True story: A woman came into the cafe and she was so short, I thought she was a dwarf. On my third or fourth glance, I realized she was indeed not a dwarf, just spectacularly diminutive, stout and normally proportioned, yet Lilliputian.
Is my vision that bad? Am I seeing things? Has my fascination with human anomalies and “very special people” warped my lens on the world so that normality contorts into the freakish?
Upon entering, the child-size woman was immediately surrounded by cafe baristas crying her name in joy as though they had not seen her in many ages. This was a moment of celebration. Hugs were fulsomely exchanged, and every employee had to crouch considerably to administer an embrace that would not be too awkward.
Who was this center of such lavish attention, this magical elf? From where does she hail? Was she treated so kindly out of pity? That seems doubtful. Short, maybe, but also a human being, and one with many adoring friends.
Arriving later, a very rangy barista saw the woman and bent down dramatically to hug her, his body a folding, upright accordion. She asked him if he’d sprouted even taller since they last met. No, he laughed.
She also laughed, chuckling, “Maybe I just shrunk.”
Freaks they may be, but Siamese, or conjoined, twins aren’t freaky enough for me. They are marvelous and reality-bending, sometimes shocking but usually just remarkably human and, despite wincing deformities, almost normal. They are not, as so many freak show stars are reduced to, depraved monsters.
Take Chang and Eng, the most famous of all conjoined twins. Whisked from their native Siam (present-day Thailand) as teenagers by Western opportunists who swore to bring them back to their aggrieved mother in five years time, the twins embarked on a journey that would take them to America and England as wildly celebrated sideshow attractions. They would never return home.
It was the early 1800s and the boys, who became forever known as the “original Siamese twins,” wowed spectators used to ogling human marvels, from the limbless to the scale-covered and, later, the extreme likes of the Elephant Man and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.
A London newspaper wrote, “Without being the least disgusting or unpleasant, like almost all monstrosities, these youths are certainly one of the most extraordinary freaks of nature that has ever been witnessed.”
That’s the start of the true story told in the sensitive new biography “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by writerly crack reporter Yunte Huang. It’s a strange tale, it’s a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and crackling history, including illuminating nods to the Civil War, Herman Melville, Lincoln (who apparently liked cock fighting) and Mark Twain, who, transfixed, wrote a story based on the twins.
Conjoined twins have existed since at least recorded history, in royal courts (alongside impish dwarves and the cruelly deformed), Indian villages to brimming metropolises. “The occurrence is estimated to range from 1 in 49,000 births to 1 in 189,000 births, with a somewhat higher incidence in Southeast Asia and Africa. Approximately half are stillborn, and an additional one-third die within 24 hours,” notes a scientific journal.
Those are abysmal survival odds. Indeed, the whole conjoined-twin phenomenon seems like a hateful prank played by a sadistic God. But somehow Chang and Eng made the best of it, despite inevitable exploitation on the sideshow circuit, invasive, humiliating medical examinations by gawking, prodding doctors, and of course racial prejudices of the era.
They were also comparatively lucky. Chang and Eng were joined by a mere cord of ligament at their sternum, as opposed to twins conjoined at their skulls or buttocks, sharing multiple organs, rendering them certifiably handicapped, facing heartbreaking physical hardships. (Bittersweet aside: If they were alive today, modern medicine could easily and safely separate Chang and Eng.)
They were bound for life by “the connecting band — the key to the twins’ mystery,” writes Huang. The band looks like a slab of rubber stretched to the brink, rather like an arm on Stretch Armstrong, bridging their stomachs. The twins did share a fused liver, an oversized organ on permanent display in a pan of liquid at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (I’ve seen it, twice. It is disgustingly glorious.)
A single bellybutton was nestled in the center of the flesh tube, which actually grew with daily wear and tear. Once, “as Eng tried to stand up, he was pulled down by the fleshy string that had tied him to his brother,” says Huang. “Over the years, constant tugging had stretched the cord from its original four inches in length to five and a half, allowing a little more flexibility.” (Some Vaseline and a good masseuse might have done wonders.)
Here the story veers to, at minimum, vigorous eyebrow raising. After lucrative years on the exhibition circuit as “freaks of nature,” Chang and Eng moved to rural North Carolina where they bought land, owned 32 black slaves (!!) and married two white sisters and, spectacularly, sired 21 children. (They had separate genitalia.) In the book’s chapter “Foursome,” Huang explains how the twins had sex: gingerly. Tangled limbs, “Pardon me’s,” whispered apologies, averted eyes — one envisions a hot, or not so hot, mess.
During the Civil War, the Bunkers pledged allegiance to the Confederacy, which didn’t work out so well for the brothers financially. Soon they were on the freak circuit again to cover costs. They died of natural causes at age 62 in 1874.
“Freaks,” “marvels,” “wonders” — sideshow performers, trading in dubious self-exploitation, were labeled florid epithets to amplify their bizarre and exotic natures. It must have been a beating on their psyche and self-worth, robbing them of a portion of their soul, exposing themselves to dehumanizing gawking. It’s an ugly, despicable racket.
Chang and Eng might have, by virtue of their mostly normal appearances, been spared the worst of it, avoiding fainting audience members, brutish hecklers and degrading qualifiers, like “terrible” and “horrifying,” in their promotional material.
Yet nothing was ordinary for them. They were extraordinary, suffering under constant “otherness,” a state critic Leslie Fiedler so sharply dubbed “the tyranny of the normal.”
Still, they were in their own way normal. Wives, children, struggles, longevity, relative happiness. They were like the rest of us strivers and survivors — human, all too human.
“We are tethered to a buffoon. He rages and veers, spreading ugliness, like an oil slick smothering everything in its viscous mantle. … Trump can’t think, read or reflect; he compensates with urges.” — Roger Cohen, TheNew York Times
A glass half-empty sort of fellow, I maintain a suspect relationship with reality, an existential leeriness that has proven keenly unhelpful. Though I’ve fought it, I’m kind of stuck with it, a black and blue complexion not unlike a bruise.
The world’s not helping — Trump, Syria, Israel, Bolton, the EPA, fires, flooding, shootings — but I’m still able to locate an array of things to be glad about. Small, but good.
I could mention the pleasures of last week’s birthday, my family’s sound health, my sister-in-law’s spiffy new car or the dog’s chewy glee over the pig’s ear I got him. I could mention my niece’s turquoise hair, my friend’s marriage or how the Stormy Daniels affair is closing in on the president like a vice.
But I won’t, even though I just did.
Here are a few other things currently leavening my oft-smudged outlook:
Last week saw the release of “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History,” a book this circus freak-show fanatic had to get, and did as a birthday present. Yunte Huang’s widely praised biography of famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker is a vast, panoramic narrative of the twins’ bizarre, unlikely life (wives, numerous children, slave ownership) in 19th-century America that deftly weaves details and personalities from U.S. history into a rich, fluttering tapestry. Elegant prose twins with magnificent detail.
The giddy anticipation of mulling world travels is a reliable endorphin. I recently posted my dual urges to go to Budapest and Amsterdam — the former I’ve never been to, the latter I’ve visited in quick, couple-days spurts. Always looking ahead, with one eye on the calendar and one on the map, I get a jolt just thinking about strolling new streets, eating exotic cuisine, ogling art, architecture and people. It’s already April. Time to start some serious research. (Spoiler alert: I’m leaning toward Amsterdam.)
I’m captivated by the film “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” by that doyen of documentarians, that genius of fly-on-the-wall observation, Frederick Wiseman (“High School,” “La Danse”). Released last year and running a whopping three and a half hours, the movie is a leisurely, painstaking amble through the hallowed marble halls, offices, shelves and auditoriums of the NYC institution. Wiseman’s eminent pointillist eye and febrile curiosity fashion an immersive experience inside everything from folios to fundraising, e-books to behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, programs to performances, community outreach to the organization’s pumping inner organs. Almost defiantly, “Ex Libris” is culturally kaleidoscopic.
Another birthday gift whacking the sweet spot is a squat, artisanally stylish bottle of Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin, a German, handcrafted, batch-distilled, 47-percent alcohol (94 proof) beverage that tastes like an Everlasting Gobstopper in liquid form, swirling and multi-chromatic — fragrant, aromatic, smooth, rich and tangy. My brother was scanning the gin shelves and three individuals, one who worked in the shop, voluntarily told him that Monkey 47 was the best gin they’ve had. Three random people. He was sold. Now we both are.
Last year I paid visits to those twin emporiums of ick and awe, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the smaller but almost equally macabre Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Festooned with bullet-riddled skulls, deformed fetuses crammed into jars, gnarled, twisted skeletons, diseased human organs, rusty surgical tools and random gangrened digits, these palaces of the perverse satisfied the ghoulishly curious. They were extravagantly ack-inducing, deliciously quiver-making. Paradise.
As noted earlier, I’m deliberating my next journey, and, because I went large last year, I’m thinking small this year. Which means I might go to Chicago, a 2.5-hour flight away. And which means, more importantly, the International Museum of Surgical Science, a less squishy warehouse of medical wonders than the two above, but still a marvelous assemblage of stuff that spurs contemplation about our mortal flesh and all that can go wrong with it via disease, accident and sheer shitty luck.
Highlights include a vintage iron lung machine (can I climb inside?), an exhibit about pain and anesthesia through the ages and one about the history of wound healing (“From the use of herbal ointments and therapeutic clays among prehistoric hunter-gatherers to Galen’s treatment of injured gladiators in Ancient Rome, the care of wounds is among the earliest applications of medicine”), and the museum structure itself, an elegant, historic lakeside mansion. And who could pass up the exhibit “A History of Blood Transfusion: 350 Years of Apparatus Advancement”?
Reviewers note that the four-story manse is compact and, naturally, its array of freakish displays is no match for Philly’s world-class Mutter. Small is all right; I enjoy a good bite-size museum, especially one of such narrow scope. Sort of like the Russian Vodka Museum or Tokyo’s Meguro Parasitological Museum.
For more grim exhilarations, I pivoted my research to Chicago cemeteries — I’m always up for a calming stroll through deathly opulence — but decided to skip the offerings. Several notable cemeteries pock the area, boasting the resting holes of everyone from Al Capone to Jesse Owens, Emmett Till to John Belushi, Gene Siskel to John Hughes. I sought out film critic Roger Ebert’s grave, but he was cremated and his ashes are kept by a private party, most likely his lovely widow Chaz.
We should all be so lucky. Cremation is the way to go, although I don’t want my cremains kept by anyone but the wind and the water -— whoosh. Thoughts like these will surely visit me at the Surgical Science Museum, a place rife with death and decrepitude. But they won’t get me down. They’re wondrous in their way and, far from depressing, something of a mind-reeling, soul-stirring tonic for the living.
If jarred fetuses bother you, if pickled body parts give you the heebie-jeebies, look away, click away. You have two seconds …
For my tiresomely upcoming trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I’ve found the East’s beautiful cousin to America’s incomparable cathedral of the grisly, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. It’s the Kunstkamera Museum, aka the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. I have to quote the web to get it right and concise (apologies):
“The Kunstkamera is the first museum in Russia. Established by Peter the Great and completed in 1727, it hosts a collection of almost 2,000,000 items. Peter’s museum was a cabinet of curiosities dedicated to preserving ‘natural and human curiosities and rarities.’ “
OK. We got it. (Wait. Two million items? Yes!)
Now let’s get to jarred babies. To unvarnished ghoulishness. To this:
I’ll get to more such stuff for you, via words and pictures, when I get there in a week or so. I imagine this is a mummy, or someone took a picture of me after last night’s bender.
Now some beauty before we all upchuck. The museum resides in a typically wedding-cakish palace-like edifice so common in St. Petersburg:
Right, but let’s not forget its contents:
Reviewing the museum online, a visitor notes that a highlight is the “fetus floor” (well, yeah); another notes the evocative scientific instruments (probably chilling in a “Dead Ringers” way); and yet one more declares: “After traveling over 50 countries, that’s the most bizzare thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really gross.” (Jittery excitement.)
Why is this appealing? I can’t quite nail it, but I know it’s the same reason why wide-eyed, slack-jawed throngs packed freak shows of yore, why giggly gaggles of school children are whisked to the Mütter Museum, why macabre taxidermy and bone specimens are top sellers at the crowd-pleasing Evolution store in New York’s SoHo.
We are curious about mystery, the outré, the weird and wondrous. We are strangely enriched and even, with a flinch, comforted confronting the repellent and gasp-inducing. It’s not a game. Gallows humor may tinge the experience — hey, that looks like Uncle Mike! — but it’s surely not ha-ha funny. It’s about expanding the mind and the world of earthly experience. It is, with a peculiar poignance, about us.
When I was eight, sleeping at my grandparents’ house, I had a sheet-crumpling nightmare. A hairy woman made me cry.
Hearing my distress, my grandpa stumbled into the darkened bedroom. I pointed at the closet door. There. She’s in there, I whimpered. Grandpa had his hands full. Christ, I’m sure he thought. Right, the ugliest woman in the world is in that musty little closet. I was inconsolable, until sleep enveloped me. Miffed, grandpa went back to bed. My persistent visions of sideshow freaks had receded. For now.
But I also reflect on Julia Pastrana, a 4½-foot-tall Mexican woman who was carpeted in black, bristly hair, a victim of hypertrichosis terminalis, and cursed with an abnormally huge jaw, lips and ears. She also sang like an angel. A sideshow super-celebrity in the 1800s, her stage names varied from the Ape Woman to the Nondescript. She was mostly billed as “The Ugliest Woman in the World.”
Her life was a disaster.
She married her conniving manager. They had a child. The baby was covered in thick black fur. Julia died of a broken heart days later.
The husband-manager saw his meal ticket full. So he made a business decision. He had both Julia and the baby mummified and exhibited their bodies around the world in one of the most grotesque and morally reprehensible exploitations in the annals of showbiz. Eventually he died. More than a few people were pleased.
Julia’s story doesn’t end there. Her body was eventually stored at the University of Oslo, Norway, before, after protracted bureaucratic folderol, she was finally laid to rest in Mexico in 2013 — 153 years after her death.
The freak shows of yore groan with heartache, abuse, loneliness, rank exploitation and the flagrant theft of human dignity. Joseph Merrick’s years in Victorian sideshows as the “terrible” Elephant Man are well-documented, filled with physical and verbal abuse and life-threatening illness, not to mention the wholesale degradation of body and spirit.
Yet many of these “freaks of nature” were extravagantly compensated, sometimes making $1,000 a week or more — a royal wage for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They married, had children. Chang and Eng, known as the original Siamese twins, joined at the sternum, had 21 children between them and lived in middle-class prosperity. (They even, reportedly, owned slaves.)
America’s most famous bearded lady, Annie Jones, enjoyed a superstar’s life in the late 1800s, hirsute and happy on the high life — a furry Myrna Loy. She worked for showman P.T. Barnum as a top-billed circus attraction, and had the good sense to lobby to have the term “freaks” banished from the shows. She married twice, divorcing her first hubbie to marry her childhood sweetheart. Jones blossomed early: She had a mustache and sideburns at age five, putting many a latter-day hipster to tearful shame. So famous was she that photographer Matthew Brady, the Richard Avedon of his time, had her pose for him.
Tennessee-born Myrtle Corbin was tagged “The Four-Legged Woman,” the reason manifest in the photo below. “However that moniker was slightly misleading,” according to bodacious site The Human Marvels. “While at a glance one could plainly see four legs dangling beyond the hem of her dress, only one pair actually belonged to her. The other set belonged to her dipygus twin sister.
“The tiny body of her twin was only fully developed from the waist down and even then it was malformed — tiny and possessing only three toes on each foot. Myrtle was able to control the limbs of her sister but was unable to use them for walking.”
(I just totally shuddered.)
Myrtle appeared under the banners of P.T. Barnum, Ringling Brothers and at Coney Island, hauling in $450 a week in the late 19th century. She married at 19, and “it was then that other aspects of her bizarre anatomy became evident,” says Human Marvels.
“It seems that her twin sister was also fully sexually formed — thus Myrtle possessed two vaginas. She had four daughters and a son and it has been rumored that three of her children were born from one set of organs and two from the other.”
So maybe I shudder and shake my head sometimes when I reflect on my very special people. Their unimaginable lives, their fantastic plights, can overwhelm a sensitive soul. Childish nightmares aren’t implausible, haunted dreams quite likely.
But I don’t have those nightmares anymore. I no longer believe some long-dead sideshow oddity is lurking in my closet. They lurk instead in the mind, crowding it with wonder, curiosity, not a little pity, and a soupçon of sadness. Nightmares or not, I can’t shake them, and I don’t think I want to.