Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 3

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III

FREAKS AND FAKES

No saying attributed to P. T. Barnum has been more widely quoted than the remark that “the public likes to be humbugged.” Certainly this comment on the credulity of the masses opens up a most curious and entertaining field, and its mention in a company of old showmen is sure to provoke a flood of reminiscences on the subject of fakes, freaks and fakers. There is scarcely another line of experience concerning which veteran showmen more enjoy comparing notes—possibly because it touches on the secrets of the craft. Though it is true that Mr. Barnum was a master in the science of humbugging the public, and did not disclaim that distinction, it must be said in justice to him that in the course of his long professional career he gave the people more for their money than any other showman, living or dead.

A little inside information on this hidden side of the showman’s business may be entertaining to a public which has often experienced the pleasure of being humbugged. Certainly no fake is entitled to take precedence over the celebrated "Cardiff Giant." This was the invention of a certain George Hull. He lived, I think, at Binghamton, New York, and manufactured the giant in a rude shop on the small farm which he worked. Hull was shrewd, energetic and very persistent, as may be seen by the fact that the elaboration of the idea of his fake and its execution occupied him more than four years. He thought the whole matter out, even to the most minute details, before beginning work on it. Without any knowledge of the art of sculpture or the science of anatomy, he set himself resolutely at work to remedy these defects of education. He had considerable aptitude with the chisel, and gradually developed the skill necessary to hew out a figure that was to be put before the public as a relic of an age so remote that no person would be likely closely to criticise its proportions. Hull also knew that, no matter what the age in which his giant was supposed to have lived, the "remains" must show pores in the skin to pass the scrutiny of even the unlearned. The making of these pores required more time and labor than all the other work of making the "Cardiff Giant." The work occupied many months, and was all performed in the "studio" or shop where it was at last finished to Hull's satisfaction.

THE BURIAL AND RESURRECTION OF THE "CARDIFF GIANT"

Preparations were then made for the giant's burial in order that when brought to public view it might show the proper evidence of antiquity. It was buried in the side of a hill only a few rods from the outbuilding, where it had been chiseled from a huge block of stone taken from that very hill. In all this work, huge and heavy as the uncut stone and the giant hewn out of it were, Hull had only the assistance of one man, a sled and a yoke of oxen in moving them. This helper was a green and stolid German immigrant, utterly devoid of curiosity, and the man who helped to bury the giant was another of the same description.

The statue was allowed to remain more than two years in the ground before its maker considered it to be in proper condition for "accidental" discovery. Hull then promptly "discovered" and dug out the "petrification," and placed it on public view to amaze and perplex people generally and to delight the antiquarians, who found it an argument to uphold some of their most cherished theories. It took its name from the fact that near the spot where it was buried and resurrected was a small hamlet called Cardiff. The public career of the "Cardiff Giant" was not of long continuance, however, but was sufficiently lengthy to enable Mr. Hull to make considerable money out of his clever conception. He declared, however, that he might have made much more money if he had accepted Mr. Barnum's offer made at the time of the giant's first appearance in public. Mr. Hull knew, too, that exposure was bound to come in the end, but that mattered not to him. For many years thereafter the "Cardiff Giant" reposed neglected in the very shop in which it was made; but its owner and inventor averred that he was entirely content with the financial result of his ingenuity.


"Bridgeport, Oct. 8, 1870.

"My Dear Coup: Yours received. I will join you in a show for next spring and will probably have Admiral Dot well trained this winter and have him and Harrison in the show. Wood will sell all his animals right, and will furnish several tip-top museum curiosities. You need to spend several months in New York arranging for curiosities, cuts, cages, bills, etc. All things got from Wood I will settle for with him and give the concern credit. We can make a stunning museum department. If you want to call it my museum and use my name it may be used by allowing me the same very small percentage that Wood allows for calling himself my successor (3 per cent on receipts). You can have a Cardiff Giant that won't crack, also a moving figure, Sleeping Beauty or Dying Zouave a big Gymnastic figure like that in Wood's museum, and lots of other good things, only you need time to look them up and prepare wagons, etc., etc.

"Yours truly, 
"P. T. Barnum."

"I will spare time to cook up the show in New York when you come. I think Siamese Twins would pay."


