Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Joseph Merrick - The Elephant Man

The times and tribulations of Joseph Carey Merrick have long been the subject of books, films and theatre. As a result, ‘The Elephant Man’ is without a doubt the most famous human prodigy of all time. His story garnered the sympathy of Victorian England and after the span of one hundred years, his plight remains no less heart wrenching or inspiring.

Joseph Merrick was born on August 5, 1862 in Leicester to Mary Jane and Joseph Rockley Merrick. He had a younger brother and sister and was completely normal until the age of three. In an autobiographical note which appeared on the reverse side of his freak show pamphlet, Merrick noted that his deformity first manifested with small bumps appearing on the left side of his body. By the time he was 12, and his mother passed away, Joseph’s deformities were severe. When his father remarried, his stepmother expelled him from the house and young Joseph began struggling not only against his deformity, but starvation and homelessness as well.

For a time, Joseph Merrick attempted to earn a living by selling door-to-door and on the street. Despite hiding his face behind a burlap mask, Merrick still endured the constant harassment of local children and many adults. His sales attempts were futile and he eventually ended up in the Leicester Union workhouse.

Victorian workhouses were not friendly places. They were akin to prisons, where the unemployed and unemployable toiled in the most unwanted laborious tasks of the era. Due to his progressing deformity, Joseph was soon unable to manually work at all and on August 29, 1884 he took a job as a curiosity attraction.

Contrary to film accounts, Merrick was well treated as an exhibit and well paid for his time. While on exhibit on Mile End Road in London, now the London Sari Centre, his path first crossed with Dr. Fredrick Treves. Treves, who would later chronicle and befriend Merrick, gave him one of his business cards after Merrick politely declined an examination. When human curiosity exhibits were outlawed in the United Kingdome in 1886, Merrick travelled to Belgium for work. There he was indeed mistreated and ultimatly robbed and abandoned by his promoter. He also contracted a severe bronchial infection further complicated by his deformities.

Upon his return to London, Merrick was the involved in a disturbance at Liverpool Street train station when his masked appearance and twisted body caused hysteria. Merrick was unable to speak due to his bronchial infection but had retained the business card of Dr. Treves, which he presented to authorities. Treves was quickly summoned from the London Hospital and soon arranged for Merrick to be given permanent quarters in the hospital.

It was during this time that Joseph Merrick thrived.

Despite a living in constant physical and emotional pain, Merrick possessed an indomitable spirit. He quickly became the subject of much public sympathy and something of a celebrity in Victorian high society. Alexandra, then Princess of Wales and later Queen Consort, demonstrated a kindly interest in Merrick, leading other members of the upper class to embrace him. He eventually became a favourite of Queen Victoria. However, Treves later commented that Merrick always wanted, even after living at the hospital, to go to a hospital for the blind where he might find a woman who would not be repelled by his appearance and love him. In his later years, he found some solace in writing, composing remarkable heartfelt prose and poetry.

In the summer of 1887, Merrick spent time vacationing at the Fawsley Hall estate, Northamptonshire. Special measures were taken for his journey there as he was forced to travel in a carriage with blinds drawn. Merrick enjoyed his time away from urban London greatly and collected wildflowers to take back with him to London. He visited Fawsley Hall again in 1888 and 1889.

Merrick was cared for at the hospital until his death at the age of 27 on April 11, 1890. He died from the accidental dislocation of his neck due to its inability to support the weight of his massive head in sleep. Merrick, unable to sleep reclining due to the weight of his head, may have tried to do so in this instance, in an attempt to imitate normal behaviour.

Joseph Merrick was originally thought to be suffering from elephantiasis. In 1971, Ashley Montagu suggested in his book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity that Merrick suffered from neurofibromatosis type I, a genetic disorder also known as von Recklinghausen's disease. NF1 is still strongly associated with Merrick in the mind of the public; however, it was postulated in 1986 that Merrick actually suffered from Proteus syndrome, a condition which had only been identified in 1979.

In July 2003, Dr. Charis Eng announced that as a result of DNA tests on samples of Merrick's hair and bone, she had determined that Merrick certainly suffered Proteus syndrome, and may have had neurofibromatosis type I as well. As it stands, many people still mistakenly refer to his condition as elephantiasis.

Merrick's preserved skeleton was previously on display at the Royal London Hospital. While his remains can no longer be viewed by the public, there is a small museum focused on his life, which houses some of his personal effects and period Merrick memorabilia.

Note: While Joseph Merrick is better known as John Merrick, it is not his birth name. Sir Fredrick Treves recalled the name as such in his memoirs. It is unclear if Treves recalled details incorrectly or if Joseph Merrick went by John.

