Step right up, ladies and gentlemen Sideshow: A little shop of curiosities on Fleet Street has everything from Beatles dolls to Kap-Dwa, the 12-foot man from Patagonia.

December 26, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

TWO-HEADED GIANT FOUND IN FELLS POINT!

No way, you say. Preposterous. Unbelievable, improbable, implausible, inconceivable, infeasible, in fact, down right impossible, you say.

OK, then -- what, or who, is that in the display case of the Antique Man in the 1700 block of Fleet Street?

Robert Gerber, 53, shoulder-length hair gone to white, says it is Kap-Dwa (homo gigantis), slain warrior of ancient time. Odysseus and Aeneas might have come across the 12-foot giant, had their travels gone by way of Patagonia in the far reaches of South America.

Gerber's shop, which he co-owns with Robert Jansen, is crammed with antiques, memorabilia, artifacts: African masks, the hand of Freddy Krueger, a skull from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a set of Beatles dolls -- treasures all. But it's the sideshow curiosities like Kap-Dwa that give the shop its cachet.

You can almost hear the carnival barker: "Step right up! See the four-legged chick, the Siamese duckling; the skeletal remains of the Son of Dracula -- with stake through its heart. And, just to your left, the famous Fiji mermaid!"

"I've always liked this kind of stuff," says Gerber. "When I was a kid, I would go to all the sideshows. You know, the fat ladies, the guy who drove a spike through his nose. I don't know. I just liked it."

Sideshows grew with the circuses of the mid-19th century. At that time they were known as "outside shows" and were viewed before or after the show under the big top, says Fred Dahlinger, a historian at the Circus World Museum. Eventually, they came to be known as sideshows. By century's end they could be found in most of the 100 circuses traveling the country or in the dime museums of the nation's big cities.

The Fiji mermaid was a guaranteed draw.

"It's a great item, one of my personal favorites," says Edward Meyer, vice president of exhibits and archives for Ripley Entertainment Inc. "It was a very clever P.T. Barnum gag from the 1880s. He made a lot of money trying to convince people in New York that there were mermaids in Fiji."

The "mermaid" was soon revealed to be a fraud, a touch of taxidermic trickery taken to a comic extreme. The top half came from a monkey, the bottom half from a fish. Who would fall for such a thing?

You can point to the one in Gerber's shop and laugh. Humanity has come so far. We know there's no such thing as a mermaid. But cast your mind back 100 years. Vast stretches of the world were unknown. God only knew what swam the seas. Tall tales and illustrations spoke of a fabulous world of sea monsters and mermaids. Maybe there was something to all the talk about Fiji. So, you paid your dime for a look-see.

not really duping the public with negative intent," says Dahlinger. "It's kind of catering to that gullibility people have. They don't want to quite believe it's true, but they want to check it out."

Even today, there are occasional reports of Bigfoot, or another sighting of the Loch Ness monster.

Gerber often dreams of opening a small museum of curiosities with his partner. It would be one way to pass on a little joy, and you wouldn't need a dime to see the Fiji mermaid. Admission would be a can of food for the needy.

For now, the shop is open from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. People stroll in, look around, laugh. Nothing wrong with that. A smile is a good thing, a special thing in a world of too much pain. A sign in the store window shows a single eye crying and the words: "It shouldn't hurt to be a child." Area crime has forced Gerber to protect his shop with a Smith & Wesson .38 Special holstered on his left hip.

"I don't like 'em," he says of guns. "I hate 'em. I wish we didn't need 'em. But that's the way the world is now. Sad to say."

Better to have a world of wonder, of sea monsters and mermaids -- and Patagonian giants.

The giants were all the rage in the 1920s and '30s, says Warren Raymond, a collector and sideshow historian in Silver Spring. "Patagonia" had entered the cultural lexicon. It was a distant, barely known land and a great word for a huckster looking to make a buck.

"Showmen, who were never one to let the grass grow under their feet, were quick to capitalize on it," says Raymond.

Nelson's Supply House in South Boston cranked out Patagonian giants, charging $60 apiece. For that you got a giant, a banner, perhaps a written spiel if you couldn't come up with your own. The giant was known as King Capuwar, says Raymond.

True story.

Gerber puts a different spin on the history of Kap-Dwa.

"So the story goes, he was a peaceful guy who lived on an island. One day they found him on the beach with a spear in his chest," he says.

Kap-Dwa was mummified and buried along with his faithful dog, Spot. A religious cult developed. The legend spread to the Old World, prompting Capt. George Bickle, late of Plymouth, England, to set out in the clipper ship "Olive Branch."

After an arduous, agonizing and amazing adventure across the perilous plains of Paraguay, he was able to abscond with Kap-Dwa, bringing him to the Blackpool Museum, where the giant and canine companion created a national sensation.

True story.

Now, some may mock the populace of our fair city and call us Balti-morons, but we've all been around the block a couple or three times. We know what's what. We can tell the real thing from the fake. Or can we?

"I think he's exactly what he's billed as," says Gerber, no hint of jest in his smile. "We've had students from Hopkins, droves of them, and they all say he's real."

Preposterous? Unbelievable?

Curious?

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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