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.
The OED 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
The "Human Ostrich" is a type of freak-show attraction: someone who will eat anything.
This characteristic of the ostrich is of some antiquity. Jack Cade, in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Pt 2, says:
Ile make thee eate Iron like an Ostridge, and swallow my Sword like a great pin ere thou and I part.
Act 4, scene 10, ll. 28-9
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
He confessed that to gain a livelihood he would swallow "penny pieces, halfpence, pieces of tin, paper, cork, swivels, watch chains, keys, tintacks, nails, pieces of india-rubber, and sovereign purses, etc., but scores came back", meaning per rectum. He was evidently under the impression that he had long since passed all of these articles.
The patient died, and numerous items were found in his stomach post mortem:
Forty pieces of cork (cut bottle corks).
Thirty pieces of doubled tinfoil.
One iron ring (size of a penny).
Ten or twelve pieces of clay-pipe stems.
A leaden bullet
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”:
A Man Swallowing Iron and Stones.
In a letter, dated Cardigan, November 4, 1746, it gives an account of Reeves Williams, a Welshman, in the year 1746, a native of Cardigan, calling himself the Man Ostrich, then about twenty-seven years of age, a labouring man, a stout hale fellow, of very ruddy complexion, exhibited himself at sixpence a head; when he swallowed four pieces of iron, of an inch and a quarter long, and three quarters of an inch broad, and of considerable thickness. These he had made by the smith of the town to fit his throat, and always carried some of them about him. Besides these, he swallowed stones, coach-nails, halfpence, and many other things of the kind. Having satisfied curiosity in that part of the country, he was then about setting out, to exhibit himself in London.
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
He out Cæsared Cæsar – ate, and ejaculated, and ejaculated and ate again. After a time I wearied of this human Ostrich.
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
The Magic Mirror – The World Challenged – Wonderful Attraction!!!
The New York public are respectfully informed that the Renowned Chinese Juglar and Wizard,
Boo Loo Chu!
Will have the honor of appearing before them this night […]
After which he will go through his unrivalled trick of The Human Ostrich!
During which Loo Boo Chu
Swallows a Blacksmith’s Anvil!!
Reproduces it in Metal Buttons!!!
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:
Vitreo. – The Human Ostrich Dines Daily off Oyster Shells, Glass, Metal, Gold Watches, &c. Vitreo will receive Visitors All Day. – Royal Aquarium.
Standard (1890) 17 December
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:
Another human ostrich was Monsieur Antoine Menier, "The Great Human Ostrich". His performance was similar to Alfonso’s, but his attire included "war paint", a nose ring, and outlandish exotic dress. ]
Robert Bogdan Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (1990), p. 263
But they were not alone: amongst others of the period we find:
Samoda, the British Human Ostrich (Eats Coal, Sawdust and Paraffin Oil), at Liberty after a Successful Tour.
Era, 16 October 1897
Northampton […] Empire […] Professor O’Connor, the human ostrich, sword swallower, etc.
Era 2 July, 1898
At Hollingworth Lake (Lancashire) […] Lambi, the human ostrich [etc.].”
Era 15 April, 1899
Mansfield. Pavilion of Varieties … Vulcano, human ostrich.
Era 23 September, 1899
Alfonso and Antoine Menier continued to keep their act in front of eager audiences:
Barnum and Bailey on Tour. Good-bye to Olympia […]
[Birmingham] The human ostrich ate glass and iron and made his mouth into a low-flash lamp with increased recklessness.
Daily News (1899) 10 April
[Southampton] Alfonso, the human ostrich; Tomasso, the human pincushion; and many more.
Daily News (1899) 12 July
Wanted, Known, Menier, Only Original Human Ostrich and Gasometer and Fire Demon, 6ft Flame out of mouth. A Splendid Indian make-up. First-class for Music Hall or Circus.
Era (1899) 16 September
Medical detail still fascinated the reading public. In 1902 the Weekly Irish Times (19 April) amused its readers with the tale of:
A remarkable old man at Clapham. He is eighty-one years of age, his name is O.W. Girdlestone, and he eats glass and all manner of out-of-the-way articles […] He had cultivated his passion for glass-eating when he was serving under Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War in 1862 […] and now, in the intervals of repairing furniture, he converts himself into a human ostrich. "It’s easy to eat glass," he said, "First of all you chew it up to a powder and then swallow it."
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:
Eaters of glass, tacks, pebbles, and like objects, actually swallow these seemingly impossible things, and disgorge them after the performance is over. That the disgorging is not always successful is evidenced by the hospital records of many surgical operations on performers of this class, when quantities of solid matter are found lodged in the stomach. (Chapter 8, pp. 141-2)
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:
Two exhibitions of Mr. Joseph Poole’s new Myriorama took place yesterday in the Round Room, Rotunda, and on both occasions there were large audiences […] The extent of Barnum and Bailey’s Show might well be imagined from the view presented by the camera, showing a vast procession of elephants and other animals, and of the great and varied company who take part in “The Greatest Show on Earth”.
Irish Times (1901) 6 August, p. 7
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.