Johnny Eck: Sideshow Performer and Maker
Six months ago I was fortunate enough to check out two related exhibitions at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. One was on painted screens, an art form that is very unique to Baltimore. The other was on one of the genre’s most famous practitioners, Johnny Eck.
Some people have all the advantages handed to them at birth and they still end up messing up their lives or become bitter. Johnny Eck was the opposite. He was someone who was born with a significant disadvantage who took what he had and ended up living an interesting, creative, and independent life.
He was born John Eckhardt, Jr. with his twin brother, Robert, in Baltimore in 1911. While Robert was born normal and healthy, Johnny was born with a major deformity. It was said that one of the midwives present at the twins’ birth cried out “Oh my lord, he’s a broken doll!”
Even though, years later, Johnny would say that he was snapped off at the waist, he actually had a condition known as sacral agenesis or Caudal regression syndrome, which resulted in a truncated torso and unusable, underdeveloped legs. At birth he was less than eight inches at length while he reached the maximum height of 18 inches tall.
Despite that handicap, Johnny taught himself to walk on his hands, which you can see for yourself on YouTube.
His family (which included the twins’ parents and an older sister named Carolyn) tried to make life as normal as possible for Johnny. At the age of two, Johnny learned how to draw and paint and he learned woodcarving as well which later resulted in amazing works of art such as this miniature circus that Johnny carved and painted when he was 14. The twins learned to read at age four and they enrolled in public school at age seven where it was said that the other school children would fight each other for the honor or privilege of lifting him up the stone steps to the school building.
Johnny’s life changed irrevocably when, at age 12, the twins attended a magic show that was done by a magician named John McAslan. When he asked for volunteers, Johnny bounded to the stage on his hands while surprising the magician. McAslan convinced Johnny to go on the sideshow circuit with Robert and the twins signed a 10-year contract with McAslan acting as their first manager. In the process Johnny professionally shortened his name from Eckhardt to Eck and he was billed as the “Half-Boy” while Robert stood next to him to provide a normal human contrast to the Half-Boy.
As Johnny went through his teen years on the sideshow circuit, like many teens he wanted to learn how to drive a car. Due to his deformity, driving a regular car in his era was out of the question so, with his circus earnings along with pay from odd jobs, Johnny purchased a midget race car and converted all the foot controls to hand operation.
Johnny’s renown on the sideshow circuit led him to Hollywood and a role in the 1932 film Freaks, a drama about life in a traveling circus and the discrimination that sideshow performers suffered at the hands of some of the “normal” people. The film’s use of real-life sideshow performers (which also included conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, midgets Harry and Daisy Earles, and an armless woman named Frances O’Connor) shocked and horrified movie audiences so much that the film was a flop in the United States while it was banned outright in the United Kingdom until the 1960’s. Freaks was eventually rediscovered as a counterculture cult film and it was regularly shown at midnight movie screenings at several movie theaters in the U.S. in the 1970’s and 1980’s and it retains its cult following to this day.
After Freaks Johnny played the role of a Gooney Bird in three Tarzan movies until his brief film career fizzled. Eck went on to perform for the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where he was billed as “The Most Remarkable Man Alive.”
When the circus sideshow began to lose its popularity due to the advent of television, Johnny and Robert moved back to the same home in Baltimore that once belonged to their parents. The brothers bought and ran a penny arcade until a business tax forced them out of business. Johnny eventually returned to his first love, art, where he took up screen painting and was very prolific at it. Here are some of the screens that Johnny did that I took with my smartphone at the recent MICA exhibit.
Some more samples of Johnny’s screen paintings can be found here.
There was one major sour note that cast a pall over what was otherwise a remarkable life. In 1987 the 76-year-old twins were robbed in an ordeal that lasted several hours. One of the thieves mocked and sat on Johnny while the other took the twins’ belongings. As a result of that robbery, Johnny became disgruntled with society and spent his remaining years in total seclusion. Eck would go on to say “If I want to see freaks, all I have to do is look out the window.”
In 1991 Johnny died of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of 79. Robert continued to live in the same family home until his own death at age 83 in 1995.
With the rise of the Maker Movement, STEM technology centers, and certain publications and websites like Make magazine and Instructables.com, Johnny Eck would’ve definitely felt at home with that movement and one can only imagine the types of innovations he could’ve done with today’s technology.
To learn more about the amazing life of Johnny Eck (including more samples of his drawings, paintings, and woodworking), I highly recommend that you check out the Johnny Eck Museum.