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Fascinating Freaks

Updated on March 19, 2011
General Tom Thumb's wedding photo.
General Tom Thumb's wedding photo.

Throughout the history of entertainment, physical freaks and prodigies have been exhibited by enterprising showmen. At Bartholomew Fair in 1814, for example, a Fireproof Lady was put on display. Her stunts included putting melted lead into her mouth and spitting it out marked with her teeth. She passed a red-hot iron over her body and limbs, her tongue and her hair, thrust her arm into fire, and washed her hands, not only in boiling lead but also in boiling oil and water - all apparently without ill effect.

Angelo Faticoni was a total enigma to medical authorities. Known as the Human Cork, he performed extraordinary feats of buoyancy in front of students and professors at Harvard University in the United States. The experts believed that his internal organs were not as those of other men - but they found no special evidence to confirm their theory. An obituary of The Man They Could Not Drown was published in the New York Herald Times in 1931, recalling that Faticoni could stay afloat in the water for 15 hours with 20 pounds of lead tied to his ankles. Moreover: 'Faticoni could sleep in water, roll up in a ball, lie on his side or assume any position asked of him. Once he was sewn into a bag and then thrown headforemost into the water, with a twenty-pound cannonball lashed to his legs. His head reappeared on the surface soon afterward, and he remained motionless in that position for eight hours. Another time he swam across the Hudson tied to a chair weighted with lead.'

Faticoni died aged 72, taking his secret with him to the grave; an enigma to medics and laymen alike.

Dwarves and giants have always fascinated the public. The most celebrated dwarf was Charles Sherwood Stratton, born in 1838. Billed as 'General Tom Thumb', he was exhibited in Barnum's famous circus, measuring 3 ft 4 in (102 cm). His fame rested more on his flair for the theatre than on a truly exceptional shortness: he played Napoleon I and Frederick the Great and went about London in a blue and white carriage drawn by Shetland ponies. Even in his own lifetime, however, he was undercut by William E. Jackson, known as Major Mite who measured 21 inches (53 cm) at the age of 16, in 1880. Major Mite was exhibited in England at this time in the company of Lucia Zarate, 17 years old and an inch shorter (both grew to exceed the generally accepted world record).

At the other end of the scale stood record-breaking giant Robert Pershing Wadlow, 8ft 11 inches tall at the time of his death in 1940. He has had his competitors, however; among them, the 8 ft Captain Martin Van Buren Bates, the 'Kentucky Giant' who fought for the Confederates during the American Civil War and was promoted to captain at the age of 16. Bates's exploits were luridly illustrated in popular pamphlets where the giant was shown with an enormous sword hacking arms, legs, heads and other miscellaneous items off the bodies of enemies.

In fact, Captain Bates did distinguish himself in the fighting, though he was not quite the monstrous whirlwind of violence depicted in the press. He married Miss Anna H. Swan, the Nova Scotia Giantess, who was barely a couple of inches shorter than he. Miss Swan once played Lady Macbeth in an unusual New York production.

Taller than both was a certain Herr Winkelmeier, an Austrian, who visited London in 1886. Herr Winkelmeier measured 8 ft 7 inches. He was asked by a startled old lady he encountered in the streets of New York:' Mister, were you as large as this when you were little?'

'Yes, ma'am,' the giant replied. 'I was considerable big when I was small.'


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    • PADDYBOY60 profile image

      PADDYBOY60 6 years ago from Centreville Michigan

      I have always been fascinated by the little people and also the giants. I live in Vern Troyers home town, and saw him in a parade here in his honor.