“We told you we had living, breathing monstrosities. You laughed at them, yet but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are! They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came.” Thus begins a movie such as had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since, Tod Browning’s “Freaks!” My name…
When you think of MGM movies, your mind probably drifts to classics like “Gone With The Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” or maybe you think of the Bond franchise. You wouldn’t immediately associate MGM with human oddities on display, though maybe you should. In the time before TV, before movie theaters, the highlight of your year might be the appearance of a travelling carnival, with its games, rides, and of course, the freak show. Appearing in the ten-in-one tent was sometimes the only work available to people whose bodies were born in such a way that they couldn’t support themselves otherwise. Many freak show performers earned a good living in the end of the 19th century and the early 20th, far in excess of that of the people paying to see them.
The 1932 movie “Freaks!” tells the story of a travelling circus, full of performing acts like horseback riding and clowns, as well as natural-born attractions, like the half-man, the human worm, the living skeleton and the bearded lady. The beautiful trapeze artist seduces a wealthy dwarf, all the while planning to marry him and kill him, in cahoots with the strong man. At their wedding feast, the freaks welcome the trapeze artist into their psedu-family, chanting “One of us, one of use, we accept her.” The trapeze artist lashes out against them, calling them filthy and humiliating her new husband by treating him like a baby. It still takes a while for the other freaks to convince the dwarf, but once a bottle of poison is found and her secret is revealed, the freaks exact their revenge in one of the most under-rated scenes ever put to film, in this reporter’s opinion. The monsters are the beautiful trapeze artist and the handsome strongman, and the freaks are the ones you root for.
The story of Freaks actually starts with the 1925 silent film “The Unholy Three,” directed by Tod Browning and starring the inimitable Lon Chaney. The film co-starred Harry Earles a dwarf playing a criminal who pulled scams by posing as a baby. According to the apocryphal history of things, Earles, eager to find more acting word, brought a short story about a pair of circus performers who take advantage of a wealthy dwarf to Browning’s attention. Browning was immediately interested and convinced MGM to buy the rights to the story. The film adaptation was to star Lon Chaney, but the project got stuck in pre-production, then Chaney passed away from lung cancer in 1930, shortly after filming a talkie remake of The Unholy Three.
Monster movies were popular enough in the silent film era, but really took off when diegetic sound became standard. In 1931, fresh off the success of directing Dracula for Universal, Tod Browning finally got the green-light for his passion project, as MGM’s head of production Irving Thalberg hoped for a horror smash hit of their own. According to Browning’s biographer, it became a case of be careful what you wish for. The story goes that after reading the script for “Freaks!”, Thalberg hung his head and said, “Well, I asked for something horrible, and I guess I got it.” It’s worth remembering that this was the era of the Hays Code, a restrictive set of guidelines places on motion pictures to curb immorality. It forbade certain kinds of violence, any mention of homosexuality, ridicule of the church, and much more. You can hear more in episode 40 “Words You Can’t Say On TV or Radio.”
Shooting the movie was no picnic. The eponymous Freaks were poorly treated by various MGM employees, who bristled at the idea of having to eat lunch near such people. In an apparent peace-keeping effort, Thalberg arranged a compromise: Though the more “normal” looking cast members, like the dwarves Harry and Daisy Earles and the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, could eat in the commissary, but the rest of the cast was relegated to a *tent that was erected outside.
Early screenings of the film were a disaster, moving Thalberg to push the film’s wider release back a month so changes could be made. Changes made without Browning’s input. Thalberg cut the film from 90 minutes to around 60, cutting most of the revenge sequence and a number of scenes that humanized the freaks, and adding a new opening and epilogue. Both audience and critical reactions were negative, with people fleeing theaters and one woman claiming the movie had caused her to have a miscarriage. Freaks! Actually did okay in a few cities, like San Diego, where the uncut version set a house record for ticket sales, but those exceptions weren’t enough and MGM pulled Freaks from theaters at a reported loss of $164,000 against its $316,000 budget. The next year, in an effort to recoup some of money, Thalberg re-released the film, without the MGM logo, under the new title Nature’s Mistakes. It did less well the second time. “Freaks!” was essentially forgotten until the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, where it was shown and declared to be a neglected classic. Film archivist Raymond Rohauer obtained the rights and marketed it as a cult film, whereafter “Freaks!” became a staple of midnight movies in the 70’s and 80’s.
