Freaking out (sometimes) about circus freaks

When I was eight, sleeping at my grandparents’ house, I had a sheet-crumpling nightmare. A hairy woman made me cry.

Hearing my distress, my grandpa stumbled into the darkened bedroom. I pointed at the closet door. There. She’s in there, I whimpered. Grandpa had his hands full. Christ, I’m sure he thought. Right, the ugliest woman in the world is in that musty little closet. I was inconsolable, until sleep enveloped me. Miffed, grandpa went back to bed. My persistent visions of sideshow freaks had receded. For now.

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Lionel the Lion-Faced Man.

Ever since I received on my eighth birthday the book “Very Special People” — a gift I expressly asked for — I think about circus freaks and human anomalies with worrisome frequency. I’m mildly obsessed with Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man, and I still wonder about Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and Lionel the Lion-Faced Man and how much they saved on razors.

But I also reflect on Julia Pastrana, a 4½-foot-tall Mexican woman who was carpeted in black, bristly hair, a victim of hypertrichosis terminalis, and cursed with an abnormally huge jaw, lips and ears. She also sang like an angel. A sideshow super-celebrity in the 1800s, her stage names varied from the Ape Woman to the Nondescript. She was mostly billed as “The Ugliest Woman in the World.”

Her life was a disaster.

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Julia Pastrana

She married her conniving manager. They had a child. The baby was covered in thick black fur. Julia died of a broken heart days later.

The husband-manager saw his meal ticket full. So he made a business decision. He had both Julia and the baby mummified and exhibited their bodies around the world in one of the most grotesque and morally reprehensible exploitations in the annals of showbiz. Eventually he died. More than a few people were glad.

Julia’s story doesn’t end there. Her body was eventually stored at the University of Oslo, Norway, before, after protracted bureaucratic folderol, she was finally laid to rest in Mexico in 2013 — 153 years after her death.

BuzzFeed has an excellent report about Pastrana’s bizarre history. Or you can pick up the slim 2005 book “Julia Pastrana: The Tragic Story of the Victorian Ape Woman”, an intriguing précis of her life and an exploration of the bonkers culture of old-time freak shows. Coming in October is “The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home,” which describes the painstaking return of Pastrana’s body to her native Mexico.

The freak shows of yore groan with heartache, abuse, loneliness, rank exploitation and the flagrant theft of human dignity. Joseph Merrick’s years in Victorian sideshows as the “terrible” Elephant Man are well-documented, filled with physical and verbal abuse and life-threatening illness, not to mention the wholesale degradation of body and spirit.

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Chang & Eng, apparently good in bed.

Yet many of these “freaks of nature” were extravagantly compensated, sometimes making $1,000 a week or more — a royal wage for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They married, had children. Chang and Eng, known as the original Siamese twins, joined at the sternum, had 21 children between them and lived in middle-class prosperity. (They even, reportedly, owned slaves.)

America’s most famous bearded lady, Annie Jones, enjoyed a superstar’s life in the late 1800s, hirsute and happy on the high life — a furry Myrna Loy. She worked for showman P.T. Barnum as a top-billed circus attraction, and had the good sense to lobby to have the term “freaks” banished from the shows. She married twice, divorcing her first hubbie to marry her childhood sweetheart. Jones blossomed early: She had a mustache and sideburns at age five, putting many a latter-day hipster to tearful shame. So famous was she that photographer Matthew Brady, the Richard Avedon of his time, had her pose for him.

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Annie Jones, living high.

Tennessee-born Myrtle Corbin was tagged “The Four-Legged Woman,” the reason manifest in the photo below. “However that moniker was slightly misleading,” according to bodacious site The Human Marvels. “While at a glance one could plainly see four legs dangling beyond the hem of her dress, only one pair actually belonged to her. The other set belonged to her dipygus twin sister.

“The tiny body of her twin was only fully developed from the waist down and even then it was malformed — tiny and possessing only three toes on each foot. Myrtle was able to control the limbs of her sister but was unable to use them for walking.”

(I just totally shuddered.)

Myrtle appeared under the banners of P.T. Barnum, Ringling Brothers and at Coney Island, hauling in $450 a week in the late 19th century. She married at 19, and “it was then that other aspects of her bizarre anatomy became evident,” says Human Marvels.

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Myrtle Corbin

“It seems that her twin sister was also fully sexually formed — thus Myrtle possessed two vaginas. She had four daughters and a son and it has been rumored that three of her children were born from one set of organs and two from the other.”

(Long shudder.)

