Sunday, November 16, 2014

freak


Ella Harper - also known as The Camel Woman -
traveled in side shows between 1873-1886.
She also had genu recurvatum, like the girl in this story




   June 12, 1919  
Bristol, England


Dear Aunt Martha,

I write to you in the hopes that my letter will reach you and find you well and healthy. I have been unable to receive correspondence due to our vaudeville troupe’s traveling schedule but I do hope that soon will change. I trust that my previous letters were not misdirected, but anything is possible after the war.  

We have heard news that a terrible flu has reached the cities in America, causing many to die.  We have a doctor that travels with our troupe, who is determined to keep us all well and healthy.  We are instructed to refrain from certain foods, such as bread and cake, while he prescribes  hot peppers (called  jalapenos) and laxatives (that we call thunderbolts).  My friends and I say that the good doctor must be of the belief that if freaks can breathe fire, they should be able to eat and dispense of it!

The people in England never tire of visiting our midway act, coming in droves to see the vaudeville performances, especially since we have been able to acquire the Siamese twins, Adelaide and Ethyl.  They are quite a pair, singing and dancing with vigor - while being conjoined at the hip!  In between the people are allowed to view  Jupiter, the man with the oversized head, who has to sit in a special chair with a chin-rest to relieve his neck.  There is also J.J. the Panda Man, whose face is covered in black and white fur; and Clementine the Fat Lady, who has to sit on a steel water tank at every performance.  The people call us freaks, mainly because we are oddities of nature all living together.  With my backward knees, I can’t help but feel that I am the most normal of all of my colleagues.  Professor Marx is often harsh with me and doesn’t permit me to stand during daylight hours, at least when I am near the midway.  I am instructed to walk on all-fours, performing as the “spider-woman” that he says I am. 

In my last letter, I wrote to tell you of my friendship with Antonette, the “half woman” that I have been sharing rooms with since I began working the midway show with Professor Marx.  Antonette was born with no legs, but has a well-proportioned figure that finishes neatly at her waist. The elaborate dress she wears at each performance covers the pair of undersized feet she has at the end of her torso.  She tells Professor Marx that she will not be carried as he does Lily (the undersized dwarf he dresses like a child) but she prefers to move from place to place on her own.  She is a sight to see, dressed in pearls and lace, moving herself with strong, elegant arms the same way one would use crutches, but with grace and demure.  I believe Antonette is nothing like the public’s perception of a freak at all, being strikingly beautiful with many admirers!  Last month she received a letter via special delivery that held an invitation from a promoter named J.T. Cooley.  He wrote with his own hand and begged her to join his standing troupe in New York City, where he promised that she will be given her own rooms and a bathroom all to herself.   

Of course I was excited at the prospect of financial security for my friend, but secretly I was frightened that she would leave us all and take the grace that we so desperately need in our troupe.  I also mourned the loss of my only friend and roommate, if truth be told.  When she pressed me a few days later, asking me why my countenance was so sorrowful, I confessed this to her.  She only smiled and waved me over to her.  With such tenderness, she took my hands in hers and assured me that she would not leave without me.  She had answered Mr. Cooley’s letter and told him all about our friendship and accepted his invitation on the condition that I be allowed to come with her!  Auntie, I hardly knew what to say!  If my tears did not communicate my gratitude, my words certainly did.  So, next month Antonette and I will pack our trunks for one last journey overseas.  Once we arrive in New York we will see if the accommodations are as promised.  If they are not, we will join our funds together and will rent an apartment independently.  We will see, once we arrive in New York, if the city is as hospitable as we hear it is.  I am determined to save all the money I can for our upcoming journey.

I am excited for my upcoming move, Auntie.  I can only dream that you and I may be finally able to see each other.  I want you to know that I have never blamed you and Uncle Arthur for handing me over to Professor Marx.  I understand how difficult it was to pay for my medical treatment and after the doctor diagnosed me with the congenital disorder of genu recurvatum, I could see in your face that you could not manage.  I will not expect anything of you, Auntie.  I only hope that we may meet up for a luncheon or lemonade once in awhile.  I will send you my address once I am settled in New York City.

I aim to quit this business as soon as I can, Auntie, but for now it is a good income and with so many people out of work, I know I should not complain.  Until I can write again, please keep well and greet my mother for me.  If she would ever want to write me a letter, tell her I would be most grateful to receive it. 

Sincerely Yours,
Caroline