Pregnant Snake Charmer For Hire

Stephanie Torres is eight months pregnant, but unlike many other expecting working mothers, she has no upcoming maternity leave. And no steady paycheck to rely on. But she does have an eight and a half-foot albino python, and an alluring stage name, “Serpentina.”

A member of the Coney Island Sideshows by the Seashore cast since 1998, Torres earns a living as a snake charmer and continues to seek work even as her due date approaches.

This past Saturday night she performed at an event to benefit the Boys and Girls Club in Asbury Park, New Jersey, with other members of the Coney Island show. She also intends to entertain at the upcoming Coney Island Spring Gala in New York City this weekend.

2014-03-11-serpentina1.jpg

Serpentina and Pee-Wee Porterhouse. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Torres.

Since first taking the stage with Sideshows by the Seashore, Serpentina has charmed several serpents and built a rapport with each over the years, allowing her to sync her movements to the snake’s. In a typical performance, Torres — who towers at 5′-10″ and has a bifurcated tongue — dances with her slithering partners as it moves “this way and that way” to the music. Much of their choreography occurs from her knees. “The balance is easier when I have the snake up in the air,” Torres explains.

Holding the snake aloft as she kneels, Serpentina will seductively bring its face to hers as she bends backward — a feat she still pulled off successfully just days ago with the debut of a new four and a half-foot long albino python, Pee-Wee Porterhouse, at the Asbury Park show. “I was surprised and excited about it,” she says. Her recently retired partner, Firecracker, was also an albino python. In her experience, that particular breed is livelier on stage than others.

After three to five minutes, her shows typically end by affectionately drawing the serpent’s head into her mouth for a kiss. However, due to the Salmonella carried by snakes, that’s one part of her performance that’s changed during her pregnancy. “I don’t have proof, but I think I’ve developed immunity, but I don’t want to take a chance with the baby,” she says.

Other than that, she’s had no worries about her unique line of work. “Concerns about the snake getting aggressive or hurting me haven’t gone through my mind.”

Her boyfriend, Tim Porter, who earns his living as a welder and carpenter, is supportive of her career and continued work. “He think it’s cool,” she says. “He thinks it’s sexy.”

Winter bookings, however, aren’t in abundance for a snake charmer. Not only is it a slow season, but Torres hasn’t dedicated the usual time to pursue gigs because she’s been preoccupied readying her house for the baby — a boy to be named Gunner Steel Porter.

Baby proofing is something all expectant parents go through, to differing degrees. But Serpentina’s is a bit unique. She and Porter keep three snakes and three dogs in their home. At nearly nine feet, and weighing 30 pounds, Firecracker is the largest. It should be noted his full name is Firecracker Von Voom — a promotion from his original name, Cracker. “He started biting people, so I said I think we need to change it to Firecracker,” Torres explains. “Firecracker Von Voom.”

She had performed with him since 2007, but respiratory problems forced Firecracker to retire from the stage. His roommates include his replacement, Pee-Wee Porterhouse, and a California red-tailed boa called Pancho McBride, which belongs to Porter.

Their canine counterparts include a Chihuahua, a Chihuahua Yorkie mix and a large mutt. “Firecracker could eat both of the Chihuahuas,” Torres says. “You have to keep them well fed to keep them calm. I keep them on a regular feeding basis. That’s very important.”

The snakes live in the bathroom in individual terrariums, but will be moving into an empty guest bedroom. “Once they’re in the bedroom, we’ll padlock the door so once the kid starts walking around he can’t get curious,” Torres says.

Then, of course, there’s the baby’s room. They’ve already painted the walls to look like metal panels with rivets. “Like Gru’s lab from Despicable Me,” she says.

This spring, Serpentina will no longer be part of the Coney Island Sideshow cast, but she intends to continue snake charming independently. A few gigs a week earns enough income for her to live.

“It will be nice because I can spend more time with the baby once he’s here,” Torres says. “It’s better than a nine to five.”

© Marc Hartzman

800 Straws, 92 Pencils, 65 Mini Onions and Other Ways To Fill A Mouth

Those who strive for greatness can make their mark upon the world through intellectual breakthroughs, inspirational leadership, athletic prowess, remarkable good looks, or, in the case of Dinesh Upadhyaya, a really big mouth.

Upadhyaya, of Mumbai, India, possesses the unique skill of being able to shove an astonishing number of objects between his lips: 800 drinking straws; 79 seedless grapes; 92 pencils; 65 mini onions; 5 golf balls; and a 3 ½-inch ceramic cup, to name a few. He holds each set of items in his mouth for 30 seconds. These feats have earned him the name “Maximouth” and made him one of his country’s greatest world record holders.

