Serious collectors of vintage circus and sideshow memorabilia know and revere photographer Charles Eisenmann, an immigrant from Germany. Not long after the Civil War, Eisenmann established himself in New York’s Bowery, that thin slice of living history in Lower Manhattan running from East Fourth Street down to Canal Street.
Up until the mid-1800s, the Bowery and Broadway were Manhattan’s two main drags, and the Bowery was home to respectable, even upscale businesses. But the area started to slide; in fact, it became a skid row about the same time Seattle was building the real skid row (from “skid road,” for shooting logs downhill into Puget Sound, now synonymous for a blighted business district): The shops and offices went away, to be replaced by whorehouses and gambling hells, saloons and seedy theaters. But vice generally doesn’t flourish in a vacuum – not in New York, anyway; demographics (i.e., migration and immigration) and poverty usually play a part, and by the 1860s and the start of the Civil War, the area took on a distinctly rough edge. After all, the Bowery was located just north of the Five Points, the slum/battlefield documented in Herbert Asbury’s 1926 book “The Gangs of New York” and dramatized in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film of the same title. In fact, the original Bowery Boys, a century before the Hollywood comedy series, were a real nativist army of thugs who would have made Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill “the Butcher” Cutting and his on-screen badasses look about as intimidating as Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall.
When I lived in Manhattan in the early 1980s, the Bowery was a Kafkaesque urban canyon over which loomed grim factories and warehouses of sooty brick and iron, the archaeology of the Industrial Revolution; at night the area was desolate, a land of derelicts and winos. To be honest, I felt somehow drawn to that dark atmosphere but was also very wary of it, and I’d march through purposefully in the small hours on the way home from partying in the East Village, trying to look fearless but stopping for no one and nothing.
I hear that since the 1990s, like other edgy parts of Manhattan, the Bowery has been undergoing a renaissance (read gentrification, if you want to be political about it), but I’ll leave that to others to judge. Suffice to say that the neighborhood was still on the fringe at best in the 1880s when Charles Eisenmann set up shop, and if you poke around the cartes de visite and cabinet card photos on eBay, you’ll notice that there were a number of other photographers with studios there, often with ethnic names: Wendt, Ette, Feinberg, Gogler … Many of them photographed theater and circus folk as well, but not with Eisenmann’s panache, in my opinion. Other photographers also imparted nobility and class to their portraits of pinheads and parasitic twins, Borneo wild men and “Circassian” women (babes of any race with big Afros, considered risqué in Victorian times) … but Eisenmann’s rich compositions seem several cuts above the rest. In fact, his subjects seldom have that flat stare and stiff posture of most 19th-century photographic portraiture; many look like their pictures were taken yesterday, outdated clothing notwithstanding.
I collected a few Eisenmann carte de visites (business-card-size mounted photos) back in the early eighties, before the Internet, when everything was harder to find. Then I gave them away and moved abroad, but resumed collecting them when I moved back to the States in 1999 and discovered eBay. There, at any time, there are usually at least half a dozen Eisenmann examples, which vary widely in price: Non-“freak” vaudeville performer photos and often go for as little as $10, while the rarer stuff can go for hundreds, easily. Of the sideshow subjects, midgets and albino women seem to make up the lower end; hirsute people (like Jo Jo the Russian Dog-faced Boy) and bearded ladies are at the high end. Apparently, the hair fetish dies hard.
Nonetheless, great deals are to be had, and I bid on many beautiful photos, only to be outbid, usually by the same person. At that time, eBay not only still showed competing bidders’ “handles,” you could even contact them directly. This person who was gunning for the best Eisenmann photos was obviously very serious and probably very knowledgeable. I decided to “reach out” and see if I could learn something about collecting Eisenmann.
That’s how I made the acquaintance of Arthur Farrell, a retired Long Island English teacher who had moved south. Arthur has more than 600 Eisenmann prints, including variations of photos as well as unusual subjects (of elaborate paper cutouts, animals, etc.). I don’t doubt that he is the world’s premier private Eisenmann collector at this time (the Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs at Syracuse University contains more than 1,400 images).
I asked Arthur to tell me about his about his collection. Here is what he told me …
“About 12 years ago I bought a book at a local library sale entitled, ‘P. T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman’ by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt (New York: Knopf, 1995). The book was an illustrated biography published to accompany a special about Barnum airing on the Discovery Channel. The book was a great read giving a chronological accounting of the showman’s life and was illustrated with hundreds of photographs. This wonderful volume led me to start collecting images by Charles Eisenmann, for many of the illustrated photos were taken by him.
“Apparently many of the extraordinary people Barnum exhibited in his museum had pictures taken in Eisenmann’s studio, which they subsequently sold to museum visitors. There were bearded ladies, snake charmers, albinos, long-haired and moss-haired women, little people, fat ladies and men, tattooed men and women and numerous other human oddities.
“However, Barnum didn’t just present the unusual. He also tried to assemble native tribes, people from all corners of the world. On one single page of the book were photos of a band of Nubians, Zulu warriors, high-caste Indians and Todas Indians, all taken by Eisenmann. Reading about the various human oddities on view at the museum was an educational experience for me, as it certainly must have been for the people in the 1880s.
“I was hooked.
“As I began to collect Eisenmann cartes de visite and cabinet cards, I discovered the Michael Mitchell book ‘Monsters of the Gilded Age: The Photographs of Chas. Eisenmann” (Toronto: Gage Publishing, 1979). This original volume dedicated to Eisenmann’s work was out of print and hard to acquire. However, I eventually bought a copy on eBay and really tried to acquire copies of all the wonders depicted.
“In 2002 Michael Mitchell reissued his original volume under a new publisher and a slightly different title: ‘Monsters: Human Freaks in America’s Gilded Age; The Photographs of Chas. Eisenmann’ (Toronto: ECW Press).
“One must not get the impression that all Eisenmann photographed were ‘freaks’ of nature. In my collection I have some wonderful portraits of actors and actresses that sat for him. Just one example is a wonderful photograph of Ullie Akerstrom, whom he photographed numerous times over the course of several years. Aside from being an actress, Ullie wrote plays and poems. If you Google her, you will find lots of information.
“I still try to add new additions to my collection.”
Images courtesy of Arthur Farrell.