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.

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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

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

The Man With Two Mouths

Throughout history, sideshows have given curiosity seekers opportunities to gaze in wonder at people born with something extra — a superfluous something or other.

Francesco Lentini, for example, traveled for decades in the early 20th century as the Three-Legged Wonder. He also had a fourth foot and a second set of genitals.

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Laloo, billed as “The Handsome Healthy Hindoo” was born in 1874 with a parasitic twin protruding from his torso. It had two arms, two legs, and a functioning penis. Fortunately, it could not defecate.

And there have been numerous people born with extra people attached to them — Chang and Eng Bunker being the most famous. The brothers, born in Siam 200 years ago, were joined at the chest by a ligament and the reason we have the term “Siamese twins.” Together, they made a fortune and eventually married two sisters and fathered 22 children (none were twins).

But in November of 1887, New York’s Bowery area featured a most unusual attraction with an extremely rare extra: a second mouth.

He was Otto Tolpefer, the Man with Two Mouths.

Tolpefer was born with a bonus mouth located just below the chin. The blonde, smooth-faced Tolpefer sat on a platform drinking water with one mouth and simultaneously smoking a cigarette with the other. When speaking, he used the top mouth and closed the second one with his fingers.

New York Times reporter covering the act described his speech as poor, because “the tracheal bellows gives his voice a strange and unreal whispering sound like that of a sexton at a funeral.” The second mouth was unable to speak or eat and was fitted with brass lips. He would shut it with his finger when talking with the upper mouth.

The reporter further remarked that “Otto is not a pleasant object to gaze at excessively, and as a wall decoration he would not succeed.”

An additional comment stated, “The two-headed cow, who felt quite badly when he came, has become reconciled after watching his performances.”

Little else is known about Tolpefer. There are no further reports of his appearances, his adventures later in life, or even what he had to say in response to the New York Times reporter’s vivid descriptions.

© Marc Hartzman

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