Dinesh Upadhyaya with a whole lot of straws in his mouth. As featured in Ripley's Believe It Or Not!

Dinesh Upadhyaya with a whole lot of straws in his mouth. As featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!

But how does one discover such a talent? And what drives his desire to shove more household items into his mouth than anyone else on the planet?

Upadhyaya, a college chemistry and math teacher, had already been dabbling in world records since 2001, inspired by men like America’s Ashrita Furman and New Zealand’s Alistair Galpin, who hold the most and second-most world records, respectively, along with the UK’s Record Holders Republic founder, Dean Gould.

His first major success came in breaking a Furman finger-snapping record (170 snaps in one minute). A month of training enabled Upadhyaya to squeeze by Furman with 172 snaps. “This record gave me a lot of confidence,” he says.

Armed with this newfound confidence, he stumbled upon a record for the most pencils fit in a mouth (70), set by an American named Todd DeFazio on recordsetter.com. Upadhyaya set out to shatter it.

Although this record-setting phenom is a large man overall—he stands 6’-6”—he doesn’t just have a freakishly large mouth. These stunts, like any, have required intense training. 

“It took almost four months for me to mentally prepare for this record,” he explains. “I purchased 100 pencils of the same size no 2. When I started practice for this record I was hardly able to fit 50 pencils at once. I went through a most painful experience. But I was confident enough to break this record at any time. Soon I increased my mouth stretching capacity and was able to fit more than 70 pencils. On Jan. 22, 2011, finally I fit a total of 92 pencils in my mouth at once very easily for more than half a minute.”

Dinesh with 92 pencils in his mouth

Dinesh, as seen in his YouTube video squeezing 92 pencils into his mouth.

A video of the feat went viral on YouTube and the record has since appeared in five different record books. More importantly, Upadhyaya found his niche and upped his game.

To enhance his abilities, he practices yoga and breathing exercises regularly. While practicing the stunts, he massages his facial muscles and uses his fingers to stretch the opening of his mouth as much as possible.

“I repeat this up to 10 minutes so my cheek become rubber-like fleshy,” Upadhyaya says. “After practice or during record attempts I usually experience swellings in my mouth, especially in the lips and gums area, which later become normal after an hour. I always take precautionary measures to avoid choking.”

Good health also helps. Upadhyaya doesn’t drink, smoke, or eat meat.

This spring, he plans to set several more records by stuffing his mouth full of things like lit candles, playing cards, hot dogs, and snooker balls. “My dream is to break all possible mouth stuffing records as soon as possible,” he says.

Dinesh with 5 golf balls.

Dinesh Upadhyaya fits 5 golf balls into his big mouth.

He’s also looking to take advantage of opportunities within the eating and drinking categories, particularly in the vegetarian field. “My appetite is abnormal,” he says. If all goes well, he’ll soon be gulping down 500ml of tomato ketchup and eating 20 lit birthday candles faster than any human.

Upadhyaya’s hunger for records has led him to numerous achievements aside from the orifice-oriented and finger-snapping feats. For example, he formed 2,139 names of geographical places derived from the letters in the word “livestrong” and wrote the longest palindrome sentence in Devnagari (Hindi) script (27 words and 66 letters).

To date, he’s established or broken more than 100 Indian and world records, which have been featured by a variety of record setting organizations, ranging from Guinness World Records and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! to Record Holders Republic and the India Book of Records.

While his accomplishments span across many fields, he knows his greatness lies within his big mouth. The wider he opens it, the greater his legend will grow.

Photos courtesy of Dinesh Upadhyaya.

© 2013 Marc Hartzman

Clever Hans: The Horse That Knew Everything (Sort Of)

In 1904, a nine-year-old horse called Hans trotted through performance halls in Berlin astounding crowds with his uncanny mental agility. His owner, Herr Wilhelm von Osten, was a former schoolteacher and educated his horse to the level of a child the same age. Or so he claimed. The Orloff stallion learned to spell, do math, recognize people from photographs, differentiate between colors and music, and answer various questions. All Hans had to do was tap his right front hoof once to denote one, twice for two, and so forth. Letters were signified in the same manner, one tap corresponding to A, two taps to B. Hopefully Hans wasn’t asked to spell too many words with the letters Y and Z.

