Thursday, May 23, 2024

A Most Remarkable Man – The Life of Johnny Eck

John Eckhardt, Jr., known as Johnny Eck, was born in Baltimore, Maryland at 622 North Milton Avenue in 1911. One of twins, unlike his brother, Robert (and their elder sister by fourteen years, Caroline), was born with only half a body due to a condition called sacral agenesis, a rare birth defect affecting the development of the base of the spine. Though this can manifest itself in different ways, Johnny’s was severe, leaving him with very poorly developed legs and feet, such that they were unusable. It is said that one of the midwives who delivered him cried out, “Oh my Lord, he’s a broken doll!”. Whether true or not, she needn’t have worried – Johnny had more than a little get-up-and-go about him.

Johnny and Robert with their mother

So full of life was Johnny that he began to walk on his hands aged only 12 months, significantly before Robert had made his first steps. They were a tight-knit family unit and there were no attempts to hide Johnny away from the public’s gaze, neither was Johnny shy about his appearance. At an early stage, it was decided that Johnny’s clothes would disguise the fact that he did in fact have the vestiges of legs and feet – as far as those outside the family circle knew, he was literally a half-boy. Caroline had both her younger brothers to read and write before they went to school, and again, Johnny proved to be ahead of many of those in his year group. His outgoing personality meant that his friends competed to be the one to be allowed to carry Johnny upstairs when required.

Johnny and Robert were inseparable, indeed they lived together for their whole lives in the small house in Baltimore where they were born. Both were artistic, painting watercolours, but Johnny had more – he was a natural showman, an extrovert with matinee good looks, the gift of the gab and, of course, a unique look. Art is not a viable career choice for most at the best of times, but it certainly wasn’t a direction Johnny could take in Baltimore during the Great Depression. Johnny had already dabbled in art professionally – William Oktavec lived locally and had pioneered screen printing, something which could be seen displayed in homes across Baltimore (and still can) but it would be something he found comfort in doing in later life. Still, it was better than his mother’s wish for him to become a priest. After school, there was only one place for employment for someone in Johnny’s position – the sideshow.

Johnny Eck aged 8

It was very rare that a sideshow performer would enjoy long-term success if they didn’t have a skill or trick they could entertain audiences with. If you were Joseph Merrick, yes, you could just appear only stage, go off again and still expect to get paid. For the vast majority, you had to entertain. Once the shock value had gone, the next time you came to the town you were appearing in, you needed something to drag the audience back in. Johnny had it all – the charisma, magic tricks, art, animal training, acrobatics, jokes – he was more than deserving of the enormous painted canvases which advertised his appearances.

Johnny appeared on stage professionally from the age of 12 in 1923, after he was seen performing his trademark one-handed handstand in a church magic show. The organiser, John McAslan, convinced Johnny and his parents to allow him to become his manager and appear in circus shows. The contract was signed, but only on the condition that Robert too would be given a contract and were allowed to act as his custodian and accompany him at all times. Johnny would usually perform wearing a tuxedo and bowtie – not only did this present him as a true showman, it also allowed Robert to help him disguise the rudimentary arms and legs inside the tucked-up shirt. They stayed a year performing magic tricks before leaving for the big-time sideshow promoters – the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey among them. It was here that Johnny honed his craft with Robert, the pair both appearing and designing, painting and building their props and canvas advertisements. The brothers were no strangers to design, as evidenced by their spectacular miniature circus, built and completed by hand.

Tod Browning was one of the most talked about film directors in the world in 1931, his film ‘Dracula’ starring Bela Lugosi sparking a worldwide wave of interest in the horror genre. The film he planned as the follow-up would shock audiences far more, to the extent that it would be banned in many countries for decades after its release. Browning had set a team of scouts to search travelling fairs and circuses for performers to appear in his film, ‘Freaks’, to be released by MGM. At the time, Johnny and Robert were in Canada, attracting huge audiences at the 1931 Canadian National Exhibition. The scout asked if Johnny might spare a minute to perform some of the acts on the camera he had with him, though never revealed what the purpose of the footage was. After a short set of balancing, juggling, walking up and down stairs and the like, what was actually an audition was complete, with the scout assuring Johnny that he’d be back in contact soon. In fact, the letter explaining what had happened went to McAslan back in Baltimore but the message was soon relayed to Eck.

