JOHNNY ECK – The Half-Man

On August 27, 1911 Amelia and John Eckhardt welcomed the birth of twin sons. The two would have been nearly identical if little John Jr. had been born with legs. While Robert was completely formed John Jr. was a perfectly healthy half boy, seemingly ‘snapped off at the waist’.

The brothers grew up in Baltimore and John proved to be incredibly self sufficient. By the age of one he was walking around on his hands, before his brother was even standing. As Johnny grew older, his agility and independence amazed family and friends. In 1923, while attending a magic show at their local church, Johnny shocked the performing conjuror John McAslan by nimbly scampering onstage when a volunteer was requested. McAslan saw great profit in the half-boy and he managed to convince the Eckhardt family into signing both Robert and Johnny to a one year contract. The cheating McAslan later changed the terms of the contract by adding a zero to the duration.

Despite that bit of dishonestly, the brothers enjoyed their time in the magic game. The boys were later even a part of what was likely the most shocking illusion ever. Illusionist and hypnotist Raja Raboid developed a show in which he would recruit Robert from the audience for a hypnosis stunt. During the illusion, Robert would be placed in a box and be discreetly switched with Johnny and a dwarf wearing trousers hiked over his head. Raboid would then perform a variation of the old ‘sawing a man in half’ routine and, when the box was opened, Johnny would commence chasing his ‘legs’ around the stage. Stage hands would round them up and Raboid would reconstitute the body. Robert would then threaten to sue before storming off the stage. While the illusion was intended to be lighthearted and humorous, the site was often horrific to members of the audience. Fainting was common.

Johnny was a true entertainer who loved everything about show business. While in the circus he was often entertaining enough to be a single featured attraction. He was known for his impressive acrobatics, including his famous one-armed handstand, but he also juggled and trained animals. He was also an accomplished runner and was sometimes even called ‘The Legless Runner’. Ripley called Johnny ‘The Most Remarkable Man in the World’. While Robert was incorporated into almost every appearance to better enhance the unusual physique of his brother Johnny, he was a talented performer as well. When not performing, the brothers conducted their own orchestra in Baltimore and were heavily involved in the arts. Johnny developed into quite a talented painter.

In 1932 Johnny appeared in the movie Freaks. He impressed many with his performance and went on to appear in three Tarzan movies. However, following these films, Johnny decided to retire from show business. He and his brother opened a little amusement park featuring a tiny train, on which Johnny acted as conductor. Johnny was also able to make a comfortable living with his screen painting artwork.

Johnny was an outstanding human being who defined the term ‘human marvel’. He was never ashamed by his appearance and overcame the handicapped label that was pinned on him at birth. Johnny loved his interactions with the average person and delighted in illustrating how one should not judge character based on appearance alone.

However in 1987, after being assaulted in his own home by a group of thieves, the aged Johnny became disgruntled with society and lost his faith in man. Following the incident Johnny spent his remaining years in total seclusion stating that ‘the real freaks were outside his home’.

On January 5, 1991, after years in seclusion, Johnny suffered a fatal heart attack and died. His brother Robert followed him in 1995, aged 83.


Johnny’s former home on North Milton Avenue still stands and its current owners curate the Johnny Eck Museum. Intent on sharing the incredible story of Johnny and his brother, the Johnny Eck Museum is an incredible treasure trove of information. Visit it now, online.

Image: Johnny and his brother Robert for the mid 1920′s courtesy of the Johnny Eck Museum

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Author, researcher and an expert of the odd, J. Tithonus Pednaud has been chronicling bizarre history and highlighting the lives of those born exceeding different for over a decade.

13 Comments

  • Reply January 12, 2008

    Anonymous

    Very strong man! but how did he go to the toilet if his torseo ended underneath his ribs?

  • Reply March 2, 2008

    inBleak

    He’ll be my eternal hero. It’s well known that some of the biggest people in the world are really small. I wish I could be like him.

  • Reply May 11, 2008

    Kyo

    Wow. That is a remarkable story. It’s awesome to see/hear of people overcoming their abnormalities like this. It’s sad, though, that he ended his days disliking the people of the ‘outside’ world.

    Odd, he died four days before my birth. >>

  • Reply May 18, 2008

    Bluebell

    I was just wondering the same thing, Anonymous, but something tells me neither of us really wanna know :P

    Anyway, this guy sounds really cool – like he’d be a lotta fun, y’know? And he’s definately easy on the eyes. Or, at least, he was back in the day.

    Sucks how he lived his last couple of years, though. Poor guy.

  • Reply August 21, 2008

    Anonymous

    He seemed like a great guy, lots of friends and his website is interesting.
    But I want to know how he went to the washroom… They knew he was a male from birth right? So, there must have been something down below that ment he was a male and you can’t eat and not have it come out somewhere… Finding out would be a real marvel.

  • Reply September 23, 2008

    Miel

    He was absolutely gorgeous. I would love to have met him.

  • Reply February 4, 2009

    maggie

    This man is my hero! if i had been born with out legs, i probably would have given up!

  • Reply February 11, 2009

    jackie

    truely my hero and an inspration i’m also a twin and we share the same b-day… wish i could have met him! i hope that god delt those thieves the hand they deserved!!!

  • Reply July 21, 2009

    Anonymouse

    I have two of his screen paintings. My parents asked johnny to make it for them. Story has it that in the city there use to be apartments filled with his art. New people eventually moved in and threw away his painting thinking that they were trash! That’s why his painting are rare to come by.

  • Reply March 23, 2010

    Ralph Morgan

    It was not the break in that forced John into seclusion,he was not in seclusion,people that knew him had specific telephone rings for him to answer and make appt. to visit etc.It was later when the idiotic “writer” Richard Lamparski published John’s real last name and Robt.s’ name that people put two and two together and called incessantly and showed up unannounced.John was wonderful later in life,given to depression off and on but happy, I think it was a relief to him when he passed….sadly, I think Robert’s story is just as exciting and touching,when I last saw him I actually cried when he told me what his life had been like “in the shadow”.It is quite interesting what each of us are here on earth to learn.

  • Reply July 21, 2010

    Eleanor

    Yeah you show em Johnny. It’s just too bad those thieves uh, thieved from him.

  • Reply September 28, 2010

    Mei-Mei

    wish he could have completed his autobiography

  • Reply January 10, 2013

    mark

    From what I have read Mr Eck had a lower body ,it was just underdeveloped. I’ve read cases where folks have had the lower half of their body removed just below the diaphragm due to cancer or injury. They use bags to collect waste.

Leave a Reply