Tag: Circus

Day 992: The John Wilkes Booth World Tour


When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.

Or was he?

Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?

As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:


One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.

Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered. Read more…

Day 928: Step Right Up – Polymelia Like You’ve Never Seen It Before!


In choosing to part with a precious dollar in order to venture beyond the chalky flap into the freak-show tent, one must be prepared for what one is about to experience. If you’re the type whose cup gurgleth over with empathy, you’ll likely succumb to the fangs of your own guilt, having paid a pittance to merely gawk at the afflicted (a similar guilt may also strike as one sits and gapes in a strip club, though the desire to see boobies often trumps the hand of conscience).

If you’re a skeptic, you’ll spend your time deducing the construct of the visual trickery before you. In today’s post-Mos-Eisley world of latex costuming and SFX rigging we’re all a little harder to fool than our grandparents were.

Or perhaps you’re a pragmatist, and your concern lies with those who don’t pony up a buck to help get these poor souls a decent meal.

The Spider-Legged Woman is probably a fake. The guy who’s only a head with no body is probably perched above a carefully-placed mirror that conceals his other parts. But step forward if you dare, for these folks I present to you today were anything but a myth. For the most part, they made their living along the outskirts of the big top because that was all they could think to do. Prepare to have your mind blown and your eyes boggled – I’m not making any of this up. Probably.


A prop leg? That’s a pretty simplistic gag, even for the early 20th century. But Frank Lentini was no scam artist; due to a partially absorbed conjoined twin, Frank boasted a completely functional, full-size third leg on the right side of his body. Part of his shtick involved booting a soccer ball across the stage to demonstrate the leg’s impressive capability. All three of his legs were different lengths: 38 and 39 inches for his primary legs and 36 for the extra one. Read more…

Day 813: Biting The Bullet


To my fellow fans of tweaked reality, I ask: what is the ultimate magic trick? Is it David Copperfield sending the Statue of Liberty into a temporary netherworld? David Blaine bending the laws of logic and physics two inches from a spectator’s nose? Jim Belushi keeping his garbage sitcom on the air for eight whole seasons?

When I was a kid, before the sombrero of skepticism had planted its weighty brim upon my cranium and killed off much of my wondrous buzz of rapturous imagination, I used to gape over the illusions that would court the most danger. Saws, swords, sickles – the puncture of flesh and the damning of imminent destruction, only to reveal that – whew! – Doug Henning’s mystical mustache and frilly mullet were safe after all. I hadn’t yet developed my appreciation of up-close street magic. To me – and I credit my mother for conveying to me this belief, even in the present – it was all magic. And like any young boy who swam in Star Wars and targeted Space Invaders with the subtle nudge of a joystick, danger was king.

The bullet catch fascinated me. Could someone snag a full-speed bullet in their hands or between their teeth without being blown to shreds? Of course the answer is no – like anything else performed by magicians, it’s not real (except for David Blaine – I’m convinced that guy is deep down the rabbit-hole of the dark arts). It’s just a magnificent magic trick. Sorry – illusion.

No article about magic is complete without a GOB shot.

No article about magic is complete without a GOB shot.

The first recorded grab of a bullet from the air came courtesy of a French magician named Coullew of Lorraine, sometime in the late 16th century. Reverend Thomas Beard told the story in his book, Theatre of Judgment. This was the same tome in which he related the death of Christopher Marlowe, whom he’d dubbed the first modern atheist. In a similar moralistic twist of one who would challenge God’s laws, Reverend Beard explains how Coullew of Lorraine was ironically clubbed to death with his pistol by one of his assistants. Read more…

Day 756: The Little Town That Probably Wasn’t


Apart from a couple of quick overnighters in nearby Calgary and a 4-day excursion to my in-laws’ place in Kamloops last summer, I have not left the confines of my city since beginning this project.  But while the burden of fiscal asphyxiation may have formed a tether around my proverbial ankle, I nevertheless spiral into the occasional exploratory fantasy, weaving through the streets of Paris on Google’s Street-View or drooling at the contoured geometry of New York skyscrapers.

I also find myself drawn to the world’s lesser-boasted attractions, from the world’s first UFO landing pad in the nearby bustling burg of St. Paul, Alberta to the largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas. I want to see more of what the world has to offer – hell, our city’s most exquisite attraction is a large shopping mall. There have to be adventures out there more deserving of my exploring eye.

Then I stumbled onto Midgetville.


