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The True Stories Behind 11 Famous Sideshow Performers

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Although the sideshow has mostly disappeared from the American landscape today, we can still look back on the performers of yesteryear and see how they became the icons of American circus culture. But the stories of the real-life people behind the legends are sometimes just as interesting as what they could do on stage.

1. Schlitzie, The Last of the Aztecs

Schlitze “Schlitzie” Surtees (birth name unknown, possibly Simon Metz) is one of the most famous “pinhead” sideshow performers in history, primarily due to his role in Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks (and although Schlitzie’s persona in the film, as well as on stage, was female, he was male off-stage).

Schlitzie was born with a condition known as microcephaly, a developmental disorder which causes the skull and brain to be undersized. (Microcephalics are also typically of short stature—Schlitzie was only four feet tall.) Schlitzie’s condition also left him severely mentally disabled, which made him unable to perform many basic tasks and only capable of speaking short words or phrases.

2. General Tom Thumb

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Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, is one of the most famous little person sideshow performers in history. Young Charles stopped growing at approximately two feet tall.

At the age of four, he was discovered by P.T. Barnum himself (actually a relative of the Strattons) and quickly became a member of Barnum’s circus. For the next 40 years, until his death in 1883, Charles had wild successes as General Tom Thumb (earning a fortune that would make him a millionaire today—he even bailed out Barnum’s circus at one point), and married another little person, Lavinia Warren (a.k.a. “Mrs. Tom Thumb”), which earned him a reception at the White House care of President Abraham Lincoln.

Although he started growing again later in life, he was only just barely over three feet tall. Even after his death, Stratton’s doctors were never able to pinpoint the exact cause of his dwarfism.

3. Chang and Eng Bunker, The Siamese Twins

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Chang and Eng might not be household names, but they did make an important contribution to the sideshow’s history—they were the original Siamese Twins, so called because they were conjoined twins who were born in Siam (modern-day Thailand) in 1811. Joined at the sternum, the brothers lived their lives facing chest to chest (though with modern medicine, they’d be easily separable since they shared no major organs other than a slightly-fused liver).

As the boys grew older, they settled in North Carolina, adopted the surname Bunker, bought a plantation (complete with slaves), and even married a pair of (non-conjoined) sisters with whom they fathered a total of 21 children. Due to the brothers’ condition, their marriage bed was custom built and had room for the four of them to sleep together. Later, however, the two wives reportedly found they couldn’t get along and so the brothers moved into two separate houses, alternately spending three days to a week at each (depending on the source).

They died on January 17, 1874, but not at the same time. Chang died of a stroke brought on by pneumonia sometime in the night. Eng discovered his brother the next morning and a doctor was called for an emergency separation, but Eng had already died by the time he arrived.

4. Frank Lentini, The Three-Legged Man

Born in Sicily in 1881, Francesco Lentini was unique from birth: He not only had an almost-entirely complete third leg, but also had a small fourth foot attached to that leg’s knee and even had a second set of (reportedly fully-functioning) genitals.

Lentini’s condition was actually the result of a partially-formed conjoined twin, which was fused with him at the pelvis. Since the twin’s remaining parts were connected directly to Lentini’s spine, his doctors determined that it wasn’t feasible to remove them. As such, Frank Lentini lived the rest of his life as The Three-Legged Man.

Originally, the young Frank was deeply depressed by his condition, but after spending time at a school for disabled children and seeing others who were blind and deaf, he became more accepting of himself, which led to his career in the sideshow, where he would perform feats like kicking a soccer ball with his third leg or jumping rope. He eventually worked with all of the major circuses and became extremely well-respected in the sideshow community.

5. Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man

Joseph “John” Merrick, also known as The Elephant Man, is one of the most famous sideshow performers to have ever lived. Born in 1862 with a still-unconfirmed series of genetic defects, Merrick’s skin and bones were eventually covered with numerous growths, protrusions, and tumors.

Merrick’s condition didn’t begin to display itself until the age of five, and his parents came to believe that it was the result of his mother being frightened by an elephant while she was pregnant with him (hence the “Elephant Man” moniker). He had trouble securing work throughout his life and eventually agreed to join the sideshow as a means of supporting himself, which also led to him being introduced to Dr. Frederick Treves of the London Hospital.

Although he later stated that he didn’t mind his time as a performer, he also didn’t make much of a living at it, and was robbed of all of his savings by one of his managers in Brussels. Making his way back to London, he became a permanent resident of the London Hospital after police found Dr. Treves’ card in Merrick’s possession. During his time there, he became famous among London’s elite and received many visitors, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

He died April 11, 1890 of asphyxiation in his sleep. Dr. Treves, who had befriended Merrick in the years since he had initially met him, believed that Merrick may have tried to lay his head down when he slept (he usually slept sitting upright), which dislocated his neck and suffocated him.

6. Ella Harper, The Camel Girl

Ella Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee in 1870, and she had a trait that made her just ripe for the sideshow—Ella’s knees could bend forward, allowing her to drop down onto her hands and walk on all fours. Nowadays, this is a known condition called genu recurvatum, but in Ella’s day, she was simply referred to as “The Camel Girl."

