edith was a ticket taker at the World in Wax Musee. Hear their grandson Van Milana tell all of their stories in this wonderful interview at the Coney Island History Project.
To find out more about the history of the variety arts, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
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