real story

The Real Story: Count Orloff

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.

Orloff/Orlock? You be the judge.

Orloff/Orlock? You be the judge.

All hail the Transparent Man. 

The Real Story: The Flamingo Girl

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." 

Ella Harper.

Ella Harper.

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.

An ad for Ella's circus.

An ad for Ella's circus.

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.

The Real Story: Crumbly Pete

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.

Michael Wilson, photo by Dan Nicoletta.

Michael Wilson, photo by Dan Nicoletta.

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.

The Real Story: Plague, Part 1

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...

Reproduction of the uniform of a 17th-century plague doctor. The "beak" contained things like lemon balm, cloves, myrrh, rose petals and even laudanum, to protect the doctor from the "miasma" (bad air) that supposedly caused plague.

Reproduction of the uniform of a 17th-century plague doctor. The "beak" contained things like lemon balm, cloves, myrrh, rose petals and even laudanum, to protect the doctor from the "miasma" (bad air) that supposedly caused plague.

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.)

The Real Story: Bernard Coyne

One of my favorite characters in Magruder’s is Bernard the Giant.  (That may surprise those of you who’ve read the book and know how I treated him…. But I swear it’s not personal!  Things happen…)  Bernard as I wrote him is fictional but I chose his name to honor the actual Bernard the Giant, a real person who never—so far as I can tell—got anywhere near the boardwalks of Coney Island.  

The real Bernard Coyne and friends. (Source:

The real Bernard Coyne and friends. (Source:

The real Bernard Coyne was born in Anthon, Iowa in 1897 to Sylvester and Catherine Coyne.  According to the Guinness Book of Records, Coyne was rejected from serving in World War I due to his height—his draft card records him as 7 foot 9 inches.  Eventually he reached at least 8 feet, 2 inches tall (other sources claim 8 ft, 4 in), with size 25 shoes. 

Frequently, the condition known as gigantism is caused by problems with the pituitary gland and certain growth hormones.  But Coyne had something else: eunuchoidal-infantile gigantism, known colloquially as Daddy Long Legs Syndrome.  It’s also related to hormone problems, but the problems are with sex hormones such estrogen.  This leads to a delay in the start of puberty and allows bones to continue to grow.  Daddy Long Legs is extremely rare but, as happened to Coyne, it can cause a person to grow to over 8 feet. 

His cousin, Theresa Coyne Kvidera, told a newspaper reporter that Bernard had so much trouble finding clothes that fit, he eventually learned how to knit his own sweaters.  He was an avid baseball player but, as far as his cousin remembers, never played basketball.  Bernard was remembered by his friends as an extremely kind-hearted, genial sort of person—and it was this quality that I tried to give to my fictional tribute.

Interestingly, Coyne’s parents did briefly display their son in a sideshow at a local fair, but they quickly thought the better of it and stopped.  According to Theresa, they viewed putting their son on display as sinful and worried God would punish them for it.  

Coyne was, for a time, the world’s tallest man.  When he died at age 24, he was still growing. The hearse had to be extended and the back doors left open in order to accommodate him. 

The Real Story: Bobby Cork

One inspiration for the character of Rosalind in Magruder's was a performer named Bobby Cork, who worked as a half-and-half in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s.  Bobby advertised himself as a hermaphrodite, but it seems widely acknowledged at this point that the act was a gaff (fake). Daniel P. Mannix's book, We Who Are Not As Others, maintains that Bobby was a "real ladies man," which, hmm.  OK, sure, why not?

Regardless, I love these pictures and I love the twinkle in his eye. I can only hope that he was genuinely having as much fun as these photos suggest. 

Bobby Cork

Bobby Cork

Bobby Cork, somewhat awkwardly scanned!

Bobby Cork, somewhat awkwardly scanned!