Dancing Turkey's and Wildmen

  Wonders" of the Circus Sideshow, January 1922 Illustrated World

by Frank Braden


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.

There is another fake no longer practiced with circus side shows, which had its vogue in the days of Mr. Barnum, although it was certainly not staged with any of his enterprises. It is the fake of the dancing turkeys. On a platform with a thin tin covering would be exhibited the dancing turkeys. When a sufficient crowd had gathered for a show, a fiddler would play a lively dance tune, "Turkey in the Straw" most likely. At the same time a helper, hidden back of the platform, would shove a pan of hot coals underneath the thin tin footing on which the turkeys stood. Presently, the heat would cause them to lift their feet. Soon, they would be madly dancing as the tin became hotter and hotter. Then, the music would slow down and the helper would remove the pan. The show was over. This fake was worked largely in the eighties and nineties, but it is doubtful if the public of the present day would look on credulously. It is certain that any old-time showman who might try to revive the trick would shortly he detected by an officer of the humane society.

Another fake that the circus has discarded is that of the wild man. It is almost a certainty that there is not a wild man working at his trade in all the length and breadth of the land. There are many wild men still living, regular? Wild men of Borneo," but they are selling tickets or peanuts or "barking" in front of the banner line, which flaunts to the world the wonders in the side-show tent behind. There are hundreds of laughable stories about these fake wild men. They were mostly negro canvasmen painted with brick dust or vermilion red, chained, and their mouths fitted with a false bridge, from which two tusks protruded. Many of them were known as "chicken eaters," through the fact that they had no aversion, when paid a few dimes extra, to biting off the heads of live chickens. These were the stars of their profession. There are stories of wild men discovered shooting craps with other darkies when the curtains were suddenly flung back by too hasty attendants; there are stories of wild men's wives beating them up before the astonished spectators who had just paid a dime each to see "this dread creature from Borneo, half man, half beast," but the best authentic yarn concerns Ray Daley, now a circus side-show manager, who, stranded when a lad in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, the capital of the Osage nation, resolved to produce a wild man show for the Indian powwow there. Daley had been with a small wagon show, and it had just gone on the rocks, paying him off with fifty feet of canvas sidewall. He and another member of the little circus troupe found themselves in Pawhuska with the sidewall, so they sold the canvas to get eating money and some lumber for a show pit. They borrowed bunting and stretched it about four uprights, thus securing an enclosure. The pit, in which the wild man would perform, they made out of a borrowed wagon cover and more uprights. Then came the matter of who would play wild man. Ray's companion wore a long silky mustache, which he refused to shave off. This left young Daley, who was a good talker even then, with no alternative but to play wild man and make his own opening speech as manager of the show. With a crowd of Indians in front of the wobbly stand, Ray made his talk on "Mingo, the Mud Eater," and at its conclusion, rushed inside, where he donned his wild man's garb -- a gunny sacking suit, with a wig and queue made out of an old stocking. While he did this, he growled and jabbered, interrupting him-self to bawl in gruff command: "Lie down, you beast! Get down, you blood-thirsty brute!" Outside, "Doc" sold tickets like hot cakes, refusing to let the Indians inside until Ray called "Ready!" However, the Indians decided otherwise, and pushed inside to catch Daley without make-up on his face. In a last minute effort to save the day, the youthful wild man grabbed up a mixture of grape nuts, chocolate and milk -- Mingo's "mud" -- and smeared it over his face, as he gulped great mouthfuls of the stuff and growled vigorously. The Indians looked at the preposterous fake in silence. One grunted disgustedly and snatched off the homemade wig. Then "Doc" contributed his bit. He pushed over the enclosure. In the confusion, Daley ducked between scrambling, "kicking legs and moccasined feet for the open. He and "Doc" left on the run, but they had over forty dollars with which to join a circus playing Tulsa next day.

There is a famous showman in America today who suffered ruinous financial reverses several years ago. He had only a few dollars left, and he preferred to start on his own again rather than borrow a "stake" from any of his many friends in the circus business. He jumped out of Chicago to a small white top outfit playing neighborhood lots in a nearby manufacturing town. There he constructed a small pit out of cheesecloth and uprights, and hired a boy to pull a piece of resin along a string tied to a tin can. The boy was, of course, concealed in the pit. In front, this cheerful fakir had a sign bearing the words, "What Is It?" That was all there was to the "show," and the proprietor charged ten cents to each and every person who had the curiosity to enter. The boy on the resin string was a willing worker, and the noise he made sounded like a dozen lions fighting. The showman soon cleared enough money to buy a big snake. When a customer kicked on the fake, the owner would laugh and return his dime, but the vast majority of the "sold" customers said nothing; in fact, many of them went among their friends advising them to see the "What Is It ?" show. This showman, who again is at the head of his own white top attraction, will tell you that Barnum was right, that the world is as well stocked with "suckers" as it was in P .T .'s palmy days, but he does not practice what he would have you believe. There is not a fake of any sort with his organization.

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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