The year 1884 is a memorable one in the annals of circus history, and circus men remember it as the "White Elephant Year." For many years persistent attempts had been made by enterprising showmen to secure for exhibition purposes a sacred white elephant. Schemes by the score had been discussed in the confidential councils of the showmen in winter quarters, with a view to faking a black elephant into a white one, but without satisfactory results. In the winter of 1883, however, it was given out by Mr. Barnum's manager that he had positively succeeded in purchasing from the King of Siam a sacred white elephant. The press was splendidly "worked" in advance, and the sacred white elephant monopolized the gossip of circus circles.

THE RIVAL WHITE ELEPHANTS

A great rivalry had for some years existed between Mr. Barnum and a Philadelphia circus man, and the public was greatly surprised, just before the opening of the season, to find that, according to newspaper report, the latter also had quietly and unostentatiously imported a sacred white elephant known as the "Light of Asia," which, from the descriptions of the few favored scribes who had seen it, was a marvel of beauty and color. Rumors also were circulated that Barnum's white elephant was not genuine, but only a diseased or leprous elephant with a "blaze" of cream color down its trunk, and discolored or spotted legs, while the Philadelphia showman's animal was of snowy whiteness, without spot or blemish. Public sentiment ran high, especially in Philadelphia, where the shows were to exhibit simultaneously. While public opinion was divided as to the genuineness of these "sacred" animals, it may be well to say that the Barnum
Sawdust and Spangles (63).jpg

WHEN A "WHITE ELEPHANT" WAS NEEDED.

animal was as good a specimen of the genuine white elephant as could be procured, while the Philadelphia elephant, pretty as a picture and superbly snow white in color, was supposed to be a lively "fake."

While on exhibition, this "Light of Asia" was almost entirely covered with a black velvet-spangled cloth, and the trunk had been manipulated in such a way that visitors could touch it, and as no coloring matter came off on their hands I presume that part of the body had in some way been "sized" or enameled.

HOW THE "LIGHT OF ASIA" EMBARRASSED THE LECTURER

During the performance the white elephant would be introduced and stripped of its velvet trappings on the elevated stage between the two rings, while a learned "professor" descanted eloquently on opposition in general and the genuineness of this white elephant in particular. So well was this part of the program carried out that popular opinion was at least equally divided regarding the genuineness of the competing white elephants. Long afterward the "lecturer" told me that this white elephant, having learned to recognize and like him, would endeavor to salute him by rubbing up against him after the manner of elephants. Had the animal succeded, the effect would have been to leave white marks on the black coat of the lecturer, who had all he could do to continue his lecture and at the same time dodge the friendly advance of the white elephant. About the middle of the season, after getting all the benefit they could out of the white elephant war, Barnum and his rival came to an amicable understanding, and divided territory with each other, and the "Light of Asia" was withdrawn.

The following winter it was given out that the animal had taken cold and died in Philadelphia, but there are plenty of showmen who aver that the animal is as lively and healthy as ever, though wearing black instead of chalky white. A somewhat significant fact regarding this fake was that during the previous summer its owners had been annoyed on arrival in various towns to find an opposition sideshow, with its canvas already up. It belonged to an Englishman whose sole attraction was a yellow horse. No one had ever heard of a yellow horse before, and the farmers for miles around came in and eagerly paid ten cents to see this wonder. The animal was not particularly beautiful, but was certainly a bright yellow, as were also the hands of his master. In fact, there was no doubt but that its owner had rubbed the animal well with yellow ochre. The proprietor of the "Light of Asia" paid the show a visit and laughed heartily at the deception. After looking at the horse a little while, he remarked to its owner: "Well, if you can turn a gray horse yellow, you should be able to turn an elephant white." What happened afterward I am unable to say, but, singular to relate, the following spring, when the "Light of Asia" was "imported," a special trainer was brought with it from Siam who gave the animal his exclusive care and attention. This trainer was an Englishman, and many of the circus attaché's thought they had seen the man exhibiting the yellow horse.

In 1883, while passing down the Bowery in New York, I heard my name loudly shouted. Turning around I met an English showman who was just then managing one of the many dime museums then established in that thoroughfare.

"Come inside, Mr. Coup," said he, "and I will show you my latest."

"Your latest what?" said I.

"Fake," he answered. "These freaks want too much money, and are nearly played out, anyway, so I'm making fresh ones now."

THE WILD CAVE-DWELLER OF KENTUCKY

The place was packed with people, and an enormous banner on the outside depicted a savage-looking wild man. He was described as having been captured in the caves of Kentucky. I followed my acquaintance upstairs, and in due time, after a preliminary lecture, a door was thrown open, disclosing what looked like a prison cell, in which, chained to an iron grating, stood a man closely resembling the one represented in the picture. His skin was of a tawny yellow, his body was covered with hair, and he ravenously snapped at and ate the lumps of raw beef which an attendant threw to him.

