The golden age of sideshow was built on the shoulders of deceit. It is human nature to exaggerate, and it was often in the nature of the Showman to boldly lie.
P.T. Barnum was not the first to do so, he only perfected flimflam into a science. In fact, his career began in 1835 with the fanciful tale of Joice Heth – the alleged 161 year old former nurse of George Washington. The story was, of course, completely false but that did not stop Barnum from creating elaborate histories for all of his performers.
Many sideshow performers added to their mythos by padding statistics. Few Fat Ladies were as fat as they claimed, and many Giants were not as gigantic. While fudging a biography or adding an inch or two is somewhat understandable – it was a cut throat business – there exists record of several marvels who added great dimension to their various conditions by inventing a few extra elements.
In the late 1800’s Adolph and Rudolph, pictured above, were false conjoined twins. Rudolph had tiny malformed legs. Strangely, he considered the affliction not unique enough and thought that there was more money to be made by rigging a ‘conjoined twin harness’ with his twin brother. The story of Pasqual Pinon was equally as unique and even the incredible ‘Man with Three Eyes’ Bill Durks owed his moniker to a false third eye.
Then, there are the complete fakes. In the 1930’s the Milton Sisters, a pair of conjoined twins often confused with the Hilton Sisters, shocked audiences by entering into a heated argument during a performance, separating themselves from each other and exited opposite sides of the stage. In the 1940’s a number of male draft dodgers were caught across the United States, posing as Bearded Ladies. Children were sometimes covered with glue and touted as being alligator-skinned and doll limbs were sometimes sewn into on the clothing of infants to be passed as an extra limb.
Likely, the most common fake was the ‘Half-and Half’, a person touted as a true hermaphrodite. While many true hermaphrodites did find work in the sideshow, usually as the ‘blow off’ or ‘special extra feature’ act – most were fakes. The person was either an effeminate man or sometimes a ‘split’ – a woman who would adorn one side of her body, left or right, as a woman and exercise the other side to appear more masculine.
Finally, the most classic of fakes was the Margarite Clark – a person using a doll or infant to simulate a parasitic twin. The gig was common enough to warrant a name in the lexicon of carny lingo.
Image: Cabinet card of Adolph and Rudolph buy Frank Wendt. Reproduction.