What's Weird Here?
Ladies and gentlemen never have you met a man like the one exhibited here. By day he is a petty bureaucrat in an agency too fearsome to mention in front of the children. But at night, he becomes the Boswell of the Ballyhoo! The Annalist of the Outré! The Memorialist of All That is Thaumaturgic, Teratogenic, and Transmundane! And for the expenditure of mere minutes of life's precious expanse, you can meet this unique man on these very pages. Please step into our story, where the lovely Zamorah will direct you to your seats. Don't mind her beard, folks, she was born that way.
James Robert Taylor III has some peculiar friends. There is Paul Lawrence, also known as The Enigma, tattooed from shaved pate to big toe like a blue jigsaw puzzle, with horns surgically implanted in his skull. Then there is Johnny Meah, the Czar of Bizarre. During his working day, he drives nails up his nose and slides swords down his throat. Jeanie Tomaini, the Half-Girl, is 2' 6". She would be taller if she had legs, but if she had legs, she might never have made it in show business. And Matt "The Tube" Crowley...you may not want to know what Matt can do with a length of sterile tubing and a plunger bottle.
All these folks delight Taylor, 47, who is dedicated to putting the odd in periodical. He publishes Shocked & Amazed! On and Off the Midway, an illustrated journal of the sideshow, presenting its human oddities, bizarre performers, and Barnumesque heritage. Each issue mimics the entertainment that it chronicles. The cover art recalls the lurid banners that once advertised “Howard the Human Lobster” or “Percilla the Monkey Girl.” The table of contents reads like the spiel, delivered by a talker (carnies, Taylor explains, never use the term “barker”), that promoted the attractions inside and exhorted passersby on the midway to see the show. Once inside Shocked & Amazed! you encounter blockheads (performers who drive spikes up their noses), various anatomical wonders like Otis the Frog Boy, pickled punks (deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde), famous sideshow impresarios, and other attractions. Taylor calls the final piece in each issue “the blow-off.” In a sideshow, the blow-off is a last attraction placed at the exit to entice the audience to leave, making room for a new batch of paying customers.
By day, the publisher of this World of Wonders supervises auditors in Baltimore at the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation. He teaches English at a community college, and for years has been working on a novel that he describes as “300 odd—very odd—pages.” In 1973, when he was studying creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, he co-founded Dolphin-Moon Press, which has published more than 50 volumes of fiction and poetry.
There is an air of the 19th century about him. He wears silver rings on three fingers of each hand and threads a watch chain through the buttonholes of the waistcoats he favors. There is not much hair left on his head, but he does sport a robust set of muttonchops. He used to carry a walking stick and would not look bad dressed in a Victorian cape. He has a couple of physical anomalies himself: a little toe that curves over his other toes, and a heart situated at an odd angle in his chest. "Nothing I can make a buck off of," he says. He is friendly, profane, and smitten with the sideshow life. His knowledge and friends have landed him on The Jerry Springer Show. He was a consultant to The Learning Channel on its documentary "Sideshow: Alive on the Inside." His collection of books, curiosities, and memorabilia is growing into an archive that he hopes to exhibit someday. He sometimes speaks of growing up feeling like an outsider. Now he is an insider, "with it" in carnival lingo, accepted by a crowd of professional misfits and anomalies.
The entertainment spectacles that he relishes have changed over the decades, but he doubts they will disappear. “The spirit of sideshows is eternal,” he says. “People will look. We're very curious monkeys.” He smiles and adds, “The human race is an amazingly exotic species.”
Taylor grew up just outside Baltimore, close enough to pick up a pronounced Bawlmer accent. He recalls being fascinated by science fiction and horror movies but not sideshows, which he never saw. His parents did not take him or his many siblings (two by blood and, at various times, six foster children) to carnivals or circuses. James first became interested in sideshows after his father died in 1988 and his mother took up with a man named Jerry Farrow. Farrow owned a carnival. “He’s one of the most fascinating talkers you’ll ever want to meet,” Taylor says. “A hilarious talker.”
As Farrow told tales of carnival life, Taylor’s interest grew. When Baltimore’s Peale Museum hosted a show called “Mermaids, Mummies & Mastodons,” Taylor was enthralled. He went to Florida to see Hall & Christ’s World of Wonder sideshow. He began collecting books on human oddities and carny life, starting a library that now includes more than 500 volumes.