A film about circus life was actually a natural step for the man born Charles Albert Browning in 1880; he had literally run away with the circus at age 16, after falling in love with one of the dancing girls. A natural entertainer, Browning worked as a clown and acted in vaudeville, which was where he eventually met director D.W. Griffith and got his first break in cinema in 1913, appearing as an undertaker. At some point, Browning dropped his birth name for Tod with one D, which means “death” in German, “trick” or “fox” in Old English. Once he got to Hollywood, Browning never looked back, never returning to his family in Louisville, KY, not even for his mother’s funeral. Browning became one of the most successful directors in Hollywood… until Freaks, that is. The industry as a whole and Louis B. Mayer, of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, never forgot or forgave him for it. Browning only directed four more films, two of them uncredited, before retiring to live alone with his dogs in Malibu, until his death in 1962.
Harry Earles, who put the idea for Freaks in Browning’s head, was born Kurt Scheider in Germany, in 1902, one of seven siblings, three of whom were average-size and four of whom were dwarves. His sister Daisy co-starred with him in Freaks!, playing the love interest he spurns for the trapeze artist. Harry, Daisy, Gracie and Elly, billed themselves as The Doll Family when all four worked together, though Harry and Gracie also toured as a duo, Hansel and Gretel. They adopted the last name of their manager, Bert W. Earles, who brought them to America and put them up in his home. They toured with a wild west show before being picked up by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and their “Greatest Show on Earth.” Little people became the new hot thing in Hollywood, so the always sharp-dressed Harry began promoting himself and his sisters to directors. Separately or together, the siblings appeared in dozens of movies, including many Laurel and Hardy shorts. They were so ubiquitous, they became known as the “Moving Picture Midget.” (That was their marketing, don’t at me.) Their final movie appearance was in 1939’s Wizard of Oz, with Harry himself as a Lollipop Guild Member. Like all the other munchkins, they were uncredited and poorly paid, earning –I kid you not– less than the dog that played Toto. This soured the Earles siblings on the movie biz and they returned to stage life and the circus. The Doll Family retired in 1958 and lived their remaining years in a state-of-the-art house in Florida, especially designed to suit their size. Grace passed away in 1970, followed by Daisy in 1980, and Harry in 1985. Elly, who was known by everyone as Tiny, died in 2004 at the age of 90.
Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in Brighton, England, in 1908, pygopagus twins, meaning fused at the pelvis. Their mother rejected them, seeing the conjoined twins as divine punishment for getting pregnant out of wedlock and sold the girls to her boss, Mary Hilton, who had helped deliver them. “Auntie,” as the girls called her, recognized the commercial potential of the twins and placed them on display in the back room of a pub. Any men in Auntie’s life were referred to as “Sir” and between Auntie and the “Sirs,” Daisy and Violet endured years of near constant physical and emotional abuse. They toured the world from the age of 3, singing and dancing, seeing limited success in Europe before coming to America in 1915. They were initially denied entry at San Francisco as being “medically unfit,” but Auntie was able to create a media frenzy that put sufficient pressure on the authorities.
When Auntie died, she left the girls to her biological daughter, Edith, and Edith’s partner, Myer Myers, a balloon salesman from Australia, who were even more cruel. Myers signed all the contracts and never told Daisy and Violet the details. Kept captive for a majority of their time, the twins were forced to practice their various stage talents, such as the saxophone and violin, for hours on end. Edith and Myers kept the girls in check with physical abuse and threatening to have them institutionalized. Even though the Hilton sisters were a hit on vaudeville in the 20’s, taking in the equivalent of $75,000 a week, they never saw a dime. It was actually Harry Houdini who counselled the girls to educate themselves on their public persona and success. After that, the sisters found the will to fight for their freedom. A lawyer helped Daisy and Violet secure legal emancipation in January 1931 and a monetary away equivalent to $1.6 million.
Freedom wasn’t a cure-all, though. Having no experience managing their own money or promoting themselves, and with vaudeville on the way out, the twins’ career stalled. Violet fell in love with a musician, but they couldn’t get married because 21 states refused to grant a marriage license. Later, the sisters each at one point married an entertainer who would later be revealed to be gay, one for ten years and the other for ten days. In addition to Freaks, they starred in the movie Chained for Life, based loosely on their lives. Eventually, Daisy and Violet couldn’t get booked for appearances. They landed a small ad campaign for Phillip Morris promoting Twin Pack Potato Chips at a Park N Shop grocery store in Charlotte NC. Their tour manager abandoned them in Charlotte with no transportation or income, so the sister, now in their sixties, asked the owner of the Park N Shop for a job, offering to work for a single salary. The Hilton sisters finally found a home as the local community rallied around them. They stayed in North Carolina, one sister working the cash register while the other bagged groceries, until their death from the Hong Kong flu in 1969.
