Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities by Jan Bondeson

Lionel on show in Germany aged 17. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

The Lion Boy was Stephan Bibrowski, born near Warsaw in 1891, with his entire body covered with fine, soft hair about an inch long. His parents and six sisters had no abnormity of the hair whatsoever. As a four-year-old child, Stephan entered the world of show business at a German amusement arcade, the Panoptikum in Berlin, under the artist’s name Lionel the Lion Boy. A certain Professor Minakow examined him in Moscow at the age of five. His face and body were covered with fine blond hair, up to 8 in long on his face and 2-3 in long all over the rest of his body. His dentition consisted of a solitary canine tooth in the lower jaw. It was clear to the professor that this was a genetic disease, namely hypertrichosis congenita lanuginosa [inherited excessive hairiness with lanugo hair]. In 1901, the 10-year-old Lionel was taken to the United States, to join Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. His mother had probably never even seen a lion, but the exhibition posters claimed that the boy’s father had been torn to pieces by an escaped circus lion before her very eyes; this horrid sight had of course ‘marked’ her unborn child in this sinister way. In 1904, Lionel toured large parts of the world with the circus, before returning to Berlin.

The Fat Boy and his father in 1909. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

In 1923, he returned to the United States, having received a good offer from the Coney Island amusement park: the authorities there had agreed to pay him $500 a week for taking up permanent residence at the park during the summer seasons. Lionel spoke five languages, was a well-read and intelligent man, and quite an entertainer. He was something of a body-builder, and sometimes gave demonstrations of his gymnastic and athletic skills during the shows. One ribald newspaper account tells us that he was also something of a ladies’ man: in spite, or perhaps rather because, of his extraordinary hairy face and body, he never had any difficulty getting admirers among the female visitors. After his successful stay in the United States, Lionel went back to Germany; he died from pneumonia at a hospital in Berlin in 1931, being spared the experience of Hitler’s rise to power with a narrow margin.

The Fat Boy of Peckham flourished from 1902 until 1912, being exhibited for money all over Britain, and even touring Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His name was Johnny Trunley, and at the age of just five, he was 4 ft tall and weighed 10 stone; he could lift his father, who acted as his manager, off the ground. The London School Board decided that even this monstrous child should be provided with an education, and made sure that a king-sized desk and chair were constructed for him, but the hulking Fat Boy preferred his idle life as a sideshow freak. He also valued his night’s sleep, and more than once there were deplorable scenes as the howling Johnny was dragged out of his terraced Peckham home by a troop of school policemen, only half dressed.

A French postcard showing Kobelkoff and his family. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

 

 

The Daily Mail suggested that the London County Council should construct a special tram line to carry the Fat Boy to school, since no motor omnibus would surely hold him. But Johnny’s father took him on tour to the West Country with a travelling sideshow; if the local bumpkins made fun of him, he asked them how much they earned per week. In each town he entered, he was measured for a suit by the local tailor; this was considered as funny the twentieth time as it had been the first. At the height of his career as an Edwardian mega-star of corpulence, Johnny Trunley appeared at Fred Karno’s music hall in London, where he met Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. He turned the scales at 33 stone and was officially proclaimed the heaviest living person in Britain. There was nothing particularly ‘wrong’ with him, just primary obesity that had spiralled out of control.

In 1912, old Mr Trunley died unexpectedly, and Johnny was without his father and manager. During the Great War, his weight plummeted dramatically, since there was never enough food, and he was very fearful of the air raids and the sinister ‘Zeps’. Johnny Trunley, once the celebrated Fat Boy of Peckham, had become just an ordinary man. He started work as a clockmaker, married and had a son, and lived on until 1944; it is likely that he has descendants alive today.

Violet and Daisy Hilton as young girls. (The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, Amberley Publishing)

In this book of amazing oddities, the successor to my popular Cabinet of Medical Curiosities and The Two-Headed Boy, I explore various strange, surprising and bizarre aspects of the history of medicine: Does people’s hair go white after a sudden fright; can the image of the killer be seen in the eyes of a murdered person; does the severed head of a guillotined person maintain some degree of consciousness; did Thomas Parr, the Shropshire Methuselah, really attain the great age of 152 years? Giants, dwarfs and medical freaks are paraded in front of the reader, to say nothing of Nikolai Kobelkoff, the Russian armless and legless wonder, the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and Hans Langseth who boasted a 17½-ft beard. The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, combines a historian’s research skills with a physician’s diagnostic flair, as I explore our timeless fascination with the freakish and bizarre people and events in the colourful history of medicine.

Jan Bondeson's new book The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities is available for purchase now.