Archive for the Limbs, Missing or Small Category

Otis Jordan

Posted in African American Interest, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small with tags , , , , , on November 2, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Otis Jordan (1926-1990). He’ll always have a special place in our heart because (as it happens) he is the only one of the historical “human anomalies” in these annals your correspondent ever saw perform live. Furthermore, it was on my first ever trip to Coney Island in 1989, a very meaningful occasion for me personally. Otis was billed as “The Human Cigarette Factory”, and true to the advertisement he did perform Prince Randian’s old trick of rolling, lighting and smoking his own cigarette using nothing but his mouth. Unlike Randian, Jordan did have limbs, they were simply withered and useless.

For several years he tried conventional work; it wasn’t until 1963 that he joined a sideshow, billed as “The Frog Man”. Over the years he worked for Dick Burnett, Elsie Sutton, Jeff Murray, Dean Potter, Ward Hall, James Taylor (of Shocked and Amazed and the American Dime Museum), and finally, starting in 1987 the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. It turns out the summer I saw him was his last on the midway; he died of kidney disease a few months later.

To find out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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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

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The Tragedy and Triumph of Kitty Smith

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small, Women with tags , , , on October 21, 2013 by travsd

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Kitty Smith’s is the saddest story I’ve encountered thus far in exploring the sideshow world and writing about over 150 of its artists. Most human anomalies are born different; they’ve never known any other reality, so they simply learn how to get about in the world and the rest of us find their accomplishments remarkable. Others in the sideshow world alter themselves in an interesting way: e.g.,  grow hair in unusual places (on women, that tends to be the chin); get tattooed; or gain massive amounts of weight. Katherine M. Smith however was MAIMED into her condition.

Born on this day in 1882 and raised in Chicago, Katherine M. Smith was nine years old when her drunken, abusive father held her arms against a hot stove and burned them beyond reclamation. In later years she tried to gloss over this incident and claimed the ‘accident” had been her own fault, but there are records of the legal trial (he was acquitted but Kitty was placed in a home). In the Home for Destitute and Crippled Children, she learned to do with her feet many of thing things ordinary people do with their hands: write, draw, paint, play piano, sew, embroider, type with a typewriter, comb her hair, brush her teeth, and even make furniture with woodworking tools. When she reached majority, she published pamphlets telling her life story and asking the reader to donate a quarter — she raised $35,000 in this fashion.

It wasn’t until she was in her forties that she began working in actual sideshows, and when she did, she worked in the finest, at Coney Island and for John Robinson’s and Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circuses.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Frances O’Connor

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small, Movies, Women with tags , , , , on September 8, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Frances O’Connor (1914-1982).

Born without arms (or even stumps), O’Connor developed the ability to perform most ordinary everyday tasks with her feet: cut up her food with fork and knife and eat it; drink from a cup; smoke a cigarette, etc. In addition to her dexterity she also possessed natural beauty and a winning personality, which combined to make her a shoe-in for show business. With her mother as manager she began working in circus sideshows billed as “the Living Venus de Milo”, first for Al G. Barnes, and then for Ringling Brothers, where she was to remain for over two decades. What she is best known for today however is her memorable turn in Tod Browning’s 1932 movie Freaks, in which she appears in several scenes, speaking a few lines and demonstrating her skills. She retired from show business in the mid 1940s and lived out the rest of her life in retirement.

To learn more about the history of show businessconsult 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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And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Johnny Eck, King of the Freaks

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small, Movies with tags , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by travsd
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The quintessential image of the remarkable Johnny Eck

Today is the birthday of the amazing Johnny Eck (John Eckhardt, Jr., 1911-1991), best known for his role in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). It is often assumed that Eck was born “cut off at the waist”, but in fact he did have miniature, non-functioning legs, which he had strapped close to his body with a special contraption. Born with a fraternal brother named Robert who closely resembled him and was fully-formed, the two staged a notorious act in Rajah Raboid’s magic show in 1937. Raboid would pretend to saw Robert  in half; then Johnny would emerge from the box as though his legs had been cut off. Spectators were known to faint or flee the theatre during this act.

Johnny had first joined a sideshow as a single-o in 1923, with this brother coming along to watch after him. Billed as “The Half-Man”, he also worked at Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, as well as Ripley’s Believe it or Not and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In addition to Freaks he also appeared as a Gooney Bird in three Tarzan picturesTarzan the Ape-Man (1932), Tarzan Escapes (1936) and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941). After this, he returned to his hometown of Baltimore, living in a house with his brother Robert. The two men operated a penny arcade and a children’s train  ride in a local amusement park (which Johnny operated as the engineer). In his last decades, he concentrated on his hobbies of screen painting and putting on Punch and Judy shows for the local kids.

Here are some home movies of Eck clowning around for the camera, thoughtfully cut to some rockabilly, with some bonus footage of Willie “Popeye” Ingram:

To learn more about the history of show businessconsult 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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And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Joan Whisnant: Played the Guitar with Her Feet

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small, Music with tags , , , on August 23, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Joan Whisnant (1923-1998). Born in Red Fork, Oklahoma, Whisnant came into the world without any arms, but was taught by her parents to do everything everyone else does…with her feet. She could eat with fork and knife, turn the pages of books, wash dishes, brush her hair and embroider. Her parents kept her out of the sideshows, but she did learn a performing skill: she was able to play the guitar. And that was the avenue through which she got some attention in her teenage years, playing publicly at state fairs and in a Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult 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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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Al and Jeanie Tomaini

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Giants, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small with tags , , , , , , on August 23, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Berniece Evelyn “Jeanie” Smith (1916-1999). Born with no legs and a pair of twisted arms, she nonetheless learned to walk on her upper limbs and to do a variety of acrobatic stunts. She was exhibited in fairs and carnivals from childhood, initially by her mother and later (after her mother’s death) by an adopted guardian who was reportedly abusive. While performing at the Great Lakes Exposition in 1936 she met Aurelio “Al” Tomaini (1912-1962), a seven foot eleven inch giant (although he claimed to be over seven inches taller). The two fell in love and got married. Given the fact that Jeanie was only two feet five inches tall, they are probably the couple with the greatest height spread in history. The “World’s Strangest Married Couple” transitioned from performing in sideshows to settling in and building a fishing lodge in the sideshow retirement community at Gibsonton, Florida called “The Giant’s Camp”. After Al’s death in 1962 from complications related to his pituitary condition, Jeanie continued to operate the lodge with their two adopted children until her own death in 1999.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult 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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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Charles B. Tripp, Armless Wonder

Posted in Circus, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small with tags , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Charles B. Tripp (1855-1930). Born without upper limbs, he taught himself to do nearly everything a person with arms can do: dress himself, shave, write with a pen, cut paper with scissors, and earn his living (in his case, he was a carpenter and cabinet-maker, apparently capable of high end work). In 1872 he began to work for P.T. Barnum’s circus, where he would demonstrate his ability to do all of these things and some newly acquired skills like painting and photography. After his stint with Barnum, he worked for James A. Bailey’s circus (then a different organization) and then for Ringling Brothers (yet another! The three circuses weren’t all completely merged as one until 1919). After his time with the major circuses, Tripp worked the sideshows of small carnivals. All told, he was in show business for over half a century.

Circa 1910 he made this popular publicity picture with Legless Wonder, Eli Bowen, circa 1910:

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To find out more about  the history of variety artsconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

safe_image

And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

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