Frieda Pushnik was born without arms or legs on Feb. 10, 1923 in Conemaugh, Pennsylvania. She claimed that her condition was due to a botched appendectomy conducted on her pregnant mother. The validity of this statement is questionable, however considering no lawsuit was filed – the story is most likely a case of sideshow creativity.
Frieda was a testament to human willpower. By all accounts she never considered herself disabled. She accepted her condition as a matter of fact and strived to live as everyone else did. Her mother was the driving force behind this aspiration and it wasn’t long before Frieda was feeding herself, sewing, crocheting and playing as children do. Remarkably, by holding a pen between her shoulder and chin, Frieda was not only able to write legibly – she actually won several awards for penmanship. Because Frieda was limited in movement, her mother would carry her to school daily and her brother or sister would carry her back.
In 1933, Robert L. Ripley, of ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,’ heard of Frieda and visited her and her family. He illustrated her story in one of his nationally syndicated cartoons, calling her ‘The Little Half Girl’, and he eventually asked her to appear at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933.
At the age of 9, accompanied by her mother and sister, Frieda began appearing in Ripley’s ‘Odditorium’ with fellow child marvel Betty Lou Williams. Her act was little more than an introduction and a demonstration of her typing and writing skills but audiences were completely floored. She would repeat the five-minute show many times each hour through what was often a 16-hour day. In the six years she was on tour with Ripley, she was seen by millions. To make extra revenue, she would sell her pitch cards – a variety of portait photos. For a few dollars more she woould personally sign her photos. An example of her handwriting – or ‘shoulder-chin’ writing – can be seen above.
After a brief retirement, she joined up with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Her sister and mother again joined her. This time her sister actually performed with the circus as a skilled trapeze acrobat and dancing girl and even her mother worked for the circus office as a secretary. In 1944, the circus suffered a spectacular fire which claimed the lives of 167 people. Frieda was luckily carried to safety by a member of the minstrel show.
Despite that frightening experience, Frieda returned again to the circus and continued to perform until 1955, when ‘politically correct’ laws effectively forbid the display of human marvels and killed her livelihood. She retired to Costa Mesa California – fairly well off financially – where she lived quietly, adorning her home with her own oil paintings.
On Christmas Eve, 2000 the remarkable live of Frieda Pushnik ended. She passed away at the age of 77 – the victim of bladder cancer. She had never married, and despite being out of the public eye for decades, the news of her passing was the subject of many news stories. Even in death, ‘The Little Half Girl’ remains a testiment to human spirit.
Image: one of Frieda’s autographed pitch cards dated from her circus days.