The Volpus and The Two Headed Man

  Wonders" of the Circus Sideshow, January 1922 Illustrated World

by Frank Braden

 

P. T. Barnum’s Observation -- “The American Public Likes to Be Humbugged” -- Still Hold Good?

Barnum spoke for his day when he made his celebrated observation concerning the public’s liking for humbug; at least, circus ledgers of the years of P. T.'s ascendancy and supremacy in the field of amusement back up his remark. One has but to recall the "white" elephant, the $10,000 beauty, and even Jumbo to believe that the famous showman had facts upon which to base his conclusions. Times change, but probably no branch of American endeavor is so reluctant to change with them as the circus; yet, the circus has been forced to display its wares in a slightly different manner than it did twenty and thirty years ago. Then, the loop-the-loop was a big show thriller; now only the extraordinary merit of certain acts can be exploited as features. With birdmen leaping from plane to plane in mid-air, the day of the thriller act in the big top is gone, other than that afforded by trained wild animals. But it is in the circus side show that the greatest change in circus methods is to be marked.

In the days of Forepaugh's $10,000 beauty -- just a beautiful blonde billed far and wide as receiving that sum for travelling with the circus so that the public could look upon the world's most lovely woman -- an enterprising side-show manager advertised that he had on exhibition the only Volpus on earth, under the sea or in the sky. The general idea of the Volpus projected by great, glaring stands of bills was a gigantic crocodile with a large horn growing from its snout. It was pictured as tearing into ribbons whole tribes of breech-clothed brown men, each victim with the lithographer's conception of extreme annoyance on his face. In the South the colored folk stood in front of these stands for hours, pondering, discussing, marvelling. Needless to say that side show was packed from the morning of show day until it was torn down at night. The owner of the Volpus made a fortune before the beast died. It was an alligator, with the horn of a yak fixed on a plate, which was anchored to the 'gator's snout under the hide. A simple surgical operation had thus produced a very rare animal, in fact, the only one ever exhibited. The younger generation of circus men say that the public will not "fall" for that sort of deception today, but is that conclusion based on facts? Perhaps it is and perhaps it isn't.


Well, it has been but three years since a two-headed man was the feature of a certain big circus side show. This man had a head growing out of the top of what we will term his normal head. The upper head was somewhat smaller than the other, with eyes, features, ears, and general conformation apparently normal. Of course, this side show freak was a tremendous drawing card. Crowds gathered in front of the two-headed man's platform and gazed and gazed. When it seemed that some doubt as to the genuineness of the "living curiosity" was manifesting itself among the less credulous of the audience, the manager or lecturer would shoot a sharp word of command at the freak, who would toss back his head -- his lower one -- and the upper head would tilt rearwards and upwards, revealing a perfectly realistic expanse of neck. Thus, the joining of the upper and lower heads was shown, and the public could only gasp its awe. That was the "clincher," the "convincer," that toss of the head and that view of the flesh between the two heads.


Then, too, a very interesting and plausible talk accompanied the viewing of the two-headed man. He was supposed to have been a refugee, who followed General Pershing out of Mexico. Details of the man's life in the mountains of northern Mexico, his loss of his little ranch when Villa's raiders drove him toward the border, and, finally, shuffling out on the platform, his happy and contented little family of seven -- all these contributed to a most amazing and astounding ten minutes for the eager public. Newspaper men, educators, professional men and even show-men looked on this Mexican freak and did not scoff. They eyed the man carefully, viewed him from all sides, talked to him, puzzled, cogitated -- and gave it up. But they never looked at the Mexican except when he was on a platform. The side-show folks saw to that, for the two-headed man was not so convincing a freak when seen from above.


There is not the slightest doubt that this was the greatest amusement deception of all time, greater than the Cardiff giant hoax. The two-headed Mexican was a fake, but a clever one. As a matter of fact, he was a member of a Texas railway section gang when the side-show manager discovered him. An immense tumor on top of his head intrigued the professional interest of the showman. The result of it was an operation in which a silver plate-mask was inserted in the growth, eyes, ears and nose molded and even teeth set in and made to look natural. Of course, the face lacked animation. This fault was explained by the assertion that the man had been able to see, talk and hear with his upper head until he attained the age of twenty, when, unaccountably, the upper head had atrophied. It was extraordinary how this yarn went over with all classes of people. However, the golden harvest of the side-show manager ended in Detroit, when the Mexican began to show symptoms of insanity. It was found the silver plate was pressing against the brain. One operation did not mend matters, and the showman gave it up, sending the Mexican away from the hospital a perfectly normal section hand again. In a tour of two years, however, this freak gained a modest fortune, a wealth of attention and a knowledge of the United States and Canada.


There is no doubt that the public "fell" for the two-headed freak, but it was unusually "real" for a fake. In fact, some showmen thought so well of the side-show manager's faking that they claimed he could have exposed it without harm once his audience had viewed his freak.

Taken from the article The "Wonders" of the Circus Sideshow by Frank Braden (author) January 1922 Illustrated World, Disability History Museum, www.disabilitymuseum.org (March 2, 2005)
 

 

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