So maybe I shudder and shake my head sometimes when I reflect on my very special people. Their unimaginable lives, their fantastic plights, can overwhelm a sensitive soul. Childish nightmares aren’t implausible, haunted dreams quite likely.

But I don’t have those nightmares anymore. I no longer believe some long-dead sideshow oddity is lurking in my closet. They lurk instead in the mind, crowding it with wonder, curiosity, not a little pity, and a soupçon of sadness. Nightmares or not, I can’t shake them, and I don’t think I want to.

 

Dog day on Aisle 5

I love animals, but more and more I realize that they just make me sad.

I saw a guide dog at the grocery store the other day, one of those creatures that plunges me into an inky funk on the spot. Sorrow all around — for the poor slave dog and, of course, for her disabled charge. (The world is ambient with woe, and sometimes I buckle.)

As guide dogs always do, this sweet baby had sad, downcast eyes. She was under-weight and scrawny, dirty and matted. Worse, she had a plumb-size tumor on a back leg and her spine spiked out like a mountain range.

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The guide dog’s plight.

I looked, sighed, and moved on to the saddest aisle I could find. (Not the half-hearted car accessories, and not the greeting cards, not this time.) My mood curdled by animal grief, I became philosophical, trying to deflect bad thoughts, such as the reality that millions of animals are far worse off around the world (I’ve seen, and petted, lots of them).

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Stray pup I befriended in Mumbai.

Then I saw the pair at the checkout and the gloom rushed back. The dog stared at the ground, sniffed a little, then her visually impaired owner, an overweight man in baggy clothing, let go of the leather handle strapped to the dog and it plunked down hard on her bony spine.

Enough. I moved on.

On my way out, I came upon the two standing at the exit. I decided to stop and meet the dog. I stroked her, asked her name and age. Her name is Romy, short for Romance, the nice guy, Peter, told me. She is 10. And she’s thin looking because of her age — I had a similar lab as a pet, and she too thinned out markedly in her dotage — and because she’s on a diet. She used to be fat and took a spill trying to clamber onto the bus because of her tubbiness. The tumor is benign.

I asked if he played with her and if she was happy, and he assured me heartily that he did and she was. He’s had Romy for eight years, and he pulled out a photo of him and her at her guide-dog graduation. She’s 2 in the picture, beaming proudly.

I said goodbye to Peter and Romy, feeling a lot better. I still choked up a little as I walked away.

‘The Elephant Man’ is David Lynch’s best film

“When I first heard the title an explosion went off in my brain, and I said, ‘That’s it.’ It was a true blessing to get that movie.” — David Lynch on “The Elephant Man” in a 2007 interview with yours truly

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David Lynch

In “The Elephant Man,” David Lynch’s disturbing-heartbreaking biopic from 1980, John Hurt plays the title character, born Joseph Merrick, a young man so monstrously deformed that people scream at the sight of him, forcing him to wear a burlap sack over his mountainous head and a shroud around his body, covering every inch of his warped, tumor-encrusted flesh, save for a normal, miraculously unblemished left hand.

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Embalmed in layers of latex and makeup, Hurt is entirely unrecognizable as Merrick. He’s like a knobby, gnarled, twisted tree trunk with sad, tiny eyes and a high, saliva-slurred voice. It’s an amazingly sensitive performance, that of an actor vanishing into and fully embodying a character. (Hurt, who died in January, was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role. He lost to Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull.”)

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(The real Joseph Merrick, left; John Hurt as Merrick in the film.) 

Co-starring a pointillistic Anthony Hopkins in perhaps his finest role, “The Elephant Man” is a showcase of virtuosity, from Lynch’s eccentric vision to Freddie Francis’ sumptuous black and white photography and John Morris’ chilling carnivalesque score. A study of two men — Hurt’s freak show celebrity and Hopkins’ conflicted physician caretaker — the 19th-century-set drama is also a tender inquiry into human dignity and compassion. In look, texture and emotional rewards, it’s a model of cinematic specialness, ravishingly artistic and uncontainably sad. It is, in short, Lynch’s masterpiece.

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Anthony Hopkins in maybe his best performance

It was none other than funnyman Mel Brooks who tapped Lynch to direct “The Elephant Man” as part of Brooks’ foray into producing serious films. He was struck by Lynch’s 1977 feature debut “Eraserhead,” a hallucinatory head-trip that’s become the epitome of the cult midnight movie. “Eraserhead” is the surrealist progeny of Dali and Buñuel’s “L’Age d’Or” (1930), shuddering with unsettling images, notably a reptilian squawking monster-baby and a small dancing girl inside a radiator, whose cauliflower growths on her face mirror the tumored deformities of Merrick. In our 2007 interview, Lynch called “Eraserhead” “My most spiritual film.”

