During the 1880s (America’s Gilded Age), New York’s Bowery roared day and night like no other street in the world. Home to countless beer halls, melodrama theatres, and dime museum exotic shows, this strip of diversions entertained the newly arrived immigrant masses — the first generation to work in corporate factories, live in high-rises, eat processed food, and banish the night with electric lights. As city population densities swelled to a third of a million per square mile, these urban workers took a certain Darwinian pleasure in staring at freaks—living proof that life could be even worse. Photographer Charles Eisenmann’s studio at 229 Bowery stood right in the middle of it all. As &;ldquo;the oldest, the largest, and the best,” Eisenmann practised photography at a time when it was still a black art — a series of mysterious and complex procedures executed in darkness. Working in his studio of elaborate high Victorian sets, Eisenmann acted as court photographer to all of the era’s most famous giants, dwarfs, and exotics. Classified as “monsters” by doctors of the day, Eisenmann’s sitters included the four-legged lady (Myrtle Corbin), the Sacred Hairy Family of Burma, the diminutive Admiral Dot, a thousand- pound fat-man, Zip the Pin-head, and even the biggest hoaxer of them all — the inventor of the travelling circus and modern advertising — the great P.T. Barnum.
Eisenmann’s beautifully crafted photographs made his weird clients as famous and successful as any rock star or royalty.
Michael Mitchell is a Toronto-based photographer and writer.
Published: August 2002
Dimensions: 10 x 8 in.