The Original Human Blockhead
94 and Still Banging Away
by Marc Hartzman
The trick to hammering a spike
through your nose is simple. You use a false nose.
That's what the original Human Blockhead, Melvin
Burkhart, used to say when curious audience members
would ask how the stunt was possible. "I've had more fun
out of watching their expression and reaction, 'How the
hell did he use a false nose?'" he said with a laugh.
At 94 years of age, Melvin Burkhart still puts nails
into his nose as easily as you'd put a finger in yours.
Of course, Burkhart is much more than just a blockhead.
He is the Anatomical Wonder and an innovative magician
(he's been made an honorary member of several magic
societies). He has also been a sword swallower, a fire
eater, and a knife thrower. Burkhart is a true one-man
Burkhart retired in 1989 and lives with his wife, Joyce,
near Gibsonton, FL ?aka the Freak Capital of the World.
He had logged over 900,000 miles, entertaining millions
of people working with Ringling Brothers, Ripley's, the
James E. Strates Shows (for 30 years), and other shows
over his long, long career dating back to the early
'30s. Burkhart knew just about everyone in the business
and was liked by them all, including the freaks who
could do nothing but exhibit themselves. He was able to
help freaks improve their act by teaching them how to
engage the crowd and tell their story. He really helped
Bill Durks, the Man with Two Noses, by introducing him
to the woman who would become his wife. Granted, she was
known as the alligator-skinned woman, but still, talk
about an achievement. Burkhart spent the last four years
of his career at Coney Island. Blood clots formed in his
leg and nearly killed him. You'd never know it now.
When I went to meet him in his mobile home park he drove
to the park entrance gate to lead me to his home. He had
just moved there a month earlier from another nearby
mobile home park. Before I could start the interview he
ran into the next room to grab his fancy performing fez
and his bag of tricks. He was already decked out in a
yellow-patterned, butterfly-collared, polyester
performing shirt. This wasn't just an interview. This
How does one become a human blockhead? What makes
someone take a long, thick spike, and say, "Hey, I
wonder what would happen if I hammered this through my
nose?" For Burkhart, it was a combination of
circumstances. He had the performance bug since he was a
child in Louisville, KY. "I was a show-off, you know
what I mean? I couldn't sing, I couldn't dance, I
couldn't tell funny stories. But I could catch attention
by anatomical muscle control, which I didn't know I had
at the time," Burkhart explained. Others noticed and had
him showing his skills to friends. He eventually began
performing in a vaudeville act that came to town.
Ultimately he developed the Anatomical Wonder act, or,
as he also called it, "The Anatomical Blunder."
Burkhart was also a boxer and won the lightweight
amateur championship of Louisville. He went on to fight
in six professional bouts. "That's where they broke my
nose and busted my lips and knocked out teeth and I
never won a one of them. They nearly knocked me into
what they call stumblebumness ?when some of these boxers
get hit so many times in the head that it scrambled
their brain, and if that was the case you went around
sweeping out the gym," Burkhart said. When doctors
operated on his nose they removed a heap of bone
fragments. He watched them as they went in and out of
his nose with scalpels and long pincher-like things. And
that's when the lightbulb went off. He could put things
through his nose, too. He quit boxing as the doctors had
advised. He had also been a sideshow MC at the time and
decided to incorporate the Human Blockhead act. Why not?
Now that all those pesky bone fragments were cleared out
The Human Blockhead act was a big hit. "It commanded
attention. That's what you've got to do when you're
doing an act in a sideshow. Not to shock people or make
them turn away in disgust. Hold their interest and make
them think that what you're doing is not what they think
they're seeing," Burkhart explained. Most people would
suspect that taking a long, thick spike and banging it
into your head would be uncomfortable. Burkhart conceded
that at first it bothered him a bit. But he soon got
used to it and it hasn't bothered him since. "If it ever
does I'm gonna quit. That's the way I figure it," he
said. Burkhart was more than happy to pull out his spike
and hammer and demonstrate. Of course, it's not just a
stunt. It's a show, complete with a humorous spiel:
"Take a common ordinary household ice pick and jam it
into my head and I'm gonna drop dead. I said that the
other night and some young lady said, 'Never mind the
ice pick just drop dead!' I didn't do it of course, my
mother didn't raise any foolish children, I don't think.
All you gotta do is get a good start and then you pound
like the devil," he said with the pick sticking halfway
into his head. He continued hammering, "Ooh, hit a bone.
But what do expect out of a bonehead?"
Over the years Burkhart has taught others how to perform
the act. And he gave a quick way for anyone to find out
if they, too, are a human blockhead. Simply pound the
spike into your head. "If it doesn't kill you, you're a
human blockhead, if it does you won't have anything to
worry about, all your worries will be over," he said. Or
maybe you could try boxing first.
Burkhart was also known as The Two-Faced Man. This was
part of his Anatomical Wonder act. He can smile on one
side of his face and frown on the other ?complete with
eyebrow expression. Try it. If you can do it, maybe you
can join Ripley's, too. Burkhart explained that "at one
time we all had greater muscle control back in the
caveman days. We had to have very quick reflexes, climb
up trees, jump or this or that or the other. And all
animals had reflexes, you know what I mean. And I'm a
throw-back to the ancestors, where I can retain some of
these abilities, which every once in a while happens
with people." The man's a freak of nature. And he took
off his shirt to show more of what his body can do. He
can pop out his shoulder blades, jutting them out back
and forth. He can suck in his gut and become a human
skeleton. And stretch his neck like a true rubberneck.
At the time he was the only one performing such acts.
Naturally, others wanted to know the secrets, so
Burkhart gave them some instruction. Then he went on and
learned his other aforementioned acts. He'd do five or
six acts in a 10-act show. "Sometimes people would say,
'Don't we get to see anything but you?'" Burkhart
recalled. But there was always a midget, a fat man, and
other acts in between. And despite multiple acts,
Burkhart could hold their attention. "You've got a fast
crowd in there, they want to come in, see everyone, then
see something else. If you weren't able to hold their
attention, you lost half of them. So it was our
advantage to hold the crowds in there so the acts had a
chance to sell whatever trinkets they had, little
pictures, or whatever else," he said.
He knew entertaining took more than just doing a trick
or a stunt. Burkhart learned to look over an audience,
judge what would work, then get them to react to him.
"You're not fooling them, because they know they're
seeing a trick. You're confusing them by amusing them.
And that's the kind of trick that I like," he said. The
acts are just as amazing today as they were 70 years
ago. Whether it's the blockhead routine or his
sleight-of-hand card tricks that, at 94, still baffle
Over his career, Burkhart has seen just about
everything. The world's fattest, thinnest, tallest,
smallest, ugliest, the most grotesque freaks, and even a
man who could regurgitate a live mouse or bring up
various other objects in a requested order. Sadly, those
days are gone forever. So what's left to see? "I never
have died before, I'm kinda curious about that. I'm all
ready for it. I wouldn't care if I dropped over dead the
next minute or two. Of course it'd shock the hell out of
you, but it wouldn't be bother me at all," Burkhart
joked. He'd already shocked the hell out of me with
everything else he'd done. That was enough for the day.
Sadly, Melvin Burkhart passed
away Nov. 8, 2001. Just a few months after I met him.
May he rest in peace.
Re-printed with permission
from Marc Hartzman
(c) 2001 copyright
Melvin working with John
Bradshaw on Coney Island, Courtesy of Mark Frierson
Poster of Melvin when he
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