The Side Show Banner Line

by Jane Peterson

At the very back of the Circus Museum you will find the banner line, large paintings of strange, but most interesting, people.  With one exception (Punch and Judy) these are real people.

Beginning at the right end, you find Francesco Lentini, the three-legged man.   Born in Sicily in 1889 to a family of twelve children (seven boys and five girls) Francesco was the only child with unusual physical traits.

The family came to the United States when he was quite young.  When Francesco realized that he was different, his father took him to a home where there were children with severe disabilities:  some with physical disabilities, visual impairments, or hearing and speech impairments.
Francesco realized that he could see, hear, speak and enjoy life, so he never felt sorry for himself. His father, wisely, insisted that Francesco complete his education before exhibiting his exceptional leg.

Although he could not walk on his third leg, he demonstrated his control of it by kicking a ball.  He told people he had a great advantage when he went swimming, because he used the third leg as a rudder.  He had a friend who had lost a leg, so when Francesco bought shoes he sent the
extra shoe to his friend.

Continuing our journey past The Bearded Lady on the banner line, we next meet Big Jim Tarver, the Texas Giant. Tarver was over 8 feet tall and weighed over 400 pounds.  He was perfectly formed and proportioned, unlike many giants, who have glandular disorders resulting in malformation of limbs and features. In the side show Tarver made extra money by selling reproductions of a ring which he wore.   The ring was so large that a half dollar could easily be passed through it.

Next on the banner line is Koo-Koo the bird girl. An enterprising side show promoter  noticed  that  a  strange looking woman was being stared at by all who saw her.  She had a bulging forehead, pop eyes, a beaked nose, no chin, and a scrawny neck.  The promoter dressed her in a
feathered costume and provided shoes that looked like bird's feet with three large toes.   During the 1920's she was introduced in the side show as Koo-Koo the bird girl.   Koo-Koo would squeak in a high chirping voice at the audience, using a combination of regular words and bird sounds to
create the bird-like illusion. Her manager helped her to acquire extensive real estate holdings so that she was financially well off. Financial independence was made possible by her side show appearances when she might not have otherwise been able to find remunerative work.

Next in line are Eko and Iko. They were African American albinos who, like their counterparts the Eliophobus family had no pigment in their skin. They were thought to be discovered somewhere in Georgia. Their lack of pigmentation gave them a pasty complexion and grayish hair, and indeed they were quite strange in appearance. Again, side show entrepreneurs took advantage of their curiosity value. They were costumed in full dress suits with many fake medals and royal red sashes and dubbed Ambassadors from Mars. They appeared during the 1930's.

Will be continued.