McAslan told Eck that he had been scheduled to appear with the Downey Brothers Circus in California. Despite their business arrangement having lapsed, Johnny was thrilled at the prospect and accepted the deal. The first-class train ticket which took them there still didn’t raise any suspicions from the performer. Put up in a top hotel, they were taken by limousine to MGM studios where the press were waiting to see who the mysterious actors were whom they had been summoned to photograph. The performers were introduced in turn, with Eck the last, naturally wearing his tuxedo. Three days later, a limousine once again picked up Johnny and took him to the MGM studios, where this time he was taken to the backstage lot – he assumed the tent there was where he was to appear as part of the circus. The truth finally dawned on him on entering, though in no way dampened his spirits.

It has been well-documented how well Browning treated the cast of ‘Freaks’. Well ahead of his time in terms of inclusivity and respect, they were all well-cared for and treated in the same manner as cast members on any film. Johnny, it has to be said, was something of a teacher’s pet, with Browning eager to have him close by throughout filming and referring to him as, “Mr Johnny”. The preferential treatment even afforded Johnny a private dressing room, something only the lead actors, Harry and Daisy Earles were also given, prompting a little jealousy from other cast members. There is no questioning the level of performance from Eck in the film. The subtle glances; the quick asides; the athletic turns of speed – it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, quite an achievement all considered.

Johnny stayed in the area for around four months, taking his time to make appearances where the opportunity arose and to network. The film, despite the media attention, was doomed. Preview audiences were offended or terrified, and no amount of cuts could rescue the film before general release – a release that ended almost as soon as it had begun. Many prints were destroyed, and the film for many years assumed to be officially ‘lost’, though it was given a second lease of life in the 1960s, where it was positively reappraised, though in a much-truncated form. The original 90-minute cut hasn’t been seen since its release, the butchered 64-minute cut famously missing out an even more brutal original ending but perhaps more pertinently, much of the dialogue between the ‘freaks’ and the ‘normal people’, something which would have made it even clearer where Browning’s sympathies lay. Browning’s career never recovered. He made four more films, two of which were remakes of earlier efforts – 1935’s ‘Mark of the Vampire’ (essentially 1927’s ‘London After Midnight, ironically another lost film) and ‘The Devil-Doll’, released in 1936 (which features many similarities with 1935’s ‘The Unholy Three’). He died addicted to alcohol, living the life of a recluse, in 1962.

After the filming of ‘Freaks’, Johnny was handed another film role, though one which saw him completely disguised by his costume, appearing as ‘the gooney bird’ in the Johnny Weissmuller-starring, ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’. reprising the part in ‘Tarzan Escapes’ (1936) and ‘Tarzan’s Secret Reasure’ (1941). It was clear why from the very earliest stages of Johnny’s career he was always one of the premiere attractions. A  staircase built by the brothers allowed Johnny to make his grand entrance, whilst a trapeze and tightrope were also used to show his acrobatic skills. Magic was often part of sideshow exhibits’ acts, which in some ways went to show exactly who was in control at these events. The audience members were the ones being made fools of, sometimes at the expense of losing even more money than their entrance fee. When the conjurer was already distracting all eyes in their direction, it wasn’t difficult for the sleight of hand and props to produce the required result. Appearing at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, Eck was billed as, ‘The Most Remarkable Man Alive!’.

There is surely no greater demonstration of both the invention and brilliance of sideshow performance than Eck’s most celebrated trick. Sawing a person in half, only for them to have their bodies returned to a whole at the end of the trick was far from a new illusion but it is in the magician’s DNA to constantly try to improve them or to make them more spectacular. Maurice P. Kitchen had re-christened himself Rajah Raboid in the 1920s, switching from magic tricks to becoming a turban-wearing mind-reader and amassing a quite eye-watering fortune from the gullible audiences he appeared in front of.

