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