Julia Pastrana - The Nondescript

The prodigious Julia Pastrana was known by many monikers during her life and perhaps just as many names in death. Both her life and her death are rather sad tales, but they hold a very special place in sideshow history because, for a time, she was not considered a member of the human race.

Julia’s origins are shrouded in mystery. It is believed that she was born in 1834 to a tribe of ‘Root Digger’ Indians in the western slopes of Mexico. However, what is highly obvious is that Julia had appearance unlike any marvel before her on record. In addition to excessive hairiness over her body – predominately in the face – Julia also possessed a jutting jaw and swollen gums. In odd juxtaposition to her ape like features, Julia possessed great poise, and a well developed a buxom four and a half foot figure.

Her documented career began in 1854 as she was exhibited in New York at the Gothic Hall on Broadway as ‘The Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman’. Her ‘handler’ was one M. Rates who allegedly discovered the young Julia as a servant girl to the governor of Sinaloa, Mexico. While in New York, Julia attracted the attention of many scientific minds and media moguls. One newspaper described her as ‘terrifically hideous’ and possessing a ‘harmonious voice’ – which gives evidence that she sang during her exhibition. One of the members of Medical society to examine her was Dr. Alexander Mott who declared her ‘the most extraordinary beings of the present day’ and ‘a hybrid between human and orangutan’.

Julia then moved on to Cleveland with a new promoter, J. W. Beach, and it is there that Dr. S. Brainerd declared her a ‘distinct species’. That analysis was, of course, quickly added to all subsequent promotional materials.

Julia impressed many with her charm and grace. When invited to attend a military gala, she waltzed with many of the braver men there and, while in Boston – billed as the “Hybrid Indian: The Misnomered Bear Woman – Julia again impressed with her grace and singing voice. So much so that she was put on exhibition by both the Horticultural Society and the Boston History Society.

Julia was preceded in London, England by impressive newspaper announcements touting her as ‘a Grand and Novel Attraction’. Now going by the epithet ‘The Nondescript’ – a term that in this era mean something unexplainable – Julia was now being show by one Mr. Theodore Lent and was a rousing success. In fact, the bulk of the documentation on Julia comes from this time period, when London reporter could not stop debating her origins and describing her appearance in lengthy articles. In these articles, Julia is described as being very civilized and domestic. In addition to her native language, she also spoke Spanish and English quite well. She loved to travel, cook and sew. She willing gave herself to medical examination and was said to have an eager thirst for knowledge. These articles also seemed to emphasize that she was both happy and content with her situation and she did not covet wealth – though her ‘handler’ Mr. Lent surely did. During her performances in London, Julia sang romances in both Spanish and English and danced what are described as ‘fancy dances’ – likely traditional Spanish numbers.

After London Mr. Lent secured a tour of Berlin and in Leipzig, Julia played the leading role in a play called Der curierte Meyer. In the play, a young German boy falls in love with a woman who always wears a veil. When the young man was not on stage, Julia would lift her veil to the great amusement of the audience. The play ends with the young man finally seeing his beloved – and being cured of his infatuation. Following the play, the weekly magazine Gartenlaube published an extensive interview with Julia – an article published with a fantastic life sketch by the artist H. Konig (pictured above). The article consisted of Julia speaking on her tours of America and London and of the numerous marriage proposals she had received. She claimed to have turned down over twenty admirers because ‘they were not rich enough’. That was a response that the reporter suspected Mr. Lent had coached – in the hopes of attracting a rich suitor.

That notion was short lived and Mr. Lent, wary of loosing his investment in Julia to rivals, married her in 1857. While there is evidence that Julia was infatuated with her husband, Mr. Lent was not a kind man. While in Vienna he forced Julia to undergo sensitive physical examinations and barred her from leaving their apartment during daylight. As their tour through Poland and on to Moscow continued, Mr. Lent became more and more controlling. In late 1859, while in Moscow, it was discovered that Julia was pregnant. The doctors feared a difficult childbirth due to Julia’s stature and narrow hips; however Julia was more concerned that the baby should take after its father. On March 20, 1860 her fears were confirmed when she gave birth to a hair covered newborn boy. The child lived only thirty-five hours.

Julia died five days later.

During her lifetime Julia, though treated little more than an object by her promoters, did meet many influential people. She was visited by P.T. Barnum himself and even Charles Darwin acknowledged her in his book The Variation of Animal and Plants under Domestication with the words ‘Julia Pastrana, a Spanish dancer, was a remarkably fine woman – she had a thick and masculine beard’. Her condition at the time was unknown, yet given all the evidence: excessive hair, melodic voice, dental deformations and a child born with excessive hair– it is likely that she suffered from a form hypertrichosis lanuginose. All of her interviews and personal anecdotes promote the idea that she was a happy and content woman – pleased with her lot in life. Yet, one is left with a sour feeling when reflecting on the events of her life.

