8 Odd Acts of the Vaudeville Era

Before movies could talk, there were endless opportunities for those who had talent to make a living performing in front of live audiences. Singers, dancers, actors, and comedians were the backbone of the traveling show. There were also side show exhibits with human oddities and specialty acts such as the circus, the wild west show, and the medicine show. But in those days, just like today, audiences wanted something new and different. And there were many who stepped onto the stage to provide something different.

1. Painless Parker

Edgar Parker opened his dental practice in 1892 and found business was not that great. So he took his practice on the road and became Painless Parker, “the P.T. Barnum of dentistry.” If the idea of dentistry as entertainment sounds odd, remember that folks were eager for odd entertainnment. With the help of a cocaine solution he called "hydrocaine", Parker pulled tooth after tooth in town after town for only 50 cents each. "Painless Parker's Dental Circus" built his business to the point that when he died in 1952, he owned 30 dental clinics and employed 75 dentists. When Parker, who legally changed his named to Painless, performed his public extractions, he wore a necklace made of teeth he had pulled. He eventually collected a large bucket of human teeth, which is on display at Temple University's dental museum.

2. The Boxing Gordon Sisters

One gimmick for drawing in audiences was to put females in a role normally reserved for men. The Gordon Sisters traveled the east coast in a boxing exhibition show beginning in the late 1890s. Bessie Gordon, who was sometimes billed as Belle, gave a punching bag demonstration and then boxed one of her sisters Minnie, Alice, or Freda (who could have been only two or even one woman). The sisters did not come across as particularly talented fighters, rather the novelty was that women fought at all -and it didn't hurt that they wore short skirts in the ring. They also wore boxing gloves, while real (male) fighters at the time did not.

3. Lillian La France

Born in 1894, Lillian LaFrance embraced the freedom and thrills of motorcycle culture and made it into her profession. She began driving on the Motordrome circuit in 1924. LaFrance performed stunts including a turn at the Wall of Death which thrilled audiences across the country in the 1920s and '30s.

4. Ethel Purtle

How do you top a woman doing death-defying stunts on a motorcycle? Take that act and put a wild animal in it! Ethel Purtle performed on the Wall of Death with a sidecar containing her lion named King. There were several acts that combined lion tamers and stunt riders on the Motordrome circuit.

5. Gus Visser

There's not a lot of biographical information about Gus Visser outside of the fact that he was born in 1894 and performed a vaudeville act in which he sang with a duck. The duck had a limited part, but the gimmick was enough to build an act around. Gus achieved immortality when he was recorded in a 1925 experimental sound film singing "Ma, He's Making Eyes At Me", which became possibly the world's first music video. One has to wonder if Visser had any inkling that this experiment on film would eventually lead to the decline of vaudeville and the death of one-trick novelty acts such as his.

6. Cannonball Richards

Frank "Cannonball" Richards seemingly built his act around self-punishment. Strongmen were a staple of the traveling circus, but Richards combined his strength with the thrill of risking injury as he stood still and was shot in the belly with a cannonball. He discovered his unusually strong stomach as a young man and invited his friends to punch him in the gut. Richards went on to allow people to jump on his stomach to show its strength. He even took a punch from Jack Dempsey! His cannonball routine was limited to two performances a day because, despite his showmanship, the stunt was painful.

7. Le Petomane

Joseph Pujol made a living by farting, or rather, by drawing in and expelling air from his anus. He first shared his talent while serving in the French army and began performing professionally in 1887. Pujol, who went by the name Le Petomane on stage, performed fully clothed for most audiences and drew gasps and laughter from the crowd with the sounds he made, from impressions to melodies, including tricks like blowing out candles. He headlined at the Moulin Rouge in Paris for two years, then traveled throughout Europe. Pujol retired during World War I and returned to his former career as a baker in Marseilles. The only available film of his performance is, sadly, silent.

8. Helen Keller

You know the story of how Helen Keller was both blind and deaf and learned to communicate with her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. You might not know about their career as vaudeville performers. Keller was offered a place on stage as a teenager, but turned down the opportunity. By 1920, she and Macy were in need of money, and toured the US and Canada on the Orpheum circuit for four years. Keller was already a celebrity as an author and lecturer, but the stage act was reminiscent of a freak show, as Keller demonstrated her finger spelling and speaking voice. She was urged to keep her political views off the stage for fear of alienating the audience.

See also: Coney Island Freaks of Yesterday and Today and Stars of the Wild West Show.

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8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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