One of the most surreal images of the revenge sequence in Freaks! Is that of the human torso, a man with no limbs, crawling through the mud with a knife clenched menacingly between his teeth. This was Prince Randian, billed as the Living Torso. No source I could find knew Prince Randian’s real name or much about his early life. We do know that he was born in Demarara, British Guiana in 1871 to British Indian servants. He had no legs and only a small portion of arm coming off each shoulder. He was brought to the United States by P.T. Barnum in 1889 and began his performing career, which would include years at Coney Island, variously billed as The Living Torso, The Snake Man, The Human Worm, The Human Cigarette Factory or the Amazing Caterpillar Man. Randian didn’t just sit in his booth and let the audience look at him. He would write, paint, shave his face, or roll his own cigarettes, all with his mouth, which became his signature move. You can see it in the uncut version of Freaks!, though the cut version only shows him lighting the cigarettes. Randian was also highly intelligent and could speak English, German, and French, in addition to his native Hindi. He married a woman we know only as Princess Sarah. Together they had four children and the family eventually settled in Paterson, New Jersey, where they lived until Randian died of a heart attack at the age of 63.
Most of the cast of freaks signed up for the job of their own volition, the exception being the performers referred to as pin-heads. Most suffered from microcephaly, a medical condition in which the brain does not develop. Sufferers have smaller than normal heads, intellectual disability, poor motor function, poor speech, abnormal facial features, seizures, and dwarfism. One of the best known pinheads in the business was Schlitzie. Like Prince Randian, we don’t know much of Schlitzie’s early life. According to his death certificate, he’d been born in the Bronx in 1901 and Schlitzie may or may not have been his real name. What we do know is that Schlitzie went from one caretaker to another his entire life. Even as an adult, Schlitzie had the mental capabilities of a pre-schooler and could only speak in difficult-to-decipher phrases.
Schlitzie worked for nearly every major circus of the early 20th century, including the Dobritsch International Circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Tom Mix Circus, and the Clyde Beatty Circus. He spent much of those decades performing as a female, which we also see in Freaks!. Schlitzie’s gender-swap was not an artistic choice as much as a practical one. He was incontinent and being in a dress made it easier for his carers to change his diaper. In 1936, while with the Tom Mix Circus, a chimp trainer named George Surtees became Schlitzie’s legal guardian. Surtees reportedly loved and cared for Schlitzie as if he were family. After Surtees died in 1965, care of Schlitzie fell to Surtees’ daughter, who wanted nothing to do with him and had Schlitzie committed to a mental institution in Los Angeles. There he remained for three lonely years, far removed for the home he knew among tents and animals and fellow performers. It was a sideshow sword swallower named Bill Unks, who was working at the hospital in the off-season, who recognized Schlitzie and lobbied the hospital to make him Schlitzie’s caregiver. Schlitzie was able to return to life in the circus, retiring to Hollywood as a street performer when he became too old to travel. Schlitzie spent his last days in MacArthur Park, feeding the pigeons and ducks. He’s buried in Queen of Heaven Cemetery, under a black marble headstone, bearing the name “Schliztie Surtee,” paid for by his fans.
Of all the sideshow performers, 2’11″/53cm Angelo Rossitto had the most extensive film career. Rossitto was born to a Sicilian-American family in Omaha, Nebraska. He was already a silent screen veteran, having been discovered by John Barrymore for a role in The Beloved Rogue five years before Freaks!. He would go on to steady, if underpaid work, in a variety of films for the next 55 years. Rossitto worked with the biggest names in Hollywood, like Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price, and worked very near Shirley Temple–he was her stunt double. Rissitto portrayed dwarfs, midgets, gnomes and pygmies as well as aliens and monsters in film productions ranging from woeful to wonderful. Oh and did I mention he was Master of the Master Blaster duo in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome? Yes, that was him.
In 1957, along with fellow actor Billy Barty and others, Rossitto co-founded “Little People of America,” a nonprofit that provides support and information to people of short stature and their families. Adult stature of less than 4’11”/150cm can be caused by any of more than 200 conditions under the umbrella of dwarfism. The group went through a number of name changes, originally called Midgets of America, then Midget and Dwarves of America, then Dwarves and Midgets of America. I say it’s interesting because since changing to Little People of America in 1960, the group has fought against the use of the word midget as a duragatory slur.
In August 1911, Amelia Eckhardt gave birth to twin boys, the first as typical as could be, but the second looking as if he had been ‘snapped off at the waist,’ as he himself would later describe it. John Eckhardt Jr had a rare birth defect called sacral agenesis, an abnormal development or lack of development of the lower portion of the spine. Johnny did have small lower limbs, but they were non-functional and he kept them obscured under custom-made clothing. His parents treated him exactly as they treated his twin brother Robert and older sister. By the age of one, Johnny was walking around on his hands, before Robert was even standing. Their sister Caroline taught the boys to read at age 4. Johnny was popular in school, with other boys fighting over who got to carry him up the steps to school. The school did have to paint over the windows of his classroom, though, to stop curious people from gawking.