Von Osten’s horse also boasted an elephant-like memory. In one demonstration, Hans was introduced to a Count Dohna. He was told, “That is Count Dohna.” Thirty minutes later the Count was pointed to and von Osten asked Hans his name. The horse walked up to a blackboard filled with the letters of the alphabet and picked out D-o-h-n-a. Another stunt involved members of the audience who would offer the stallion photos of themselves, then line up in front of him. Von Osten would show Hans a photo and have him point out that person in the line. This proved as easy for the horse as for any person.

Clever Hans

Clever Hans with von Osten

Clever Hans dazzled audiences and puzzled scientists. Brilliant minds studied the horse, trying to learn whether it was all a trick or if the horse was in fact educated. The most obvious test was to learn if Hans could still perform without von Osten present. According to one article, the answer was yes: “It is understood that the animal has answered questions and figured arithmetical sums when his instructor has not been near.”

The skilled stallion even managed to cause a political rift in Prussia. One of Hans’ enthusiastic fans happened to be the Prussian Minister of Education, Dr. Studt. Studt was so taken by the animal that he wished to have him perform before Emperor William. However, the other ministers objected. Frustrated by the opposition, Studt threatened to resign from his position, but eventually came to his senses and stayed with the Ministry. Otherwise, this could have been the first horse to cause a split in a government.

Hans became an international sensation. In an article about talented circus horses, one American journalist said of Hans: “Berlin, however, has an animal of the species now on show which has gone beyond precedent in cultivation and exhibits phenomena of cerebration out of all parallels.” Dr. William T. Hornaday, Director of the Bronx Park Zoological Gardens, was equally impressed. In his 1922 book, The Mind and Manners of Wild Animals, he wrote that Hans “was a phenomenon, and I doubt whether this world ever sees his like again. His mastery of figures alone, no matter how it was wrought, was enough to make any animal or trainer illustrious.”

Even The New York Times was caught up in the Hans hype. There was hope and expectation that the horse’s education would advance to the point where he would actually learn to speak—becoming a true Mister Ed. The Times writer said of Hans’ potential for language:

“[Hans] has not got so far as that yet, but is well on toward it, and before the cold weather sets in may be able to hold discourse with his beleaguering professors in some dialect that both can understand. It would be mortifying to discover that its kind still kept so poor an opinion of us as that held by Swift’s cultivated and conversible houynhnhms. But considering that the most pretentious of our species cut their tails and manes off for fashion’s sake and torture them in various ways to promote attitudes and motions of style, while the brute of our species heaps on them all manner of cruelty and ill, it would not be at all surprising if they did so.”

He had a point, if horses could talk, they would justifiably have a lot of complaints.

Science, however, was not about to accept that a horse could possess the intelligence of a small child. Several German scientists were determined to expose some form of trickery. Ultimately, the director of the “Psychological Institute” of the Berlin University, Professor Oskar Pfungst concluded that Hans only knew the answer if the person asking the question knew the answer. In studying the horse, Pfungst confirmed that it could answer questions without von Osten present. Hans was able to answer whatever Pfungst asked. Still, a horse could not possibly possess this sort of intelligence. Rather, Pfungst realized the horse had a remarkable ability to perceive signals from the questioner, despite his efforts to remain still. Hans was detecting sign whether they were conscious or unconscious. When Pfungst asked a question, he recognized, his head would nod ever so slightly to watch Hans’ hoof. That was the subject’s cue to start tapping. When he tapped an appropriate number, Pfungst would lift his head, satisfied with a correct answer. Again, the subtle movement was picked up by the horse. Anyone wishing to ask Hans a question would likely be expecting a correct answer, and therefore would be an excellent candidate to give strong signals. Pfungst tested his theory further by asking Hans questions from greater and greater distances. The farther away he stood, the more difficult it was for the horse to pick up the signals. Blindfolded, Hans’ brainpower was reduced to that of any other horse.

Pfungst’s experiments with Hans ruined his reputation and put an end to von Osten’s success. Suddenly, the public no longer saw Hans as an intelligent horse. People felt duped, even though the horse still displayed extraordinary talent worth the price of admission. Though it seems hard to believe a horse could read movements and human expressions with such accuracy, Pfungst’s theory was agreed upon by another prominent Berlin mind, Dr. Albert Moll. Moll was neurologist, a founder of the Berlin Society of Psychology and Characterology, and author of the 1889 book, Hypnotism. Moll believed that hypnotism allowed subjects to respond to extremely subtle signs. “Signs that are imperceptible to others,” he said, “are nevertheless perceived by a subject trained to do so, no matter whether that subject be a human being or an animal.” Despite proving Hans was not an intelligent horse, Pfungst cashed in on the horse’s talent with his book entitled The Intelligent Hans.

