Part of Magruder's Curiosity Cabinet is set on Hoffman Island, a real place in Lower New York Bay where sick immigrants to the United States were quarantined in the early 20th century. The characters also discuss Swinburne Island, a smaller island near Hoffman.
Many people don't realize that there are actually a large number of tiny islands all around New York City. Some, like Hoffman and Swinburne are man-made. Here is some very cool drone footage of one of those islands--it's not one of ones discussed in the book, but it's similar.
When the plague arrives in Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, one of the first to fall is a sideshow performer named Count Orloff, the Transparent Man. Orloff was a real person who did, in fact, die in 1904. Ivannow Wladislaus von Dziarski-Orloff, was born into an average body in Budapest, Hungary in 1864. But at age 14 he contracted a “wasting disease” that robbed him of most of his body weight as well as his ability to stand.
The exact nature of his disease is not entirely clear. There is a condition called “chronic wasting disease,” which is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (aka prion disease, such as “mad cow”) that mainly occurs in deer and moose. It is not a human disease normally. But the Centers for Disease Control has not entirely ruled out the idea that it could be transmitted to humans who consume the brains or spinal cords of those animals. (Extra for Experts: do NOT do that!) So who knows, perhaps it was some exotic Hungarian dish that infected the Count. Or maybe it was something entirely other.
In any case, Orloff’s bones became so soft that they could no longer support him. His limbs began to curl in on themselves. In his book, American Sideshow, author Mark Hartzman compares the effect to the curling of extremely long fingernails. A medical text from the late 1800s blamed Orloff’s problems on the “porous” nature of his bones. It is said that Orloff lived in constant pain, and he smoked a lot of opium as a result.
In addition to his bone problems, Orloff’s skin was so thin that he was nearly transparent. In Magruder’s, the characters discuss how a bright light shone on Orloff would make his blood visible as it traveled through his veins—this comes from actual descriptions of the real Orloff’s condition. It was said that if you shined a light at the correct angle, you could stand in front of Orloff and read a newspaper held behind him.
Orloff put himself on display at the Royal College of Medicine in Berlin, Germany, for several years. Then in 1893 he moved to the United States and hit the sideshow circuit. He advertised himself at various times as the Transparent Man, the Ossified Man, and the Human Windowpane. Despite his severe physical distress, not to mention a likely opiate addiction, Orloff maintained firm control of his own career. He even founded a touring company called Count Orloff’s International Agency to manage other sideshow acts as well as his own.
As I mentioned, Orloff died in 1904, but not the way I say he did. So that was mean of me, giving him the plague on top of everything else. But it’s possible that I am not the first writer to adopt Count Orloff’s biography for my own purposes. It may or may not be a coincidence that the main character in F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 film, Nosferatu, was named Count Orlock.
All hail the Transparent Man.
One character we hear about but don't meet in Magruder's is Susannah, the Flamingo Girl. She is the one who tells Whitey about the sudden death of Count Orloff... initially the story seems implausible but, as Whitey notes, "Flamingoes don't lie."
Susannah was inspired by a real person named Ella Harper. Harper was born in Tennessee in 1870 with a condition called genu recurvatum--a joint deformity in which knees bend in the opposite direction they usually do. Today, this condition can be dealt with via surgery and physical therapy.
Ella worked the sideshow circuit under the name, "The Camel Girl." She was displayed as part of W.H. Harris's Nickel Plate Circus for $200 a week--a fine salary for the day. But eventually she left the circus to return to Tennessee, marry, and attempt to start a family.
A blogger named Ray did a wholly impressive job of hunting down information about Ella. So if you are interested in learning more, I wholeheartedly recommend this page, which documents his exhaustive search for information about Ella's life. Well done, sir!
As for Susannah, I'd hoped that she could play a bigger role in the novel, but my editor told me if I added any more characters, she'd throw my book out the window. (She put it more nicely than that, but I got the message.) I hope one day I'll get to do a sequel, and then you can meet the Flamingo Girl.
Hey, it's my publication day! I can hardly believe it. Since this is a special day, I'm going to do a special "real story" post. Meet Michael Wilson, the Illustrated Man . . . and the inspiration for Crumbly Pete.
It was the mid-nineties in NYC: I'd just rid myself of a terrible boyfriend; I'd abandoned one career plan but had yet to find another. Just kind of temp-ing around, being a bum, trying to figure out what was next. (You could get away with that nonsense in the mid-nineties . . . the rent wasn't so damn high.)
Back then, my friend A. and I used to waste our weekends on Coney Island fairly often. During the week, while she was off being a wage slave, I'd sometimes take the F train down alone. More often than not, we (or I) would end up at Sideshows by the Seashore, which was located right on the boardwalk. In addition to the sideshow, they had a ragged excuse for a bar, where you could get bottles of beer for a couple bucks each. (The sideshow's current location on Surf Avenue, is much, much nicer . . . but there was something about being on the boardwalk that couldn't be beat.)