At age 12, while attending a magic show at their local church, Johnny shocked the performer John McAslan by scampering onstage when he asked for a volunteer. McAslan saw dollar bills in the half-boy and he convinced the Eckhardt family to sign both Robert and Johnny to a one year contract. After it was signed, McAslan added a zero to the duration, locking the boys into a ten year contract. Despite that, the brothers enjoyed performing in magic shows and were part of a trick no one could steal from them. Illusionist Raja Raboid would call for a volunteer for a hypnosis trick and pull Robert from the crowd. Robert would go into a box, the kind used for sawing a lady in half. Robert would secretly switch places with his brother and a dwarf performer wearing trousers hiked over his head. When Raboid opened the box, the severed legs would run around the stage, with Johnny running on his hands after them. Stage hands would round them up and Raboid would put them back together. Fainting was common at their shows.
Johnny Eck moved from the magic show circuit to the carnival, billed as a solo act, though Robert was there in the beginning of his career to make for a sharp contrast. Johnny was a natural entertainer, charming audiences dressed in his tuxedo atop a tasseled stool. In addition to his famous one-armed handstands, he also juggled and trained animals. Ripley’s called Johnny ‘The Most Remarkable Man in the World’. Outside of the carnival, Robert and Johnny were heavily involved in the arts, conducting their own orchestra in Baltimore.
After Freaks!, Johnny appeared in three Tarzan movies, before getting in an argument with his manager over terms for the picture Devil Doll. Eck didn’t appear in that movie or any others. He later wrote in his unpublished autobiography, “Many nights I would cry, lying awake in the dark, thinking of how really wonderful and exciting [it would be] to be working in front of the cameras on all the different giant sound stages. I got to know each member of the film crew. I was accepted not as a Monster Freak — but as one of them — not twenty inches tall, but a miniature super-man! Best of all, I was special to director Tod Browning and his assistant Errol Taggart. I would ride many times along side of these great men on a big camera dolly while they were shooting scenes. Now it was all over.” Done with show business, Johnny and Robert opened a small amusement park with a scale model train, on which Johnny acted as conductor. I’d like to say retirement was peaceful for Eck, but in 1987, at age 79, he was badly beaten by burglars who had broken into his home, which severely damaged his faith in his fellow man. Johnny spent much of his remaining four years alone. “I met hundreds and thousands of people,” he told a Baltimore Sun columnist in 1979, “and none finer than the midgets and the Siamese twins and the caterpillar man and the bearded woman and the human seal with the little flippers for hands. I never asked them any embarrassing questions and they never asked me, and God, it was a great adventure.”
One member of the Freaks! Cast left an impression on audiences without saying a single word, that being Koo Koo the Bird Girl. Koo Koo was born Minnie Woolsey in 1880 with a rare skeletal disorder, Virchow-Seckel syndrome. Virchow-Seckel syndrome is also known as bird-headed dwarfism, Harper’s syndrome or Seckel dwarfism. It is characterized by short stature, a small head, narrow bird-like face, large, slanted eyes, a recessed jaw, and mental retardation of varying degrees. In addition, Woolsey was also bald, toothless, and almost totally blind.
Woolsey was taken from a Georgia insane asylum by a circus showman who dressed her in an Indian costume and christened her “Minnie Ha-Ha”. She would perform later at Coney Island as “The Blind Girl from Mars.” Off-stage, Woolsey would sit motionless in a chair for hours, not reacting to anything around her. Still, she managed to get into a feathered bird costume and dance on the table during the wedding feast scene of Freaks. She was only Koo Koo in the movie, because a castmate, Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman, was already being billed as “Koo Koo the Bird Girl” in the circus sideshow circuit. Somewhere along the line, their titles got mixed up and Minnie was forever known as “Koo Koo the Bird Girl”. Woolsey’s precise date of death is unknown but reports exist of a car nearly running over her in 1960 making her at least 80 years old.
And that…. Minnie Woolsey has an unexpected legacy in the form of NZ woman Sarah Houbolt. She too was born with Virchow-Seckel Syndrome, complete with a tiny body, partial blindness, odd face, and bare wisps of hair. Like Woolsey, she perform on stage and TV as Koo Koo the bird girl. Unlike her namesake though, this Koo Koo does not have mental impairments. In fact, she holds three degrees and gave a TED talk in 2017on designing for function and universal access.