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9 Tips for that James K. Polk Bash You’re Probably Planning

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Wikimedia Commons

Looking for ways to go wild this weekend? Then think about throwing a big-time 217th birthday bash for one of America’s least known presidents of all time, Mr. James K. Polk, born November 2, 1795. Here are some hosting tips to get you started...

1. Keep a low profile...

We’ve all been to parties with an overbearing host who insists on being the center of attention. But your posh Polk party demands a self-effacing touch. Be the mysterious, shadowy host that blends into the background. Even at the height of his career, Polk was known for being unknown—particularly outside of the world of politics. In fact, in the 1844 election, Polk’s opponents alluded to his rival’s obscurity with one pithy campaign slogan: “Who is James K. Polk?”

2. But be accessible.

Polk may have been the most available president in United States history. Polk held presidential “office hours” twice a week, during which concerned citizens could drop by to chat. All you had to do was knock on the White House door, present your card to the doorman, and wait your turn. So when you host your posh Polk party, make yourself available to chat with your guests about any party-related questions or concerns.

3. WWJD?

Polk was a big fan of Wacko Jacko (Old Hickory’s other, lesser-known nickname). In fact, Polk was probably the most Jacksonian president in history—even more devoted to Manifest Destiny than Andrew Jackson himself. Indeed, Polk oversaw the greatest territorial expansion of the United States to date: a one-third increase in land size. So whenever the stress of party planning seems like too much, ask yourself one simple question: What would Jackson do?

4. No Drinking/Dancing/Cards Permitted...

Polk’s wife Sarah was a devout Presbyterian who banned dancing, card games, and liquor at White House receptions. In deference to her unwavering convictions, music and dancing were suspended at the inaugural ball, then resumed after she and the president left. These rather strict limitations may sound like bad news for your bash. Look at it this way: You’ll save a ton on entertainment costs. But to ensure that your guests don’t stage a mutiny, you should probably make sure the food’s good.

5. But You Can Play Oregon Trail.

Remember that sick computer game from elementary school—the one where you had to survive a rough-and-tough wagon ride across the American countryside by fording rivers, hunting bison, and steering clear of dysentery? Without Polk, this groundbreaking diversion might not exist. Polk entered the presidency with the intention of putting an end to Britain’s claims to the Oregon Territory—hence the campaign slogan “54-40 or fight.” Thankfully, the U.S. never actually went to war. Through a combination of military threats and diplomacy, Polk arrived at a compromise with England that fixed the Oregon Territory’s boundary at the 49th parallel. Seeing as basically every form of merrymaking will be prohibited at your bash, you can at least entertain guests with their favorite childhood game. In fact, there’s even a newer 2011 iOS/Android version of this old classic.

6. Break out the Brandy.

Although drinking should be mostly prohibited at your bash, you should definitely break out a bottle of brandy as a tribute to Polk’s bad-assedness. At 17, Polk underwent an operation to have his kidney stones removed. Because anesthesia wasn’t available, Polk was awake during the entire surgery, with nothing but a bit of brandy to dull the pain. The procedure was a success; however, some historians suspect it may have left him sterile.

7. Work Yourself to Death

Polk may have been the hardest working president in history. In fact, he once declared, "No President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.” Right from the get-go, Polk set out to achieve five major goals during the following four years: reestablish an independent treasury; lower the tariff; resolve the dispute with England over Oregon; acquire California; and annex Texas. After only one term, he’d accomplished his ambitious agenda. All that hard work came with a price, though. 53-year-old Polk died three months after leaving office—making his the shortest retirement of any American president. While Polk died of cholera, some historians have suggested that his years of non-stop working may have weakened his body and made him more vulnerable to infection. So be warned: Planning a posh Polk bash requires some serious stamina.

8. Keep It Short and Sweet.

James K. Polk solidified support among his divided Democratic party by promising he wouldn’t run again, thus giving other presidential hopefuls a shot at the presidency. Even despite calls for reelection in after a successful first term, Polk happily threw in the towel after his first four years were up—becoming the first U.S. president to voluntarily retire after one term. Follow Polk’s lead, and make sure your party doesn’t go on indefinitely. To ensure that guests don’t overstay their welcome, establish a non-negotiable end time. Believe it or not, invitees might be more apt to attend if they know they’ve got an excuse to curl up in bed at midnight with the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

9. Keep It Understated.

Polk is known as the dark horse president—a relative unknown who rose from obscurity to steal the nomination and later the election. Polk’s meteoric rise to fame was launched by intra-party tension. In 1844, the Democrats became embroiled in a nomination battle between former President Martin Van Buren (who’d lost reelection 4 years earlier) and Michigan senator Lewis Cass. While Van Buren won the most votes, he didn’t garner the required 2/3 majority to secure the nomination. When it became obvious that neither he nor Cass would be able to mobilize enough support, Polk was offered up as compromise candidate—a Jacksonian Democrat who supported the annexation of Texas. Polk went on to defeat Whig rival Henry Clay in the general election.

