Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

A legendary dancer gains fame in Five Points

August 3, 2009

Lower Manhattan’s Five Points slum, populated mainly by Irish immigrants and African Americans, was the city’s poorest, filthiest, most crime-ridden neighborhood in the 1840s.

MasterjubaBut out of Five Points came a performer who wowed crowds in the U.S. and England and was immortalized by Charles Dickens as “the greatest dancer known.”

Master Juba was his stage name. Born William Henry Lane in 1825 in Rhode Island, he came to Five Points in his teens and began competing against Irish-born dancers in saloons and dance halls, eventually moving on to minstrel shows and, later, touring Great Britain.

His style blended African steps with Irish jig moves. On his trip to New York in 1842, Charles Dickens saw Master Juba perform and was bowled over. Dickens had this to say in American Notes, his account of his trip:

Masterjubadickensbook“Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs–all sorts of legs and no legs—what is this to him?”

Above, an engraving of Master Juba dancing, from Dickens’ American Notes

Master Juba is considered the father of tap, jazz, and step dancing. His death in 1852 at age 27 has been attributed to malnutrition and his physically strenuous schedule and style.

Zip the Pinhead at Coney Island

May 27, 2009

If the year was 1925 instead of 2009 and you were planning a trip to Coney Island, you would be able to see Zip the Pinhead, a P.T. Barnum freak show find who by the 1920s displayed himself at one of the boardwalk sideshows.

Zip_the_pinheadLike other freaks of the time, he was very popular; supposedly Charles Dickens and the Prince of Wales visited him, and he had his portrait done by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. He was also heralded for saving a little girl from drowning off Coney Island.

Despite his appearance, Zip wasn’t microcephalic (the medical term for having a pinhead). Nor was he mentally disabled, according to some accounts. He just happened to be born into a poor New Jersey family and then “discovered” by Barnum, who billed him as a “wild man” from Africa.

Apparently Zip laughed all the way to the bank. On his deathbed in 1926, the 80-something’s last words reportedly were “We fooled ’em for a long time, didn’t we?”

Check out more sideshow freaks and curiosities here.