Don’t be offended – that’s what Wikipedia calls it, though the more appropriate term might be ‘Tiny Town’. And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a metropolis of little people. And there are several to be found on the map, although most of them probably never existed. Historically, people have cruelly infused some strange mythos with the plight of little people. I can’t imagine their targets enjoyed the bizarre legends, but since when has the fear of offending others been the affliction of the majority? Read more…

Day 742: Elephants v. The People


Consider if you will the mighty elephant. With the possible exceptions of dolphins and William H. Macy, no creature in our great global bestiary is as universally beloved as the elephant. Perhaps we’re taken by the thunderous, loping grace that evokes the style and swagger of a gentle yet powerful former-linebacker grandpa. It could be the sage, Yoda-like perpetual grin. Maybe it’s the fifth limb dangling from its cranium. Whatever the reason, we love these animals.

And so we capture and display them, and sometimes train them to do non-elephant things for our amusement. Since the term ‘animal rights’ entered our lexicon, we have tried a little harder to treat them well, though we don’t always come through because we are humans and innately prone to being complete jerks to nature. There are rancid heaps of tales of human cruelty in elephant history, too many to list here.

It appears to be in our nature to pin unwarranted blame on these exquisite beasts when things go wrong, even when overwhelming evidence of human fault exists. Sure, some elephants are probably assholes, same as any other species. But what horrific dung-spew of soiled logic believes it to be rational to hang an elephant who has ‘misbehaved’? Humankind has created powerful medicines, triumphant satellites, creamy gelatos and the glorious Copacabana shot in Goodfellas, and yet our legacy will forever be stained by crap like this:


On September 11, 1916, a hotel worker named Red Eldridge felt it was time to steer his career down a new set of tracks. He was hired as an assistant elephant trainer with the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. The next day, he was dead. Red had allegedly poked at Mary – an otherwise docile and beloved Asian elephant – behind the ear when she dipped into a watermelon snack. Red couldn’t have known this, but Mary had a severely infected tooth right around that spot, so when she turned on Red it was pure pain-driven instinct. Read more…

Day 630: Medic On The Set


I respect the fact that a number of Jackie Chan films finish up with a blooper montage featuring a cavalcade of missed maneuvers and on-set accidents. The guy is so well-known for doing his own stunts (and shattering his own person-parts in the process) that every so often it’s announced that he died on set, and people believe it until someone they know does a little fact-checking.

What makes this rumor semi-credible is not only the fact that Jackie Chan likes to do physically absurd things to his body in films, but also the handful of gruesome film accidents on official record. It haunted the front page when Brandon Lee was shot by a gun that was supposed to be loaded with blanks on the set of The Crow. But did you hear about Conway Wickliffe, the cameraman who was killed when the pickup he was shooting from hit a tree during the making of The Dark Knight?

I was surprised by how many of these names have scrolled past us in the credits of forgotten history without getting the attention they deserve. These are folks who either died or gave up a significant chunk of their physical being for a piece of art.


Ormer Locklear was one of those crazy bastards who walked on the wing of his plane while it was in flight in an effort to solicit oohs, ahhs, gasps and faints from airshow and circus crowds. He also translated that skill into a movie career, albeit a brief one. He was in the process of shooting The Skywayman, his second feature film, when things went wrong. Read more…

Day 589: Electapalooza 2003!!!


Even though it costs the taxpayers a crap-ton of money, I still like the idea behind the recall election. When a person gets elected to office, the people who put him or her there really have no idea how well or how poorly they’ll do in the position. Sometimes our collective best guess turns out to be garbage; it’s like picking a new staff member from a pool of applicants – sure, your pick may seem the most qualified, but what if they turn out to be a vapid dimwit whose primary news source is TMZ? When it comes to choosing between the lesser of two evils, you’ll still end up with some degree of evil winning the race and governing the region.

So you recall them. You get enough fist-waving, pitchfork toting angry mobbers to raise their voice and a new election is held. I’ve wished we could do that with our provincial premier many times in my adult life, except that I live in Alberta and I think there’s a law somewhere that states that the Conservative party has to win every damn election. Besides, in Canada we don’t have fixed election dates, and leaders can choose to time an election when their poll numbers aren’t in the toilet.

Not so in the US. And ten years ago, California made history when a recall election actually booted a governor from office – only the second time that had ever happened.


