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Drew Friedman sees the freaks in all of us. Arguably the world's greatest living caricaturist, his painstakingly-rendered, sweat-beaded, liver-spotted, and uncanny portraits have appeared in RAW, Esquire, The New Yorker, MAD, Entertainment Weekly, and The New York Observer. Last year, Drew told me that a collector had commissioned a series of paintings depicting legendary characters from the golden age of the sideshow, from Schlitzie the Pinhead to Percilla Lauther Bejano, aka "The Monkey Girl." Why? As Penn Jillette writes in the newly published Drew Friedman's Sideshow Freaks, "We want to look at them because they're different from us, but we keep looking at them because they're the same as us." We're pleased to welcome you into this ten-in-one of fine artistry where the stories really are between the lines. Step right up!
Drew Friedman will sign copies of Sideshow Freaks on February 20, 4pm, at Book Soup in Los Angeles.
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John Eckhardt Jr. (1911-1991, Baltimore, MD), Johnny Eck, billed as "The Most Remarkable Man Alive" and "The King of the Freaks," was born without a body below his waist and learned to walk on his hands. He enjoyed a long career touring as a famed sideshow performer and was memorably featured as the "Half Boy" in the classic Tod Browning film Freaks (1932). He also conducted an orchestra in his hometown of Baltimore with his "normal" twin brother, Robert, on piano.
Peter Moore (1932-1984, Wetumpka, AL) was billed as "The World's Smallest Man," standing 27 inches and weighing 32 pounds. He was the oldest of nine (normal) brothers and sisters, and enjoyed a long, happy career performing at various carnival and state fair sideshows.
Otis Jordan (1925-1990, Barnesville, GA) was billed alternately as "The Frog Boy" or "The Human Cigarette Factory." He was born with his limbs paralyzed, or ossified, and he developed a talent for rolling and lighting a cigarette with only his lips and mouth. Otis loved his career as a sideshow performer and was still appearing at Coney Island as late as 1990.
Leonard Hanstein (life span unknown, Oklahoma City, OK, active 1930s), "The Big-Mouthed Boy," made a living by demonstrating the enormous size of his mouth. He could hold in his mouth up to four large hardboiled hen's eggs or four billiard balls; he could also insert his entire fist or a 100-watt lightbulb into his mouth.
"The Great Waldo" (c. 1920-?, Germany), "The Human Ostrich," was so named because, ostrichlike, he could ingest and gobble almost anything, including whole lemons, rings, watches, frogs, etc. The highlight of his act, for which he was always decked out in a tuxedo, consisted of him swallowing a live mouse and regurgitating it, alive and well. Waldo, a Jew, fled Germany in 1938 and performed in America with the Ringling Brothers Circus and Hubert's Museum in New York.
Gondino Rao and Lukshana Bai (c. 1895-?/c. 1906-?, Lower Burma, India), known as "Gondino & Apexia," both appeared with the Ringling Brothers Circus in the early twentieth century and were billed together as "The Pinhead Brother & Sister from Lower Burma." Gondino also appeared solo as "The Boy with the Monkey's Head" and "The Missing Link."
William Henry Johnson (1842/1843-1926, Liberty Corner, NJ), known as "Zip," "The What Is It?," "The Missing Link," and "The Man-Monkey," was an African-American pinhead who enjoyed an incredibly long career as an exhibited attraction, first in New Jersey, then with P. T. Barnum,
who dubbed him "Zip" and concocted an elaborate story detailing his capture in the jungle, playing up the "Missing Link" angle. Barnum had Zip's head shaved leaving just a tuft of hair remaining, dressed him in a furry gorilla suit, and had him appear at first in a cage, rattling the bars and screeching and grunting apelike to the crowd's delight. When released, he would proceed to play the violin (very badly). There has been great speculation about Zip's mental abilities and whether he was a true microcephalic; most assume he was a mildly retarded man being exploited for profit. But on his deathbed, he is said to have whispered to his sister, "Well, we fooled 'em for a long time, didn't we?"
Ella Milbauer (Mills) (1889-1964, Baraboo, WI) was a popular Fat Lady appearing mainly in the Ringling Brothers sideshows, billed as "586 Pounds of Feminine Charm." Ella was a crowd favorite, known for coyly displaying her massive legs to the delight of the male patrons, who rewarded her with whistles and catcalls.
Melvin Burkhart (1907-2001, Atlanta, GA), known as "The Anatomical Wonder" and "The Human Blockhead," was a legendary, much-beloved sideshow performer for more than sixty years. Taking advantage of having had his nose often broken as a boxer, he could hammer nails and spikes up his nostrils. Employing his unusual ability in muscle control, he could elongate his neck, suck his stomach into his spine, wrestle snakes, and exhibit opposite expressions on his face simultaneously–happy and sad or, as he described it, "mad and glad at the same time." Melvin acted as his own announcer ("talker"), much in the style of a Borscht Belt comic, swearing throughout his performances that it didn't hurt.
George and Willie Muse (1890-1971/1893-2001, Franklin County, VA), "Eko & Iko," were billed as "The Ambassadors from Mars" as well as "The Sheep-Headed Men." Kidnapped in 1899 and told that their mother was dead, they toured with Al G. Barnes and later Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1927 they visited their hometown, where their mother found them and fought to free them. Engaging the services of a lawyer, they obtained a contract that permitted them to retain great profits from future sideshow exhibition, and in 1928 they returned to show business until retiring to Roanoke in 1961. Promoters alternately claimed they were "found near the remains of their spaceship" or that they were "Sheep-headed Cannibals from Ecuador." In actuality, they were dreadlocked African-American albino brothers from Virginia. Willie Muse lived to age 108.