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Herbert Huncke's America - Edited By Jerome Poynton Literary Executor - Tattooed Man - July 2019


Mardi Gras just passed in New Orleans—thinking of it recalls to mind Don Castle, the tattooed man I met one evening on Oak Street beach in Chicago—later running into him in New Orleans. He was a rather strange man—an ex-junkie freak-show worker and poet—tattooed from a line circling his neck, like a collar, to his wrists on both arms and his ankles on both legs. There was a large red rose tattooed on his penis he delighted in telling about—describing in detail the discomfort and pain he had suffered at the time of the actual tattooing. He lived alone and claimed kindredship with spirits from another world.  He was something of a mystic—talking for hours on end about God—what is God—what God wants for mankind—and how after death God absorbs into his being—representative of central life force—the entity we know as ourselves. He said that he had seen God and talked with him.

He was a lonely man and often spoke lovingly of his days as the tattooed man in a side-show—when he knew the India-rubber-man—the fat woman—the bearded lady—the sword swallower—the snake charmer— geeks—midgets—circus people—roustabouts—clowns—animal trainers— tightrope walkers—trapeze artists—all kinds of people connected with the side-shows and big tops. For some reason he had gotten away from all that —no longer in touch with the only element he felt comfortable in. He was vague about what had happened but I gathered, from conversational bits, he had started using junk—finally getting hooked and eventually having a run- in with the police—having served time. At any rate he felt he could no longer go back.

Editor’s Note:

Tattooed Man is one of Herbert Huncke’s shorter pieces and I wish it was longer. In the late 1920s talkies -- sound -- was introduced into cinema and the Vaudeville actors -- and circus sideshow people -- were sidelined as audience moved to the modern entertainment of moving pictures with sound.

Tattooed Man is from the late 1930s. Ward Hall, the last remaining showmen of freaks and circus sideshows in America -- did not begin in business until 1947, nearly ten years later – yet the winds of change was in the air and the audience for sideshow freak shows was in decline.

That show was over.

100s of traveling sideshow performers peaked and Ward Hall well chronicles its history and demise.

Many years ago I spoke with Ward, asking him if he knew sideshow hermaphrodite Elsie-John, (MMMR Report, December 2018).

Ward did not know Elsie but he knew of her.  He knew which sideshow she travelled with. There were several “half and halfs” is how he called hermaphrodites. He had one or two in his stable of human oddities.

Ward discovered the Penguin Boy -- or the Penguin Boy discovered Ward.  As I remember him telling me as his side show travelled from town to town, human oddities would come to the show to meet Ward Hall.  On one such occasion, Ward met Dick Brisbane, a young man whose feet extended from his hips, without benefit of legs, and he waddled when he walked.

Ward named him The Penguin Boy. As Ward explained it to me Penguin Boy did quite a good business and retired wealthy, living out west, with two homes in two different states. 

Tattooed Man was a 1930s cross-over -- creating his life in a world of exile -- as a self-chosen freak.

More on Ward Hall and the history of American sideshows, freaks and circus performers.

Great interviews with Ward Hall:

“Ward Hall spearheaded a campaign against a 1921 Florida statute banning the exhibition of malformed, deformed or disfigured humans. He was successful: three years later, judges held the sideshow prohibition ‘unconstitutional’ – because people with deviating bodies have the right to work.”

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