Lynn J. Frazier, the governor of North Dakota, was yanked from office in a 1921 recall election because his government insisted on owning chunks of what many felt should be private industry, including the state’s largest bank and the massive flour mill. California had introduced the idea of recall elections into state law back in 1911 – 19 states around the country wound up writing the clause into the books as a safeguard against poor leadership Any elected official was subject to a recall election if the people were sufficiently pissed off at their performance. Read more…

Day 562: Happy Centenarian, Lots Of Stuff


Maybe it’s simply the distorted perspective of having a daughter who believes the original Teen Wolf film is ‘old’, the Woodstock concert is ‘ancient’ and Elvis Presley is ‘ancestor-esque’, but I think our culture is in danger of losing its sense of history. This is why we curators of trivia are necessary. Someone needs to remind the younger generation that phones and cameras used to be mutually exclusive, that paying for music and movies wasn’t always an optional thing, and that getting together with friends used to mean someone invariably had to leave their house.

So in the interest of trivia, I’m going to plant an easy landmark and turn the calendar back by a century, commemorating some of the creations that entered the world back in 1913.

This was the year L. Frank Baum introduced Betsy Bobbin to the Land of Oz, the year Fu Manchu first graced a novel with his chick-magnet facial hair, and the year Colorado began issuing license plates for vehicles. But I’m more interested in the inventions that changed little corners of our world, those which turn 100 this year.


Elias Howe, who by inventing the sewing machine had already ensured his seat was taped off and reserved at the Table Of Awesome, came up with an ‘automatic continuous clothing closure’ back in 1851. It was more of an elaborate draw-string than anything else, but it got other inventors thinking. People like Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American engineer who found himself working at the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company in Meadville, Pennsylvania decades later. Read more…

Day 512: Calculators… Made From Human Flesh!!!


In my household, my memory skills are legendary. I can pull an entire scene of dialog from Star Wars and perform it between our salt and pepper shakers, while my wife watches in awe, questioning her choice of mate. A couple months ago, my fingers successfully air-guitared the entire solo of Phillip Bailey and Phil Collins’ “Easy Lover”, despite my not having heard the song in probably twenty years. Yet at the same time, I forget my phone in the other room, forget we need to buy dog food until five minutes after the store has closed, and forget what day it is on an hourly basis.

My brain may be defective – albeit in a charming way – but for the most part, it gets me by. I know I’ll never match up to the titans who participate in the Mental Calculation World Cup. This is the Super Bowl for memory athletes, and there’s no doubting that the rigorous training and conditioning these people go through is right on par with the workout regimen of a Joe Flacco or an Ed Reed.

It hurts my brain a little just thinking about it. Fortunately – and I blame this on my becoming a 3-hour expert on a new topic every day – I’ll probably forget all about this by tomorrow.

Naofumi Ogasawara, winner of the 2012 Mental Calculation World Cup

That’s Naofumi Ogasawara, the star of the 2012 World Cup. The competition has taken place every two years since 2004, and has featured some of the most mathletic brains on the planet. The challenges posed in these games are not for the faint of mind. Ogasawara was handed ten ten-digit number additions, which he computed in 191 seconds. He won the race to calculate the square roots of ten six-digit numbers. And he also beat the rest of the pack when handed five ‘surprise’ calculation tasks. Read more…

Day 301: Being For The Benefit Of Pablo Fanque!

There was a time, long ago, when going to the circus meant more than eating questionable food from even questionabler vendors. More than cultivating the fertile ground of potential nightmares with the acts of deranged clowns, swallowing up the air around them and coughing them back out in maniacal, psychologically scarring laughter. In Victorian England, the circus entered a golden age. A night under the big top was about as thrilling as things got. Sure, there was theatre, but outside of London your selection became a lot more limited.

Not a lot of big names came from the circus – well, not names that have carried on to modern lore. P.T. Barnum was quick with the catchphrase, and the Ringling Brothers are still ringling their way around the world, or at least their brand is. England can boast one circus star who not only rose to national fame, but rose to own his own traveling show. Also, he was black. And though his fame may only carry on today thanks to a single lyric in a 1967 pop song, there’s still a lot of love in England for Pablo Fanque.

He was born William Darby in either 1796 or 1810 – records back then were sketchy, and you couldn’t always trust a person’s own account. Not wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a servant, Darby began his apprenticeship in 1821 with this guy:

Well… okay, that’s not a picture of the guy. But noted equestrian performer and circus proprietor William Batty never had a proper portrait made, or if he did he never uploaded it to the internet. Inconsiderate bastard. Read more…