originally published July 16, 2014
In choosing to part with a precious dollar in order to venture beyond the chalky flap into the freak-show tent, one must be prepared for what one is about to experience. If you’re the type whose cup gurgleth over with empathy, you’ll likely succumb to the fangs of your own guilt, having paid a pittance to merely gawk at the afflicted (a similar guilt may also strike as one sits and gapes in a strip club, though the desire to see boobies often trumps the hand of conscience).
If you’re a skeptic, you’ll spend your time deducing the construct of the visual trickery before you. In today’s post-Mos-Eisley world of latex costuming and SFX rigging we’re all a little harder to fool than our grandparents were.
Or perhaps you’re a pragmatist, and your concern lies with those who don’t pony up a buck to help get these poor souls a decent meal.
The Spider-Legged Woman is probably a fake. The guy who’s only a head with no body is probably perched above a carefully-placed mirror that conceals his other parts. But step forward if you dare, for these folks I present to you today were anything but a myth. For the most part, they made their living along the outskirts of the big top because that was all they could think to do. Prepare to have your mind blown and your eyes boggled – I’m not making any of this up. Probably.
A prop leg? That’s a pretty simplistic gag, even for the early 20th century. But Frank Lentini was no scam artist; due to a partially absorbed conjoined twin, Frank boasted a completely functional, full-size third leg on the right side of his body. Part of his shtick involved booting a soccer ball across the stage to demonstrate the leg’s impressive capability. All three of his legs were different lengths: 38 and 39 inches for his primary legs and 36 for the extra one.
There was no concealing this abnormality; Frank’s options were either to hack the thing off or to make a little money with it. For whatever reason, he chose the latter, earning tremendous respect among his peers in the Barnum & Bailey Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Perhaps the reason he kept the leg lay between those limbs. You see, Frank also had a second fully-functional penile apparatus in his… auxiliary crotch. He married, settled down, and had four kids. Don’t ask me which of his penises fathered the kids – I only wish I had that information.
How do you top a three-legged man? How about a four-legged woman?
Myrtle Corbin’s body axis split as it developed, giving her two pelvises and four legs. The two inner legs matched one another – both were able to be moved at will, however they lacked the muscle strength to support her. Doctors attempted to classify her condition, however this was the 1870’s so they came up with ridiculous terms like “posterior dichotomy” and “the monocephalic, ileadelphic class of monsters of fusion.”
Like Frank, Myrtle was also a revered denizen of the sideshow circuit. And like Frank, she married and lived a long life. She also possessed a pair of sex-parts, and expressed a noted preference for getting down and funky on her right side. When she became pregnant (in her left uterus, which she found surprising), she became too ill to carry the baby to term. Fortunately, nature (and our resilient hormonal urge to screw) stepped in, and Myrtle would eventually spurt out four healthy, happy children.
Octoman, also known as Rudy Santos, is the oldest person ever to have lived with a parasitic twin attached to his frame. Born in 1953 to an impoverished family in the Philippines, Rudy has a leg, two arms, shoulders and nipples bulging from his pelvis. He also sports an undeveloped head (with hair and a visible ear) latched to his sternum. He joined the freak-show world out of necessity; he was too poor for surgery and too curiously constructed for much else.
Rudy wasn’t one for being a human spectacle, so he spent most of his life since the 1980’s away from the travelling show world and mired in the abyss of poverty. A Filipino expert on separating conjoined twins determined in 2008 that Rudy could be freed from his freeloading passenger, and allowed to live out his days without drawing the gaze of slack-jawed onlookers everywhere. He turned down the surgery, claiming he was too attached to his extra parts to desert them now.
Much like Professor Quirrell in the first Harry Potter book/movie, Edward Mordake was not a fan of that second face on the back of his head. The story goes that Edward was the heir to a noble English line of peerage, but that he refused to claim his title, choosing instead to live out his life in isolation. His is not a tale from the dusty gabble of a circus sideshow – Edward’s tale can only be found in the written words of his 19th-century physicians.
The face was recorded as smiling and sneering as Edward wept. It could make no noise, but its eyes would follow a person walking past it, its lips quietly flapping as though it were trying to speak. Edward begged his doctors to remove this “demon face”, claiming it spoke to him at night, uttering “hateful whispers” that spoke of “such things as they only speak of in Hell.” His suicide note – he was only 23 when he took his life with poison – pleaded for his demon face to be destroyed before his burial, lest it continue to haunt him beyond the grave.
If you’re not even a little creeped out by now, you have a stronger stomach than I.
The truth is, polymelia – the birth defect that results in extra limbs or body parts – happens all over the animal kingdom. Usually it’s a case of a twin that gets only partially reabsorbed by the body. Such was the case for Frank and Rudy – keep in mind, Myrtle’s condition was a result of dipygus, when her body axis forked during development (I don’t even want to speculate on what happened in Edward’s case). This is simply one of those weird wonders of human anatomy that science struggles to explain whilst faith passes the buck to the supreme being.
When tadpoles are attacked by the Ribeiroia bacteria, the ensuing frogs often exhibit symptoms of polymelia. A four-legged chicken was born in Somerset, Pennsylvania in 2005. A four legged duck named Stumpy appeared in England in 2007. Science just has a way of playing a wild-card sometimes.
Look, if you’re willing to sacrifice a smidgen of your paycheck to stare at someone who was dealt a cruddy hand at birth, I make no judgments. Me, I’ll take my dollar and blow it on mini-donuts. Less guilt, less chance of being duped by latex, mirrors and plaster-of-Paris, and more free time to puke on the Tilt-A-Whirl or watch those clowns crawl out of that tiny little car. I love those guys.