Meet The Professor J. Tithonus Pednaud, author, researcher, and the purveyor of unusual and bizarre tales over at humanmarvels.com. He’s been called a teratological historian and studies human genetic variety in the form of circus freaks and human oddities. His new book, After Life: True Tales of the Restless Dead will be published by Rothco Press in June 2015.
Can you tell me about where your passion for human oddities comes from?
My site’s been on for almost a decade now. I was kind of a forerunner for the blogging sphere, back in 2005. But before all that, I was a worker; I was a carny. It was something I always had a passion for. Even before my teens I was in the backyard trying to teach myself how to eat fire and swallow swords. My dad would always say I was a weird kid, and he was right. I always had an interest in unusual things. When I was young, I was always at the library. I was the little guy pulling books on cryptozoology, famous monsters, and scary stories to tell in the dark. One day I picked up a book that happened to highlight Todd Browning’s film Freaks, and I saw pictures of what I likened to real monsters. I was hooked on those images and from there it was just circuses, carnivals, oddities, and bizarre history. If it’s weird or strange, than it’s something I’m into.
Can you tell me about your carney friends you hang out with who share your common interest in the bizarre?
Here in Toronto we do a show called Something Strange. We pull in human oddities, mostly working acts – people who have taught themselves to do something unusual -we present an assortment of unique folks: Dwarves and Guinness World Record holders. My friend The Great Orbax and The Monsters of Schlock, for example, hold records for everything from most mousetraps released on the tongue in under a minute, to how many tables they can break with pro-wrestling style maneuvers. As far as human oddities go we have an upcoming show called A Little Something Strange, and the entire show is made up of little people performers. We will be presenting the world’s smallest contortionist, for example. It’s important to note, however, that these individuals are not just a spectacle, they are actual performers. We’re doing a show at the end of this month called Psychedelic Strange basically about the horrors of LSD and drug use.
“The one that really got to me was that you could buy mummified human remains up until recently in the form of paint pigments. There’s a color that’s actually called Mummy Brown and it was very popular in the Renaissance right up until the 20s. When you see that parchment color that’s in a lot of those master pieces hanging in the Louvre, that’s actually human remains. That’s pulverized mummy pieces.”
If you needed a sword swallower tomorrow, I’d have one for you. If you needed a little person or a giant, I can find one and I can bring them to you too. To just give you an idea, the my best man at my wedding is Canada’s Foremost Mentalist, he’s a Mindreader, His mentor was Kreskin, so he’s something of a protégé. He can apparently read peoples’ minds, or just people in general, and he’s a corporate entertainer. It’s his full-time job, it’s what he does for a living and he makes more than most doctors do.
So we haven’t talked since American Horror Story finished and boy they must have been thrilled to find a guy like you when they were researching the show. Can you give us a background of how that happened and the kind of things they were interested in?
Because my site’s been around for such a long time my work has appeared in over a hundred publications at this point. I’m in the Robert Ripley’s biography that just came out not too long ago. I’m referenced in there and the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not folks reference my site from time to time. I’m actually cited in everything from bathroom readers to thesis papers. My work has appeared a lot of places and if you searched for certain unique individuals, like Schlitzie the Pinhead or Edward Mordake, my articles usually come up before Wikipedia. I receive a lot of questions from the television and film industry, usually productions conducting research and I offer feedback. Of course the character of Pepper is a tribute to Schlizie the Pinhead. I wrote a pretty definitive article on Schlitzie about eight years ago, it’s actually referenced in the Wikipedia of Schlitzie the Pinhead. Same thing with Edward Mordake, the Victorian man with two faces. He’s a pivotal character in American Horror Story: Freakshow and if you do an online search, you’ll find my articles there. Most of my traffic comes from articles and individuals researching circus folk. With American Horror Story my traffic spiked, but it’s always been very steady. People are always interested in unusual and strange things.
Can you talk about the moral ambiguity between the performers in a freak show in relation to the audience who come to see freaks?
