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.