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Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Inside the Never-Before-Seen Scrapbook of the Rubber Skin Lady, a 1930s-era Sideshow Star

Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
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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Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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iStock

Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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