Shrunken heads make people cringe and gag,” Johnny Fox allows, pointing to one floating in a glass jar. “But I always thought they were cool.”
Fox never gags – a good thing, since he’s a professional sword swallower. And he says he’s never cringed, an attitude that is the guiding spirit behind his new Lower East Side museum, which houses a collection of objects that originally belonged to the likes of Tom Thumb and P. T. Barnum. Fox calls his tiny storefront at 57 Clinton Street the Freakatorium, in homage to the old-time sideshow and dime-museum freaks who shocked and amazed Americans from the turn of the last century through the first half of this one.
Fox expects to open his museum officially on August 13, an event he has been planning, in a way, since he was 7 years old, when he went to the state fair in Springfield, Massachusetts and saw his first sword swallower and sideshow. “I saw Johann the Viking Giant,” Fox recalls. “He was eight foot eight and 450 pounds.” Fox bought one of Johann’s rings. “Here it is,” he says almost four decades later, plucking it from a cabinet shelf laden with at least a dozen such rings, in metal, plastic, and ceramic, from various performers who called themselves the World’s Tallest Man.
A group of women enters the museum, which already seems appropriately cluttered and musty. Staring at a glass case, one of the visitors asks, “What is this?” “It’s the finest Fiji Mermaid you’ll ever see,” brags Fox. A closer look reveals a miniature monkeylike skull attached to a dusty fish body. Fox’s claim is certainly true, if only because the competition has largely disappeared. “The few sideshows that are left in places like Coney Island have midgets who blow fire or people who put needles through their cheeks, but no Lobster Boy or Half-Lady,” says Eddie Pantalon, Fox’s partner. “The freaks are on Jerry Springer now.” (He means this literally: Jeanie Tomaini, a retired sideshow performer billed as Jean the Half-Girl, has done the daytime-talk-show circuit.)
The Freakatorium offers a glimpse at what the world was like before it was impolite to gawk, exhibiting vintage photographs of Siamese twins; Jo-Jo the Russian Dog-faced Boy; and a turn-of-the-century two-man bicycle ridden by Charles Tripp, the armless sculptor, and Eli Bowen, the legless acrobat. And here are the colorful banners that promoted sideshow attractions, and some of the exhibits themselves, among them the “snake pit” holding a live boa constrictor (featured when the Freakatorium served as a backdrop for MTV V.J. Matt Pinfield several months ago), a two-headed cow, and the shrunken head that, Fox admits, is made of goatskin.
“I’m looking for a real one – it’ll go right into that empty glass jar,” he says eagerly, sounding just a bit like the sideshow barkers of old and gesturing with an arm covered with a tattoo of a Hindu goddess or an Elephant Woman – depending on whether your freaks are from the 1990s or the 1890s.