A most remarkable man has died Johnny Eck, 79, a freak, an artist, a positive, optimistic, loving soul

March 04, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

BALTIMORE'S JOHNNY ECK, called "The Most Remarkable Man Alive!" by Robert Ripley, is dead.

Eck was born with no legs, a deformity that propelled him to an early career as an astonishingly agile sideshow oddity, and a featured role in the 1932 cult film classic, "Freaks." He died in his sleep Jan. 5 in the East Baltimore home where he and his twin brother Robert were born. He was 79.

Eck is buried in a Greenmount Cemetery family plot. It was a quiet leave-taking for a man whose joy in life was later doused by disappointment in the changing world around him.

While known to his international following as the "King of the Freaks," Eck was known to Baltimore as a gifted painted screen artist with a soaring spirit.

Ann Moran, widow of Eck's nephew, Edmund Moran, remembers Johnny. "I guess I knew him pretty close as anybody. He was sort of fun loving and very artistic, of course. And he had a lot of things that happened throughout his lifetime; he traveled quite extensively, and he actually at one time had a car built for him that he could drive through the streets. It was a small one, but nevertheless, he had it."

In a recollection originally intended for publication as a biography, Eck related his birth one August night in 1911:

"On a hot summer night, some years ago during a violent thunderstorm, in the second-floor bedroom of a red-brick rowhouse there would occur an event that would shock the neighborhood."

Twenty minutes after Robert emerged from the womb, "a second baby began to emerge; with more than half of it seemingly missing. This baby [had] almost nothing below his rib cage -- a monster? It weighed two pounds."

Eck was embraced by his family. "It was as if God himself had chosen this family for me to be born in," he recalled.

By the time they were 4, the Eckhardt twins, tutored by their big sister Carolyn, had learned to read and write, and soon, they were running their own amateur post office, from which they sent, received and sold their own homemade greeting cards.

Johnny, as well as his brother, showed an early aptitude for art, and he studied oil painting and drawing at the neighborhood studio of William Octavec, creator of Baltimore's first screen painting.

Later, when traveling on the "freak-show circuit," Eck would design his own promotional material. Both adept woodworkers, the Eckhardt brothers also constructed an elaborate, functional miniature circus.

As a child, Eck wanted most of all to become a locomotive engineer, an obvious impossibility. But his mother would carry him to the edge of the old Eager street railroad tracks, where he would lie on the gravel and watch the freight cars fly by Highlandtown.

Later in life, Eck and his brother would purchase a miniature train and operate it for children at church carnivals around the state.

Eck proved to be an irrepressible entertainer, with a flair for banter and rhetoric. He claimed his mother's hopes for him to become a preacher were --ed when after one impromptu sermon on the wages of sin, he took up a collection among guests and earned 65 cents.

Eck's prowess and charisma were detected early by an unsavory manager, who would plague him for years. Under contract with the manager, the brothers left school around age 12 and went on the road with their own carnival show, billed as "Johnny Eck the Half Boy -- the World's Greatest Living Curiosity."

"I was a performer, walked a tight rope, worked on trapeze, juggled -- I did everything," Eck recalled in the book, "America's Forgotten Folk Arts."

Eck relished life among society's fringe elements.

"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 seal with the little flippers for hands. I never asked them any embarrassing questions and they never asked me, and God, it was a great adventure," he told a Baltimore Sun columnist in 1979.

Eck's appearances at the 1931 Canadian National Exhibition led FTC to a role in "Freaks," Tod Browning's controversial film about a loyal clan of deformed circus performers.

Later, Eck appeared briefly in two other Hollywood films and in a dramatic magic act in which he and a cooperative midget portrayed a man sawed in half.

With the demise of the freak show circuit, Eck and his brother resettled in Baltimore.

Screen painting, at first a seasonal occupation for Eck, became a full-time job. Folklorist Elaine Eff, a long-time scholar of the traditional East Baltimore art of decorating screen doors and windows, met Eck in 1974.

Eck always "prefaced the story of his life with 'I was always different from the rest,'" Eff says. But Eck's physical limitations were not all that made him different, she says.

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