While all these great minds focused their energies to prove they were smarter than a horse, author Ricky Jay references a scholar who figured out the method three hundred years earlier. In Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, Jay writes of Sa. Rid’s book, The Art of Juggling or Legerdermaine, which claimed “…nothing can be done [by the horse] but his master must first know, and then by his master knowing, the horse is ruled by signes.”

Von Osten passed away on June 29, 1909 at the age of 70. Hans was bequeathed to Karl Krall, a wealthy goldsmith and an amateur parapsychologist of Elberfeld. Krall took Hans in and educated several horses of his own – two Arab stallions, Muhamed and Zarif, a Shetland pony called Hanschen, and an older black stallion, Berto. Krall even experimented with the mind of a young elephant, Kama. His exhibition of horses came to end with the outbreak of the World War I. The horses were forced to leave the stage and enter the battlefield.

© Marc Hartzman

The Adventures of Oliver Cromwell’s Head

On a cold January 30 in 1649, a large crowd of Englishmen witnessed the reign of King Charles I come to an end with the swift blow of an executioner’s blade. The man who led the charge for his trial and beheading was Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell. Little did he know, however, that his own head would soon roll, too. And roll and roll—across the country for the next 300 years.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell, with his head still attached.

Cromwell, born in 1599 in Huntington, Cambridgeshire rose through the military ranks in the civil war that broke out between Charles I and the anti-king Parliamentarians in 1642. After the king was tried for high treason and subsequently executed seven years later, Cromwell defeated supporters of the king’s son, Charles II, at Dunbar in 1650 and Worcester in 1651 to finally put an end to the war. By 1653 Cromwell pronounced himself Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland and began to reorganize the national church and institute various religious tolerances. Militarily, he ended wars with Portugal and Holland and helped France defeat Spain at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658. But later that year, he succumbed to attacks by malaria and a kidney infection, which eventually proved fatal on September 3.

Cromwell’s body was embalmed and buried in Westminster Abbey. His son, Richard, succeeded him as Lord Protector, but a lack of support led him to resign in May 1659. By 1660, Charles II was invited to return from exile and the monarchy was restored.

Back on the throne, the king decided to exact a posthumous revenge on Cromwell—along with two other deceased military commanders and the President of the High Court of Justice who had sentenced his father. So on January 30, 1661, the 12th anniversary of his father’s execution, the king had the four bodies exhumed and symbolically executed. Cromwell’s body was hung for the day, where it swung with the others for all to see. At the day’s end, the head was severed and the body was thrown in a pit. His head, however, was kept, so it could be stabbed into an iron spike and presented outside Westminster Hall, where it gazed emptily upon passersby for more than twenty years—a grotesque deterrent for any anti-royalist thinking of following in Cromwell’s footsteps.

The embalmed head was finally freed from its public display by a heavy storm, which ripped the weather-worn oak post and iron spike from its position. The head, with the spike still intact, fell to the ground and was retrieved by a passing guard who scooped up the noggin and snuck it home under his cloak. There, he hid Cromwell in the chimney corner, away from inquiring government authorities. It wasn’t until he lay on his deathbed that he informed his family of the whereabouts of the former Lord Protector’s head.

Cromwell's Head Exhibition

A 1799 advertisement for an exhibition of Cromwell’s head.

His daughter inherited the remains, but sold it to the Russell family of Cambridgeshire, who gave the highest bid. It descended through the family to Samuel Russell, an unsuccessful, poor actor who liked his booze. Russell took delight in owning the oddity and exhibited Cromwell’s crown at a local market.

There was plenty to see—the embalmed head still bore many of Cromwell’s features despite the hard, dry, leathery appearance of the flesh. A small hole could be seen on his forehead where a wart had been, and his eyebrows met in the middle. Within his mouth, several teeth remained, along with parts of the gums and membrane of the tongue. In back, the mark of the ax was distinguished near the vertebrae. Hair still clung to the face and head, with the beard stained the color of the embalming fluid. Strands of hair, however, began disappearing during Russell’s exhibitions. The amateur impresario was often inebriated and friends had pilfered pieces for their own personal collections. Topping it all off, literally, was the iron spearhead prominently jutting through the cap of the skull. Truly a sight worth a small price of admission.

