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Old 12-17-2005, 10:05 AM
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Secrets of the sideshows
by John-Ivan Palmer
If you can’t resist morbid amusement, wait until someone in your home is about to wake up in the morning. Hold open Joe Nickell’s Secrets of the Sideshows to the photo on page 161 of Bill ‘Two-Faced Man’) Durkes, so it’s the first thing they see upon opening their eyes. Watch them recoil in horror at the sight of a man born with such an extreme cleft palate that it separated his face into halves, making him look “like he had been hit in the face with an axe.”

Before they pull the covers over their head, flip to page 173 and let them have a gander at “Popeye” Perry, a prepossessing black man in a ruffled tux - popping his eyeballs out of their sockets. Women are especially prone to Mr Perry’s unique charms, as I can attest, having seen his act many times. According to Nickell, Perry once popped out an eyeball, making a woman faint. He waited until she recovered, bent over, then popped out both eyes simultaneously, making her faint again. At this point one of two things are likely. You’ll either be looking at your last day in the house, or the book will get borrowed and never returned.

Critic Leslie Fiedler wrote that looking at freaks can confuse your sense of location, not only in physical space, but in life itself. If you’ve managed to induce this wincing aporia in your awakening victim, you are probably one of those people who don’t know when to quit anyway. So you might as well read aloud the basic description of Alexander Montarg, the human skeleton whose arms were as big around as the average thumb, or the fully grown John Battersby, the 40 pound wonder who married 700 pound Hannah Perkins. Talk about not taking your eyes off someone. Without consulting Fiedler’s Freaks, Myths & Images of the Secret Self (1978) in Nickell’s bibliography, you and your listener might needlessly ponder whether the superior missionary position for Hannah would result in last rites for John. Fiedler (not Nickell) reveals the secret that most fat-thin marriages were publicity stunts.

Like the sideshows themselves, Secrets of the Sideshows promises more than it delivers, while, ironically, delivering more than it promises, mostly by raising questions it doesn’t answer. Reading between the lines you’ll see that show business in general fulfils not only a public need for fascination, but a private safety net for those who will never be a part of the public, for reasons physical, mental, or both. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sideshow of human anomalies, the ultimate equal opportunity employer. If you have a face like a mule or don’t exist from the ribs down, the color of your skin is irrelevant. In this universal congress of men and women you’ll find the full spectrum of human phenotypes, Africans, Mexicans, Jews, East Indians, Asians and, according to Nickell’s secondary source, at least one “Sunni,” although I think he means the mystical “Sufi,” and not the puritanical other one. Anyway, this Muslim gentleman currently performs in night clubs, and is known for jabbing a skewer under his tongue and pushing it out through the skin of his throat.

For street creds Nickell himself worked as a magic pitchman in the Canadian National Exhibition carnival in 1969, and did a stint on the school assembly circuit as Mister Twister the Magic Clown. The photo on the dust jacket shows him with his head thrown back, ready to eat the flaming end of a torch. Here Nickell lets you in on secrets from sources more direct. For example, when eating fire, do not breathe in the gas fumes or there’ll be an explosion in your lungs like inside the cylinder of a car, making your last show a hard act to follow.

Sideshows makes up in breadth for what it lacks in depth. If you are worthy of Joe Nickell’s book, it won’t matter that you are lured by secrets that morph into a cavalcade, like the promoter of a “live” two-headed baby that died suddenly on tour and had to be substituted for a two-headed fetus pickled in a jar. “Live” means “live at one time.” There’s secrets and then there’s secrets.

(more at http://www.nthposition.com/secretsof.php)
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Old 12-17-2005, 11:22 AM
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