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.

8 Explorers Who Mysteriously Disappeared (and Some Who’ve Been Found)

A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real
A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real

By their very nature, explorers often push the boundaries of survival in the name of glory, so it’s not a great surprise that many have gone missing in the course of their adventures. Over the years, the quest to uncover the truth of what happened to them has captivated the public, historians, and journalists alike, leading to numerous theories and some surprising finds.

1. Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real

The youngest of three Portuguese brothers, Gaspar Corte-Real was a keen explorer who undertook an expedition to Greenland in 1500. He embarked on a second expedition in 1501 with his older brother Miguel, in which they claimed Greenland for the crown before apparently sailing on to reach Newfoundland or Labrador. At that point, Gaspar sent two of his three ships back to Portugal, including the one captained by his brother. Gaspar’s ship continued its explorations, but was never seen again.

In 1502, Miguel Corte-Real, learning of his brother’s disappearance, led a search party to the area where Gaspar was believed lost, but he found nothing, and his ship too went missing. The oldest Corte-Real brother, Vasco Annes, begged the king to let him mount a further search party to find his lost brothers, but the king refused—perhaps unwilling to risk the embarrassment of losing a third Corte-Real.

The disappearances have remained a mystery for centuries. But in the 1910s, Edmund Burke Delabarre, a psychology professor at Brown University, put forward a new theory about the inscriptions on the famous Dighton Rock in Massachusetts. The rock is covered with petroglyphs that were first noted way back in 1680, and since then scholars have proposed numerous theories about who carved them and why. Delabarre suggested that the inscription was in fact abbreviated Latin, and reads: “I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians.” This astounding theory implies that the explorer may have continued his travels into America and survived at least nine years in the New World. If his inscription is to be believed, he made quite a success of his new life.

2. Jean-Francois De Galaup

La Perouse's last letter
La Perouse's last letter

Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, was an accomplished sea captain. In 1785, inspired by the successes of Captain James Cook, the French king Louis XVI sent La Pérouse on an expedition to explore the Pacific. The party was made up of two ships—La Boussole and L'Astrolabe—manned by 225 crewmembers. The voyage was expected to last four years. La Pérouse kept scrupulous records of his findings during the trip, mapping coastlines, taking specimens, and making observations of the peoples and places he encountered. (Thankfully, he sent his journals back to France, where they were preserved for posterity and later published to great success.) Having successfully sailed through the Pacific, taking in Japan, the Philippines, and Tonga, La Pérouse arrived at Botany Bay in Australia and was witnessed by British settlers sailing out of the bay in March 1788, the last sighting of the expedition. By 1791, when no communication had been received from La Pérouse for some time, a search party was dispatched from France—but no trace of the expedition was found.

The puzzle seemed to be solved in 1826 when an Irish sailor, Peter Dillon, came across something intriguing while exploring the Solomon Islands. The locals had a number of European swords, which Dillon thought might have belonged to La Pérouse, and told of sighting two large ships that had broken up on the reefs there. In 1964 the wreck of La Boussole was at last discovered on the reefs of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands, confirming that this indeed was where the expedition had reached its sad end. However, in 2017 an Australian researcher found an 1818 account by an Indian castaway that seems to suggest La Pérouse was killed by locals on a small island off Northern Australia, perhaps in a later leg of his voyage after constructing a schooner from the remains of La Boussole.

3. Naomi Uemura

Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Modern explorer and adventurer Naomi Uemura was part of the first Japanese team to scale Mount Everest in 1970. (He would have been the first Japanese person to reach the summit if his impeccable manners hadn’t made him relinquish the lead to allow his elder, Teruo Matsuura, the honor of going first.) Uemura completed many amazing feats during his lifetime, including climbing the highest mountain on each of the world’s continents solo, trekking across the Arctic to become the first person to reach the North Pole solo, and rafting down the Amazon. In February 1984, Uemura set off to scale Mount McKinley in Alaska in an attempt to become the first person to achieve a solo winter climb of the treacherous peak. Uemura reached the peak, but that is all we know, as he never made it off the mountain. Rescue parties searched for the adventurer, but all that was found was some equipment and his diary hidden in a snow cave. To date his body has not been found, and the exact circumstances of his tragic death remain a mystery.

4. Percy Fawcett

British soldier, archaeologist and explorer Percy Fawcett
British soldier, archaeologist, and explorer Percy Fawcett
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the last 90 years, some 13 expeditions and over 100 people have perished in futile attempts to discover the fate of British explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. Fawcett was the very epitome of a dashing explorer: He had a distinguished military career before following his sense of adventure to help create maps of the vast and uncharted Amazon jungle. During the 1920s, he departed on a number of ambitious expeditions in an attempt to locate the fabled lost city of El Dorado, which he dubbed the city of “Z.”

In 1925 Fawcett set off into the Mato Grosso region of Brazil with his eldest son, Jack, and his son’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell. The trio plowed into the jungle, covering up to 15 miles in a day in their zeal to find the rumored riches of the lost city. By May 29 the group sent their native guides back with their latest letters, including one to Fawcett’s wife, Nina, in which he wrote: “You need have no fear of any failure.” This missive was the last thing heard of Fawcett, and after two years with no sign, the Royal Geographical Society sent the first of many search parties. That no trace was discovered of Fawcett only served to keep the many rumors surrounding his fate alive.

Researchers have since come forward with many different theories: Fawcett had “gone native” and was living among a remote tribe; he succumbed to malaria or a jaguar attack; he deliberately disappeared in order to set up a mystical commune. But perhaps the most believable version of his fate was obtained by journalist David Grann, who retraced Fawcett’s steps in 2005 and discovered the Kalapalo Indians had an oral history indicating that Fawcett had ignored their advice and walked right into the domain of a hostile tribe who, in all likelihood, killed him.