One of Russell’s patrons was a museum of curiosities owner named James Cox, who took great interest in the relic and wished to display it in his collection. Russell resisted numerous purchase attempts from Cox, but his need to pay off debts led him to eventually make the sale for 118 pounds in 1787 (roughly equivalent to more than 13,000 pounds today).

Cromwell now enjoyed a brief stint as a museum star until Cox had to shut its doors. In 1799, he sold the head to three interested brothers, named Hughes, for 230 pounds. They attempted to capitalize with a heavily advertised exhibition, but were met with skepticism about the head’s authenticity and found few takers for the overly priced admission of two shillings and sixpence. The brothers, however, all met their own demise within the next 15 years and the head rolled into the possession of their daughters. The young girls didn’t know what to do with the old rotting remnant, so in 1814 they sold it to an acquaintance, Josiah Henry Wilkinson. Wilkinson kept the head wrapped in silk within a black box, but frequently opened it to share with locals and various distinguished men of the time seeking a visit.

One of these visitors was renowned British sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826), who was well informed about the appearance of Cromwell and expressed doubt that Wilkinson possessed the real thing. So the showman asked him to first give a description—they would then see if Flaxman’s words matched what he would soon see. “He had a low, broad forehead, large orbits to the eyes, a high septum to the nose, and high cheekbones,” Flaxman said. “But there is one feature which will be with me a crucial test, and that is, that, instead of having the lower jawbone somewhat curved, it was particularly short and straight, but set out at an angle, which gave him a jowlish appearance.” Upon taking view of the head, Flaxman was persuaded it was genuine. The visual matched perfectly.

The head passed through several generations of the Wilkinson family before finally being left to Sidney Sussex College—Cromwell’s alma mater—where it continued to live on. It was eventually given a number of forensic tests that proved its authenticity. There, the head was finally buried once again in 1960, hundreds of years after its original resting place at Westminster Abbey.

© Marc Hartzman

Excised Tumors, The Stereoscopic Skin Clinic, Gout Treatments And Other Hidden Treasures

Ever wonder if a hefty 90-pound tumor could be removed through the practice of mesmerism? The answer awaits in Bethesda, Maryland. That’s where you’ll find the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medical library, which houses more than 17 million items dating from the 11th century to the present offering information on countless medical conditions and methods.

Rare medical books, 19th-century surgical illustrations, mid-20th century animated cartoons, microfilms, photographs, journals, technical reports and much more can all be found within its walls.

Hidden Treasure

Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine (Blast Books)

Of course, if a trip to Bethesda and millions of items to peruse doesn’t fit into your schedule, a new book, Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine (Blast Books), will bring many of the most fascinating artifacts to you, each accompanied by an essay from distinguished scholars, artists, collectors, journalists and physicians. The book celebrates the library’s 175th anniversary.

Among the many treasures lying between the covers is a wealth of wondrous materials largely unseen by the public and obscure to the librarians, curators and historians. Some, such as the hauntingly delicate paintings and illustrations of “monstra” collected in the early decades of the 19th century “from the museum of Dr. Klinkenberg” in the Netherlands had never before been reproduced.

Flip to page 142 and you’ll find a sketch of the enormous aforementioned tumor claimed to have been removed through mesmerism. Mesmerism, also known as “animal magnetism,” allegedly allowed its practitioners to fall into a trance and commune with distant minds. According to essayist Marianne Noble, “They saw through solid objects and even bodily tissues to identify illnesses.”

The tumor image is part of the Mesmerism Scrapbooks collection dating from 1842-54. The sketch, by Dr. James Esdaile, indicates a specially designed knife took three minutes to complete the procedure and that the patient “had no difficulty in recovering from the shock, and is doing perfectly well.”

If horrific skin diseases pique your interest, the Stereoscopic Skin Clinic from 1910 offers a large collection of disturbing images, including fingers suffering from ringworm of the nail, shingles covering a woman’s eye, and syphilis. All in glorious 3D with the aid of a stereoscope viewer.

The Stereoscopic Skin Clinic (1910)

The Stereoscopic Skin Clinic (1910)

An anonymous collector’s scrapbook of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins, features articles, handbills, satirical prints, tickets to appearances, and various ephemera about the brothers during their 10 years of touring. As sideshow historian James Taylor notes, their run was “One of the most notable show-business acts of the nineteenth century.”

