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Johnny Eck: “The Amazing Half-Boy” or “The Most Remarkable Man Alive”

Tijana Radeska
Johnny Eck

John Eckhardt, Jr. was born in 1911 and was one of the most famous freak show performers in the States. He was born as a healthy boy but without the lower half of his torso.

Unfortunately, he had dysfunctional, underdeveloped legs and feet which were so small that he hid them under his clothing and people never assumed that he had them.

Human Freaks show 1941

Human Freaks show 1941

He was born as a fraternal twin to Robert who didn’t have any deformities on his body. However, at the age of 1, Johnny was already walking while Robert could barely stand on his feet. They were both home-schooled by their older sister Caroline and able to read by the age of four.

When the twins went to school at the age of seven, nobody expected that Johnny would become the popular one, having students fighting each other “for the honor” of who is going to lift him up the stairs, as Johnny recalled later.

He was never disturbed or avoided because of his deformity.He had friends and the school staff blacked out the windows to spare Johnny from the peeping of the curious onlookers.

Poster depicting The Ringling brothers, founders of the circus, ca. 1899

Poster depicting The Ringling brothers, founders of the circus, ca. 1899

He had been treated with dignity by other people and never missed the other half of his body in order to look “like the other people.” Even when asked whether he wished he had legs, he quipped, “Why would I want those? Then I’d have pants to press”. He challenged those who had legs by asking, “What can you do that I can’t, except tread water?”

Johnny had an artistic nature since his childhood and a particular interest in painting and woodworking on which, accompanied by his brother, spent numerous hours. In 1923, the brothers attended John McAslan’s stage magic performance. When the magician asked for volunteers, Eck climbed the stage on his hands. McAslan couldn’t be more surprised and invited the boy to join the sideshow with him as manager.

Johnny Eck and Angelo Rossitto in the Film "Freaks"

Johnny Eck and Angelo Rossitto in the Film “Freaks”

But where would Johnny go without his beloved brother? He accepted the offer as soon as McAslan accepted his one – to employ Robert too. So their parents signed a one-year contract and the boys were on their way to fame. After a year, in 1924 Eck left McAslan and was billed as a single-o (solo sideshow act) performing for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey and others.

In 1931 he was invited by MGM Studios talent scout and later cast to play the “Half-boy” in Tod Browning’s 1932 film “Freaks”. Eck and Tod Browning became close friends during the shooting of the movie. After “Freaks” he was featured as a bird creature or “Gooney Bird” in three Tarzan movies.

Tod Browning in 1921

Tod Browning in 1921

In order to financially support his family during the Great Depression, Eck performed for the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. There,  Eck was billed as “the Most Remarkable Man Alive.”

Soon after that, there wasn’t much left for Eck in the show business. As his roles in movies were limited and the interest for sideshows declined, Johnny and Robert decided to retire and go back to their parents’ house where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Punch and Judy show

Punch and Judy show

During that time, Johnny became a screen painter- a craft he learned from William Oktavec, a grocer and local folk artist who invented this art form. The brothers also had fun with their frequent Punk and Judy shows for the children in the area.

Here’s another fascinating story from us: Julia Pastrana: “Ape Woman” or “Bear Woman” who was mummified by her husband

They lived happy lives, keeping themselves busy with arts and performances, being regularly visited by friends. In 1991, John died of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of 79. Robert died four years later, at the age of 83. They are buried under one headstone in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore.