According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. (...) The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions”.
People who manage to persevere at any cost, despite the obstacles, without losing heart – such people can be recognized from their smile. Through their peculiar, bright smile, comes the deep certainty that everything, after all, is worthy of enthusiasm.
It’s the kind of smile that anyone who has watched Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) can’t forget: the smile that appears on the face of Half-Boy, who runs around the circus tents balancing himself on his hands, always in high spirits and surprisingly gentlemanly. During his brilliant career in the showbiz he was called many things, from “human torso” to “the most remarkable man alive”, to “the King of the Freaks”. But his real name was John Eckhardt and, despite the appearances, he was more “complete” than many other artists.
Born in 1911 together with a twin regularly provided with legs, young Johnny never allowed his rare malformation (sacral agenesis) to discourage him. “Why would I want those?” he used to answer when somebody asked him whether he was distressed about being legless. “Then I’d have pants to press.”
He joined a sideshow for the first time at the age of twelve and soon became a star. He worked for the most reputable circuses, such as the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, and his brother Robert was always by his side. They had such a close relationship that Johnny parted with him only once, precisely to act in Freaks. Unfortunately the movie caused a row, it was censored then confiscated, destroying the director’s career. It was acclaimed as late as in the 1960s thanks to the Cahiers du cinéma.
Although his film career never took off, in the 1930s Johnny Eck was on his hottest streak ever. Famous and courted by every circus, he used to perform agility numbers: he jumped, ran on his hands and assumed his iconic position balancing on one arm. He used to drive a car that, being fond of mechanical engineering, he had specifically modified himself. He was moreover an excellent pianist, and for a while he even owned an entire orchestra, in which, of course, Robert used to play as well. With his brother he had also devised an elaborate illusion: a magician pretended to saw Robert in half, having selected him “randomly” from the audience, but in fact it was Johnny who jumped out of the box and started to run after his “legs” (set in motion by a dwarf hidden inside them).
When sideshows finally began to disappear, Johnny retired to the house where he had always lived with his brother. Although cheered by fans who often visited him (especially after Freaks was released on VHS), he didn’t have a happy old age. He and Robert were even robbed and held hostage by two criminals for seven hours; after this act of violence, their isolation became complete. “If I want to see freaks” Johnny used to say “all I have to do is look out of the window.”
But, despite his retirement, all those who had worked with Johnny remembered his refined and polite manners, his goodness and great fortitude. This feeling was reciprocated: “I met hundreds and thousands of people, and none finer than the midgets and the Siamese twins and the caterpillar man and the bearded woman and the human seals with the little flippers for hands. I never asked them any embarrassing question and they never asked me, and God, it was a great adventure”.
Johnny Eck died in 1991, and with him one of the most beautiful smiles of the golden age of travelling circuses was gone.