The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Eli Bowen and family

Eli Bowen and family

A carte-de-visite portrait of Eli Bowen, sometimes called 'the handsomest man in show business', born in Ohio in 1844. One of ten children, he was born with flipper like feet growing out of his hips, a medical condition now known as phocomelia. Fully grown, he weighed 140 pounds and stood two feet tall. In order to compensate, he developed a powerful upper torso. He taught himself to perform tumbling tricks and acrobatics (one of which was to balance at the top of an unsupported pole), and at the age of 13 he joined Major Brown's Coliseum. Eventually he joined the sideshow of the impresario P.T. Barnum, who teamed him up with Charles Tripp, 'the Armless Wonder'. Their most popular act was to ride a tandem bike together, Bowen steering and Tripp pedalling.

Barnum was the greatest showman of them all, and his stable of oddly gifted individuals earned him a staggering four million dollars, an enormous sum for the period, part of which would have come from the sale of cartes-de-visite wherever the show appeared. His cast were well looked after and happy with the percentage they received. In many cases, their lot in life was far better than it would have been had they been born other than how they were. Bowen was thus able to turn what many considered a disability into a lucrative livelihood. He married and fathered three children before retiring to California.

Photographed by A. Newman of 228 North Ninth Street, Philadelphia.


Code: 124816
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