Clico: The Story of Franz Taaibosch

In the heyday of the American freak show, some exhibitors tried to pass off certain acts as “educational,” because the people exhibited were from exotic, far-off lands. The educational content was virtually nil, however, as those exhibited were rarely what they were promoted as being. Such is the story of the man known as Clico, the Wild Dancing Bushman.

The story went that Clico was chasing an ostrich through the Kalahari Desert when he injured his leg. Captain Paddy Hepston came to his rescue and nursed him back to health, “tamed” him by whipping him every day for six months, and then took him to Europe and made him a star.

The truth was a little less dramatic, and a lot more believable. Clico was the stage name of Franz Taaibosch, a member of the Korana people of South Africa who worked as a house servant in Kimberly, South Africa. He was not “wild,” nor was he a Bushman (San), although his unknown mother, who died when he was young, may have been San. That could explain Taaibosch’s short stature (he was reportedly 4’ 3’ tall) while his brothers were much taller.

One part of the hype surrounding Taaibosch’s exhibition was true: he was skilled in traditional Khoisan step-dancing. That talent caught Hepston’s eye. Paddy Hepston (or Epstein) had been in South Africa for 15 years and became a farmer after fulfilling his military duties. Hepston decided that he could take Taaibosch on tour and become wealthy as his manager. Taaibosch was probably born around 1870, as he was already middle-aged when Hepston took him to England in 1913.

The exotic exhibition of Taaibosch, now called Clico, Clicko, or Klikko because of the clicking sounds of his Khoisan language, dressed in animal skins and dancing a wild African dance, was a big draw in Europe and England. We don’t know how willingly Taaibosch accompanied Hepston; as a house servant, he may have been up for the adventure or he may have been under terrifying duress—or some combination of the two in which he felt he had no choice. However, people in Kent, England, took note of the harsh way Hepston treated Taaibosch, beating him, berating him in Afrikaans, and forbidding him to speak English. The Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society opened an investigation. Reports on Taaibosch’s condition followed, with varying conclusions, some of which were biased by the investigator’s opinion of Clico as a “savage.” After years of wrangling over custody of Taaibosch, during which he performed in Cuba, Hepston eventually left the circus and exhibition business, and Frank Cook became Taaibosch’s guardian. In 1917, the two moved to America.

Taaibosch worked in Ringling Brothers’ circus and at Dreamland in Coney Island in the 1920s and ’30s. He learned English and took to other sideshow performers as his family. In his act, he was billed as everything from a native of Madagascar to a Bushman to a Pygmy. He was even billed as the last remaining member of his tribe. He told the audience he didn’t feel comfortable sleeping unless there were chimpanzees with him, which was pure showmanship—chimpanzees don’t live in the Kalahari region of South Africa.

Franz Taaibosch worked the sideshow circuit well into his old age. He retired from show business in 1939 and lived with Frank Cook’s widow and daughter, who had inherited guardianship when Frank died just a couple of years earlier. By then, Taaibosch was probably around seventy years old. His retirement did not last long, and he died in 1940.

Was Taaibosch exploited? Undoubtably, although the argument could be made that his life as an exhibit in America was easier than it would have been as an African laborer under Boer rule. One could also argue the exact opposite: taking someone away from his family members and culture against his will does not improve his life. Taaibosch was one of many human “ethnographic” exhibits that highlighted cultures that were alien and exotic to the audience, even savage or, as many a showman hinted, “subhuman.” Taaibosch’s dancing was hailed as advanced art, but his value as a sideshow savage who played his role well trumped his dancing skill for the masses who paid to see the Bushman.

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June 1, 2015 - 2:48pm
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