Strange States: Maryland's Amazing "Half-Boy"

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If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

This week we’re in Maryland, the home of Cal Ripken, Spiro Agnew, Omar Little, and the Amazing Half-Boy, Johnny Eck.

John Eckhardt and his twin brother Robert were born in Baltimore, Maryland on August 27, 1911. At birth, John’s legs were severely underdeveloped, a result of caudal regression syndrome, a congenital disorder of the lower spine. This resulted in a truncated torso, or what Eckhardt himself often described as being “snapped off at the waist.” Despite his physical deformity, Eckhardt was otherwise healthy, and learned at an early age how to walk on his hands to get around. He was even able to balance on one arm in order to accomplish some overhead tasks like opening doors. 

Around the age of 12, Eckhardt was offered a job in a circus sideshow, where he billed himself as Johnny Eck, The Half-Boy. He would eventually perform for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Ripley’s Odditorium, performing sleight of hand, acrobatic feats, and everyday tasks to prove how “normal” he really was to audience members. After performing at the Canadian Exposition in 1931, Eck accepted a role in Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, about a group of vengeful sideshow performers. The film featured real circus freaks, including Eck, Olga Roderick as the Bearded Lady, Koo Koo the Bird Girl, and, most famously, Prince Randian, The Living Torso, among many others. Unfortunately, the film was considered too disturbing by critics and audiences alike, resulting in extensive cuts and an outright ban in the U.K. that lasted until the 1960s. The negative reaction to Freaks essentially ended Browning’s career as a director, but the exposure only helped Eck find more work as a performer in between his high-profile sideshow gigs.

Starting with 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man, Eck wore a costume to play the “Gooney Bird,” an odd bird creature that wanders through a handful of scenes, often to comedic effect. (Eck appeared in two more Tarzan sequels.) Then, in 1938, both Eckhardt brothers performed in what has since become a classic comedy bit from showman Rajah Raboid. Raboid, an illusionist and hypnotist, asked the audience for volunteers for the old “saw-a-man-in-half” magic trick, and would inevitably pick Robert Eckhardt from the audience. Once on stage, Robert would be replaced with John in the top half of the box that was cut in two, and a little person wearing specially-designed pants would be in the bottom.  Needless to say, audiences were shocked when the volunteer’s legs ran down the aisles of the theater with his top half chasing after them on his hands.

As the sideshow fell out of popularity, the Eckhardts returned to their parents’ home on the east side of Baltimore, the only home they ever knew.  To make ends meet, the brothers did odd jobs, as well as ran a penny arcade, a child’s train ride with John serving as engineer, and put on Punch and Judy puppet performances for kids. The artistic John also trained as a screen painter, a uniquely Baltimore form of art where landscapes or still lifes are painted on window screens. 

When Freaks was rediscovered and reconsidered by film historians in the 1970s and '80s, the brothers welcomed fans to their home to discuss the movie. But as their east Baltimore neighborhood became more dangerous due to drugs and gang violence, the Eckhardts went into seclusion. The final straw came in 1987 when two men broke into the Eckhardt home and held the elderly brothers for hours before finally robbing them. Reportedly, one of the thieves mocked and sat on top of John while his accomplice searched the house for valuables. After this act of violence, the brothers completely cut themselves off from society; Eck said, “If I want to see freaks, all I have to do is look out the window.” 

John Eck, the Half-Boy, died in 1991 after suffering a heart attack in his sleep. Robert died in 1995. Both men are buried under a shared headstone in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.   

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States! 

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

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April 28, 2014 - 1:00pm
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