by Jim Meehan
“The past is everything that ever happened to anyone anywhere. There is much too much history to remember all of it. So how do we make choices about what is worth remembering? Significant events include those that resulted in great change over long periods of time for large numbers of people. World War II passes the test for historical significance in this sense.
But what could be significant about the life of a worker or a slave?,,, A historical person or event can acquire significance if we, the historians, can link it to larger trends and stories that reveal something important for us today.
(The Historical Thinking Project)
The story of Francesco Lentini is easily summarized.
He was born May 18, 1881 in Rosolino Italy into a family of twelve other children – with a third full-sized leg extending from the right side of his body.
At the age of eight he was moved to the United States where he subsequently performed as “The Great Lentini” in various circus and carnival “sideshows” including P.T. Barnum, Ringling Brothers and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He married Theresa S. Murray of Massachusetts, and they had four children: Josephine “Jennie” (born in Scotland in 1909); Natale (Connecticut, 1917); Frank (Connecticut, 1920); and James (Pennsylvania, 1922). He died on 22 September 1966.
And, most importantly for our purposes, Frank Lentini and his family were residents of Wethersfield from 1926 to 1938.
“One son, Frank Lentini Jr., was in the same class as Dick Lasher in the old Griswoldville School, now named Stephen Mix Mitchell [Apartments]. Dick Lasher recalls a time in the fall of 1931 while playing touch football in an empty field near the Brimfield Rd. home of the Lentini family, when the three legged Frank Lentini kicked the football with his third leg. It was a place kick!”
Wethersfield Historical Society member Dick Lasher sent the above brief story (written in the third person) with the annotation “I thought this would make a very interesting article…”
Entertainment acts such as “The Great Lentini” first became popular in 16th century England when abnormalities and disfigurements began to be treated as objects of public interest and amusement at English summer fairs – in the words of poet William Wordsworth:
“All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters.”
In the mid 19th century Bridgeport Connecticut’s P.T. Barnum began touring the United States and Europe with a number of “freaks of nature” including the dwarf “General Tom Thumb”, the “Feejee Mermaid”, and the “man-monkey”. In England Tom Norman likewise showcased oddities such as a “Balloon Headed Baby” and most famously Joseph Merrick the “Elephant Man”. Some were real – others pretty much fabricated out of whole cloth. Either way, these “sideshows” were a huge success.
This author’s personal experience does not include “The Great Lentini” or any other midway mutant for that matter. Nonetheless I certainly knew of them – but not as part of the world I actually lived in, or wanted to.
Yet, I wrote this sitting in my house on the very same street where “The Great Lentini” once lived. Seventy years ago I might have known him as a neighbor – not unlike the present-day residents of Old Wethersfield who, back in the day, could have encountered Silas Deane wandering by their front yard – but not totally the same either.
If we can accept The Great Lentini as a fact of everyday life, then should we take it one step further and chronicle it as part of the history of Wethersfield?
The story of Wethersfield already includes a Black Governor of Connecticut, several privateers and whaling captains, a pioneer of women’s education, an entrepreneurial maker of grass bonnets worn by First Ladies, a mass murderer, an attempted kidnapper of General George Washington, and many, many others. Is there also room for an account of an Italian immigrant who became both a typical home-owning family man, and a successful, albeit atypical, popular entertainer?
And there may be a larger story. In a 1959 Hartford Courant article “A Boy With Three Legs Helped Middletown Build An Immigrant Community” Dr. Joseph Magnano of Middletown, Ct, gives credit to Frank Lentini (along with God and Christopher Columbus) for building the Italian-American colony in that city during the early 1900s.
Doctor Magnano’s father Vincenzo was traveling across Italy with a puppet show out of Melilli Sicily in 1890 when he met six-year old Francesco Lentini in the town of Rosolini – and came up with the idea of ‘showing him to the rest of the world” as a part of the Barnum and Bailey Circus which had its winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Frank’s parents agreed to the plan – but only if they could accompany their son to the United States. Magnano raised enough money to transport the three Lentinis as well as his own pregnant wife on a one month, seasick-ridden boat trip arriving in Bridgeport in 1892.
Mrs. Magnano and their newborn son remained in Bridgeport while Vincenzo traveled with Frank Lentini as part of the Barnum and Bailey sideshow – first in the United States then, for five years, throughout Europe.
At the end of the tour Frank’s sister married a native of Melilli who immediately took over the management of his new brother-in-law’s burgeoning career. Vincenzo Magnano meanwhile learned of “good opportunities in Middletown [Connecticut] to make a decent living” and returned to America settling in that town. After several years he purchased a large tenement house (72 rooms) at the foot of Center Street.
Word spread in Melilli, Italy that the Magnanos were doing well in their new country and other families made the long boat trip to New York City then rode on the riverboats, “The Middletown” and “The Hartford”, to Middletown’s Court Street dock.
The Magnanos facilitated the transition to America for many of these new immigrants – helping with housing, job seeking and translation of documents for the non-English-speaking newcomers.
Frank Lentini along with his sister, brother-in-law, and parents also followed Magnano to Middletown where they lived on Court Street.
According to Wikipedia “Lentini’s deformity was the result of a partially absorbed conjoined twin. The twin was attached to Frank Lentini’s body at the base of his spine and consisted of a pelvis bone, a rudimentary set of male genitalia and a full-sized leg extending from the right side of his body, with a small foot attached to this extra knee. It is recorded that Lentini had sixteen toes in total and two sets of functioning male organs.”
An additional malformed small foot protruded from his tertiary leg. The third appendage was close in length to his functioning ones, which were 39” and 38” in length while the third one was 36” long.
The very young Lentini, not surprisingly, hated his extra limb, which he remembered as being a constant source of embarrassment that prevented him from participating in the normal games and sports that young boys enjoyed. Doctors determined that because of its proximity to Lentini’s spine removal of the extraneous limb could result in paralysis. This evaluation likely occurred on the island of Malta, probably in an institution for malformed children there. A series of photographs taken at that time and belonging to a Maltese Professor of Medicine depict a 7-9 year-old child with identical deformities.
One day Lentini was taken to an institution for the handicapped in Italy where he witnessed other youngsters living with deafness, blindness, and crippling deformities. He noticed, to his chagrin, that these disabled children were not complaining about their fate.
The visit to that institution, unpleasant though it was because of the misery I saw there, was the best thing that ever happened to me. From that time to this I’ve never complained. I think life is beautiful and I enjoy living it.”
Frank taught himself how to cope with his extra appendage – ultimately becoming able to “run, jump, ride a bicycle or a horse, ice-skate or roller-skate, and drive my own car. I can swim. I even have an advantage over the other fellow in swimming – I use the extra limb as a rudder!” For everyday public life Lentini would frequently wear a raincoat to hide his third extremity.
And, as witnessed by Dick Lasher, he could kick a ball with it “which provided a good tag for his part of the show”. Lentini was also a charming and entertaining conversationalist and a good portion of his performance shtick was built around this skill. During his act Lentini would chat with the audience while using his extra limb as s stool. “He fielded questions ranging from his innocent hobbies to the particulars of his sex life. He was also often asked about his shoes. People wondered if it was difficult to buy shoes in a set of three. Showing his mental sharpness, he always revealed that he bought two pairs and gave the extra one to a one-legged friend.”
Lentini also told his story in a “pitchbook” entitled “The Life History of Francesco A. Lentini, Three Legged Wonder” (six pages of text with one photograph), which he sold for twenty-five cents during his act. In the pamphlet Lentini wrote about his unique anatomy, and also preached his own ideas about good hygiene and healthy sexual practice — in his words “the vital truths of sex life.”
“The purpose of this volume is to give in concise form, and in plain, clean, common-sense language, the all-important information about sex and procreation and the appertaining law of health and hygiene as established by the best modern authorities.” The chapters are: “Obey Nature’s Laws”, “Poisons Are Not Remedies”, “The Mother During Pregnancy”, “Illicit Intercourse” and “Physicology of Sex Life”.
Some of these same “modern authorities” however contributed to the demise of the freak show as a popular form of entertainment – “previously mysterious anomalies were scientifically explained as genetic mutations or diseases, freaks became the objects of pity rather than fear or disdain.” In 1908 an article in Scientific American asserted that these exhibitions were “inhumane and barbaric”.
During the late 1930s the American public was beginning to view the “differently-bodied” not as entertainment but rather as diseased people with disorders. A 1931 Michigan law forbad the “exhibition [of] any deformed human being or human monstrosity, except as used for scientific purposes.” By 1950 sideshows began to die out, as the public demanded that the performers be given “dignity” instead of being exhibited. As a result many “freaks” went into institutions or onto the welfare system. Frank Lentini was among those who opposed the change in attitude saying that most of the performers did this because it was their only way to make a living.