He joined forces with Eck in 1936, perfecting an act which would be performed throughout his ‘Miracles of 37’ show. The ruse also involved Robert, posing as a heckler in the audience, with Raboid calling him up on stage to be sawed in half.  Barely had the trick started than Robert would then be switched with Johnny, who played the top half of his body, and a dwarf who played the bottom half, concealed in specially-built trouser legs. After the dramatic sawing, the legs would suddenly get up and start running away, prompting Johnny to jump off the table and start chasing them around the stage, screaming, “Come back!” “I want my legs back!” Eck recalled, “The men were more frightened than the women – the women couldn’t move because the men were walking across their laps, headed for the exit.” The illusion would end with stagehands plucking up Eck and setting him atop “his” legs and then twirling him off-stage to be replaced by his twin Robert, who would then loudly threaten to sue Raboid and storm out of the theatre.

Johnny and Robert remained an unpartable unit. They continued to make props for Johnny’s public appearances, which now included him driving a racing car he built with Robert, the ‘Johnny Eck Special’, a vehicle deemed roadworthy enough that he could be seen zipping along the road of East Baltimore. One of Johnny’s final major stunts was to climb the steps to the top of the Washington Monument on his hands in 1938. Around the time of World War II, the pair spent more and more time back at their family home in Baltimore. Both their parents had died and so the house was now theirs. They had their own musical trio, The Red Phantom Dance Orchestra, featuring Johnny on sax and Robert on piano, which played locally, and, like many in their city, they painted glass panels, some of which are on display in the museum dedicated to him. By the mid-1940s travelling fairs had less the the way of opportunities for the likes of Johnny, leaving both he and his brother in an unfashionable part of an unfashionable city. They made a meagre living selling artwork though still put on Punch and Judy shows for local children – the puppets carved by the brothers themselves.

Their fortunes picked up in 1957 when he was able to buy a miniature steam engine, accompanying cars and 300 feet of track. Both brothers had long had a fascination with trains and this gave them a belated opportunity to live out their dreams of making a living on the railroad – although not quite what they had envisaged. As engineer and conductor, Johnny’s proportions were kept obscured and so he was truly taken by children as being nothing out of the ordinary. The brothers gave locals and visitors rides on their train up until the 1970s when the engine began to show signs of falling into disrepair. It was at this time the pair all but disappeared from public view.

Neither Johnny nor Robert ever married, indeed, there’s no evidence to suggest they ever had any romantic affairs, though this didn’t mean they were asexual. Found, bizarrely, in a fridge after his death, Johnny had evidently drawn a series of pornographic cartoons from the 1950s to the 1970s and possibly beyond. They depicted strange animal-human hybrids performing eye-popping acts and with accompanying text which was to say the least, ‘blunt’. Though unsigned, they are clearly his work, his self-made greeting cards displaying the same style (but with less in the way of genitals, obviously). Clearly, Johnny was frustrated, angry even. In his early years, the future promised much – with social enlightenment, he had somehow found himself penniless and exiled.

He spent a lot of time on his front porch, watching the world go by, shying away from making any unnecessary journeys to the shops, leaving that to Robert. With the home video release of ‘Freaks’ in the 1980s, he was happy to entertain visiting fans but was embarrassed by his standard of living. Not only was the brothers’ own home showing signs of wear and tear, but their neighbour’s homes were being turned into crack houses and the area as a whole was a destination for criminals. As new neighbours moved in, they verbally abused Johnny, with little time to learn about his background or circumstances. One of Johnny’s beloved dogs was killed by a local. Things came to a head in 1987 when the Eck’s home was invaded by burglars, both brothers beaten up and their few valuables stolen. One of the burglars sat on Johnny whilst others stole their possessions. They were rarely seen again, with Johnny commenting, “If I wanted to see real freaks, all I have to do is look out the window”.

The Eck House – now boarded up

Johnny Eck died in 1987 at the age of 79, suffering a heart attack in the house where he was born. Robert died four years later, also in their childhood home. Both are buried together under one headstone in Green Mount Cemetery. Both men are now celebrated in a Baltimore Museum.

Daz Lawrence

Find out more about Johnny Eck here

The dirty drawings of Johnny Eck

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