However, that is nothing compared to the feeling one suffers when recounting her afterlife.

Shortly after her death, Mr. Lent continued his commercial aspirations with Julia. He sold her corpse, as well as the body of his son, to Professor Sukolov of Moscow University. The Professor took the bodies to his Anatomical Institute, dissected them, and then – using unknown embalming techniques – mummified the bodies of Julia and her son. The entire process took six months and the results, while macabre, were impressive. Unlike the mummies of ancient Egypt, these mummified remains retained their color, texture and form and appeared very lifelike. Sukolov placed the mummies in the anatomical museum of the University where they attracted great crowds.

When Mr. Lent heard of the profit his wife and child were earning in death he went about legal proceedings to reclaim them. He presented his marriage certificate to the American consul and Sukolov was forced to release the remains. Lent tried to put the mummies on display in Russia but the authorities refused as they were outside the confines of a scientific institute. Thus, in February of 1862 Lent return to England to show Julia Pastrana again. The price was only a shilling and, with the added attraction of the mummified infant, the exhibit was packed with onlookers. Inside it was said that the ‘Embalmed Nondescript’ stood dressed in one of her many dancing costumes while her son stood to her left – atop a small pedestal and dressed in a sailor suit.

When the popularity of the exhibit began to fade, Lent rented the mummies to an English traveling museum of curiosities. In 1864 they were taken on a tour of Sweden. Most unbelievably, during that same time, Lent met a young lady with a condition very similar to Julia. In fact, unbelievably, the two looked so much alike that Lent married her as well and began touring her as Zenora Pastrana – Julia’s sister. The mummy rejoined Lent for a time and the four of them toured together, however Lent rented to mummies to a Vienna museum and began to claim that Zenora and Julia were one and the same.

Lent and Zenora retired to St. Petersburg in the early 1880’s and purchased a small waxworks museum. Lent was quite wealthy by this time however he was unable to enjoy his wealth as, shortly after retirement, he experienced a mental breakdown and disappeared behind the walls of a sanitarium. It is assumed that he died shortly thereafter.

Zenora left Russia for Munich in 1888 where she reclaimed the mummies and toured with then – this time to ‘prove’ that she was not Julia. In 1889 Zenora gave the mummies to an anthropological exhibit in Munich run by a man named J. B. Gassner before she retired again and remarried to a much younger man.

Gassner took the mummies to various German fairs and, in 1895, he took them to a large circus convention in Vienna and sold them to the highest bidder. In the next twenty-five years the mummies changed hands several times and showed up again in 1921 when a Mr. Lund bought them for his Norwegian ‘chamber of horrors’. At this point, it is unclear if Lund knew these mummies were real as the medical community considered them lost.

In 1943, during the German occupation, the chamber of horrors collection was ordered to be destroyed however Lund was able to convince authorities that a tour of the ‘Apewoman’ - as Julia was now called - would prove beneficial to the treasury of the Third Reich. For several year, Julia and her son toured German occupied territories.

In 1953, Lund stored his chamber of horrors collection, including the mummies, in a large warehouse just outside of Oslo. For several years rumors spread that the warehouse was occupied by a strange ape-like creature and one night in the mid 50’s teens broke into the warehouse and Julia terrified them – some 80 years after her death. The experience and rumors that followed grew so popular that Lund’s son Hans (Lund had since passed away) took the chamber out of storage and back on popular display until the mid 60’s. Still, no one truly realized that these mummies were actual human beings.

That changed in 1969 when Judge Hofheinz, a very wealthy American collector of the unusual hired a small team of detectives to track down the mummies of Julia and her child. It was a circus director named Rhodin who eventually tracked down some pamphlets and posters and made contact with Hans. Now aware of the priceless relic he now possessed, Hans instigated a bidding war only to decline all offers and put the mummies back on exhibit himself. The press picked up the story of Julia and the exhibit proved so popular that it toured Sweden and Norway in 1970. In 1971, they made their way back to the United States – over one hundred year after the living Julia began her career there. The tour was cut short in America due to public outcry and when Hans attempted to return to Norway – he was denied exhibition rights. Undeterred, Hans rented the mummies to a Swedish traveling show until good taste arrived and the exhibition was banned there as well. Defeated, Hans placed the mummies in storage in 1973.

In August of 1976, the storage facility was broken into and the mummies vandalized. The child was badly damaged as its jaw and arm were torn off. His remains were thrown in a ditch outside and before it could be located – it was almost entirely eaten by mice – only scraps remained. Julia now stood alone.