If “The Elephant Man” is his most emotional film, it also doesn’t shirk the avant-garde flourishes beloved by Lynch, the master of modern surreal cinema. With their unnerving atmospherics, several scenes could be lifted from “Eraserhead”: the opening attack of Merrick’s mother by rumbling, trumpeting elephants; Merrick’s vertiginous nightmare; the elegiac denouement. The scenes are decidedly phantasmagorical, filled with dancing clouds of smoke; clanking and throbbing with ambient industrial noise; and damp with symbolic water and steam. Executives at Paramount wanted the sequences removed from the film, but Lynch prevailed.

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Lynch, cameraman Francis and production designer Stuart Craig evoke an eerie Victorian London in haunting black and white, the shades of dreams and nightmares. From the city’s backstreet slums to the boisterous freak shows, it’s a sooty, Dickensian world, paved in rain-soaked cobblestone and punctuated by hissing blasts of steam billowing from primitive machines. It sets a mood that puts you on edge for the entire picture, and it is somehow beautiful.

For all that, “The Elephant Man” remains the director’s most accessible movie — after, of course, the almost comically anomalous “The Straight Story,” a delightful G-rated family film released by Walt Disney in 1999.

Six years after “The Elephant Man” Lynch wrote and directed the gleefully perverse “Blue Velvet,” which landed him his second Best Director Oscar nod. (He’d earn a third for “Mulholland Drive.”) As violent and otherworldly as it is, “Blue Velvet” feels largely grounded and relatably human.

His next pictures — including the anarchic blaze of “Wild at Heart,” the tedious and drastically overestimated “Mulholland Drive,” the experimental mishmash of “Inland Empire” and television’s wearying “Twin Peaks” — not so much.

(Mercifully, I’ll skip Lynch’s ill-fated adaptation of “Dune,” his follow-up to “The Elephant Man.” When I asked him about it in our interview, he simply replied, “Heartache.”)

I have a hard time taking Lynch’s later work seriously. I’ve always thought the “strangeness” in these films was indulgent and sophomoric and not very well thought out. He suggested as much during our interview. He told me he made up the story for the three-hour ordeal that is “Inland Empire” as he was shooting it. Yup, that’s exactly what it feels like.

And that’s why the almost button-down linearity of “The Elephant Man” is rather a relief. It’s also why, possibly, die-hard Lynch fans, practically cultists, don’t talk a lot about his first studio film, going directly to “Blue Velvet” as a starting point. Despite its weird ornaments, “The Elephant Man” might be too mainstream, too Oscar-nominated for purists. The film earned eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

What’s different about “The Elephant Man” from the other movies is that it doesn’t traffic in abstractions and actually contains feeling, heart and soul. Though it’s never exploitative — it’s hardly emotional porn — it can be a wee manipulative. (There are least four crying scenes.) It’s Lynch’s most human, most humane, work of art.

It is his only film of unfettered beauty.

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Gross anatomy: the marvelously macabre Mütter Museum

Pathologies are my thing. Twisted limbs. Fleshy protrusions. Faces swathed in nappy hair, Chewbacca-like. Conjoined twins. Horns curling from foreheads. Extra heads — those are always fun.

I don’t revel in the maladies of others; I revel in the Other. People are fascinating. People are more fascinating with three legs.

This foible of mine, this adorable morbidity, came early on, delighting my parents, who stood back, weighed adoption strategies and ever so gingerly catered to my wiggier curiosities. For my eighth birthday I requested and received the illustrated book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities.” Since then, many have believed I belong in this book.

These outré fascinations have grown to include death and the dead, and have led me to abnormal forays in my frequent travels. There I was at the Royal London Hospital, sleuthing with the grace and aptitude of Inspector Clouseau for the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. (Mission: failed.) At the Golders Green Crematorium in London I witnessed roaring ovens and jars of fresh ashes, some heartbreakingly labeled “baby.”

There was the blech-fest of the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, where all squirm and squiggle of microbe-y monster were displayed in clear, fluid-filled cases, sometimes feasting on animal innards.

At the Museum of Forensic Medicine in Bangkok, medical students dissecting cadavers giggled when they saw me spying in the doorway, pointing my camera. I repaired upstairs to the musty exhibit of bottled fetuses, crumbling bones and full-length cadavers floating in dishwater liquid like humongous pickles.