There’s this major misconception. You see, the freak show wasn’t about people staring at freaks. It was an educational experience. It was an experience, it was performance, and it was about learning about very special people. I receive online comments all the time from people who’ve met some of these individuals, and they always express how positive the experience was. Take Bill Durks for example. In layman’s terms, his skull didn’t completely fuse in utero. He was born with his eyes sealed but were opened via surgery, and he basically had a cleft pallet that ran all the way up his face. The cleft split his nose in half and he had a divot right in the middle. In the carnival, he would paint in a third eye in that divot, because the rest of it apparently wasn’t strange enough. Incidentally, Bill spent most of his early life like Harry Potter. His family kept him tucked away in a closet until he ran away to join the circus. He was very shy and understandably he was also quite emotionally stunted. But he ended up making friends with Melvin Burkhart, a legendary working act who’s most famous for popularizing what’s called the Human Blockhead – a sideshow stunt in which someone drives a nail into their face. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s one of the most common stunts that you see, even today. Anyway, Melvin took Bill under his wing, and brought him out of his shell. Eventually this man with three eyes ended up marrying Alligator-skin Girl, and he found happiness and love and fame and fortune. And that’s what a lot of these individuals did. Whenever someone paid and then entered a tent to see Bill, they had a genuine conversation with a very unique individual – and so many people have told me how they’ve carried his words with them for decades. People immediately think of exploitation, but being taken advantage of was very, very rarely the case. Quite the opposite. These aren’t just people who sort of turn up for a paycheck. These were performers, entertainers, scholars, and storytellers who just happen to have certain conditions that made them all the more remarkable.
American Horror Story did a good job of hiring some truly unique individuals, like Matt Fraser, and they held their own against Oscar winners.
Tell me about your latest book After Life: True Tales of the Restless Dead.
In a nutshell, the book is about all the unusual and bizarre things that have happened to human remains. It’s a nonfiction book, not a book about ghosts or the afterlife. When you study one facet of bizarre history or unusual individuals, all of the weirdness just kind of starts to bleed into one another and stories overlap. The book actually started based on the idea that when oddities or human marvels die, quite often their remains become very coveted, there’s a lot of grave robbing, there’s a lot of nefarious deeds and it was exceedingly common for anatomists, resurrectionists, grave robbers, and bodysnatchers to pop up around the grave of a human marvel. When they heard a giant passed away, or a dwarf passed away, or a two-headed boy passed away the snatchers would go out, they would dig, and they would sell the remains off or keep them for their own personal collections. That’s sort of where the book started from, because some of these individuals you can still go visit on display in museums. So that’s where the book started from, and from that point there are just so many bizarre and unusual stories. Peoples’ parts carrying on after they’ve passed; it’s almost a form of immortality for these individuals. Okay, with the skull of Mozart, I can see why a lot of people might want to try and steal that, to see if it is unique. A phrenologist would want to study the bumps on it, and whatnot. Then you have all the devices created to thwart grave robbing attempts as well. So, it’s an interesting book; it’s received a lot of great attention, which I’m very pleased about, especially being the first book out of the gates. I’ve got a few more in the hopper that I’m just dying to get out there as well.
What surprised you the most while researching it, things you couldn’t believe were true?
The one that really got to me was that you could buy mummified human remains up until recently in the form of paint pigments. There’s a color that’s actually called Mummy Brown and it was very popular in the Renaissance right up until the 20s. When you see that parchment color that’s in a lot of those master pieces hanging in the Louvre, that’s actually human remains. That’s pulverized mummy pieces. Some of it is ancient Egyptian mummies, but there was also a big trade in counterfeit mummies, where they would basically dig up freshly buried bodies and subject them to a kind of expedited mummification process as well. That was eye opening and pretty bizarre and surprising, the fact it was still available until fairly recently. If you’re going through your grandpa’s art supplies in the attic and find a tube of Mummy Brown, that could be a Pharaoh’s finger.
Check out more at www.thehumanmarvels.com.