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The Bearded Lady (Short Story #6)
These short stories will be part of the sequel to my novel The Lady Who Loved Bones. Any suggestions for improvement are welcome.
It didn’t take long for Pinkerton agent Helen James to find George Bartholomew’s Great Western Circus. And once she found it, the first two performers she spoke to were the two dwarves she had met at the Bale of Hay Saloon, Sammy Short and Wee Willie Wilson, who performed as clowns in the circus. They invited Helen to their tent to share some brandy and once there, they gave her the lowdown on Anne Hope.
Shorty informed Helen that he and Wee Willie assisted Anne in her act. They did a crazy little play in which Anne was Wilgefortis, a legendary bearded saint and daughter of the King of Portugal. Wilgefortis wanted out of a pending arranged marriage to a heathen king from Sicily, so she took a vow of virginity and prayed she would be made repulsive. In answer to her prayers she developed a beard, which ended the engagement. Her angry father the king had her crucified. That is what Shorty and Wee Willie did in the circus act, they crucified Anne, while a barker explained to the crowd what was happening.
Shorty and Wee Willie took Helen to Anne’s tent and introduced them.
“What do you want with me?” Anne bluntly asked.
“Do you know Seth Morris?” Helen inquired.
“Yes, we had been engaged to be married, but I broke it off,” Anne replied.
“Why did you break it off, if you don’t mind me asking?” Helen said.
“I do mind!” Anne snarled. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Oh well,” Helen sighed. “But let me tell you this. Morris is in jail in Helena for robbing the bank there. He was shot, but is recovering. He asked to see you. He asked me to find you. He likely will be hanged.”
“I don’t know that I want to see him,” Anne said. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Well, don’t think about it too long,” Helen cautioned. “There are some angry citizens who lost money due to the robbery, and they just might string him up without waiting for a trial.”
Anne didn’t seem to mind talking about her past, other than her history with Seth Morris. Until a couple of years ago, she had lived in New York City and had been on the payroll of P. T. Barnum. She worked at Barnum’s American Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann St. until it burned on July 13, 1865.
“Animals from the museum jumped from the burning building and were shot by the police,” Anne reported. “The two whales boiled to death in their tanks.”
“That’s terrible!” Helen exclaimed. “Especially if you love animals. I recently acquired a camel that I have become very fond of.”
“Really?” Anne muttered. “There was a girl at the museum I was very fond of who was called Camel Girl. Her knees bent backwards and she often walked on all fours. Suzanne and I became lovers.”
“Why did they call her Camel Girl?” Helen asked.
“She loved to hump,” Anne replied knowingly.
Pants on fire, whales too
“So you will tell me about Suzanne, but not Seth?” Helen complained.
“Oh what the hell,” Anne said in disgust. “Seth has a very large penis and his nickname is Anaconda. I tried to get him to join the circus. There’s not much else to tell. George Bartholomew didn’t think much of my idea of me being a snake charmer instead of being crucified. I caught Seth playing ‘hide the snake’ with the fat lady, so I dumped him. I think George wouldn’t hire Seth because he was afraid Fanny the fat lady would lose too much weight the way Seth was doing her doggy.”
“Tell me more about the fire,” Helen requested. “How did the fire start?”
Anne said, “The fire started due to a defective furnace in the cellar, so says The New York Times. She pulled a newspaper from her travelling bag. “Here, read it for yourself, it’s the edition from the day after the fire.”
Helen perused the article about the fire and read aloud: “The whales were, of course, burned alive. At an early stage of the conflagration, the large panes of glass in the great ‘whale tank’ were broken to allow the heavy mass of water to flow upon the floor of the main saloon, and the leviathan natives of Labrador, when last seen, were floundering in mortal agony, to the inexpressible delight of the unfeeling boys, who demanded a share of the blubber.”
“Like you said, terrible,” Anne concurred. “A seal named Ned was the only animal that survived. Keep reading and the article mentions him. The article also mentions my friend, Anna Swan, the giantess. She had an apartment on the third floor. She is almost eight feet tall and weighs almost 400 pounds. It took eighteen men and a block and tackle to get her out. The fire cost her everything she owned except the clothes on her back. Her trunk, destroyed in the fire, contained her life savings of around $1200 in gold.”
“So you joined the Great Western Circus after the fire?” Helen asked.
“Yes,” Anne said. “George Bartholomew knew many were out of jobs and hired some of us, cheap. You know, I think I will go back with you and see Seth before they hang him. Do you think they will allow a conjugal visit? I miss that snake. It would be a shame to hang that man. I sure hope they pickle his pecker.”
“Maybe they will allow a conjugal visit,” Helen answered. “Won’t hurt to ask.
Anne added, “Another of my friends was Josephine Ciofullia, also a bearded lady. Her baby Albert, also quite hairy, was billed as ‘The Infant Esau. Barnum was sued by a customer who believed that Josephine was really a man in a woman’s clothing. Imagine that! Barnum won the suit, but some proposed that the suit was orchestrated by Barnum himself for publicity purposes.”
“That Barnum is a scoundrel,” Helen stated. “I remember the Feejee Mermaid caper. What a scam. The torso and head of a monkey sewed to the back half of a fish.”
# # #
Hang 'em high
“How are we gonna spring Seth from jail?” Buster, one of the bank robbers, asked Captain Taz, the leader. “I got some dynamite.”
Taz snapped, “That jail is made of double brick wall with reinforced concrete poured down between the walls. If you tried to blow a hole in the wall, you’d have to use so much dynamite that you’d definitely kill anyone inside.”
“So what’s your plan, boss?” Buster asked.
“I’ve got a man in Helena,” Taz said. “The same guy who helped us rob the bank. He’ll do most anything for gold. He got me word that they are sending a hangman to Helena from Fort Benton. He’s an expert on stretching necks.”