Before I assumed ownership of Spellbound Salem Night Tour I traveled with two different carnival freak shows. Out of time as it may seem, yes, a handful of them still exist playing out in various locations across the United States. Even right here in Massachusetts on occasion our own Topsfield Fair, just a short drive from Salem, plays host to such shows. Not that long ago they displayed the world famous Bat Boy, and the alleged World’s Smallest Woman. One of the shows I worked with was comprised mostly of variety performers, magicians, sword swallowers, that kind of thing performance artist, as well as the occasional human oddity or freak. The other one was largely a museum. It had wax figures of famous freaks, and preserved specimens of strange people and animals. Some of it, like the BP Oil Spill Mermaid and the cyclops baby were hilariously fake. But some of the attractions were all too real.
This story concerns one of the real attractions. It was a human skeleton. One hundred percent, undeniably real. So real that in some towns we needed special permits to show it. So real that some places would not let us display it because it was “disrespectful to the dead”. It was a real human skeleton, or most of one. The advertising material referred to it as The Evil Dwarf.
In front of our circus tent there were large, colorful banners advertising the wonders contained within. The Evil Dwarf banner had a caricature of a little person with a mischievous grin flashing a cartoon Snow White. Upon entering the tent, if the visitor made it past the live displays of freak animals like the Six Legged Sheep, and the various dead, stuffed, and faked attractions they came upon a coffin. A small coffin.
The coffin was about three and a half feet long. It was looked ancient. The lid was clear glass and inside could be seen portions of a skeleton. There was a delicate looking skull, ribs, scapula, a pelvis, a humerus and a half, a bunch of vertebra, and femur crammed up randomly with the other bones. The jumbled remains were undeniably old, and the grim aged skull was missing a couple of important teeth. Without a doubt this was the real thing. Even the most jaded costumers would gaze at it with awe. This mess of bones had been alive once.
There was a handprinted sign propped up next to the casket. In garish colored letters written in florid circus font was a story about the skeleton. It was The Evil Dwarf. A Wild West outlaw who happened to be a little person. “He robbed banks, trains, and looked up ladies’ skirts!”. The sign described how the bad little guy was finally gunned down outside of Tombstone, Arizona and because no one would pay for his burial he was put on display as a cautionary tale of what happens when you fight the law. The story was clearly carnival ballyhoo, but no one could deny that the gnarled old bones were one hundred percent real, old, dead, and entirely human.
My friend Jim owned the show and the bones. I asked him about their true origin one day. He said that he had bought the bones in the early nineteen nineties. His freak show was set up in a carnival playing a Native American reservation in New Mexico when a man approached Jim and told him he had something weird for sale. No one can turn down an offer like that! Jim went to the man’s home and was shown the the bones that became his Evil Dwarf. They were sealed up just as he later displayed them, except the top of the box was solid rather than glass. He was told they had been dug up by accident while a field was being cleared on the property, they had not been buried very deep. Jim purchased the remains for a price that was surprisingly low for human bones, and the owner was glad to see them go. According to Jim the man seemed relieved when the little coffin was hauled away.
Jim replaced the top of the coffin with a clear panel and hired renowned circus artists Jim Hand and Bobby Rawls to make signs and banners advertising his “Evil Dwarf”. He concocted the legend about the rotten little bandit and sold tickets. People lined up to see the skeleton. No one ever complained. Despite the outlandish story no one could dispute the bones were the real deal. He was making money hand over fist.
At the end of the season Jim went home to Florida. He proudly showed his girlfriend the new star attraction. She was not a fan. The Evil Dwarf made her profoundly uncomfortable. They laughed about it. She was used to Jim bringing strange things home.
Then the nightmares started. As long as the old bones were in the house she could not sleep peacefully. She started seeing visions she claimed were The Evil Dwarf when it was alive. She claimed that in life the bones had not been a dwarf at all, but a young woman. In her dreams she saw violent scenes of abuse where the girl’s father hurt her and ultimately killed her. She was killed by being beaten about the head with a flat rock from the field. After death he dismembered the body, shoved it in a box and dumped it in a ditch on his land. Years later it was discovered and finally sold to Jim. These nightmares troubled her to the point she refused to stay in the house as long as the box of bones was there.
Jim put it into storage and life went on. The next spring when he took the show on the road again The Evil Dwarf came with him, it was still a strong attraction. People loved it. One day he noticed that there were two college age women who had been in the tent far longer than most people ever stayed. They were fixated on the old bones. They were looking too closely at the contents of the coffin for comfort. This was not good. When people poked around too long it could sometimes mean trouble. Curious as to their motives Jim approached the women and casually as possible asked, “you ladies like The Evil Dwarf?”
They women told him that they were indeed fascinated by the skeleton, but there was no way it was the bones of a little person. As it turns out the ladies were medical students and they knew their way around a skeleton. Judging from the pathology they had determined that the bones were not from a male dwarf at all, but were the remains of a teenaged girl! This was not good news, it was starting to sound like Jim’s girlfriend’s dreams might have been true. “Any idea what happened to her?” inquired Jim. “From what it looks like here”, the student indicated a couple of damaged spots on the skull, “she received a lot of trauma to the head. Someone smashed her up pretty badly. Any of these blows”, again she pointed to the injured spots on the skull, “could have done her in. From the condition of the bones, she was not embalmed right like we do today, it looks like she was just left to decay.” Jim thanked the girls for the information, let them take pictures of the skeleton, and sent them on their way. They left happy having enjoyed sharing their knowledge of bones and showing up the carnival man.
Jim was glad to know the truth about the skeleton, but now he was uneasy. He no longer would load up and pack the box himself, delegating it to the other workers. Sometimes I would catch him just gazing into the casket. The Evil Dwarf banner got flown less and less. It was not so fun anymore, now that it was known who she really might have been. Some years after I left the show I believe she was given a decent burial and put to rest.
Many people who claim mediumistic ability will use bones of the dead as a way to channel the spirits. Sometimes they say the bones help open the doors to the spirit world and working with the bones is a good way to get in touch with the other side. Skulls are particularly popular for this purpose. In the case of the so called Evil Dwarf it seemed though that she was less interested in helping the living than just getting her story known at last. We have several skulls in the Spellbound Collection and thankfully none of them have been troublesome like the poor girl in the coffin.