"I met hundreds and thousands of people, and none finer than the midgets and the Siamese twins and the caterpillar man and the bearded woman and the human seal with the little flippers for hands. I never asked them any embarrassing questions and they never asked me, and God, it was a great adventure."
"If I want to see freaks, I can just look out the window."
John Eckhardt, Jr. was born on August 27, 1911 to Amelia and John Eckhardt, Sr. at their home in Baltimore, Maryland. Eck was born with a truncated torso due to Sacral agenesis. Though Eck would sometimes describe himself as "snapped off at the waist", he had unusable, underdeveloped legs and feet that he would hide under custom-made clothing. He was one of two twins. The other brother, Robert, was born a normal, healthy child. Johnny, though healthy, was born with no lower half. His body stopped just below the ribs. "Oh my lord, he's a broken doll." cried one of the midwives as Johnny came out. However, in his 79 years on this earth Johnny Eck (his name was shortened by his first manager) accomplished more than most people with legs. He was a sideshow performer, artist, photographer, magician, Punch and Judy operator, expert model maker, race car driver, swimmer, gymnast, actor, train conductor, traveler and all around Renaissance man...
All that and he only reached a height of 18 inches tall!
He never let his lack of legs prevent him from attempting anything he dreamed up. Someone once asked him if he wished he had legs? "Why would I want those? Then I'd have pants to press." was his reply.
With that healthy attitude and the sunny disposition that everybody loved, it is no wonder why he led such a full and happy life.
Thankfully for us, Johnny Eck was two things- a shutterbug and a packrat. During his career, Johnny turned his camera onto the world he lived in . Whether it was a group of friends wiling away the hot summer days on the white marble steps of his home in Baltimore or to capturing quiet moments behind the tents on various midways throughout the country Johnny shot it. Not only did he shoot it, he developed and printed his own pictures in the small darkroom he set up in the basement of his house. Most of the examples presented here are from the original vintage photographs or negatives.
|Johnny with twin brother Robert|
If he hadn't brought his camera with him everywhere, or if he hadn't saved all the negatives and prints, it would be next to impossible to imagine what kind of people and activities had filled his life.
Thank you Johnny for not throwing anything away...
The Johnny Eck Museum Collector describes the museum history "We began collecting Johnny Eck material shortly after his twin brother Robert died in 1995. Since that time our goal has been to accumulate anything and everything that pertained to the incredible lives of twin brothers Johnny and Robert Eck(hardt).
It has been a wonderful journey, pouring over hundreds and hundreds of family letters, photographs, drawings and diaries. Listening to Johnny's audio tapes, 78 rpm records, and hearing the stories related to us from people who knew them. The deeper we go into their lives and the more we learn, the more impressive their story becomes.
Their life spanned nearly 8 decades.
|Early Pitch Card circa1920|
Allowing them to witness some of the greatest and most tragic events of our times. World Wars 1 and 2, the Great Depression, Space Travel, Vietnam, Computer and other technological advances.
Through all the worlds ups and downs they managed their lives with a resilience that most people lacked and a sense of pride and will that was unmatched. They took their act on the road, traveled the country with various circus and sideshow outfits. Worked at Chicago's Century of Progress, The Canadian Exposition, Robert Ripley's Odditorium and starred in Tod Brownings classic film Freaks in Hollywood, California to name a few. Nothing could get in the way of these two boys. Nothing.
So ladies and gentlemen, come on in and experience our amazing collection of memorabilia from the personal belongings of Johnny and Robert Eckhardt. Most of what you will find in here has never been presented anywhere before..."
He also saved every letter, postcard and greeting card (his favorite) that was sent to him over the years. Reading all these correspondences is a wonderful, personal look into everything that was going on in Johnny's life.
|A photo taken by Johnny|
Johnny also made extensive notes on the pages of books, magazines, newspapers and bibles. They offer an insight into how other peoples words affected Johnny. He was in a constant search to find out why he was the way he was and reading helped him to find the answers.
When sideshows lost popular appeal, the Eckhardt brothers settled in Baltimore. There, they bought and ran a penny arcade until a business tax forced them out of business. In the 1950s, the brothers bought and ran a used children's train ride in a local park; Eck acting as conductor. Eck also became a screen painter, having learned the craft from William Oktavec, a grocer and local folk artist who invented the art form in 1913.
Eck would sit on the steps of his porch with his Chihuahua, Major, telling stories about his life. He and his brother often performed Punch and Judy shows for the children who would come to visit. However, the Eckhardts' neighborhood was increasingly becoming less safe with drugs and crime.
The 1980s brought more guests as the video release of Freaks attracted a new generation of fans with whom Eck wasn't entirely comfortable, telling a friend, "You'd be surprised to see these 'avid' fans. I say they are crazy." He also lamented not having the money to provide these visitors with a small sandwich or a Coca Cola as he was plagued by money troubles. Eck also had a long-time feud with his neighbor.
On January 5, 1991, Eck suffered a heart attack in his sleep, dying at the age of 79 at the North Milton Avenue home where he was born. Robert followed him on February 25, 1995, aged 83. They are buried under one headstone in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore.
Information and photographs from The Johnny Eck Museum