I cannot say that it was a pleasant sight, but from its effect on the spectators it was undoubtedly a satisfactory one, and as the door closed on it I said to my acquaintance:

"Where did you get him?"

He replied: "Why, you know the man well. He traveled with you two seasons. Come inside and talk with him."

I followed him, and no sooner were we in the cage than the terrible "wild man" held out his hand to me and said, "How do you do, Mr. Coup?" The voice was strangely familiar. I scrutinized the fellow's features and recognized in him a Russian who had been exhibited in our sideshow as a "hairy man." He had allowed his skin to be dyed yellow and his whiskers and hair black, and, for a consideration of about four times his usual salary, was now posing as a wild man. He afterward went West and continued this mode of exhibition for several months, until he was played out in that capacity, whereupon a few warm baths enabled him to resume his former employment as "Ivanovitch, the hairy man."

Another celebrated fake which met with success in the East was' the "dog-faced man." The Englishman before spoken of engaged a variety performer who was an adept at imitating the barking of dogs. The manager had in his possession an old photograph of "Jo-jo, the dog-faced boy," and was resolved to place a good imitation of this freak before the American public. He accordingly had made a very expensive wig which covered completely the head, face and shoulders. Dressing the man in the garb of a Russian peasant, he advertised him as "Nicolai Jacobi, the Russian dog-faced man." So good was the .disguise that they exhibited an entire week at a Jersey City museum, deceiving even the astute proprietor. Next they went to Boston, where they played to the most phenomenal business on record. The proprietor of the museum had a very clever cartoonist in his employ, and as the Englishman and his dog-faced friend walked from the station to the museum they saw nothing but pictures of dog-faced men. In front of the museum, in a large cage, was one of the fiercest wildcats they had even seen, labeled,

"The pet of the dog-faced man."

They played, as I have said, to phenomenal business. For two weeks thousands of persons daily struggled for the privilege of paying ten cents to see this amusing fake. At the end of that time one of the employé's betrayed the secret to a reporter and the attraction was rendered valueless. Strange to relate, the success of this "fake" was the means of bringing from Europe the original dog-faced boy, "Jo-jo," who for several years drew a good salary at the various dime museums, but never created so much excitement by virtue of his genuineness as the "fake" did.

THE TWO-HEADED GIRL'S THREE-HEADED RIVAL

Millie Christine, the "two-headed nightingale," had been exhibiting in New York City, and public attention was called, shortly afterward, to the fact that a lady with three perfect heads would be exhibited on a certain day. Now, this strange being was really an optical illusion, built on the same lines as the ghost show invented by Professor Pepper. Three girls were used, and all portions of their figures not intended to be shown were covered with a black cloth. The whole illusion is merely an effect of light and shade.

Still another "fake" that not only "drew" well but positively deceived the whole New York press, was the "Dahomey Giant." About 1882 a very tall specimen of the African race walked into an Eastern museum looking for work. He was actually over seven feet in height, and had never been on exhibition. Knowing that his value as a negro giant would be but little, the proprietors resolved to introduce him as a monster wild African. After consulting Rev. J. G. Woods' Illustrated History of the Uncivilized Races, it was determined to make a Dahomey of the tall North Carolinian. A theatrical costumer was set to work to make him a picturesque garb. A spurious cablegram was issued, purporting to be from Farini, of London, stating that the Dahomey giant had sailed with his interpreter from London and would arrive in Boston on or about a certain date.

The man, with his interpreter, was then taken by train to Boston, from which city they, in due time, wired the museum proprietor of their arrival. That telegram was answered by another telling them to take the first Fall River boat for New York City. The press was then notified, and the representatives of five New York papers were actually sent to the pier the following morning to interview the distinguished stranger from Dahomey. The man had been well schooled, and pretending not to know a word of the English language, could not, of course, converse with the reporters. But his interpreter managed to fill them up very comfortably. At all events, long and interesting accounts of the "snuff-colored giant from Dahomey" appeared in most of the dailies, and for several weeks this Dahomey was the stellar attraction at that particular dime museum. The advent of summer and its consequent circus season closing the city museums, the Dahomey "joined out" with a side show in which, for successive seasons, he posed as a Dahomey giant, a Maori from New Zealand, an Australian aborigine and a Kaffir. This man's success was the initiative for a score of other negroes, who posed as representatives of any foreign races the side-show proprietor wished to exhibit.