Taylor pondered writing about his new interest. Two things nudged him into action. In 1992, someone murdered Grady Stiles, famous in carnival life since the 1940s as the Lobster Boy. Stiles’s death reminded Taylor that many of the legendary old carnival performers were aging and would not be around forever.
The other nudge came from a scholarly book titled Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, by Robert Bogdan, a Syracuse University professor of sociology and education. “I sort of took umbrage at it,” Taylor recalls. “I’m reading this book, and what I’m seeing is a history book with an agenda. The thing that jumped up and screamed at me was that this book writes about a business from an angle that doesn’t include the sideshow people. It looks at the people, but I wanted to talk to the people. I wanted to know the people. I wanted to know what it is that puts you out on that midway.”
So, in February 1993, he headed for Gibsonton, Florida, the winter home and retirement village for many carnival entertainers. They call it Gibtown. To the extent that he had one, Taylor's plan was to interview performers about their lives and careers and put their stories in a book. He says, "I went down and made myself a complete pain in the ass." But a few people, like Sandra Reed, an albino sword swallower, and Ward Hall, "Last King of the Sideshows," responded to his respectful manner and serious intent and talked to him. "I found them to be the most delightful people in the world," he says. "I've been laughing since 1993."
The planned book became a magazine. Taylor, who was already a publisher, reasoned that in his own periodical he could write whatever he wanted, present it in the way he felt was proper, and if the magazine succeeded, he would have an excuse to keep hanging out with carnies. "What happens after a book's out?" he asks. "For about a year, you get attention. People consider you this sort of blowhard expert. Then it's over. I'd really grown to like talking to these people. What would be my excuse after the book was out?"
He approached Scott Huffines, founder of Atomic Books in Baltimore, for advice on marketing a new periodical. Atomic Books is a bookshop specializing in volumes about the cultural fringe. Huffines met Taylor when he opened the store in 1992. “He shows up the second day I opened,” Huffines says. “He looked like he was out of some kind of sideshow from the 1800s. I’m just looking at him and thinking, ‘Who the hell is this freak?’ We started talking about sideshows and became fast friends.” Huffines agreed to help Taylor distribute Shocked & Amazed! through his store and website. The first issue appeared in July 1995. Taylor has since published three more at irregular intervals, financed by grants, income from sales, and his own pocket. He sells about 2,500 copies of each issue and has sold out of the first two. Shocked & Amazed! is a fan’s magazine. Taylor devotes most of its pages to letting the entertainers tell their own stories.
Bogdan, the Syracuse professor who studies sideshows, says, “My problem with him is that he doesn’t present a deeply textured study. He’s an insider. He’s kind of promoting sideshow with his journal. The point of view that he presents has been missing, so he provides a service, but his journal’s a kind of one-sided exaggeration. My take on James is that he’s a romantic about this thing.”
Contemporary offbeat performers like Jim Rose and Penn Gillette are fans. Interest in the magazine seems to be growing: Taylor has increased the press run of his forthcoming issue to 5,000. He has plans for the next four and seems to have no shortage of material. Or enthusiasm.
The heyday of sideshows in the United States was from 1840 to 1940. Touring shows, called “10-in-ones” because typically they included 10 acts, featured “born freaks” (physical anomalies like Siamese twins or people with deformities), “made freaks” (people with extreme tattoos, piercings, and the like), and performers who had worked up acts like sword swallowing, fire eating, or blockhead.
After the Second World War, the sideshow business began to slide into hard times. Carnival operators found that they could profit more from rides, which had become more popular. Sideshow operators, who had to pay the carnival owners for space on the grounds, found themselves squeezed. One by one, they stopped touring or switched to games and rides. The physical oddities retired, many of them to Gibtown. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the sideshow nearly vanished.
But in the 1990s, much to the delight of Taylor, it began to come back. Younger performers like Harley Newman, Todd Robbins, Johnny Fox, and Jim Rose learned the old acts, invented new ones and new variations, and began staging their own sideshows. They popped up on late-night television, at Renaissance fairs, and in comedy clubs. Rose assembled the Jim Rose Circus and hit the road, playing theaters, clubs, and rock ‘n’ roll events like Lollapalooza 1992.
