Monday, September 29, 2008

The show on the side

Freaks. Sideshow performers. Unfortunates. Unclean.

There are a million names for people that made their living themselves in traveling shows. I think they were amazing.

Sometimes people forget that these performers had back stories, most much more interesting than what was fictionalized on the back of their pitch cards. (These were kind of like postcards; pictures with a short biography on the back that the performers would sell for extra income. Many times, much of this story was fiction.) They would go in, watch the freak and leave. Not me. (And if you are still reading, not you either.)

There are a thousand stories in this industry. Uplifting, heartbreaking, inspiring, just plain funny and in the end, very human. I think it shocks people or at least strikes a cord when people hear how utterly human these stories can be, regardless of their completely different upbringing, living situation, job, friends, etc they have from this person. For example, the story of Grace McDaniels. She was believed by some to have suffered from a genetic disorder called Sturge-Weber syndrome which is characterized by a port wine stain on the face. It is also usually accompanied by seizers, glacoma at an early age and mental retardation to name a few, none of which was ever mentioned about Grace. (In fact, through all accounts she was said to have 100% 'normal' except for her facial deformity.) Through my own research, I found it might also have been Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome. This includes the presents of a port wine stain, hypertrophy (growing or shrinking) of the affected tissue and sometimes affects the lymph system. This syndrome can effect you anywhere on the body, but in Grace's case, it would have been the unfortunate location of her entire face. We will probably never know exactly what Grace had, but the crux of it all was her heart. She didn't love the sideshow like many of her peers, but she made such good money she couldn't walk away. She was well known for her generosity. Many remarked that she was the kindest woman they ever knew, often giving money and toys away to poor children that walked the fair grounds. But tragedy hit poor Grace. She became preganat after a carnival worker known for his drunken episodes, raped her. She kept the baby. But Grace couldn't catch a break; Elmer developed his father's drinking habit and he would often drink and beat his own mother. (Not to mention piss away her small fortune from preforming.) In the end, the sweet and kind Grace died in 1958 with little to her name. (Elmer died that same year, but there are many disagreements how and if it was before or after his mother.) I could find no pre-facial adema pictures of Grace, but there was many of her son. He was beautiful which seems to make it all that much more tragic. Her very handsome son, who undoubtedly looked a bit like her attacker, would hit and abuse her. I look at him and wonder, was she just as beautiful under all that?
Location in Hillsborough County and the state ...
During the off seasons, many performers, managers, and other carnival folk would find their home in Gibsonton, Florida. (It was often referred to as Gibtown.) Gibtown has special zoning laws in place so during the winter months, or for those who were retired, could keep their animals (monkeys, horses, elephants) on their property, as well as the rides and stands.

As I child I always wanted to go there. No, not to stare at the freaks. I could walk up to these people and talk to them. There were no longer on the stage, some place too far away for me to get to. They were right there. I would go and shake their hand (or foot or flipper or just wave hi) and ask them questions about the old days. I would have ask Jeanie Tolmini how she met and fell in love with her late husband. I would ask Melvin Burkhart which company he liked to tour with best. I would ask Monica Baress her favorite memory of her preforming days and if she misses them.

There were some though, I would have skipped a visit. Grady Stiles Jr. was perhaps the meanest son of a bitch to settle in Gibsontown. By all who knew him, he was a bully and murderer. He convicted of the murder in 1978 when he shot Jack Layne in the back. He didn't like the idea of his daughter marring him so BANG. Dead. Donna Stiles's one chance to get away from her abusive father was gone, just like that. And because of his genetic deformity, he never served a day in jail because there wasn't a jail that was equipped to handle someone with his special needs. He got 15 years probation. "I got away with it once, I can do it again" seemed to be his mentality, especially with his wife and children. One day, Maria Stiles had enough and knew she had to do something to save herself and her children. She hired a neighbor and one late night while Grady was alone in the trailer BANG. Dead. Maria was sentenced to 12 years in jail.

Why do I find these people so fascinating? Because I was one chromosome away from being Joseph Merrick or Minny Woolsey or Hugh Bailey. We all were. Becoming human from a tiny speck of almost nothing in our mothers is much more complicated and scary than one might assume.

I hope that in our modern times, people with genetic conditions such as the afflicted above can get the jobs they need. I wouldn't know, since I know none. I do know that in the past, many had only one choice to be independent and make enough money to live and that was to join the traveling shows. I assume that people born different from myself in this way are finding the jobs without ridicule and because there are almost no traveling shows left. And if it is true, I am not so sad that the side shows have almost fully disappeared from modern life. If you want to see a side show these days, you're going to see fire eaters, sword swallowers and human blockheads. And just as well. I'm a girl that loves her blockheads.


Much about these performers has been lost to time or misinformation has taken over truth. Sadly, all that is left of some are their pictures. Information can be unreliable or just plain false. If you have any addition favorite stories or anything to add, drop me a line.

If you want to check out the few resources about Sideshow acts and performers, go get these awesome books-
Lobster Boy: The Bizarre Life and Death of Grady Stiles Jr. by Fred Rosen
American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman
Check out the fabulous website
I love this chick.

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