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There’s a famous taxidermy shop in Paris that gave me very much the mixture of wonder and squeamishness I get from reading Ricky Jay’s new book. Called Deyrolle, the shop is an embalmer’s idea of Noah’s Ark. A typical Deyrolle room is guarded by zebras, panthers, and polar bears—all stuffed, all for rent. Open a drawer and lacquered eyeballs spring out, dangling on stalks like arranged flowers. In another is an army of mounted Amazonian cockroaches, each as long as your hand. The place has its fans (Johnny Depp and David Sedaris are habitués), but after a half-hour I needed some fresh air. It wasn’t just the glassy stares of all those animals; it was also the crushing weight of nature’s variety, the mad intelligence of God (not to mention M. Deyrolle). Call it a moral failing, but I was relieved to be back in the street, in the world of dress boutiques and bourgeois predictability.
Jay shares Deyrolle’s passion for the bizarre as well as its giddy loss of perspective. Jay is a Broadway magician who frequently gets cast in David Mamet movies; he’s also a scholar of magic, spectacle, and con artistry who authored 1986’s Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, a classic history of outré# entertainers such as Chabert the Human Salamander (who went into ovens with raw steaks and emerged unscathed when they were cooked). Over several years and 16 issues, Jay wrote and co-published a beautiful journal, reproducing with color plates historic images from his own collection of ceiling walkers, mechanical chess players, flea circuses, and crucifixion performance artists.
Jay’s Journal of Anomalies (expansively subtitled Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Impostors, Pretenders, Sideshow Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments) collects these issues, which must have been great to get in the mail every few months. Unfortunately, they’re a bit fatiguing stacked end to end in a book. Gone is the droll style of Learned Pigs; the journal seems burdened by excessive footnoting. But the subjects of Jay’s Journal are nonetheless arresting, raising the question (among others) of why anomalies today seem confined to the covers of supermarket tabloids—and whether pop culture is the poorer for it.
Jay refuses to differentiate among the freaks, magic tricks, hoaxes, and outright cheatery that capture his heart—to him, they’re all “idiosyncratic episodes in the history of entertainment, yet all fundamentally connected by the bizarre logic of performance.” This lack of discrimination is actually analytically very useful, allowing Jay to draw out some half-hidden connections among disparate acts. One is that strange things always get exploited to the hilt. From the obese to the anorexic, from smart dogs to buffalo displayed in Europe as New World monsters, difference has been as bankable as gold in modern Western entertainment. (P.T. Barnum haunts these pages like a ghoul.) And even if you couldn’t get the oddities on tour, you could always place bets on them, like the people in 1750 who wagered on how many men could fit into 600-pound Edward Bright’s vest.
Often, of course, the anomalous had physical skills that immediately translated into acts—people who could swallow their own faces, for instance, or a tiny acrobat nicknamed the Gnome Fly who could walk downstairs on his hands faster than anyone else could on his feet. But it was also common for 18th- and 19th-century magicians to double-bill themselves with “performers” who, like the Elephant Man or the Hottentot Venus, simply presented their physical oddities for the audience’s inspection. Isaac Fawkes, considered “the greatest conjurer” of the early 1800s, appeared for years with “the Horned Woman,” a middle-aged lady with a curling excrescence of skin growing in the back of her head. (An accident broke off the horn—and her career with it.) Grossly large children were always a hit, but their stage lives were often short. One baby, who reportedly weighed more than 100 pounds at 9 months, was deemed “‘not sufficiently attractive’ to draw crowds” soon thereafter, “and had to join forces with a dwarf.”
Jay’s Journal, indeed, is about nothing so much as the body: its bigness or smallness or strangeness, its contortion and manipulation, our entrapment within it and desire to transcend it. (It’s almost too symbolic that, as Jay points out, the first recorded conjuring trick was a decapitation.) Levitation, nose amputations, and performance fasting all tapped into these impulses. One of my favorite chapters in the book details the long association between dentistry and magic—not just catching a bullet with one’s teeth, but actual onstage extractions, featuring audience volunteers with toothaches (plentiful in the days before fluoride). The operation proceeded “painlessly,” but there was sometimes a drummer beating loudly nearby to drown out any screams from the patient. Enough of these incidents taught these “dentrificers” the value of having confederates planted in the audience.