The sideshow was (and remains) a 10-in-1, which refers to the fact that you pay one price for 10 acts. The performers rotate all day; you can enter any time and watch the show. When you see somebody you've seen before, you'll know that you've seen the whole show, and you can be on your way. Or not--watch it again, what the hell? What have you got to do that's so important?
While they waited to go on, the performers used to linger around the bar area. From time to time the Illustrated Man would appear to cadge drinks off me, or A., or whoever else was around (I'm told he did this frequently, it was not personal to us). It was, essentially, a little side service he offered: buy him a beer and the Illustrated Man will sit with you awhile, make you feel special and talk to you about life.
He complained a lot. He hated doing the bed of nails act, that was a major gripe. He despised the more bourgeois members of the audience. It was strongly implied, by virtue of the fact that he deigned to have a drink with me, that I was not a bourgeois member of the audience. This pleased me enormously.
It was with great sadness that I heard Michael passed on just a short while after this, in the summer of 1996. It was a diabetic seizure, and he was a criminally young 44 years old. When I started writing a Coney Island sideshow story, there was no question that Michael's ghost would haunt it somehow.
Something important: the fictional character of Crumbly Pete is a thug, violent and untrustworthy. I want to state very plainly that those aspects of the character in NO WAY came from the real Illustrated Man. That's 100% fiction and is intended as no reflection on Michael Wilson whatsoever. We clear? Good.
But Michael had a surly charm that I tried to lend to Pete. Making a personal connection with him--even if it was fundamentally transactional (beer for chitchat)--opened up my mind in a positive way. Diane Arbus famously wrote, "if you've ever spoken to someone with two heads, you know they know something you don't." I was a 20-something white girl from Connecticut: the Illustrated Man knew a lot of things I didn't.
And if Crumbly Pete isn't the kindest member of the Magruder's tribe, well . . . he is among the smartest. Pete groks what's happening--and what's coming--far quicker than any other character. So often, the farther outside society you stand, the more clearly you can see it. And Crumbly Pete stands farther and sees more than basically anyone else.
At one point in the book, the character of Rosalind says, "At Coney Island we learn to take each other as we are." To me, that statement doesn't have much meaning if you only "take" the people who are easy to love. You have to "take" the ones who are a little rough around the edges, the ones who are a little bit difficult. And I hope, in that sense at least, I did justice to the memory of Coney Island's Illustrated Man.
OK, let’s talk plague! Did I tell you the truth about plague in Magruder’s? Did I lie?
Let’s put it like this; did you ever hear the one about the “Maneating Chicken,” who is eventually revealed to in fact be, “a man, eating chicken”? It wasn’t a lie! It just wasn’t exactly true, either. My book is a lot like that. On the one hand, there's a lot of truth in there... on the other my nose is about as long as this guy's...
One way in which I stretched the truth relates to the course of the illness. What was the real timespan between when people were exposed and when they were carted off to the next world?
In the Middle Ages, overall public health was so poor that it was agonizingly common for people to contract plague and die extremely quickly. And some of the "cures" they attempted, such as drinking acid, only served to help them along. In 1350, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, which is a collection of stories about life during the Black Death. He says,
Such was the cruelty of Heaven, and perhaps of men, that between March and July following, according to authentic reckonings, upwards of a hundred thousand souls perished in the city only…What numbers of both sexes, in the prime and vigor of youth, whom in the morning neither Galen, Hippocrates, nor Esculapius himself, would have denied to be in perfect health, breakfasted in the morning with their living friends, and supped at night with their departed friends in the other world! [emphasis mine]
By the turn of the 20th century, it would have been extremely unlikely to die of plague that fast. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these days it takes between 2 and 6 days from the point of infection (usually a flea bite) for someone to become ill. In the (today, rare) cases where a person contracts airborne plague from another person, that shrinks to 1 to 3 days. That's actually fairly close to the infection-to-illness timeline I used in Magruder's. What I sped up was the illness-to-death aspect of the timeline... because come on, who wants to sit around and wait for that nonsense? Not this writer.
In what the CDC describes as the "pre-antibiotic era," the mortality rate for plague was about 66 percent. One part of Magruder's that I do stand behind, factually speaking, is the idea that certain characters manage to not get sick. This was true even in the hygiene-challenged Dark Ages. Boccaccio writes of entire families being wiped out except for one member, with no clear explanation as to why. (Imagine being that person!!)
In any case, I freely admit that my portrait of people dropping pretty literally "like files," is more poetry than prose, and more Boccaccio than CDC. But when's the last time you took a CDC report to the beach with you? Yeah, I thought so!
(Please come back for more "real story" posts about plague, such as how Hawaiian plague-fighters nearly burned down the city of Honolulu in 1900.)