My two noble efforts to see the freak show at Coney Island were thwarted by poor timing. Yanking on the bearded lady’s follicular abundance will have to wait.

Yet, for a constant traveler of my tastes and temperament, the Taj Mahal of the morbid has long been the famed Mütter Museum, a repository of anatomical horrors and shrine to primitive, rusty-tooled medicine in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is where, at last, after years gazing at its web site, I recently visited. Disappointment was not in the cards.

Part edifying scientific journey, part powerful appetite suppressant, the Mütter is smack in Philly’s city center, a brisk walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Inside, once through the deceptively donnish foyer, the museum is cool and musty, packed with old wood and glass cases revealing the historically pertinent — Florence Nightingale’s sewing kit — and the surgically slimy — a mammary tumor afloat in liquid, resembling a buttery dessert.

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Human skulls — some intact, some cracked or bullet-pocked — checker an entire wall, each tagged with the cause of death, be it hanging, suicide or disease. The brownish heads came to the Mütter from Central and Eastern Europe in 1874, a major acquisition for the medical institute, which boasts 62,000 visitors a year, many of them children on school field trips. (I want to go to their school.)

Founded in 1849 and named 10 years later for surgery professor Thomas Dent Mütter, the museum throws open in graphic, naturalistic detail the ranging possibilities of the human body, and the havoc that can befall it from within and without. Diseases, injuries, birth defects — it’s an elaborate temple to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Much of it is not pretty. This is a given. It can be ghastly, grisly, unimaginable. (The “wet specimens” section is home to a jar labeled “Moist Gangrene of the Hand.” In it sits a human hand rotted black, the skin tattered like a torn leather glove, bones poking from the wrist.)

But to merely recoil at the exhibits is to shut out a world of contemplation, and to allow an emotional reflex to override a rare opportunity for understanding.

Not that emotions wither in the objective, secular hothouse of science and medicine. We are human, after all. And the museum unpeels the tangible layers of our humanness, down to the bones in many cases.

Strolling the more than 3,500 square feet of tidy halls and floors, I experienced kaleidoscopic feelings, be it excitement or queasiness or, in the presence of deformed human fetuses, such as the child with “46 twists in the umbilical cord,” great sadness at life so cruelly muffled before it even whimpered.

The upward of 1,700 sticky specimens — a sliver of John Wilkes Booth’s thorax; a full skeleton encrusted in its owner’s ossified sinew and organs — and 20,000 objects — an archaic penile syringe, leech jar and bleeding bowl — demand gawkers to question our flesh-and-blood frailty and peer across the accepted borders of what constitutes normalcy.

Some guests will ponder God’s inscrutable will and the crap-shoot of birth; others might mull our fleshly finiteness, staring at them at every turn, and thank their lucky stars.

“The museum challenges visitors in a way that few American museums do,” says Dick Levinson, Mütter spokesman. “It’s impossible to visit here without confronting issues of sickness, mortality and human sexuality. We’re the museum young people love because we don’t preach, we don’t sugarcoat and we have no agenda except for allowing the voice of science to speak.”

That voice speaks loudly, but with fitting respect and as much dignity as a naked cadaver can possess. There’s humor in the macabre, as horror movies show, so a giggle of shock or a throwaway quip (“Hey, Tom, that skull has your cheekbones”) won’t ruffle the contemplative oxygen of the galleries. It eases the mood. Remember, school kids come here. By now, them bones and body parts understand the various responses of the living to the so forthrightly dead.

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Some of us get giddier than others at such places. I was most thrilled that the autopsy of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, was performed at the Mütter in the 1870s, and that the museum kept some nifty souvenirs for display. I examined the plaster cast of the twins’ bound torsos and, below it, their connected liver, a chalky, scabby island bobbing in a pan of fluid.

That’s an island this world traveler and seeker of the strange calls one thing: paradise.

A kitty’s single eye peered deep into our souls, and questioned life’s fragility

Like a perfect amber marble smooshed into its forehead, the eyeball rests in the kitty’s face. With no eyelid to blink it, the eye glistens and stares, evoking a comic book Martian or, naturally, the Cyclops of Greek myth, a towering, fearsome beast that wore the largest monocle in recorded history. Wags on the web have dubbed it the “cyclops kitten,” musing with by turns pity, laughter, skepticism and freaked-out fear about this botched job of nature. The solo orb, writes one poster, “peers deep into my SOUL.”