Treatments for gout, scurvy, and other ailments compiled by Elizabeth Strachey from 1693 to the 1730s offers various remedies, sometimes accompanied by a touch of magic—one of the pages features an acrostic of abracadabra on a corner. Of course, if you’re just looking to kill rats, Strachey recommends a blend of oatmeal, bacon fat, and lime.

Each of the 200-plus pages within Hidden Treasure offers a captivating and beautifully disturbing journey through the library.  And relief that today’s medical advancements are indeed advanced.

© Marc Hartzman

Forty-four presidents, a hippo, two lions, a wallaby, two alligators and one bad-tempered badger.

There are many perks that come with being the President of the United States, such as residing in a lovely white house and gaining a great deal of prestige. Plus, you can have a pet hippo—just like Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president. His pygmy hippopotamus, named Billy, was a gift from tire manufacturer Harvey S. Firestone in 1927. The rare baby hippo was just one of eight of his kind living in America and measured six feet long, stood thirty inches tall, and weighed about 600 pounds. He was described by The New York Times as being “as frisky as a dog.” Billy had been captured in Liberia at one of Firestone’s plants, but once under Coolidge’s care, he spent his days at the much cozier National Zoo.

Calvin Coolidge's pet hippo.

Calvin Coolidge was not only President of the United States, but he was a hippo owner as well.

The hippo was only one of Coolidge’s unusual pets. The Commander in Chief’s menagerie also included numerous dogs and cats, along with two lion cubs, a bear, Smoky Bob the bobcat, an antelope, a raccoon called Rebecca, and a wallaby. Like many of the animals, the wallaby was gift, in this case from an American man living in Tasmania. When the president was offered the wallaby in a letter, he hadn’t a clue as to what sort of animal it was. A quick flip-through in the dictionary told him it was a small species of kangaroo and led Coolidge to accept the gift.

Although no other president could boast such a collection of creatures, there have been many others who’ve kept curious pets. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, acquired a badger named Josiah in 1903 after a young girl threw the little beast at the president as his train pulled out of a small Kansas town. Roosevelt kept Josiah and the First Family bottle-fed him until he cut his teeth. Once armed with his own chompers, Josiah nipped at the legs of passersby throughout the White House.

William Taft, our nation’s 27th and heaviest president (tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds) kept a Holstein cow as a pet. The first, named Mooley Wooly provided milk for the First Family. However, Mooley Wooly couldn’t produce enough milk for the large Taft clan. So Wisconsin senator Isaac Stephenson bought the president a new cow, named Pauline Wayne. From 1910-1913, the Taft’s pet cow freely grazed the White House lawn.

Old Whiskers

President Harrison had old whiskers to match his goat, named Old Whiskers.

Benjamin Harrison, President Number 23, kept a goat named Old Whiskers. Harrison’s grandchildren were big fans of Old Whiskers, as he was often hitched to a cart in order to pull them around the White House lawn. However, the goat may not have had as much fun as the kids. One day, he managed to escape the White House grounds through an open gate and ran toward freedom down Pennsylvania Avenue. The president chased after him, waving his cane and holding onto his top hat. Old Whiskers finally came to a stop. No one was injured, but many were entertained.

Herbert Hoover kept two alligators in the White House and allowed them to occasionally wander about freely. Perhaps he was inspired by John Quincy Adams, who kept only one alligator. Adams’ gator was given to him in 1826 by the Marquis de Lafayette.

While dogs have held the title of First Pet in the modern era, it would take a cuddly, loyal elephant, giraffe, or rhino to truly be a first.

© Marc Hartzman

 

Crushing the Benchmark

Monster trucks started terrorizing smaller defenseless cars in the early 1980s, when a behemoth called Bigfoot performed the first-ever public crushing. Since then, the beasts have grown in size and left countless vehicles demolished in their dirt-covered paths.

Maximum Destruction

Tom Meents will attempt to perform a double back flip in Maximum Destruction. Photo courtesy of Feld Entertainment.

Today, monster trucks are typically 12 feet tall and about 12 feet wide, weighing as much as 12,000 pounds. Tires are 66 inches high and 43 inches wide. And with all that size comes
not only ferocious power, but remarkable agility. Like a graceful gymnast, these vehicular monstrosities take to the air, flying high and before sticking a landing.

As in any sport, monster trucks have its superstars who push the boundaries and set new benchmarks.

This Father’s Day weekend, 10-time champion, Tom Meents, will do just that in his Maximum Destruction truck at Monster Jam.