MISSING LINKS AND DANCING TURKEYS

Krao, the "missing link," as she was called, was simply a hairy child, and almost exactly like Annie Jones, who was exhibited by Barnum as the "Esau Child." A great card for museums at one time was the "human-faced chicken." The first one placed on exhibition was purchased in good faith by an acquaintance of mine, and proved a good attraction. A visiting farmer, however, declared that it was nothing but an ordinary chicken which had had its bill frozen off, and so it proved.

Dancing turkeys were then introduced and caused great amusement. The awkward birds would walk onto their exhibition stage and go through a decidedly grotesque dance, their mode of lifting their feet being highly laughable. The truth was that the stage on which they danced was a piece of sheet-iron covered with a cloth. The iron was heated to an uncomfortable degree by gas jets underneath. What the public accepted as dancing was really the efforts made by the birds to prevent their feet from being burned.

THE SALARIES PAID TO FREAKS

The spread of the dime museum craze created a great demand for freaks and a consequent rise in their salaries. I know I am violating no confidence when I say that at various times the following freaks have drawn weekly the sums set opposite their names:

"La Tocci Twins," $1,000.00
"Millie Christine," 600.00
"Wild Man of Borneo," 300.00
"Chang, the Chinese Giant," 400.00
"Chemah, the Chinese Dwarf," 300.00
Ordinary giants and midgets, $30.00 to 100.00
Bearded ladies, 30.00 to 75.00
Living skeletons, 30.00 to 75.00
Armless men, 30.00 to 100.00
Ossified men, 30.00 to 200.00

And as an offset to the above figures, I have heard of a tatooed man who would talk outside, exhibit himself inside, do a turn of magic, lift barrels of water with his teeth, and, as boss canvasman, superintend the putting up and pulling down of the show, all for six dollars a week. He must have been first cousin to the man who traveled with the circus simply to be able to sit on the fence and hear the band play.

It will doubtless seem incredible to the person unused to the society of freaks that these unfortunates should take a seeming pride in their distinguishing misfortunes and be jealous of their reputations; this, however, is one of the strongest traits of the typical freak. In our show at one time we carried two giants, a Captain Benhein, a Frenchman, and Colonel Goshin, an Arabian. These two fellows were almost insanely jealous of each other, and it was ludicrous to hear the threats which they exchanged; many times it seemed that a personal encounter was imminent, but the Arabian's courage seemed in inverse proportion to his size.

THE LOVE-MAKING AND MERRY-MAKING OF THE FREAKS

Referring to Goshin as an Arabian brings to light a curious fact with regard to freaks of great size. He was not an Arabian, but a negro picked up by "Yank Robinson" in Kentucky. So confirmed is the habit of speaking of him as an Arabian that it has become second nature with me, and I think that this tendency is almost universal with showmen; they become so accustomed to enlarging on the fictitious characters for which their freaks are played that I sometimes think they almost get to believe these stories themselves.

Among the freaks the women were almost universally jealous of their professional reputations. Hannah Battersbey, who weighed more than four hundred pounds, recognized Kate Heathley as her particular rival, and either of these women could be instantly thrown into a jealous passion at the mention of the other's claim to superiority in the matter of weight. The strange alliances which sometimes took place in the freak world are well illustrated by the marriage of the weighty Hannah to a living skeleton who touched the scales at sixty-five pounds.

Before leaving the subject of freaks I must mention the strangest sight that it was ever my fortune to look upon in the course of a life spent in association with human novelties. Early in my career I was fortunate enough to secure the show rights for a fair in Montgomery, Ala., which was held just at the end of the northern show season. This circumstance resulted in bringing to the fair a most unusual number of small shows, the main attractions of which were freaks of every kind and color. My royalties were very large, and I was naturally expected to do something handsome by the people who had contributed to this success; consequently I gave a dinner to the "freaks," and that banquet table presented a scene probably unrivaled in history. I only wish I were able to give anything approaching an adequate description of that festal board. At the head of the table was the towering figure of an eight-foot giant, while at the other extremity of the board sat a thirty-six-inch dwarf. The jests which were bandied between the banqueters are worthy a place in a history of wit. A single instance, however, will give an idea of the peculiar terms with which these people enlivened the occasion. As the "Armless Man" helped himself to potatoes, the "Bearded Lady" opposite him called out, "Hands off!" and the whole company shouted with laughter.

