Skip to main content

The Fat Man And His Friends

July 2024
1min read

To the ordinary circus-goer they were simply “geeks and freaks,” to be gawked at before going on to the Big Top to watch the brave lion-tamer and the man on the flying trapeze. But to David Navarro (opposite page), himself a circus Fat Man, they were friends and fellow performers, trying to live lives as normal as physical deformity and an itinerant profession would allow. He collected their pictures—usually cartes de visite made up for publicity purposes—and carefully pasted them into albums. The result was one of the most extraordinary collections of nineteenth-century strong men and “living skeletons,” midgets and bearded ladies, ever brought together; we present here a small sampling. Not much is known of Navarro himself save that he reached a maximum weight of 601 pounds and that he toured with various road shows for twenty-two years. Possibly he stood in the shadow, as it were, of his contemporary John Hanson Craig, at 907 pounds perhaps the heaviest human ever. Beside that mountain, David Navarro was a mere foothill.

in his American Museum, which opened in New York in 1842, and later in his travelling circuses, P. T. Barnum was the first showman to make a spectacular success of exhibiting what he called “Marvellous Living Human Curiosities.” Midgets were among the most popular. Tom Thumb, born Charles Stratton, was the most famous, but he was not the smallest. Lucia Zarate (lower right, opposite) was only twenty inches tall-five inches shorter than Tom at the outset of his career—and at seventeen weighed only 4¼ pounds to Tom’s 15. Brought here from her native Mexico in 1876 at the age of twelve, the vivacious and intelligent Lucia toured until 1890, when she was stranded on a snowbound train and died of exposure. One of her successors was an equally diminutive colored girl billed as Princess Weenie Wee. Another human curiosity was Eli Bowen, the Legless Acrobat. He and his circus colleague, armless Charles B. Tripp, often rode a tandem bicycle together, Bowen steering and Tripp pedalling. The two old friends genially kidded each other. “Watch your step,” Tripp would say, to which Bowen always replied, “Keep your hands off me.” ft was what the cheerful Bowen would have called a standing joke.

freak-show publicity contained a generous dash of hokum. “Waino” and “Plutano,” the original Wild Men of Borneo, were actually mildmannered, slow-witted brothers named Hiram W. and Barney Davis, one born on Long Island, theother in England. For the gullible yokels, of course, the Wild Men could easily simulate an exotic language with growls and gibberish, and Hiram and Barney really were strong: each could pick up a six-loot man with ease. “Fiji Jim,” on the other hand, whose real name was Ruto Sernm, was in fact a Fiji Islander who with his wife had been lured to America by a circus promoter and then abandoned. They spent the rest of their lives as freaks, trying to save enough money to return home. They never made it. In the summer of 1896, at New York’s Rockaway Beach, Semm dived into the ocean to save a drowning swimmer. He caught a cold which developed into pneumonia and pleurisy; that winter, on the top floor of a cold-water tenement in Brooklyn, Fiji Jim died.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.