I recently decided to go to Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School event in Baltimore for the first time since August (I’ll write more on that later). On the way to The Wind Up Space, I decided to make a detour to check out the former home of a famous sideshow performer and artist named Johnny Eck.
I first heard of the guy when I read this book as a teenager written by Frederick Drimmer called Very Special People and I thought it was cool that he came from Baltimore. (I kept the paperback for many years until I finally got rid of it last year when I decided to do a massive downsizing of my home after my husband walked out on me and filed for divorce.) I also saw the movie Freaks several times (where he had a minor role) and I even own the DVD.
Back in March I attended a special exhibit on painted screens at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, which included the screens that Eck painted after he retired from the sideshow circuit as well as a separate exhibit on Eck’s life and the art that he created (which also included a miniature circus, photography, and drawings). That exhibit inspired me to try writing an article for Make magazine focusing on why, if he was still alive today, Eck would be perfect for the Maker movement only to get no response after three tries. I ultimately ended up uploading that story on Medium.com.
I found out through Eck’s Wikipedia page the address of the home where he spent his entire life and I toyed around with actually driving by that place until I finally got around to doing it. I had originally planned on visiting his home then driving to nearby Green Mount Cemetery, where he is buried, and finally move on to The Wind Up Space for Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School. Rainy weather caused me to nix the cemetery visit so I decided to just make a brief visit to his home before heading to The Wind Up Space.
Johnny Eck’s home is located at 622 North Milton Avenue on the east side of Baltimore in the McElderry Park neighborhood. Here is what the city block is like.
The red brick rowhouse was originally purchased in 1906 by Eck’s parents, who then moved in with their 8-year-old daughter Caroline. (Back then there were no heavy steel doors covering the first floor door and windows like today.) That same year the mother gave birth to a second daughter who later died at the age of two. Shortly after that child’s death, the mother gave birth to a son who was stillborn. The family would go through one more pregnancy for the last time.
On August 27, 1911 Johnny Eck and his twin brother, Robert, were born in the front bedroom on the second floor. While Robert was born normal and healthy, it was said that one of the midwives present at the twins’ birth had this reaction when Johnny was born: “Oh my lord, he’s a broken doll!” Johnny was born with sacral agenesis or Caudal regression syndrome, which resulted in a truncated torso and underdeveloped legs that were unusable.
Despite that major birth defect, Johnny managed to thrive in that home. He taught himself to walk with his hands while he and his twin brother both showed an interest in art at an early age. His family tried to provide Johnny with an upbringing that was as normal as possible. A chance meeting with a magician at the age of 12 forever changed Johnny’s life as the magician not only strongly encouraged him to become a sideshow performer but he also became the twins’ first manager. From that time until sideshows lost their appeal with the increasing popularity of television (starting in the 1950’s), Johnny and Robert were on the road most of the time. Johnny was frequently displayed in the sideshows as a “Half Man” while Robert was displayed alongside him as the “normal” twin.
(Above photo from phreeque.tripod.com/johnny_eck.html.)
Johnny even had a brief Hollywood movie career, with Freaks being the high point. Here’s one of his scenes from that movie.
Soon after he finished making that movie, he learned that his parents were on the verge of losing their home to foreclosure due to the Great Depression. To help raise enough money so his family can keep their home, Johnny accepted a gig at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair where he performed for the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium while being billed as “The Most Remarkable Man Alive.”
Once Johnny and Robert retired from the sideshow circuit, they returned to their childhood home where they spent the rest of their lives. It was during this time that Johnny learned the art of painted screens and he made extra money painting and selling them. Here’s one of his screens that I photographed during the MICA exhibit back in March.
Both Johnny and Robert could frequently be seen sitting on the same marble steps as in the photo below, where they would entertain the neighborhood children.
Johnny Eck with his dog Major sitting on the front steps in 1985.
(Above photo from the Flickr page of Bat County Books, LLC.)
In the 1980’s the brothers began to receive visits from fans who have just discovered Freaks on home video even though Johnny wasn’t entirely comfortable with some of them, telling a friend “You’d be surprised to see these ‘avid’ fans. I say they are crazy.”
When the twins were born, McElderry Park was a working class neighborhood consisting mostly of first and second generation European immigrants where most of the residents worked in the nearby factories. As time went on, the neighborhood—like the rest of the city—underwent a major change due to white flight to the suburbs starting in the 1950’s, the closing of the factories starting in the late 1970’s, the closing of nearby public housing starting in the 1980’s which flooded the neighborhood with Section 8 tenants, and the arrival of crack cocaine starting in the 1980’s. The neighborhood became increasingly poor and majority African American with high unemployment and all the social problems that came with it. This can be easily seen in the next three photos that I took during my time there. Across the street from the home is this laundromat that still has a “Grand Opening” banner while the fine print underneath made it clear that it has been opened since March.
The photos show a neighborhood that have seen better days.
In fact, while I was driving to and from Johnny Eck’s home, I saw plenty of boarded-up homes located nearby, such as the ones a few blocks away on North Milton Avenue, which can be seen using Google Street View.
Even the door and window on the lower level of Johnny Eck’s home have been sealed with thick steel doors due to the neighborhood’s high crime rates and the excessive drug trade.
When Johnny and Robert lived there, they were forced to directly face the reality of their changing neighborhood when two thieves broke into their home in 1987. One of the thieves mocked and sat on the 76-year-old Johnny Eck while the other thief took the twins’ belongings. After that incident the twins went into total seclusion where they stopped sitting outside on their marble steps, stopped receiving visitors, and communicated only with their closest family members. Johnny Eck would go on to say “If I want to see freaks, all I have to do is look out the window.”
In 1991 79-year-old Johnny decided to take a nap on the couch in the living room, where he suffered a heart attack in his sleep. Robert continued to live in the same home by himself until his death in 1995 at 83.
Since then it seems like the house has been uninhabited. Looking at The Johnny Eck Museum website, which was founded by Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, there is an implication that this museum now owns the home (although I could be wrong about this). Yet the house remains heavily shuttered. I don’t know if there are any plans to eventually turn this home into a museum that would be opened to the public.
Opening a tourist museum in that neighborhood would be a major challenge given the current nature of the neighborhood. I’m not being facetious about this either. I can remember years ago when I made my one and only visit to the now-defunct American Dime Museum, which was devoted to carnival sideshows and other oddities. It was a really awesome museum and I enjoyed it. The downside is that it was located near a marginal neighborhood and I still remember when I made a harrowing two or three block walk from the nearest light rail stop in order to reach the museum then I had to make the same harrowing walk back to the same station. About a year or two after my only visit the museum closed for good.
But I have an idea of what to do about Johnny Eck’s former home that would not only help the residents in the neighborhood but would also honor the life of Johnny Eck. Both Johnny and Robert were artists and Johnny even had a second career as a painted screen artist. In recent years there has been a trend towards putting up STEM technology centers, Makerspaces, Fab Labs, or just general places where people gather and start making things. There is a whole Maker Culture movement currently underway in the United States where people are making and inventing things.
Wouldn’t it be cool to convert Johnny Eck’s former home into a Makerspace? People would gather and make things. People would teach their skills (whether it’s Linux or knitting sweaters) to anyone who’s willing to learn. Having such a Makerspace would honor Johnny Eck’s memory as an artist and maker and provide a place for people to gather that’s an alternative to dealing drugs or shooting each other.
And there is a precedent for opening a Makerspace in a less-than-safe area. Fab Lab DC opened in the northeastern part of Washington, DC that was once notorious for being a crime-ridden area. That opening was part of a total makeover that have resulted in the creation of new businesses and the building of new housing while lowering crime at the same time. In fact, the neighborhood has now been given the moniker NoMa. I still have fond memories of the time when I went to the 2012 Summit of Awesome that was held at Fab Lab DC and I took a short tour of the place and it impressed me very much. Surely something similar can be done with the former Eck residence in Baltimore.
If I had extra money, I would buy that house myself and convert it into a Makerspace. Unfortunately my finances are too tight to consider such a lavish idea. So I decided to write such an idea here in the hopes that someone with very deep pockets would read this and think “WOW! That’s a GREAT idea! I’ll get some people to work on buying and transferring the deed to make this Makerspace a reality.” It would be so cool to have someone with the wealth of a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg to see this and put this idea into motion.
It may sound idealistic but I’d rather see some idealistic rich people work on this than to see this house continue to be boarded up with heavy steel for years.