The famous "Australian Children," who made several fortunes for their exhibitors, came from Circleville, Ohio, and were the children of a mulatto. Occasionally the showman met with distressing but amusing experiences resulting from the identification of his freaks on the part of the public.

THE EXPOSURE OF THE "AZTEC CHILDREN"

While I was absent from my show my manager once engaged two boys with heads little larger than teacups; one of them had a club foot and had some little claim to intelligence. Our people had painted them to look like savages, and they were exhibited as the "Aztec Children." One day when the lecturer was expatiating upon these remarkable children a burlo countryman shouted:

"Hello, John Evans, I know you; I worked in the harvest field with you many a day; oh, you can't fool me."

The "Aztec child" had been taught to make no reply to anything said to him, and the lecturer paid no attention to anything said to the countryman's interruption, but the countryman was not to be put down, and once more he shouted:

"Say, Bill Evans, maybe you think I don't know that club foot; just come off, now."

The audience was greatly amused at this, and the lecturer saw that he had plenty of trouble on hand; consequently he called the countryman aside and told him that he was certainly mistaken as to the identity of the freak. "Oh, no, I ain't," replied the obdurate fellow; "and what is more, you and your whole shebang are frauds and humbugs." Then the lecturer took another tack, gave the countryman five dollars, and thought the incident closed; but it was not, for the fellow proceeded to spend his money on whisky and tell his friends of his discovery, with the result that the business at that point was ruined.

From the viewpoint of the showmen there are "fakers" and "fakirs." Under the former head we class the men who conceive and manufacture fakes of the kind already described. The fakirs are altogether of a different kind, being the camp-followers who hang on the heels of a circus for the purpose of swindling the public by every variety of device known to the "blackleg fraternity."

Frequently a number of illegitimate shows start out, and, before doing so, announce that faking privileges are to be leased. The leaders of the various gangs make the arrangements with the circus proprietors, depositing a sum of money in the ticket wagon with which to "square squeals," then the tribe of showmen and fakirs start out on their nefarious pilgrimages, the shows furnishing the transportation for the fakirs. One of the fakirs in connection with each show is selected as the "squarer." He is generally a member of various secret societies and orders, and his particular duty is to bribe the petty officers of the towns visited, to secure immunity from arrest. Lottery schemes, gambling games of every sort, pocket-picking and robbing are among the methods by which these fakirs reap their harvest.

AN ADVENTURE WITH A CIRCUS SHARP

My life has been frequently threatened and twice attempted because of my persistent determination to drive this thieving fraternity from my shows. One day in a small western town a man introduced himself to me as the brother of a very respectable Chicagoan and explained that he was on his way to Texas to join in certain speculations. I at once suspected him of being a fakir and gave orders to the manager of the side-show to get rid of him and all his kind. A little later the landlord came to me and said: "Mr. Coup, there is a fellow out here who says he will shoot you on sight; he is one of the men traveling with you." On investigation I found that he was not the man who had introduced himself to me, but was one of the gang attempting to work the show: he bore a desperate reputation, and was popularly credited with having killed several men; all of my employés stood in fear of him, and I concluded to appeal to the mayor of the town for necessary protection and assistance. Before doing so, however, I put on a heavy ulster, in each side-pocket of which I placed a loaded six-shooter. With a finger on the trigger of each revolver I started out to find the mayor. While crossing the public square I met the man who had threatened to shoot me. Stopping squarely in front of him I said: "I believe you have threatened and intend to kill me, and I want to say to you that you will never find a better opportunity to do so than right now." He proposed to argue the question with me, but I simply insisted that he should leave town at once. The outlaw began a tirade of abuse, and remarked that he was a southern man. "Well," I answered, "if you wish to bring that question into the argument, I am a northern man, and you may tell this to all of your tribe." That ended the matter, and he left town that afternoon; but if he had not known that I had two six-shooters pointed directly at him, I would probably not have been left to tell the tale.

In my battles against the fakirs I have universally relied upon the strong arms of my husky "canvasmen," and more than once I have armed them with clubs concealed under their coats, with the result that the fakirs were driven from the field with broken arms and noses. It is a lamentable fact that not a few of the wealthiest showmen in this country have swelled their fortunes by the "rake-off" from the despicable gains of these blacklegs and tricksters.