Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Maryland's Amazing "Half-Boy"

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

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.

Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Is This the Most Mysterious Grave in Virginia?
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

In 1816, local legend has it that a ship dropped off an unknown couple in Alexandria, Virginia. The woman was extremely ill, possibly from typhoid fever, and couldn’t wait until their final destination to receive medical attention.

Alas, it was too late; she died a few weeks later while boarding at Gadsby’s Tavern. No one had spoken to her or, some say, even seen her face—any time anyone saw her, her features were hidden by a long, black veil. Her husband quickly arranged for a burial at St. Paul’s Cemetery, then borrowed money for a headstone from a local merchant named Lawrence Hill.

Under the circumstances, you might think the mysterious man would keep the epitaph simple, resulting in a more affordable stone and a smaller loan to repay. Instead, he went the opposite route, having a huge marker etched with this wordy tribute:

“To the memory of a Female Stranger, whose mortal sufferings terminated on the 14th day of October, 1816 Aged 23 years and 8 months. This stone is placed here by her disconsolate husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath, and who under God did his utmost even to soothe the cold dead ear of death."

It was followed by some verses adapted from Alexander Pope and a Bible quote, adding even more to the bill. The man spared no expense, and it’s no wonder—he apparently had no intention of paying back the loan. The female stranger’s husband skipped town without paying doctor bills, lodging bills, or funeral and burial fees (he did leave behind some currency, but it was forged). And when he left, he took more than his wallet with him—he also took his wife’s identity.

Rumors ran rampant, even 70 years later: In 1886, the Lawrence Gazette reported on several theories, including the popular notion that the woman was really Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr. Alston had been lost at sea around 1812, but conspiracy theorists speculated that she faked her disappearance to escape a loveless marriage. “Why the stranger’s husband would permit no one to see her face after she was dead gives rise to the supposition that he may have feared its recognition by those who looked upon it,” the Gazette said.

Outlandish? Perhaps. But even more so is the tale that the woman was actually a man—Napoleon Bonaparte dressed in drag, to be exact, attempting to escape his exile.

Yet another story declared the woman was named Blanche Fordan, and the man claiming to be her husband had actually hypnotized her into marrying him, though she really loved another.

Sadly, if you're looking for answers, you're going to be disappointed—we still don't have any. The female stranger remains as mysterious today as she was 200 years ago, although her grave has since become a local tourist attraction.

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

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 head to West Virginia, the home of Star Wars VII co-writer, Lawrence Kasdan, Barney Fife himself, Don Knotts, and Morgan Spurlock, the guy who ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days. 

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

Nestled in the mountains of southeast West Virginia is White Sulphur Springs, a small town of just over 2000 people. The main attraction in White Sulphur Springs is The Greenbrier, a 157-year-old hotel for the rich and famous, with amenities like five golf courses, a casino, tennis courts, spa treatments—and a secret underground bunker built to provide a safe haven for the Legislative Branch of the U.S. Government in the event of all-out nuclear war.

Built between 1958 and 1962, under a covert project codenamed “Greek Island,” the two-story, 153-room, 112,554-square foot reinforced concrete bunker was built into a hillside around 60 feet under the West Virginia Wing of the hotel.  While it was never used as a secure location for Congress as intended, it was held at-the-ready until 1992, with 75,000 gallons of water reserves, and over 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel to run three generators that could power the facility if the main electrical grid went down. A large air conditioning unit kept the air contaminant-free and an incinerator would have been used to dispose of garbage and biological waste.

As technology advanced in the ensuing years, new equipment was brought in and installed. To keep the bunker at such a ready state, it was staffed 24/7 for 30 years by a team of government employees operating under the guise of TV repairmen for the hotel.

In order for the government to continue working after the evacuation of Washington D.C. in the event of nuclear war, the bunker was built with a professional studio for radio and television broadcasts, complete with a variety of background photos that gave the impression the speaker was still in Washington.

In addition, the House of Representatives and the Senate each had separate meeting rooms, as well as a large hall for joint assemblies. These conference rooms were hidden in plain sight—they could be booked by hotel guests for special events, under the belief that the rooms were just part of the West Virginia Wing. Little did they know there were secret wall panels that concealed blast doors as large as 18 tons that led to the rest of the compound. 

To accommodate the 1100 people that could potentially live there, bunk beds were installed in 18 dormitories, and a fully-stocked cafeteria was prepared to make meals for up to 60 days. If more food was needed, thousands of military-grade Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were stocked along the 430-foot tunnel that led into the facility from the main entrance. Complete medical facilities were on-site, including an operating room, ICU, and an infirmary that could hold 14 people, all manned by a staff of 35.  

Every one of the four entrances to the bunker was protected by a set of blast doors, including the largest that was 12 feet by 15 feet of steel and concrete, and weighed 28 tons. However, the door was so well-balanced on its 1.5-ton hinges that it could be opened and closed by a single person.

Although the bunker remained secret for 30 years, there were whispers of its existence around White Sulphur Springs and among the staff at the hotel. Contractors involved in the construction were suspicious of the 50,000 tons of concrete that were poured at the site, and workers remember the blast doors being installed, but no one could ever confirm just what they were building. Many told their story, but it wasn’t until May 1992 when reporter Ted Gup of The Washington Post wrote about the Greenbrier Bunker that these stories were given legitimacy. Shortly after Gup’s story was published, the U.S. Government verified the existence of the bunker—then promptly shut it down. By July 1995, the facility had been turned over to the hotel, which now offers daily tours of the bunker for its guests. 

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.


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