In 1979, the storage facility was again broken into and this time Julia was stolen. It was presumed that it too was destroyed.

Then, in February of 1990, a Norwegian journalist discovered the mummy in the basement of the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo. In 1979 police responded to a call involving some children who found an arm in a ditch. A search of the area revealed the mummified body of Julia, badly mangled. Unsure of what to do or even what it was, the police brought the mummy to the institute where it remained limbo - no one really paying it any attention.

Apparently it is still there – tucked away in some corner covered with a dusty blanket.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Talented Tongues.

When we saw these images we did try to stretch our tongue, just to see whether we can touch the tip of our nose, but it turned out we aren't one among them. Would it really make any difference if you have a longer tongue or if your boyfriend has it? Well we don't think so; then again some may disagree for various reasons!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Johann Petursson - The Viking Giant

At one point, Johann Petursson was the tallest man alive. He was officially dethroned during his lifetime by the colossal Robert Wadlow but he is arguably the better remembered giant due to his showmanship, personality and longevity.

Johann was born in Dalvik, Iceland on February 9, 1913. He began life as Johann Svarfaelingur, the third child of nine and the only one of extraordinary size. By the time he was twenty-years-old, Johann stood a purported eight feet, eight inches tall and wore a size 24 shoe. He was a gentle man, a man of soft words and warmth. Despite towering over them, children loved Johann and he was more than happy to hoist them onto his shoulder.

During his adolescence Johann was a popular young man, due more to his outgoing personality than his height. In fact, he wasn’t treated as a ‘big deal’ in his town and the locals barely raised an eyebrow when the giant walked by. Petursson was just another one of the lads, well liked by all. Unfortunately, due to his height, he was unemployable in his hometown. Johann could not squeeze into the tiny local shops.

In 1934, Johann left for Denmark and it was there that he realized he could earn a living simply by exhibiting himself. He had a fine suit made to fit his mammoth frame, his measurements were taken by a team of three men, and he then set off in search of fame and fortune.

Johann Petursson proved to be quite successful throughout Europe. He performed in music halls in an act with two dwarfs. His tiny partners would play miniature accordions while Petursson stood between them and played instruments of enormous proportion. The act continued for several years until World War II. During the conflict Petursson found himself stranded in Copenhagen where he took a job in the shipyards and waited out the war.

Unlike many giants, who are actually quite physically frail, by all reports Johann was in good health and incredibly strong. His time at the shipyard went quickly and effortlessly. At the end of the war Petursson resumed touring Europe until he was discovered by John Ringling, of the Ringling Bros., and was contracted to appear in the United States.

Johann Petursson began touring with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show during their 1948 season. Dressed in his Edwardian top hat and tails he began to command a salary of $200 a week. He also began selling giant-sized rings as souvenirs. While these rings fit his finger, one could also pass a silver dollar through them.

Petursson’s time with Ringling Bros. was brief. He soon joined a sideshow managed by Glen Porter and it was under the management of Porter that Johann would develop his most famous trademark. Porter, aware of Johann’s Icelandic and Nordic roots had his wife craft a costume consisting of Viking regalia and a giant helmet. Johann became known as The Viking Giant and his marketability instantly soared.

Eventually, Johann proved so popular and such a shrewd businessman that he broke away from management and went into business for himself. Petursson created a ‘Single-O’ show, a travelling show in which he was the only attraction. He saved over $50,000 in just five years which was a sizeable amount considering the era. Johan then decided to exhibit his enormous dimensions on the movie screen. In 1950 he starred opposite Jayne Mansfield as the prehistoric giant Guadi in Prehistoric Women. Thirty years later, he was featured in Carny, opposite Jodie Foster and Gary Busey. In 1981, he was featured in the astounding documentary Being Different with fellow marvel Robert Melvin.
At the age of 69, an incredible age for a giant, Johann initially retired to Gibsonton, Florida. His health, however, proved to falter quickly and soon he joined his brother in his beloved hometown of Davlik. Johann Petursson died there on November 26, 1984. A museum now sits not far from his grave. His possessions still draw curious crowds and a stir sense of wonder.
Watch a video of Johann here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Smallest Girl in the World

14-year-old Jyoti Amge stands 1 foot 11 inches tall and weighs 11 pounds!

She has a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia and won’t grow any taller than her current height.

Due to her size, Jyoti has to have clothes and jewellery made for her. She sleeps in a tiny bed and uses special plates and cutlery to eat, as normal-sized utensils are too big.

Despite this, she goes to a regular school in Nagpur, central India, where she has her own small desk and chair, and her classmates treat her like any other student.

Jyoti is a celebrity in her hometown, and will soon release a musical album. She hopes to be a Bollywood actress someday.