ELI BOWEN – The Legless Acrobat

eli-bowen-leggles circus freak

The remarkable Eli Bowen was born in Ohio on October 14, 1844 as one of ten children. While his siblings were physically average, Eli was born with his disproportional feet attached directly to his pelvis.

In essence, Eli Bowen was a man born with feet but no legs.Despite his physical configuration, or perhaps because of it, Eli strived to live an extraordinary life. He endeavoured to not only overcome the limitations of his deformity, but strived to be the best in a profession know for its perfect physiques and physically taxing routines.Eli Bowen wanted to be an acrobat.Eli learned early to use his arms and hands to compensate for his lack of legs. Eli would hold thick, wooden blocks in his palms and use them as ‘shoes’, elevating his torso in order to walk on his hands. As a result of that process as well as steady farm labour Bowen developed enormous strength and even in adulthood he was able to navigate his 140 pound frame anywhere he chose. He started his professional career at the age of 13 in various wagon shows before eventually touring independently, performing in dime museums and finally touring Europe with Barnum and Bailey Circus. He garnered a reputation for being a magnificent and effortless tumbler and acrobat and for his phenomenal feats of strength.

Billed as ‘The Legless Acrobat’ Eli Bowen was known for his remarkable tumbling abilities but was applauded internationally for his extraordinary routine known simply as ‘the pole routine’. While Eli stood only twenty-four inches in height he had no reservations about climbing a thirteen foot pole in order to balance on a single hand at its peak. Gripping the pole Eli would stretch his torso straight, parallel to the ground, and spin around the pole. Eli would then hold himself parallel to the pole using only his right arm. The routine not only displayed Bowen’s strength, but was also unusually graceful. Soon, Eli Bowen was commanding a salary of over $100 a week.

As he grew into adulthood, Eli Bowen also became well known for his handsome looks and, at one point, he was considered by many to be the most handsome man in show business.

Eli Bowen’s good looks drew many female fans to his performances. At the age of 26 Eli married 15-year-old Mattie and together he eventually fathered 4 healthy sons. He took great pride in his family and the majority of the photos featuring Eli feature his family as well. In fact, as Eli was so regularly photographed a collector can actually watch his children grow into young men and, eventually, adults.

Bowen continued to perform into his 80’s simply because he loved performing. His sons were prosperous, one became a merchant and another became a lawyer and judge and Eli owned property, specifically two farms in Michigan, and so money was never much of a concern. Eli simply loved life in the public eye and could not give up performing.

On May 2, 1924 Eli Bowen passed of pleurisy just days before a scheduled performance for The Dreamland Circus at Coney Island. During his long career he was regarded with great reverence by his fellow performers. They lovingly referred to him as ‘Captain Eli’.

 

17 Comments

  • Reply March 18, 2008

    JW

    This is an AWESOME Blog!

  • Reply March 19, 2008

    Jan Michael Yu

    ditto.

  • Reply April 5, 2008

    J. Tithonus Pednaud

    Well, thank you both for the compliments.

  • Reply June 1, 2008

    Anonymous

    This site is sort of addictive b/c these people’s lives were so amazing.

  • Reply October 7, 2008

    B.T.

    I bought an old photo album years ago and yesterday I decided to start researching people in the book. Well, the first photograph I pick up was of a man with feet but no legs with his wife and son. I was amazed and surprized at the picture. The back of the photo was entitled Eli Bowen, Wife, and Son. Something was handwritten on the back too, but I can quite read what it says. I think it might be the date. Last night I googled his name and was surprise at how famous this guy was. What an inspiration he is! And how weird is it that I have one of his photographs. Now I am trying to learn as much about him as possible. Thank for this site. Do you know if there are any books or movies on him? Or where I can find more info?

  • Reply March 28, 2009

    Steve

    This blog is fantastic. I find myself coming back again and again. You are a great writer: you’re never sensationalistic, you seem to genuinely empathise with the people you write about, where other blogs see them just as ‘freaks’ you show them just as unique people. There’s so much mediocrity in blogs these days, but yours certainly is not one of them, so thank you.