On April 29, 1926 – at the beginning of the decline of the sideshow and three years prior to the start of America’s Great Depression – Frank and Theresa Lentini purchased Lot 27 of “Brimfield Gardens” aka 181 Brimfield Road in Wethersfield. The deed on file at Wethersfield Town Hall lists both grantees as being from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at that time. The Lentinis assumed mortgages of $5,000 to City Bank and Trust and $2,750 (reduced from $3,300) to Lena Peterson and Hannah Swanson. The 1930 U.S. Census lists Frank, Theresa and their four children as residents of the town and that year’s Wethersfield City Directory shows Frank Lentini’s occupation as “circus performer”.
The 1920s was the decade that saw the greatest percentage increase ever in Wethersfield’s overall population – 73% or 3,170 people. About one quarter of the potential one hundred or so houses on Brimfield Road were built before or during that time, giving the street a patchwork, semi-rural appearance in contemporaneous aerial photographs. More were completed on the eastern half however, so when the Lentini’s house at 181 Brimfield was finished in 1930 the dwellings immediately surrounding it had already been constructed and were occupied.
But the Lentini’s move to Wethersfield was not, like their earlier move to Middletown, part of any significant Italian immigration to their new hometown – and the immediately surrounding homes were occupied by names such as Carslon, Vietes, Heslin and Flynn.
According Rafaele Fierro, an historian of Italian history, “Only a handful of Italians lived in Wethersfield in the 1920s and 1930s (this is not including, of course, the State Prison, where, in 1920, 154 Italians were housed there – 29% of the entire prison population). About 9,000 lived in Hartford during this time, but a generation later they would begin migrating to Wethersfield and other towns.”
During his stay in Wethersfield “The Great Lentini” performed at least once in the local area. The October 19th and 20th 1928 Harford Courants announced “A Study in Contrasts [an] offering of Lentini and Company at the Allyn Theater” on Asylum Street in Hartford. On the bill with “the only man in the world with three legs”, is Major Del Bert (“the smallest man in America”), Ruth Duncan (“the smallest woman in the world”), Milton Douglas and his Orchestra, and the Three Lido Boys (“accomplished songsters and musicians”).
On October 20, 1937 Frank transferred the property to Theresa for the pro forma price of $1.00. This conveyance document shows the residence of both Lentinis as Los Angeles, California and the legal agreement was physically executed in a Santa Barbara, California court. The contract may have been a “sleight-of-hand” accounting move to protect some assets, or a possible indication of problems in the relationship between Frank and Theresa. Next year, on September 28, the Home Owners Loan Corporation foreclosed on 181 Brimfield Road with a lien on the property “now or formally owned by Frank A. and Theresa Lentini, now Theresa Lentini.” – indicating that the property was at that time officially in Theresa’s name only. In June 1945 the Metropolitan District Commission served a lien on Theresa herself for an overdue assessment to finance the Folly Brook Trunk Sewers.
There are references to The Great Lentini (aka “The King”) appearing in shows such as “The Surf Ave. Circus Sideshow” at Coney Island, New York through the 1940s and 1950s.
Slim Price writing on sideshowworld.com recalls – “When I first met Frank Lentini he was featured with Fred Sindell’s Cavalcade Variety Show, about 1949….. He was a man who radiated gentleness and wisdom. My best guess is that he was in his late 40’s then and had a charisma I’ve never known since.
“His wife was as genteel as he, and reminded me of Barbara Belle [sic] Geddes, the star of ‘I Remember Mama.’
“Most of his act consisted of Q and A, and one day an audience member asked smugly how he dealt with the third leg. His answer always stuck in my mind and even now fifty years later, I can still hear his gentle answer, ‘If you lived in a world where everyone had just one arm, how would you cope with two?’”
And a photo of an “Unknown ca 1950s sideshow group, including several famous freaks who were still living” shows “Francesco Lentini and wife Teresa Murray Lentini.” Neither the location nor reason for the gathering is given. The woman directly to Frank Lentini’s right on the right closely resembles the aforementioned actress.
Contributors to thehumanmarvels.com website remember Frank Lentini from his time living in Florida – one saying “he and his wife lived in the same neighborhood in Miami, Florida where I grew up….in a little cottage style house surrounded by trees and wild flowers. This was in his later years of life, his wife remained living in the house after his death.”
Another former acquaintance recollects, “[Frank and his] wife Helen they were my neighbors for many years we exchanged Xmas gifts” and owned “a large piece of property where they also had 3/4 small cottages where they would allow their circus friends stay for the winter.”
Sources indicate that Theresa (Murray) Lentini died January 1965 in Broward, Florida – one year and nine months prior to Frank’s demise. