Today marks the start of a new feature on the page – an introduction for modern readers to some of the great sideshow performers of yesterday. Please remember that each entry is designed with the utmost respect for these performers. They are not presented to gawk or have fun. These performers were good, enterprising often ingenious people who, for the most part, made a great living in the only way that they could during the era in which they lived. To the close community of sideshow performers, it was the rest of us who were the “freaks.”
JOHNNY ECK – THE LIVING HALF-BOY
Born John Eckhardt, Jr. on August 27, 1911, in Baltimore, he entered the world without the lower portion of his abdomen, without legs. At the same time, his mother gave birth to his twin, Robert, who was fully formed. Johnny learned to walk on his hands at one-year-old and using special gloves as shoes, he was able to run around and keep up with other children. He eventually reached a full height of about eighteen inches and a weight of fifty-seven pounds.
Johnny’s sideshow career had its beginnings, oddly enough, in a church. Johnny was with a group of other children, watching a magician and the performer turned a large piece of paper into a tablecloth and invited anyone in the audience to come up on the stage and take it. Johnny, probably the most agile in the group, swooped up to claim it. The magician was amazed and immediately saw Johnny’s potential. He was able to talk the Eckhardt family into signing a contract and Johnny went on the road. What was supposed to be a one-year contract turned into ten – the sneaky magician added a “0” behind the “1” after the contract had already been signed.
Johnny with his twin brother, Robert, in the 1930s
Shay at first, Johnny grew to love the stage. By age fourteen, he was performing regularly, often with his twin brother. Together, they carried out a bizarre act. An illusionist, Rajah Raboid, would call for a volunteer from the audience to be cut in half. The volunteer would walk up to the stage and climb inside of the magic box, where he would be sawed in half, much to the audience’s delight. Raboid then put the two halves of the box back together and the volunteer would stand up and go back to his seat. After he was walking however, he would suddenly split in two at the waist, his torso going one direction and his legs going the other. The audience would, of course, scream in terror! Some fainted, some walked out but no on suspected that the “volunteer” had a twin brother like Johnny Eck, which made the stunt possible. Johnny took Robert’s place in the box, to become the head and torso, while the legs were a dwarf with his pants pulled up over his head.
Johnny performed on the stage and also had a role in the 1932 film Freaks by Tod Browning. He also appeared at Ripley’s Believe it Or Not! Odditoriums around the country. Ripley (never one to beat around the bush) called Johnny “The Most Remarkable Man in the World” and those who saw him agreed. By the time he had reached the age of four, he was an accomplished artist, typist and letter writer and went on to achieve more in his lifetime than most people who have legs. Everywhere he went, he was the center of attraction.
Johnny died on January 5, 1991, at the age of seventy-nine, a performer until the end. It would have been easy for him to have cursed his lot in life, but he always made the best of it. As he once explained, “To ask me if I’m sorry that I have no legs is like asking an Eskimo if he’s sorry he never tasted an artichoke.”