During his time, Charles Tripp was not only the most well known armless wonder, he was also one of the most famous Canadian entertainers of his era. Born in Woodstock, Ontario on July 6, 1855 Charles Tripp owed much of his fame to his performance partner and dear friend Eli Bowen.
Charles Tripp was born without arms. But, as a young boy, he quickly adapted and became phenomenally adept at using his legs and feet as competently as a fully formed man would use their arms and hands. He was never exhibited during his youth but was well known locally for performing rather mundane daily tasks in extraordinary ways.
As a young man, Charles Tripp grew restless in his small hometown. As fortune would have it, at the age of seventeen, Charles heard of a showman in New York who exhibited special people with unusual talents. Seeing this as his opportunity for fame and fortune Charles Tripp packed his bags and headed to New York determined to meet the showman.All he had was a name, but that proved to be more than enough. The showman was P.T. Barnum.
Upon his arrival in New York, Tripp located Barnum’s office and marched in unannounced. Barefoot, he demonstrated his morning routine by combing his hair, folding his clothes and putting his socks on. Barnum hired Tripp immediately. His career would last more than fifty years.
Tripp performed many feats during his various exhibitions. Initially, most were of the daily mundane variety. His daily shave was always a crowd pleaser.But as Tripp grew into a learned and well traveled man his repertoire reflected his maturity. Eventually Tripp became well known for his elegant penmanship, woodcarving, paper crafts, painting and photography.
Charles Tripp spent the bulk of his career touring with Barnum and eventually Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey shows. Tripp was able to command as much as $200 a week during these tours, a figure supplemented by sales of his autographed cabinet cards.
It was during his partnership with Eli Bowen that Charles Tripp was truly able to attract public attention. Pairing an armless man with a legless one was surely a stroke of showman brilliance but it was a moment of jovial playfulness that would cement Tripp and Bowen into history. While the pair posed for promotional photographs one of them spotted a tandem bicycle. In no time at all the two gents not only mounted the bicycle-built-for-two, but rode off together laughing as boys would. The photographer quickly snapped the pair mid-ride and the resulting surreal photograph still draws perplexed smiles.
Tripp married late in life, in his early seventies. Following the marriage he limited his touring to North American dates. Aided by his wife, Charles Tripp toured until the day he died. In January of 1930 Tripp passed away due to asthma in Salisbury, North Carolina.
He was seventy-four years old.
image: Photo of Charles Tripp circa early 1890’s by Eisenmann. Signature on reverse.
image: Eli Bowen and Charles Tripp’s famous tandem bicycle photograph.