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The kitty and its creepy eye are captured in a startling Associated Press photo, and it’s no hoax. Scientists say so, terming the facial mishap “holoprosencephaly.” Named Cy by its owner, it was born Dec. 28, 2005 in Oregon and died the next day. It was also born without a nose, making it look to some like a one-eyed monkey. Cy was one in a litter of two kittens. Its sibling came out normal and is presumably destroying furniture as we write.

With that impressive peeper, Cy was the kitten’s pajamas. Its image held Net surfers in the queasy thrall of morbid fascination. The photo of the pink and white feline — laying on a bed of horror and pathos, the outsize uni-eye centered in its downy head — shot through the blogosphere.

For a good spell, the picture was one of the most viewed and most emailed photos at Yahoo, and “cyclops kitten” was one of the most searched keywords. Soon, a meticulous and loving painting of Cy, complete with the epigram RIP, was posted at 7deadlysinners.com. Other sites ran poems to Cy. (I bet you woulda made a great pet/woulda scared everybody at the vet.) While sympathy reigned, nasty people let loose with monikers like “devil cat.” One poster wrote, “That cyclops cat scared the bejesus out of me.”

That’s glib stuff when deeper reflection is demanded. Cy represents the crazy fragility of life, the cruel caprice of Mother Nature. And it throws into question Cy’s mother’s taste in tomcats.

Cy is gone now. A fleeting oddity that ruffled us for a moment. A sideshow distraction that made us feel and think. Cy’s owner did what anyone would do with such a gift and learning tool for humanity. She put it in the freezer.

Remembering Nicky

Lately I’ve been wondering where Nicky the dwarf wound up. Kids at my grade school used to taunt Nicky because he had an oversized head, was 2-and-a-half feet tall and rode around the playground on his tricycle. He had a heck of time walking with any haste, and he wore his hair in a fluffy manner fashionable during the late ’70s. The whole situation was pretty tragic, a bully’s delight.

I was more of an acquaintance than a friend of Nicky’s, and never a bully. This was in third and fourth grades. Nicky was a little younger than me and always wore this tiny jumpsuit that was gray with red pinstripes running up the abbreviated legs. He always wore sandals with white socks, too. I have no idea why I remember these details, but I’m pretty good that way. Ask my amnesiac brother, whose childhood memories begin at age 30.

Once when I went up the street to visit a kid named Billy, who was closer to my brother’s age, I was startled to find Nicky there. Were they related? Billy had elfin features, so maybe he was secretly an elf, and he and Nicky made toys. Maybe the two of them are very rich men today.

What stuck out most about Nicky was his voice. It was high and piping, yet it also bore the moaning, otherworldly timbres of the humpback whale’s song. Adult supervisors called yard duties walked about the playground with whistles around their necks — bored, lumbering sentinels scouring for youthful mischief. Too often it came in the dependable razzing of poor Nicky, and that’s when he would let out this pitiful cry in the voice of an old woman with laryngitis: “Yaaaa-rrrrd duuuu-tyy!” What broke your heart was that his voice had no muscle, so it didn’t carry beyond the circle of tormentors. It was like steam from a broken train whistle. It’s a sound, so many years later, I still hear precisely. (I actually do a pretty good imitation of it, if you just ask. Bring cookies.)

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Now, I hope this hasn’t gathered into one of those “insensitive” articles that elicit exercised emails. I don’t really care, because I don’t think it should, and I won’t read them. I suggest you don’t put “dwarf” in the subject line.

Truthfully, Nicky comes up only because he’s a vivid memory, and I spend an uncommon amount of time sifting through my past, which thrives in my head, brilliantly and fondly. His random invocation has nothing to do with a book or a movie. Those close to me know I think about that kind of stuff all the time. I can still, if you’d like, expound on Grace McDaniels, the Mule-Faced Woman, nearly 30 years after first seeing her in the book “Very Special People.” (Even Tom Waits has sung about homely Grace.)

My memories are active things. Here are a couple that just popped up: In 1976, at SeaWorld in San Diego, my mom got drenched by a walrus that sprayed a mouthful of water at her. On my ninth birthday, two friends and I threw dirt clods at the house next door and I busted one of its windows. We had to clean up the mess the next morning. At age 13, some friends and I dumped a bag of dog doo on someone’s doorstep. I got blood poisoning from a nasty BMX wreck at about the same time.

Nicky’s there, too, wheeling about on his tricycle, not knowing where he’s going, and unaware that some of us, so many years later, would think about the answer to just that.