1964: As a teenager, there were, particularly, two things among many things I didn't know. First, I didn't know that one could be in the presence of celebrity and fail to realize it -- and second, I didn't know that a summertime experience at the NY State Fair would hardly provide my only encounter with remarkable examples of human deformity, because just four years later I would be working with patients in Air Force hospitals while the Vietnam Era continued to unfold tragically.
I'm sure the term has mostly died off with the passage of politically correct years, but there was a time when just about every circus or fair passing through any town in America prominently featured a freak show, basically a sideshow, a cavalcade of weirdness hidden behind closed tents, and for a nominal price folks could enter and travel from one display to another. In one place you could see a scantily-clad woman or man cavorting with snakes in a pit, while in another you could gaze in astonishment at a fat lady (who didn’t sing). There were also half man / half beast creatures, helped along with a little makeup and costume applications. Tiny people, tall people, people with alligator-like skin, human pin cushions -- all sorts of people sat, stood, moved about or just posed for those brave enough to plunk down the price of admission and enter the tents. The very idea of freaks, you may recall, provided fodder for Tod Browning’s old movie of the same name.
Some of the "exhibits" included people born with genuine physical deformities, and during that era a fair share were societal outcasts, sometimes shunned by their own families, sadly. However, one thing was sure -- for many of these folks, the "freak show" atmosphere in which a curious public actually paid to see what it viewed as abnormal meant jobs for the otherwise unfortunate, steady employment from town to town -- and comfort plus companionship among those of a similar lot at least resulted in something of a cohesive existence.
Recently, I happened to find the two photos posted here (and for those of you new to either the computer or this blog, remember that you can always enlarge the visuals by putting your cursor over them and left-clicking with your mouse). I discovered them, as usual, in a Dreaded Box of Things, of which I'm cursed with an abundance.
I hadn't thought about the photos for years, but remember well meeting the "attractions" pictured in each during that 1964 NY State Fair visit, while the James E. Strates show was in town. I don't recall how much I paid, maybe a dollar or two per picture. But -- oh, what I did not know, and after all these years I was amazed to discover during a casual Internet search that both Williams Durks and Sylvia Porter were indeed celebrities. Merely by putting their names into a search engine, I found elaborate Web sites devoted to freak shows, lovingly committed to humanizing and telling impressive stories about many people whom most of us only saw as objects of fascination
William Durks, for instance, was born in Alabama with frontonasal dysplasia, preventing both sides of his face to merge together. Following many hard years as a sharecropper, a carnival discovered him in his forties and offered him a job as an attraction. Reportedly blind in one eye, he even painted a third eye on his face (visible here in the middle) to become even more marketable. Durks was truly a celebrity among his fellows, and on the reverse side of my photo he merely signed his name because I was probably too amazed to ask for any particular words.
Sylvia Porter apparently enjoyed autographing her photos, based upon those I saw on the Web. On mine, she thoughtfully included the year, 1964. Porter, like Durks, hailed from Alabama, was very kind to her admirers and happily entertained questions about how she became "the woman with the biggest feet in the world," and she was more generally known as "The Elephant Girl." Her enormous feet, victim to abnormal fluid accumulation (lymphedema), prevented her from wearing shoes. Reportedly, Sylvia bemoaned the approaching end of freak shows, concerned about her future role in a changing country showing, no longer, an appetite for the word, freak. Additionally, one might expect that advances in medical science and surgical procedures served to correct disabilities and deformities formerly suited to travels with circuses and fairs.
The disappearance of freak shows may have appeased the politically correct, but I've a feeling it resulted in a great deal of unemployment and further heartache for those who otherwise had no comforting relationship with "normal" society, which separated them from their friends and livelihood in the name of misguided empathy.
So, thanks for those precious and fleeting moments, William and Sylvia, and may you and all the other departed stars of -- once upon a time -- the greatest “freak shows” on earth rest in peace. If there's a human soul, you folks embraced it.