5. George Bass

George Bass was an English surgeon who, inspired by tales of Pacific exploration, took to the seas as a ship’s surgeon. He embarked on many expeditions, but the one for which he is most remembered is his voyage to Australia with Matthew Flinders in the 1790s. The pair mapped large swathes of the Australian coast, and Bass identified the body of water between Australia and Tasmania that was later named the Bass Strait in his honor. Despite his success as an explorer, Bass felt under-appreciated and became envious of the merchants who were making their fortunes shipping goods from Europe to the new settlements in Australia. Consequently, he abandoned his cartography and set himself up as a trader. Unfortunately he was a little late to the party and when he returned to Australia, his ship laden with goods, he discovered many others had beaten him to the punch and the market was saturated with British products.

Undeterred, he decided to try his luck in South America and set sail with his bounteous cargo in 1803. Bass and his ship were never seen again, and their fate remains an enigma. Rumors persisted that Bass made it to Chile or Peru, where he was captured by the Spaniards and forced to work in the mines there as a slave until his death.

6. George Mallory

George Mallory was a British explorer and mountaineer who captured the public’s imagination after he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest and he responded: “Because it’s there.” As one of the foremost mountaineers of his day, Mallory was an obvious choice to take part in the first British expeditions to the as-yet-unconquered Everest throughout the early 1920s—well before the benefit of modern materials, technology, and weather forecasting.

In June 1924, George Mallory and fellow mountaineer Andrew Irvine set off for an attempt on the summit. Another member of the expedition glimpsed them climbing at over 26,800 feet, but that was the last time they were seen alive. That the pair perished in their attempt was certain, but debate raged over whether they had become the first to reach the summit and died on their way down, or if they died having never reached the top. Various pieces of the puzzle emerged over time—in the 1930s, Irvine’s ice axe was discovered at 27,700 feet, and in 1991 a 1920s oxygen canister was found. Finally, in 1999, an expedition discovered Mallory’s frozen body on the mountainside, clearly the victim of a terrible fall. The climbers carefully buried the body where they found it, but sadly no trace was ever found of Andrew Irvine.

It was hoped that Mallory’s camera might be found—an artifact that could prove for certain if he made it to the summit—but unfortunately the camera remains missing. Tantalizingly, Mallory had stated that he was going to carry a photograph of his wife and leave it at the summit, and when Mallory’s body was found the photograph was not there, providing yet another clue that perhaps this great mountaineer had conquered the world’s tallest mountain.

7. Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the foremost explorers of the Victorian era was Sir John Franklin, who had captained a number of expeditions to the Arctic in search of the Northwest passage. Franklin succeeded in mapping large areas of coastline, identifying many new botanical specimens and furthering our knowledge of the unforgiving Arctic weather during his first two expeditions. Some 20 years after he had retired, Franklin was tempted back to make one final effort to find the Northwest Passage. In 1845, when Franklin was 60 years old, he set off with 129 crewmembers in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships made it to Baffin Island, where they were sighted by a whaling ship, but after that the ships were seen no more.

With no word from the expedition, numerous rescue missions were sent out to try and discover their fate. Finally, in 1859, after a tip-off from local Inuit hunters, a team led by Francis McClintock found objects and remains from the group on King William Island. It became clear that the two ships had become hopelessly trapped in the sea ice. A note was found which indicated that the ships had finally been abandoned in April 1848, having been stuck fast in the ice since September 1846. The note also revealed that Franklin had died in June 1847, though no cause was given. Scientific analysis of the mummified remains of some of the sailors indicated they may have died from lead poisoning, likely caused by the lead used to seal their canned food. Historians argue that those who did not die from contaminated supplies probably perished in the freezing conditions as they tried to march across the ice to safety. In September 2016, archaeologists announced the discovery of the wrecked remains of HMS Terror off the coast of King William Island, which historians hope will provide yet more clues about the terrible fate of the stranded crew and their desperate struggle for survival.

8. Ludwig Leichhardt

Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1848, German scientist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt led an attempt to cross Australia’s desert interior from east to west. Leichhardt was already an explorer of some renown, having completed two earlier expeditions across Australia—on one occasion, he had been given up for dead after he spent 18 months in the Australian interior, only to show up very much alive and with copious notes and discoveries.

Leichhardt set off for his final mission accompanied by seven companions, 50 bullocks, 20 mules, seven horses, and a huge amount of supplies and equipment. Despite all of that, the only trace ever found of the missing expedition was a small brass plaque inscribed with Leichhardt’s name and the year 1848, which had been attached to his rifle. The lack of any further evidence of the bodies or equipment from the expedition has proved an enduring mystery, and things aren’t made any clearer by the fact that no one is sure which route they took or how far through Australia’s vast interior they got.

An 1852 search party reported that they had found an abandoned campsite with a tree with the letter L carved into it, a mark Leichhardt reportedly frequently left to indicate his route. Over the years a number of further searches uncovered more trees inscribed with an L, but their disparate locations did little to solve the riddle of the progress and fate of the explorers. The public was so intrigued by the mysterious disappearance that numerous rumors were published in the newspapers, inevitably leading to sensationalist stories of the group dying of thirst, being murdered by Aboriginal people, or even of Leichhardt surviving into old age living in the bush. However, until some concrete evidence or remains are discovered, it is likely that the truth will remain elusive.

This story first ran in 2016.

How Was This Famous Ship Wrecked?

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