The new shows no longer include oddities like a frog boy or an alligator girl. Rosemarie Garland Thomson, associate professor of English at Howard University and author of Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, says, "We now imagine the appropriate discourse for disability is medical, not entertainment. So, we trot out these people in medical texts and schools instead of sideshows. There's also been a change in the way the culture sees disabled people. With the rise of the middle class, a bourgeois sensibility has come into ascendance. Part of that sensibility is being capable of sympathy for those who are below you on the social scale. And sympathy does not square with display [in a freak show]." Taylor adds that people born with deformities now have professional opportunities that were unavailable in the 1940s to someone like the legless Jeanie Tomaini, who told Taylor, "A lot of people that they call physically handicapped like I am, what else would we do? Go down and apply for a job? ‘Hey! No legs? Forget it!'"
The new breed of performers relies on extraordinary physical talents and the willingness to pierce, tattoo, and endanger every part of their anatomies. Jim Rose lies face down on broken glass and has his wife, Bébé the Circus Queen, stand on his head. Matt "The Tube" Crowley, who toured with Rose in the early ‘90s, would run a tube up his nose and down into his stomach. Rose would pump an astonishing quantity of beer, milk of magnesia, and damn near anything else into him, then reverse the plunger and pull the liquid back out again. The act was called "Bile Beer." Tim Cridland, The Torture King, pushes skewers under his tongue and out the bottom of his jaw. Says Taylor with glee, “That's an amazing act. I watched his crowd, and they were literally listing from side to side.”
You could argue that if a sideshow is the main attraction (and a ticket costs $15 instead of $1), it is not a sideshow. But the spirit is similar, though the new sideshow has more of an edge to it. In the 1920s, an act invited you to look. The Torture King dares you to look. Repulsion is part of the attraction. Taylor says, “It’s supposed to be unsavory and unwholesome. People are drawn to the shows for many of the reasons that draw people to perform in them. There’s that feeling of I need to be out there!” Out on the edge between what is entertaining and what is repellent, between the fascinating and the disturbing.
Carnies love “cuttin’ up the jackpot,” their phrase for swapping stories. So does Taylor. His tales veer off in digressions that prompt more digressions, all delivered with manic exuberance and showmanship he has picked up from his sideshow pals. Says Huffines, “He’s something. When you talk to him, you’ve got to hold the phone six inches from your ear.” Any typographic representation of his speech requires rampant italics, capitals, and punctuation. For example: “My first thought when I see these acts is, YOWWWWWWW!!!!! I just get hysterical! I just think...I just think these acts are a total outrage, and I laugh hysterically through most of these shows. The first time I saw the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow I walked out so goddam high I could hardly get on the goddam subway back to my hotel!!!” Or: “One time I bought this Tibetan skull cup—a human skull, lined with silver. I was talking to this guy about it, and he said, ‘Oh, those things are fake.’ I sat there, and I thought about it, and what he meant was that the cup had not been used ritually in a Buddhist ceremony. And I thought, ‘Who cares that it hadn’t been used ritually???? IT’S A HUMAN HEAD, FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!!!!!”
On a January evening, Taylor travels to Cincinnati to see some old friends and cut up a few more jackpots. The Contemporary Art Center there is opening an exhibit of sideshow banners and has brought in several performers to enliven the festivities. Johnny Meah, who painted a few of the banners on display, does the blockhead act and swallows swords. Jennifer Miller, a bearded lady—or as she prefers, “a woman with a beard”—juggles scimitars. Frank Hartman eats fire. When a contortionist who calls herself Topaz stubs out a lit cigarette on her tongue, members of the audience groan, squirm, and look away. But they look back.
Before his performance, a mentalist known as Scorpio approaches me with a clipboard and an envelope. Take a dollar bill from your wallet, he instructs, and write its serial number on the slip of paper on the clipboard. Then put the paper in your pocket and seal the bill in the envelope. I do it.
During his act, Scorpio has me stand and hold up the envelope. He closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose, and "reads" my subconscious. With a felt marker, he writes the serial number on a board for the audience to see, then asks me to unseal my bill and read the number. He has the correct one, of course. Afterward, a man in his 40s who had watched the performance approaches me. "Had he really never seen that bill before you put it in the envelope?” he asks me, wonder competing with skepticism in his voice. I assure him that only I had seen the dollar. I remember the note in my pocket and suspect that when I wrote the number on it, I left an impression on the clipboard for Scorpio to read. I think of sharing my suspicions with my puzzled interlocutor, then decide against it. He’s having too much fun being mystified.
Wherever he is now, he probably still wants to know how the trick was done. Just like I want to know why Topaz did not blister her tongue with that cigarette and wonder what it says about me that I would pay to watch her do it again. Sideshow crooks a finger at our scary desire to root around some of the deepest, strangest anxieties and urges that lurk inside us. As any carny will tell you, they are just the performers. We are the show.