Held at MetLife stadium in New Jersey, spectators—including Meents’ 14-year-old daughter, Hannah—will witness him attempt the first-ever double back flip.

In 2009 Meents became the first driver to perform a single back flip in the truck. And since then, he’s been eager to take it to the next level. Especially because several other Monster Jam competitors have completed flips as well.  “I’ve never wanted to be an imitator, I always wanted to be the main man,” he says.

Meents and his five-man team built a special truck for the double flip stunt, which includes additional safety features.

Tom Meents

10-time champion Tom Meents stands in front of his monster truck. Photo courtesy of Feld Entertainment.

“To rotate a 10,000-lb. truck in air twice will not be easy,” he admits. “It’s going to take some timing, different ways to set the truck up, and most importantly it’s going to take a go-for-it-all attitude.”

Meents will approach the 12-foot, near-vertical launch ramp at about 50 mph from about 200 feet away.

“There’s a 50% chance we make it, 50% we won’t,” Meents says. “But we’re 100% going for it.”

The Maximum Destruction driver has known no other job in the last 20 years and has remained injury free, despite flipping over more than 300 times.

“I’ve never been seriously hurt, though I’ve had some Monday morning pain,” he says.

He’s also crushed thousands of cars and school buses. All of Monster Jam’s sacrificial vehicles are gathered from local junkyards and are returned after each event.

But Meents doesn’t limit his demolition to modes of transportation. When Maximum Destruction earned him enough money to buy a new home, he naturally crushed the old one.

Yet, despite such experiences, this upcoming Father’s Day will be Meents’ most dangerous yet.

“I’m excited and worried at the same time,” daughter Hannah says. “I think it’s cool what he’s doing, but worried he’ll be ok.”

Of course, she’s been around monster truck mayhem her entire life.

“Dad is a go-for-it guy, so the family lets me do it,” Meents says. “I’ve been crazy since before she was born.”

© Marc Hartzman

8 Motorcycles, 1 Globe of Steel

Danger always surrounds motorcycles. Especially when sixteen feet of steel in the shape of a globe also surrounds the motorcycle. Make that eight motorcycles—going at speeds of up to 65 mph.

But for the Torres family, stars of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show, DRAGONS, zipping around the Globe of Steel is an everyday routine. Though they’ve been performing the act for 15 years, this is the first time they’ve attempted eight motorcycles. The death-defying feat is a world record for the five Torres brothers and three cousins (seven men, one woman).

The Torres Family in the Globe of Steel

The Torres Family ride 8 motorcycles in the Globe of Steel. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

In order to pull off the stunt and live to tell about it, the Torres’ use a system of whistle blowing and engine revs to cue each rider for his or her set pattern inside the globe. Aside from the obvious threat of collision, there’s also the risk of a bike chain snapping, a cable’s clutch breaking, and a bike choking.

The thrill and their passion for the sport, of course, outweigh the risks.

“We feel a rush of adrenaline mixed with the aroma of gasoline,” says Jose Angel. “And to be honest with you, there is no better feeling than just that.”

The few broken bones and bruises they’ve endured along the way, he says, “All come with the job.”

The Torres family hails from Paraguay, where they competed in motorcross events before discovering the sphere of steel that would become their livelihood. That epiphany came when the circus visited town and presented “El Globo de la Muerte”—the Globe of Death.

“We were already fascinated by the name,” Jose Angel recalls. “There were two bikes and they were awesome. The adrenaline, the speed, the maneuvers. We felt that we were part of the show already.”

They met the performing duo after the show, who invited them to give the globe a shot.

Entering the Globe of Steel

The Torres Family prepares to conquer the Globe of Steel. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

“We thought it was easy, but we realized it was not,” Jose Angel says. “It took us several months to just take off because the reaction of the bike is way different inside the globe. We had to learn how to shift, how to use the clutch, how to use the back and front brakes.”

Within a year they perfected the act and were invited to perform in various Latin circuses. Now, having taken the art to a new level with eight riders, they’re ready to push it even further.

“We will try nine and we would actually love to try it now!” Jose Angel says.

What’s one more motorcycle? And who’s the lucky member of the Torres family who gets to ride it?

© Marc Hartzman

The Hair Hanging Wonders

An early 20th-century Barnum & Bailey circus poster depicts an extraordinary act featuring three Chinese performers drinking tea with their legs crossed—as they hang in the air from their hair. In the background, several other acrobats can be seen swinging from their tresses as well. Today, the daring act lives on in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which is celebrating the Chinese Year of the Dragon with its show, DRAGONS. Viktoriya Medeiros and Widny Neves form the remarkable Hair Hanging Wonders duo. With their hair tied to metal rings and a swivel, Medeiros hangs from Neves, who is suspended upside-down high above the arena floor. As she hangs, Medeiros calmly juggles and spins dizzyingly like a twirling figure skater.

