Thursday, May 23, 2024

Down in Demerara – Prince Randian, The Living Torso

Prince Randian was born in 1871 in the Demerara area of what was then British Guiana (now called Guyana). Randian’s real name is unknown – indeed, little at all is known about his early life, other than that he was born with tetra-amelia syndrome to Hindi parents, believed to be British-Indian servants. Tetra-amelia syndrome is an extremely rare condition that leaves those with the condition with a complete lack of limbs. Other complications can also arise, from severe malformations of the face and head, heart, nervous system, skeleton, and genitalia. The vast majority of those born with the syndrome die at birth. Remarkably, even at an age when the survival rates of children with any medical condition were erratic, Prince Randian grew up to be a healthy adult.

It’s certainly not unusual that we don’t know Randian’s real name. Any child born with such severe physical abnormalities in the 1800s would most likely be rejected by their parents, or at the very least, hidden away from public view. Guyana itself had endured a torrid time, alternately being a colony for the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and, as part of the fall-out of the Napoleonic Wars, finally the British in 1814. This resulted in the unification of three previously separate entities: Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo, all long plundered by slave owners, and by traders for their principal crops: cotton, indigo, sugar and cacao. By the time of Randian’s birth, the British were feverishly mining for gold in the country, much to the chagrin of their neighbour, Venezuela.

The revolving door of occupation doubtless helped Randian to become fluent in three languages (four, if you assume, reasonably, he could speak Hindi) – English, German and French. Randian married Princess Sarah – real name also unknown and they sired at least four children: Mary Randian (born 1893), Richard Randian (born 1901), Elizabeth Randian (born 1904), and Wilhelmina Randian (born 1904). The nature of tetra-amelia syndrome meant it was astronomically unlikely they with born with their father’s condition, as both parents would have required the same defective gene. After a period of living in St.Thomas, one of the three largest US Virgin Islands, he returned to Demerara. It is unclear whether he was discovered by a member of PT Barnum’s Circus whilst living there or whether he himself opted to relocate to the US, but it was there, in New York, he found himself in 1889.

Prince Randian with Princess Sarah

Aside from the sheer fact he was alive and thriving without limbs, there were other factors which made him very attractive to Barnum – he was suave and cultured; intelligent and self-reliant; he had a remarkable talent for performing seemingly impossible tasks with only his head and mouth, from painting, to shaving, to carpentry, to rolling cigarettes. By shifting the weight of his torso, he was able to wriggle along the ground to transport himself, leading to two of his many sideshow monikers – ‘the human worm’ and the ‘human caterpillar’. Becoming a resident attraction at Coney Island in Brooklyn New York, you could variously see him perform under many titles: Prince Rardion; Prince Randion; Radion; Pillow Man; The Snake Man; The Human Torso; The Human Cigar.

Randian’s torso was clothed in what amounted to a large, striped, woollen sock, allowing all the attention to be focused on his remarkable feats of dexterity, performed only with his mouth, teeth, lips and face. He could roll a cigarette from a tobacco leaf and paper, capping the display by striking a match and lighting it with his teeth. He claimed to have made a small wooden box which contained his shaving equipment himself, including the painted image on its top and a working lock. By wedging the razor against a piece of wood he was able to shave himself, much to the astonishment of onlookers. A common practical joke he would play involved him crawling into a small basket or box, waiting in silence until an unsuspecting person arrive, whereupon he would pop out screaming at the top of his lungs.

Although Randian worked at Coney Island for 45 years, he also travelled across the US as part of a show which would stop at cities across the country. However, it was in 1932 that his legendary status would be secured when he was cast by Tod Browning to appear in his magnificent film, ‘Freaks’, alongside many other popular sideshow attractions. Although his screen time is minimal, he is given the opportunity to perform his cigarette-rolling trick, expertly constructing it and then with astonishing dexterity, flicking open a matchbox, selecting a match with his tongue and, having laid the box at a convenient angle, striking it against the rough edge to light it – all whilst holding the cigarette in the other side of his mouth. It is very difficult to discern what he’s saying in the film, but it is in fact a taunt to onlookers:

“Can you do anything with your eyebrows?”

 

Randian can also be seen in the climactic scene in the rain, crawling on his stomach underneath one of the caravans, knife held between his teeth.

Both Prince and Princess stayed happily together for the rest of their lives, semi-retiring to a farm in Paterson, New Jersey with a not insignificant fortune. Randian died at the age of sixty-three on December 19, 1934, from a heart attack, immediately after a performance at Sam Wagner’s 14th Street Museum in New York City. Randian gives on not only in the film Freaks but also the opening track of Tom Wait’s ‘The Black Rider’ album, ‘Lucky Day Overture’.

Daz Lawrence

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