    (One thing: half way down you have him ‘griping’ a pole. I think that should be ‘gripping’ with two P’s)

  • Reply November 22, 2010

    G. Vickererson

    This is a great blog with a lot of ubique information on eli bowen as well as other in that particular time period I have recently came to gaine ownership of a picture of eli bowen wife and child taken in the late 1800’s, the photograph states the following on the back-sideA. Newman photographer ground floor skylight 228 north ninth street phiidelphia photo shows eli’s lt. arm around son and wife standing behind them. Photo is ingreat condition. I am very interested in knowing if anyone would be interested in a photo of this type. (CDV photograph)

  • Reply February 23, 2011

    casey eitemiller

    im related to him

  • […] looks and, at one point, he was considered by many to be the most handsome man in show business. (Link)  google_ad_client = "ca-pub-7085498550487038"; /* below post medium banner */ google_ad_slot […]

  • […] The remarkable Eli Bowen was born in Ohio on October 14, 1844 as one of ten children. While his siblings were physically average, Eli was born with his disproportional feet attached directly to his pelvis. In essence, Eli Bowen was a man born with feet but no legs. Despite his physical configuration, or perhaps because of it, Eli strived to live an extraordinary life. He wanted to be an acrobat. Eli learned early to use his arms and hands to compensate for his lack of legs. Eli would hold thick, wooden blocks in his palms and use them as ‘shoes’, elevating his torso in order to walk on his hands. As a result of that process as well as steady farm labour Bowen developed enormous strength and even in adulthood he was able to navigate his 140 pound frame anywhere he chose. He started his professional career at the age of 13 in various wagon shows before eventually touring independently, performing in dime museums and finally touring Europe with Barnum and Bailey Circus. He garnered a reputation for being a magnificent and effortless tumbler and acrobat and for his phenomenal feats of strength. Billed as ‘The Legless Acrobat’ Eli Bowen was known for his remarkable tumbling abilities but was applauded internationally for his extraordinary routine known simply as ‘the pole routine’. While Eli stood only twenty-four inches in height he had no reservations about climbing a thirteen foot pole in order to balance on a single hand at its peak. Gripping the pole Eli would stretch his torso straight, parallel to the ground, and spin around the pole. Eli would then hold himself parallel to the pole using only his right arm. The routine not only displayed Bowen’s strength, but was also unusually graceful. Soon, Eli Bowen was commanding a salary of over $100 a week. As he grew into adulthood, Eli Bowen also became well known for his handsome looks and, at one point, he was considered by many to be the most handsome man in show business. (Link) […]

  • Reply April 7, 2011

    Ellie

    I’m blown away by all the amazing people on this site & the stories of their lives, what an inspiration to us all. The irony is, they probably didn’t think they were amazing, they just got on with it regardless. I wish I could have met some of these people.
    @Casey Eitemiller, it must be cool to know you had someone as talented & well respected as that in your family.

  • […] looks and, at one point, he was considered by many to be the most handsome man in show business. (Link) […]

  • […] Eli Bowen (“The Legless Acrobat”)and Charles Tripp (“The Armless Wonder”) were turn of the century human marvels.  They performed feats of dexterity and strength for circus and carnival sideshow audiences.  They are most famous for a single photograph.  It shows the two riding a tandem bicycle, using the only limbs they had. Bowen steered with his arms while Tripp peddled with his legs. […]

  • Reply April 30, 2013

    Sheet Music

    Came across this while researching pleurisy — fascinating information!

  • Reply July 6, 2013

    rebecca eitemiller

    He was a relative of mine. If anyone does have some photos of him and his family I’d be interested in them. I think they would make a great birthday present for my dad. He already has a few portraits hanging in his house. Eli was a very interesting man. You can contact me at rebeccaeitemiller@gmail.com thank you!

  • […] info: Source The remarkable Eli Bowen was born in Ohio on October 14, 1844 as one of ten children. While his […]

  • […] via [source] […]

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