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’.