Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Bill Durks understandably had a tough childhood. He was born in Jasper, Alabama on April 13, 1913 with a condition known today as frontonasal dysplasia. During gestation, the two halves of Bill’s face failed to come together completely and uniformly and as a result he was born with deep cleft lip, open palate and a split nose. According to some accounts, Bill was also born with both of his eyes sealed shut with hoods of skin and he had to have them opened surgically as a small child.
Due to his appearance, Bill was denied an education. The schools children would not accept him and his family was simply too poor to afford private schooling. Furthermore, by all accounts, the Durks family was ashamed of their son and didn’t want him attending school anyway. As a result, Bill was a socially awkward and introverted man. To make things even more difficult for poor Bill, his clef lip made him difficult to understand.
Onc day, in his early teens, Bill attended a local fair as a spectator. The showmen running the sideshow instantly invited him to go on tour and Bill left behind his bleak life for a chance at fortune and soon became the ‘Man with Three Eyes’.
In an added bit of showmanship, during exhibits Bill would paint a third eye into the divot between his noses. Likely the fakery was not noticed for the duration of his career because few could stare Bill directly in his face. In a bit of irony, Bill, the man billed as having three eyes, was in reality the man with one eye as he was blind in his right eye.
Bill was quite a successful Marvel and worked with numerous show including Kelly-Sutton Shows, Gooding's Million Dollar Midway, Hall & Christ Shows, James E. Strates Shows and Hubert's Museum making a good living. He was often taken advantage of and exploited due to his meek nature. Bill was also illiterate, which meant he could not read the contracts he signed.
Over time, Bill eventually became quite well liked by his fellow Marvels. Many of them began to look out for his interests. Most notable is the close friendship Bill developed with Melvin ‘The Anatomical Wonder’ Burkhart. Burkhart took Bill under his wing and taught him how to interact with crowds, how to interact with people, gave him confidence and even taught Bill how to read. Bill began to love the sideshow and the crowds. He cherished the idea that while once he was shunned by society, now people were pay for the right to see him. Bill quickly soon became the star of the show and spent the remainer of his career with the Slim Kelly and Whitney Sutton shows. Bill was always grateful for the friendship he found in his fellow performers and his mentor Burkhart.
Burkhart eventually introduced Bill to Mildred the alligator-skinned woman. Mildred was born in 1901 and was a bit older than Bill but friendship quickly turned to love and, despite appearances, the two married. They spent several happy years together as the World's Strangest Married Couple until Mildred passed in June of 1968. Bill was completely heartbroken and soon retired to Gibsonton, Florida where he joined his beloved wife on May 7, 1975.
Bill Durks was a man who began his life hidden from the world by parents who were ashamed of him. He turned to the sideshow and found the love and friendship he lacked his entire life. It was love and friendship he deserved as a Human Marvel and a testament to the perseverance of man.
Esther Parnell was born in Kenly, North Carolina on March 5th, 1926. She was one of six children and while her sister and three of her brothers were born with perfectly average skin, Esther and her brother William were afflicted with ichthyosis.
There are several forms of ichthyosis, a rare skin condition that derives its name from the Greek word for fish, but the siblings were particularly scaly and were quickly compared to the alligators found hunting in the Carolinas. Besides creating extremely dry and cracked skin, serious ichthyosis also impedes hair growth. As a result both siblings were made miserable due to sparse hair. Esther, especially, was devoid of a full head of hair and eyelashes. The hairless and scale-covered siblings furthered the unusual appearance of the siblings and, following their education at St. Mary’s College in Raleigh, the two alligator-skinned marvels began their exhibition career.
William was commonly known as Aloa the Alligator Boy and Esther was known as Alice. Together, they were often billed as ‘The Alligator-Skinned Twins’, despite not being actual twins. In fact, much of their promotion material harkened back to Barnum-like tall tales. According to one of their pamphlets, their appearance was due to their mother being frightened by an alligator while pregnant with ‘the twins’. In another, despite being twins, the pair were of different ages. Sometimes their first names or surnames were altered, sometimes they were orphans and sometimes the pair ‘baffled medical science’ with their condition. Together, the siblings travelled almost exclusively within the United States with West's World Shows, Endy Bros. Shows, Cetlin-Wilson Shows, Royal American Shows and Clyde Beatty's Circus Sideshow.
By all accounts, William was a good man who happened to drink too much. He eventually fell into alcoholism and his addiction shortened his life substantially. He passed away in 1959.
Esther, on the other hand, flourished with her charming smile and enchanting personality fascinating all who met her. She married Thomas Blackmon at the age of twenty-two and would come to be best known as The World’s Strangest Mother in 1928 when she gave birth to her first child. In total, Esther gave birth to a total of six children. All were born healthy and with perfect skin.
Professionally, Esther became a member of the Greater Tampa Showmen's Association and was officially involved in show business for 56 years. In addition to exhibition, she was also featured briefly in two movies. In 1973, Esther appeared opposite Dr. Who’s Tom Barker in ‘The Mutations’, also known as 'The Freakmaker' and later she appeared in 'The Sentinel' in 1977 with fellow marvels Bill Durks and Robert Melvin.
When Esther Blackmon passed away on August 24 in 2003 she left behind six children, 16 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
She passed away only twelve days after her beloved husband.