She eventually made her way into W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus, where she was the star of the show. In 1886, when Ella was 16, her “pitch card” (the biographical information cards that circuses would pass out about their performers) stated that, as of that year, she intended to quit the circus and go to school. Sure enough, the Camel Girl disappeared, and no references to her act appear after that year.

7. Stephan Bibrowski, Lionel the Lion-Faced Man

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Born in 1891 in modern-day Poland, Stephan Bibrowski was an ordinary boy who just happened to have thick hair that grew all over his body. His mother was convinced (not unlike Joseph Merrick’s mother) that the affliction had resulted from her witnessing Stephan’s father being attacked by a lion while she was pregnant. (This explanation for birth defects, known as maternal impression, was popular at the turn of the century, but has long since been debunked.)

His mother thought him a monster and gave him away to a German entertainer. In truth, young Stephan suffered from hypertrichosis, the same disorder that gives us so-called “werewolf syndrome,” a trait found in contemporary circus performer Jesús Aceves, the “Wolf Boy.” Stephan’s hair pattern just happened to more closely resemble a lion’s.

Stephan was well-known for being kind, gentle, and intelligent, however. He is reported to have spoken five languages and spent a portion of his act simply talking to his audience. Stephan was able to retire in his 30s and returned to Europe. He died of a heart attack at the age of 41.

8. Annie Jones, The Bearded Lady

Annie Jones may not be the original bearded woman, but she was certainly one of the most famous (and possibly the youngest). Born at an indeterminate time in the 1860s, she started touring with P.T. Barnum when she was only nine months old.

She quickly became one of Barnum’s prized acts and had even grown a full mustache by the time she was five. She was usually simply referred to as the “Bearded Girl” (until she was too old to be called a girl anymore, that is), although she was also called “Monkey Girl."

Later in life, Jones was one of the most popular bearded women in the business, and used her fame and position in Barnum’s circus as a platform for discouraging the use of the word “freaks” to refer to sideshow performers.

9. Isaac W. Sprague, The Human Skeleton

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Isaac Sprague, born in Massachusetts in 1841, was by all accounts a normal boy—at least until he got to the age of 12, when he began rapidly losing weight. Before long, his muscle mass had essentially dropped to nil, with his doctors being unable to explain exactly why (his condition was listed by at least one as “extreme progressive muscular atrophy”). At the age of 24, incapable of working any other jobs, he joined the sideshow.

Sprague worked with P.T. Barnum on and off throughout his career, working at Barnum’s American Museum and sometimes going on tour with him when he found himself low on money, which was apparently quite frequently. (He had three sons and was rumored to have a gambling problem as well.)

At the age of 44, Sprague was officially measured by a doctor and found to be five feet six inches tall while weighing a mere 43 pounds. He died two years later of asphyxiation, probably as a result of his condition. As a result of Sprague’s popularity, “living skeleton” acts became common at many sideshows.

10. Prince Randian, The Living Torso

Prince Randian (birth name unknown) was born in 1871 in British Guiana (now the independent nation of Guyana) with tetra-amelia syndrome, a disorder that causes the person to be born without limbs, as well as other possible deformities (which Randian did not have). The rest of his early life is a mystery. According to legend, he was brought (along with his wife, “Princess Sarah”) to America at the age of 18 by P.T. Barnum himself.

The two quickly settled in America and began having children (five in total). Randian found fame with his “human snake” act, where he’d wear a one-piece wool outfit and crawl across the stage, as well as performing a number of acts (such as writing or rolling a cigarette with his mouth and shaving with a razor embedded in a wood block) that would seem impossible for a man without appendages.

Actually, Randian was very capable without limbs. He claimed that he built his props, as well as the box he stored them in, on his own. He was also extremely intelligent and multilingual, and, according to those who worked with him, possessed a great wit and sense of humor.

11. Mirin Dajo, The Invulnerable Man

Born Arnold Gerrit Henskes in 1912 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Mirin Dajo (a pseudonym he adapted from the Esperanto word for “wonder”) was famous primarily for one thing: He could stick swords and other metal objects straight through his body without injury.

Although not strictly a sideshow performer (Dajo was in business for himself), the human pincushion is a traditional sideshow act and Dajo was one of the best at it. According to Dajo himself, he learned the trick from Hindu fakirs, who are known to occasionally pierce their bodies without injury, albeit not to the same degree as Dajo.

In reality, Dajo was never known to have visited India and he probably just used the story as part of the spiritual angle in his act. Decades before there were hippies, Dajo used his act to preach love, a unifying life force, and a disdain for materialism.

Several doctors examined Dajo, even performing X-rays on him with a sword still sticking through his body. They discovered that the blade was indeed piercing him, though they had no idea how he was able to perform the maneuver without injury. (Modern researchers believe he may have created fistulas—small scar tunnels—through his body over many years of slowly inserting the swords into himself.)

In 1948, he claimed that voices compelled him to swallow a steel needle and then have it surgically removed. He did both, but due either to complications from the surgery or from his performances (or both), Dajo died a few days later from an aortic rupture.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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