Hair Hanging Wonders

Viktoriya Medeiros and Widny Neves, the Hair Hanging Wonders. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Their act also involves a long silk attached to Neves’ mane, from which Medeiros twists her way down toward the ground. She considers it their most difficult routine. “I need to be really careful not to give an extra push,” she explains. “Holding by my hair is one thing. Holding someone else is using totally different muscles, and you’re upside down. You can prevent movement in your own body, but not in your partner’s body. You always have to be ready. Always.” If dangling from your hair sounds excruciating, that’s because, well, it is. “It’s really painful, it’s not for everybody,” Medeiros admits. “Some days are good, some days are bad,” she says. “You just smile to the public. I love it. I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s something different and I like to be different. Nothing is easy in any job. But if you love it, you can be happy.” Hair happens to be an extremely strong substance. The tensile strength of a single strand can support about .25 lbs. A healthy head of hair having 100,000 strands could then support more than 20,000 lbs. Of course, the act takes much more than hair strength. The feat requires great muscle strength in the neck and back as well. And these muscles have to be exercised regularly. Medeiros trains about every three days to maintain her abilities. “Once you stop, you start over,” she says. “I need to continue constantly. If I stop for one month, I have a hard time.” According to Medeiros, whose genes have fortunately given her strong, thick hair to begin with, her locks have also gained strength from hanging. “Once you start to hang by the hair, it builds muscles. It gets stronger and stronger.” In addition, she’s diligent about hair care. No blow-drying. No chemicals in her shampoos. And she keeps a particular diet. “I drink a lot of vitamins that are good for hair. I eat a lot of eggs and avocado,” she says. “I used to hate avocado, but it’s good for strong hair so now I love it.” Medeiros began training as a gymnast at the age of 5 and started studying circus skills in 2001. She eventually partnered with her husband, Andrey, in a high wire motorcycle stunt—which they received as a wedding gift in 2004 and still perform today. It was about five years ago when Medeiros decided to turn her head of hair into a new act. “I started with my best friend, we wanted something different, no one is doing it,” she says. Andrey helps make the act possible. He’s the only one who ties the hair around the metal rings and swivels that allow the duo to safely hang. “It’s not 100%, but I trust my husband, he’s the only one who can tie my hair, I don’t even trust myself,” she says. “He ties Widny as well. Accidents can happen, but I trust him. He knows how to do it.“ © Marc Hartzman

The Very Serious History of Silly Putty

For more than 50 years Silly Putty has been stretched, squeezed and squished by silly and not-so-silly people of all ages. More than 3,000 tons of the popular putty has been produced — enough to fill 200 million colorful plastic eggs. But before it was copying Sunday comics and bouncing off walls, the military was hoping it would help thwart Japanese plans to invade countries that produced rubber for tires, gas masks, boots and other military necessities. The government sought a synthetic substance that could perform the same functions and be produced in secure locations.

In 1943, a chemist named James Wright working for General Electric stumbled upon the unique putty by accident. He combined boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube and created a new rubbery substance. As he began to play with it, he discovered it bounced higher than rubber, stretched to great distances, snapped with sharp tugs, and could pick up ink from any printed matter. Unfortunately, none of those qualities made much sense for a tire.

Without a practical purpose, the putty, known as “nutty putty,” was passed around among friends. In 1949, it eventually found its way into the hands of a toy storeowner who decided to package the goo and sell it for $2 in her catalog. It proved a popular item, but she chose not to include it in subsequent catalogs. Her marketing consultant, Peter Hodgson, however, saw the putty’s potential and purchased the rights from GE in order to sell the stuff himself. Borrowing enough cash to fund the putty’s production, Hodgson packaged it in small plastic eggs and named it Silly Putty (nothing else offered a proper description). He distributed the eggs to Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores, but got his big break when a reporter for the New Yorker wrote a blurb about the bouncy blob and set off an avalanche of orders.

The rest is history, which includes Silly Putty’s ride aboard the 1968 Apollo 8 mission where it kept astronauts occupied and prevented tools from floating about in the cabin. As it turned out, Silly Putty had a practical purpose after all.

© Marc Hartzman

 

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