Channel Polk’s dark-horse appeal when planning your bash. Even thought your party may not be the flashiest rager on the block, it might offer an appealing alternative. Just make sure your bash does justice to the memory of the man historians call "America’s least-known consequential president." Because the only other tribute he’s got is a There Might Be Giants song.

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Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD
Inside the Never-Before-Seen Scrapbook of the Rubber Skin Lady, a 1930s-era Sideshow Star
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Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

As a young girl growing up in Milwaukee, Dr. Dori Ann Bischmann loved exploring her parents' attic. One day in the early 1970s, she discovered a mysterious trunk that piqued her curiosity.

Inside, there was some children's china, an antique baby doll, a beaded hat and bag from the 1920s, and an old scrapbook. The book had a picture of two puppies on the cover.

But the images between the covers weren't as cuddly as advertised.

Dori had found the scrapbook of her great aunt, Agnes Schwarzenbacher, also known as Agnes Higginbotham and Agnes Schmidt—but more famously as Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady. On the inside cover of the book a title marked in pen read, "Scrapbook of Show Life."

The newspaper clippings, photos, and signed pitch cards (promotional postcards featuring individual performers) that filled nearly 90 pages gave Dori a glimpse into the life of one of the sideshow's biggest stars of the 1930s. It also unlocked a family secret.

Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori had never met her aunt, who passed away in 1962. Nor had she ever heard about how Agnes drew crowds to watch her exhibit the excessive, elastic skin that covered her legs. Agnes could stretch the rubbery flesh anywhere from 15 to 30 inches, although from the waist up she looked completely normal. There are no reports of a diagnosis, but she may have had a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Agnes, who was born in 1902 in Germany and came to America three years later, had shared her unusual skin on stages across the continent. In Toronto, she even performed before royalty. In one of the scrapbook's clippings, she spoke of the event as being one of the greatest thrills of her life on the road: "The audience was a very distinguished one and most famous of all was the Crown Prince of England, now the Duke of Windsor. I was most thrilled when he applauded vigorously."

With each turn of the book's pages, Dori encountered many of the extraordinary people Agnes performed with, particularly at the Ripley's Odditorium at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. At the time, Robert Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!" cartoon was extremely popular, and the Odditorium was the first public exhibition of unique performers and curiosities Ripley had gathered during his travels around the world. More than 2 million people visited his collection at the World's Fair and witnessed live acts like Agnes.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Top: Crowd gathered at an oddity show capitalizing off Ripley’s success at the World’s Fair. Bottom: Agnes is featured in a newspaper clipping, between two photos of unknown performers.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori was enthralled with her discovery. "I have always been fascinated with people who are unique," she tells Mental Floss. Today, she works as a psychologist and often counsels people who have genetic disorders.

"I see a lot of amazing people overcoming many hurdles," she says. "At the same time I see people who are depressed. I wonder how all of the circus freaks felt on the inside. Were they hurting and depressed and putting on a show outwardly? Or did they find contentment in giving something of themselves to help others?"

While it's hard to know exactly how Agnes felt, there are glimpses in some of the scrapbook's clippings.

"I would like very much to be normal in every respect," Agnes says in one newspaper article. "Don't misunderstand me. I said I would like to, but simply because my skin is rubber doesn't mean that I have become morbid. Far from it. I am, perhaps, one of the most pleasant persons you ever met. And why shouldn't I be? I don't consider myself seriously handicapped. I realize that my skin when stretched isn't exactly normal, but I don't allow the presence of such skin on my body to make me self-conscious."

A page of promotional images from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
A collection of performers from the 1933 World’s Fair, and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not cartoon.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Indeed, Agnes's skin ailment proved to be quite profitable—several articles in the scrapbook claimed that "The salary paid her is the highest ever paid a freak." No numbers are given, and like many sideshow claims, this may have been an exaggeration. But many sideshow performers were paid well, especially for the Great Depression.

"She used a circumstance she was born into to become an independent woman with a high-paying career (for the day)," Dori says. "She traveled and experienced many things other women might not have been able to experience."

Photos of Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her family
Top: A photo featuring Agnes Schwarzenbacher with her father and siblings: Mary, John, Rose, and Carl. Below: A portrait of Agnes dated 1926.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

The Schwarzenbachers, however, weren't as self-confident as Agnes. Her family would have preferred that she covered her legs with long dresses and kept her anomaly to herself. They wanted nothing to do with her performances.

