London Life

London Life | 1929

Limbless People I Have Met

by Wallace Stort

The article on "Freaks", and the photographs that accompanied it, which appeared in the Circus Number of "London Life", has aroused great interest in these abnormalities of Nature.

The subject has always held a peculiar fascination for me, and I have taken every opportunity that has occurred of seeing limbless ladies on exhibition in whatever part of the globe I happened to find myself. In addition, one's ordinary journeying about the streets, or visit to theatres, restaurants etc., quite frequently yield little adventures and experiences that may be worth recording.

Taking first of all limbless ladies seen on exhibition, I should mention that I have already dealt with the very large number of ladies lacking some or all of their limbs at present on exhibition all over the world, in an article I contributed to these pages some little time back, and some of the ladies I shall now refer to were included in that article. Others, seen since the article was written, are here mentioned for the first time. I propose to refer more or less briefly to the former class, and with a little more detail to the latter. Also, for the sake of clearness, I shall place all the ladies concerned in definite categories.

Charming limbless ladies

There are at present before the public, as far as my knowledge goes, four ladies in the first category - that is born completely without limbs - and of these I have seen three. These are Miss Rose Foster, an English woman, a photograph of which you published in the Circus Number; "Violetta", a German girl; and "Madame Josephine", also a German.

Miss Foster I saw at Olympia during the Christmas circus season of 1922. She is a very attractive woman, quite without legs, and with only short, shapely stumps of arms, which she is able to use in a variety of ingenious ways. She was married some years ago in her native Southampton.

"Violetta", whom I saw at Coney Island, New York, USA, during my visit to the States in the summer of 1926, is a remarkable example of this type of anomaly. About 19, extremely pretty, she is literally only a shapely trunk, the arms being completely absent from the shoulders, and the legs from the hips - not even stumps being present in either case.

She was quite cheerful and completely unconcerned when seen, and, like so many of her kind, seemed to welcome the interest she aroused in the crowds who paid to see her.

A wonderful fragment of a woman

"Madame Josephine" I saw in Berlin about eighteen months ago, and she is probably the most extraordinary "freak" now before the public. She also is completely without either arms or legs; but in her case the lower part of the trunk is dwarfed, so that by an ingenious concealment of the dwarfed lower part within the cushioned top of the pedestal on which she rests during exhibition, she appears to be only a living bust, her large prominent breasts actually resting on the pedestal top! The effect is extraordinary and until this living head and shoulders - for that is all she seems - is carried round among the audience, still resting on the pedestal top, one is completely convinced that the whole thing is an illusion. I understand that the trunk is quite perfectly formed, though reduced, below the breasts, to midget proportions. The wonderful fragment of a woman has actually been married twice, the second marriage having taken place early this year in America!

Beautiful semi-woman

In the second category - legless ladies - I have seen "Gabrielle", whose photo also embellished your Circus Number, and "Zara", both being Germans.

"Gabrielle", who has spent nearly all her life in America, I saw during an earlier visit to the States some years ago. She is about 40, and was for many years considered the most perfect example of what is known as the "half-lady" on exhibition. Down to the hips she is a beautifully proportioned woman. Below that she does not exist, the trunk finishing neatly and smoothly a little below the waist, with nothing in the way of stumps being present.

"Gabrielle" has also been married twice, her second husband being a German born.

Johanna Kamfke, whom I saw at Olympia in 1926, is a younger edition of "Gabrielle", formed on exactly similar lines, her trunk finishing at the hips without stumps being present.

Bejewelled though limbless

"Zara", a rather buxom beauty of about 30, whom I saw in the same show as "Madame Josephine", was not, I imagine, born without legs, but lost them later.

She has two short stumps, about 6 inches long from the hips, and these are fully displayed, as her costume consists of a sort of highly ornamented bathing suit.

She wears bangles on the stumps, she is loaded with bracelets, necklaces, rings, etc., and is able to "dance" on them; but I must confess that, though she moves quite easily on the stumps, and "ran" across the little stage with marvellous agility, the spectacle is not particularly attractive.