Well, folks, we hope you’ve been shocked and amazed by the things you’ve read here. We want to remind you that the people described on these pages are trained professionals—please do not go home and stick an icepick up your nose. You will most assuredly bleed on the rug. Or on the cat, and you know it’s hell to get blood out of a cat. Because you've been such an attentive audience, we want to offer you one more attraction. Folks, as you file out, you will notice a cordoned-off area to your left. For just a few minutes more of your God-given lifespan, you can see the man, James Taylor, Boswell of the Ballyhoo, subject himself to the death-defying, epidermally scarifying Bed of Nails!!! This way, please...
Now and then, Taylor gets the urge to try an act himself. He decided to learn the nailboard because “it would be a fun thing to do.” He explains: “I thought I knew what I was doing because I’d read a book or two, which is a good way to get killed. I built the grid and put the nails two inches apart. Well...I got right back up. It felt like somebody was driving those nails through me. I talked to Harley Newman, another sideshow performer, and he said, ‘I don't like a two-inch board, either.’ And this is a guy who does this act with this many nails”—holding up four fingers— “one on each shoulder, one on each hip. I also told him that I couldn’t figure out why in the name of God it burned so much. Harley told me, ‘You're not aligned on it. You're twisting on it, and the nails are trying to tear you open.'"
After his painful early experiences, he took Newman's advice, placed the nails closer together, took more care with how he lowered himself onto the points and found that he could stand it. The next step was to have someone place a cement block on his abdomen and smash it. As one does. "It's just a matter of displacement of energy. When that hammer hits, the energy is absorbed by the block. You can't hit a glancing blow or be timid about it. You've got to hit the sonuvabitch."
So, on a cold winter’s night, Taylor found himself in the Mt. Vernon Stables, a bar in Baltimore, with Newman, who calls himself “The Professional Lunatic,” and fellow performer Todd Robbins. Taylor mentioned that he had been working on a nailboard but had not yet had someone break a cement block on him. Newman perked up and said that he would be honored to be the first. Which is how Taylor found himself standing on the sidewalk in downtown Baltimore, stripped to the waist, while his friends hauled the nailboard out of his van and set it up. Taylor reclined on it, Newman and Robbins put a block on his stomach, Robbins said, “You’re going to love this,” and Newman swung a 10-pound maul. Taylor emerged unscathed and delighted that he had scared the hell out of a few pedestrians strolling by. He knows how to do blockhead. Newman has promised to teach him how to climb a ladder of swords. It seems odd, but one thing that scares him is the thought of being tattooed. His pal The Enigma has offered to give him his first. So far, Taylor has declined.
The sideshow’s revival as the millennium approaches does not surprise him. “I think it’s the metaphor for the turn of the century. Look at the turn of the last century. Grand Guignol was in full flower. I’m waiting for the strangest behavior out of people. The country’s already so exotic, it’s frightening. Nothing’s in the middle, everything’s extreme. This is a business that was made to capitalize on that.”
On television, all manner of psychological oddity displays him or herself on talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show. On the internet, every form of grotesquerie is available for your private viewing pleasure if you know where to look, a freak show right there on your desktop. The X-Files makes use of the unique talents of Jim Rose and The Enigma for an episode titled "Humbug." The rock band Marilyn Manson gives parents the jitters with its dark, violent theatrics, and at the Burning Man Festival, thousands of otherwise ordinary people drive into the desert of Nevada, strip off their clothes, and enjoy a three-day pagan spectacle at which they are encouraged, almost required, to act out whatever peculiar fantasies inhabit their psyches.
Over dinner one night, Taylor asks me, “Do you think people would pay to see the spare change that was in Kennedy’s pocket when he was assassinated? They’d line up from here to the Inner Harbor.” He leans forward, eyes intent. “Now I’ve got a question for you. If you take the change out of your pocket, and the coins are dated prior to 1963, and you drop them into a display case with a little paragraph that talks about the change that was in Kennedy’s pocket, and you never say whether or not it was these coins, my question is, What’s the biggest problem? That somebody would show the real coins? That somebody would show fake coins and not say whether or not they were the original? Or the fact that somebody actually thinks that they’re going to get a real, moving experience from looking at the change that was in a guy’s pocket when he was shot to death? I mean, WHAT’S WEIRD HERE????”
James Taylor grins widely, delighted by the whole idea.