"The family was embarrassed that she was in the circus," Dori says. "I was also told that Agnes went to doctors to see if the tissue could be cut off. Apparently they couldn't in those days because it was too vascularized." (In other words, the tissue was too filled with blood vessels.)

The family's shame lasted well after Agnes's death. The scrapbook had originally been stored in Dori's grandparents' attic. When her grandmother passed away, no one in the family wanted the book except for Dori's mother, who had married Agnes's nephew.

"My mother was a person who was accepting of all people," Dori said. "She wasn't embarrassed about Agnes. She thought it was a shame that Agnes's flesh and blood did not want her scrapbook. The scrapbook is the story of Agnes's circus years, but also of her family."

Of course, it wasn't unusual for people born with anomalies to be treated in such ways. The sideshow, which had its heyday from the mid-1800s to the 1940s, offered them a rare chance to escape a life of seclusion, earn a living, see the world, and—perhaps most importantly—to enjoy a sense of camaraderie.

In a 1959 article from the New York World-Telegram and Sun, longtime showman Dick Best expanded on this thought more colorfully: "For the past thirty years I have been able to give employment to scores of [sideshow performers], give them financial independence, and companionship. You realize this when you see a mule-faced girl, a guy with three legs, and a girl weighing 500 pounds playing poker with a guy who shuffles and deals with his toes. In a crowd like that nobody sits around feeling sorry for himself or anybody else. You could be accepted there if you had nine arms and ten heads."

The "mule-faced girl" that Best referred to was Grace McDaniels, who Agnes worked with and featured in her album. McDaniels was afflicted with a condition that caused tumors to grow on her lips and mouth. In addition to being called "mule-faced," she was also billed as the Ugliest Woman in the World. Agnes's photos show her with McDaniel's teenage son, Elmer, who traveled with her.

The "guy with three legs," as Best called him, also appears in the scrapbook. His name was Francesco Lentini, billed as the Three-Legged Wonder. He also had four feet, and two sets of genitalia.

Agnes's friend Frieda Pushnik, the Armless, Legless Girl Wonder, is featured more prominently. Born in Pennsylvania in 1923, Pushnik had only small stumps at her shoulders and thighs, with which she learned to sew, crochet, write, and type. At the age of 10 she joined the Rubber Skin Lady at the Chicago Odditorium during the World's Fair. In addition to having collected several of Frieda's pitch cards, Agnes also had personal photos. One of these captures another companion, a dwarf named Lillie McGregor, holding little Frieda. Without legs, Frieda is about half the size of Lillie.

Lillie appears in other photographs with her husband, Harry. They are each seen pulling a person in a wagon with their eyelids. Agnes even saved the Ripley's cartoon that illustrated the stunt.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Spread of newspaper clippings, including articles about Agnes and a Believe It Or Not cartoon starring her friends Lillie and Harry McGregor, who could pull each other in a wagon with their eyelids.
Dori Ann Bischmann PhD

Lillie McGregor pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Lillie McGregor, a friend of Agnes, pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

While Agnes's adventures in show life surrounded her with many kinds of unique people, one photo is of a man who shared a similar ailment. Arthur Loos, the Rubber-Skinned Man, had skin that hung loose beneath his chin, much like a basset hound's. He could stretch the flesh 8 inches. If they bonded over their sagging skin, Agnes made no mention of it in the scrapbook.

The man she did bond with was not a performer in the sideshow at all. He was a foreman who operated rides at a fair, a man named Jack Higginbotham. Their marriage is mentioned in one of the book's clippings, which states they were wed in Rockford, Illinois. However, the Rubber Skin Lady's love story was a mere subhead to another sideshow romance that earned the paper's headline: "Bearded Lady and ‘Elephant Man' on Midway are Newlyweds."

Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her husband
Agnes with her husband, Jack Higginbotham.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Although her family may have stayed far away from the sideshow stage, Agnes kept them all close. Photos of her with her father, brothers, sisters, and other family members populate numerous pages of the scrapbook.

Had Dori only seen these particular family photos, with her aunt's dresses covering her legs, she would have never known Agnes was different in any way—or what an amazing story she had to tell.

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Michael Fountaine
12 Amazing Items From the World’s Largest McDonald’s Memorabilia Collection
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Michael Fountaine

Since 1969, Michael Fountaine has been obsessively collecting every piece of McDonald’s memorabilia he can get his hands on. His collection, which he says is valued “in the millions of dollars,” features 75,000 pieces in total.


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