Roll up for the human ostrich
SH 133: There’s a fellow in Capel St at present in a show who says he can eat glass and hard nails. He calls himself The Human Ostrich.
Ostriches are known for sticking their head in the sand to avoid trouble. Formerly they were also known for their omnivorous appetite, and particularly for their habit of eating stones and metal objects, either, it was thought, a) because they were naturally stupid birds, or b) because foreign bodies in their stomach helped them to break down and digest their regular food.
includes human cannonball (1880-) and
human fly (1885-). Although not so
well known, human ostrich is a
comparable but older term. Marc A. Mamigonian and John
Noel Turner summarize the qualities of the human ostrich:1
This characteristic of the ostrich is of some
antiquity. Jack Cade, in Shakespeare’s King
Henry VI, Pt 2, says:
In 1594 Thomas Nashe writes in his Vnfortunate Traueller (sig. h4v), “The Estrich wil eat iron, swallow anie hard mettall whatsoeuer.”
Human ostriches normally appear in two
contexts: as sideshow freaks or as medical anomalies (and sadly sometimes as
both). The British Medical Journal of
5 May 1894 contains an article by Dr Frederick Eve on “The Case of the ‘Human Ostrich’”,
in which he describes one patient who suffered from peritonitis:2
The patient died,
and numerous items were found in his stomach post mortem:
Medical reports along these lines are not uncommon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Human ostriches as curiosities and exhibits are noted from at least the mid eighteenth century. Kirby's Wonderful and Eccentric Museum (1820, vol. 6, p. 304) paraphrases an account recorded in the British Magazine of November 1746 (p. 344), describing (in the idiom of the day) the “man ostrich”:
Julia Pardoe applied the term “human ostrich” to someone who ate voraciously (and also talked loquaciously) in her Traits and Traditions of Portugal in 1833:3
But it this case the subject does not actually ingest stone or metal.
By 1842 the human ostrich had inched his way
on to the New York stage, in the form of the “Renowned Chinese Juglar [sic]” Boo Loo Chu:4
References from the nineteenth-century English stage seem to appear rather later. George Grant, a young West Indian, made a name for himself with his “Human Ostrich” stage act. Under the name of “Vitreo” (from his vitreous diet) he was a popular entertainer at London’s Royal Aquarium:
The newspapers of the day delighted in telling his story, marvelling at how he found “that a vitreous ménu was to him quite as palatable as roast beef and plum pudding” (Era 6 December 1890). But in mid 1891 English audiences were sorry to see that he had departed to try his luck in Berlin.
Probably the two best known human ostriches of the period were Alfonso, a Barbadian-born New Yorker performing in the Barnum and Bailey “Greatest Show on Earth”, and Antoine Menier. Alfonso’s story was published by Edward Arnold as The Life and History of Alfonso, the Human Ostrich; with Barnum and Bailey's greatest show on earth, European tour.5 He was still appearing with Barnum in 1902, having starred alongside Tomasso “the Human Pincushion”, Mattie Price “The Magnetic Lady”, Wade Cochran “the child mental wonder”, the Moss-Haired Girl, and countless others.6
Menier was in great demand at the same time. Comparing the two, Robert Bogdan writes:
But they were not alone: amongst others of
the period we find:
Alfonso and Antoine Menier continued to keep
their act in front of eager audiences:
Medical detail still fascinated the reading
public. In 1902 the Weekly Irish Times (19
April) amused its readers with the tale of:
Harry Houdini was not impressed by human ostriches. In his debunking of sideshow tricks entitled Miracle mongers and their methods; a complete exposé of the modus operandi of fire eaters, heat resisters, poison eaters, venomous reptile defiers, sword swallowers, human ostriches, strong men, etc. (New York, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1920) he writes:
If Barnum and
Bailey didn’t extend their European tour of 1897 – 1902 through Dublin, then
Dubliners were entertained to the excitement of the “Greatest Show on Earth”
through the magical backlit images of Joseph Poole’s Myriorama. The Irish Times records that:
Joyce’s human ostrich apparently performed in Capel Street. At present no suitable contenders have been identified, but the type was well known at the time as a staple of sideshow entertainment.
1 Marc A. Mamigonian and John Noel Turner “Annotations for Stephen Hero”, in James Joyce Quarterly (Spring, 2003) vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 347-505, 507-18: p. 429 cited.
2 British Medical Journal (1894) 5 May, p. 693.
3 Julia S. H. Pardoe Traits and Traditions of Portugal (1833) vol. 1, p. 123.
4 Brother Jonathan (1842) 19 March, p. 314.
5 Library catalogues date this as c1891, but the European Tour lasted from 1897 until 1902.
6 Graphic (1898) 17 December.
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