Jay’s focus is almost exclusively on the early modern and Industrial Revolution periods, and with good reason. Anomalies were at their hottest when mass society was just coalescing, before mechanical reproduction of images and widespread travel could make the world more familiar and less astonishing. In other words, it was an era when you could bring a buffalo to England and pass it off as the devil’s abomination. Acts had longer shelf lives than today, but there were fads and manias—the facial-contortion craze of Samuel Johnson’s time, for example, or the lust for strange animals and people in Victorian England. (These fashions cut across class lines: Queen Victoria herself, as Jay notes, was a “groupie” of unusual entertainment.) “It is difficult to [overestimate] the importance of noses in the sixteenth century,” writes Jay at one point.
The sad case that ties all these threads together is that of the “Aztec Lilliputians.” In 1853, John Henry Anderson, one of the most famous magicians of the 19th century and a self-promoter worthy of Don King, brought to Victoria two diminutive children he claimed had been rescued by a Spanish adventurer from a secret city of the Aztecs. In fact, they were mulatto Costa Ricans who, mentally impaired, had been sold by their mother to a trader. But even though the real story of the children was quickly exposed, the rescue myth persisted; they continued to be exhibited by various purveyors for 50 years. Desperate for cultural legitimacy, Americans went wild for the idea of a mythic people in their own hemisphere. As Jay points out, though, it was also the very tension between the two stories that made the “Aztec Lilliputians” so enduring. “Because their true nature was so widely debated,” Jay writes, “it was possible…to project widely varying notions of the nature of the human upon them.” As in many magic acts, exposing the secret just makes the deception that much more compelling.
And many interesting secrets do get exposed in Jay’s Journal—two dozen good ways to cheat at bowling, how flea circuses work. (The fleas are trained not to jump, then lassoed with tiny wires and stuck, for example, to musical instruments or swords—which the poor insects, in desperate attempts to shake off, look as if they’re skillfully wielding.) But Jay’s style gets in the way of full enjoyment. As curator for five years of the Mulholland Library for the Conjuring and Allied Arts, he’s done research all over the world—but too often he writes like an amateur scholar. The balance in Learned Pigs between research and whimsy is gone. Jay has also picked up an archaic preciousness since the last book, probably from hanging around with Mamet too much. (“This issue…eschews the particular features of eye, nose, and mouth to embrace the entire facial physiognomy” reads one gem of clunkiness.) The net effect is of a man in private communication with his own obsession, leaving at least this reader sometimes shut out instead of led in.
But even though I don’t share Jay’s love for anomalies, I appreciate his nostalgia for the way they were featured in days of yore. Obviously, nobody should want to bring back the Elephant Man. But today’s freak shows—The Sally Jessy Raphael Show,
Rotten.com, even The Guinness Book of World Records—lack presentation value, the snare-drum drama and charming artifice of the magic-show context. Today’s “reality”—whether overproduced survivors or underdressed Web-cam exhibitionists—represents the very antithesis of the magical aesthetic. A telling illustration of the change in taste can be found in one of Jay’s Journal’s few 20th-century anecdotes—about Chami Khan, one of those pain-tolerant performers known in the trade as “horses.” At a 1955 magic convention in Michigan, Khan had himself crucified—no tricks, no denouement of escape, just long, thin spikes and a lot of blood. The crowd of conjurers watched for a while and then started streaming out; as Jay writes, “[m]any of the spectators were anticipating a parody, or a switch of real nails for fake ones, or a secret release on the cross that would allow a surprise ending to take place.” But even Khan (who would later set a record by spending seven days nailed to a cross) eventually would display the anomaly’s instinct for self-exploitation: Asked if he would repeat his record crucifixion, “Chami…,” writes Jay, “said he was considering offers to appear in Hawaii or in a Las Vegas casino. ‘It depends on the contract they are offering,’ he concluded sensibly.” CP