Whilst writing The New Savants I undertook some research into humans who were not conventionally normal. I truly believe that the human body is capable of much more than we give it credit for – people who have “superhuman” abilities including photographic memories and telekinetic powers. But, one of the other things I came across was some fascinating information about old fashioned circus performers, who, despite their disabilities managed to achieve some amazing things. Here’s just a quick look at three extraordinary humans.
Throughout history, many people that were born with physical deformities were ostracized by both their family and the society they lived in. Our modern culture views putting humans on display because they are different as immoral and degrading. This opinion may not have been shared by many of the ‘circus freaks,’ as they unexpectedly found friends and acceptance in the sideshows that they joined. Many of them loved performing and the opportunity to display their talents, and they gained both fame and fortune for themselves in various circuses.
- Nikolai Kobelkoff – The Human Trunk
Born July 22, 1851 in Siberia, Russia, Nikolai had no limbs, but still managed to get a complete education. He began his sideshow career in 1871 and became known for his unbelievable dexterity. Nikolai would astonish audiences by threading needles and painting, shooting a gun and even helping himself to an entire meal (including a glass of wine) with a small stump where an ordinary person’s right arm would have been. Being very energetic he would finish his act leaping onto chairs, or hopping up and down the stairs, before demonstrating his strength by lifting a member of the audience up on his stump. On one of his tours Nikolai met and married a Vietnamese, Anna Wilfert, and together they had 11 normal children. The Human Trunk died in January 1933, leaving his family a large legacy, which included an amusement park.
- Carl Unthan – The Armless Fiddler
Born April 5, 1848 in Sommerfield, East Prussia, without any arms Carl was encouraged by his father to use his feet as hands and learnt how to grasp objects and write. In his early 20s he started playing the violin, and was advertised as a musician in the sideshows that he performed in, instead of as a freak. During WWI Carl would visit the hospitals in order to cheer up soldiers who had recently lost their limbs, or had them amputated. Observing him, they could appreciate that it was possible to lead a fulfilling life as an amputee. In 1928, Carl died at the age of 80 as a very wealthy man leaving his autobiography, entitled The Armless Fiddler (typed with his feet) which was published in 1935.
- Pauline Musters – The Little Princess
As the smallest woman ever recorded, Pauline stood at 1ft 11.2inches and weighed 9lbs when she reached adulthood. Born on February 26, 1876 in Ossendrecht, Netherlands, she looked like a fairy. Loving the attention she received from her performances, Pauline dressed like a princess in gowns that mesmerised audiences with their detail. The Little Princess would dance with members of the audience and do acrobatics with a unique grace. After touring Europe she traveled to New York to continue her performances, and became known as the Darling of NYC. Unfortunately, Pauline caught both pneumonia and meningitis in the city and her short life ended on March 1, 1895.