Later in the day, by the way, I had the interesting experience of meeting both "Madame Josephine" and "Zara" out together in the grounds of the "fair" in which they were on exhibition.

"Zara" propelling herself in a wheel chair, and "Madame Josephine" being wheeled by an attendant in a bath-chair. Madame was, of course, entirely enveloped in a wrap; but "Zara" was in outdoor costume, the skirt of which was gathered under her so that her leglessness was quite obvious to all passers-by.

Feats of armless ladies

In the third and by far the largest category, armless ladies, there are very many I have seen. There must be between 20 and 30 on exhibition in various parts of the world; but curiously enough, I have only seen two, and neither of these in England. These are Miss Margaret Morris, an American girl, and "Countess Anna", once again a German.

Miss Morris, a pretty brunette of about 25, is, in a way, in a category of her own, as besides being completely without arms from the shoulders, she is practically without legs - her feet, which are quite perfectly formed, appearing just below her hips.

As she cannot walk, the only purpose for which she uses her feet are as substitute for hands. She is most expert with her feet and toes which are so soft and well cared as are normal girl's hands, and she can do everything usually accomplished by the hands, except dress herself.

Shapely arms and shoulders

"Countess Anna" is a really beautiful girl of 21 or so, with most shapely armless shoulders, which she displays to the utmost advantage.

There are one or two intriguing points about the "Countess's" performance, about which, as the latter took place in a big vaudeville theatre when I saw her, I was unable to put any questions, much as I should have liked to do so.

In the first place, she remained seated throughout the whole of her act; and, secondly, while above the waist all she wore were two jewelled breast plates and a few silken straps, below she was draped in a long gown of clinging silk, from a slit on the left side of which her left leg emerged quite bare from the hip. And with this leg and foot she performed all her feats.

The right leg was never for a moment in evidence, and after careful observation I formed the opinion that the right leg had been amputated from quite close to the hip especially as I plainly saw the thin silk of her dress disturbed several times near the hip by something extremely like a rounded stump. But I could not be sure, and so the matter remains a mystery.

If the "Countess" is really one-legged as well as armless, I should imagine that she would render her performance much more sensational by revealing herself as she really is; but she does not choose to do this, and I suppose she has quite adequate reasons for her decision.

Conspicious by their absence

A few lines back I made the statement that armless ladies formed by far the largest category of limbless ladies before the public, and it might have been thought that this distinction should really have been given to the obviously very large class of one-legged ladies.

But though, of course, greatly in the majority generally, the curious thing is that on the stage, in circuses, etc., they are for the most part conspicious by their absence.

Personally, I have only seen one example - a very beautiful, magnificently formed woman contortionist whose right leg was entirely absent from the trunk, and who gave a most remarkable contortion display in a New York variety theatre.

As far as England is concerned, I have never even heard of a one-legged lady performer appearing on stage - that is, of course, as a one-legged performer.

Sarah Bernhardt appeared in London after the loss of her leg, but the absence of her leg was most carefully concealed. A very intriguing item, however, appeared only about a month ago in a American theatrical weekly.

Limbless variety artists

In the very brief notice of the vaudeville performance at the New Onpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, there appeared the following! "The Kauffner Twins (Irma and Zoe), unique one-legged equilibrists, open the show with an interesting speciality. The girls are fast workers, despite their disability, and went off rousing applause."

That was all. It was tantalisingly brief, and this is the first and only reference to this girls I have seen, so that I cannot give any particulars about them. But if they really are twins - stage "sisters" are not always what they seem, though twins, I take it, ought to be genuine - it is certainly remarkable that each has only one leg, and one wonders how exactly this came about.

Leaving the world of the stage and the side-show booth, and coming to one's ordinary, everyday experiences many interesting and often intriguing encounters can be recalled.

London Life February 16, 1929 pp. 26 and 35
London Life | 1929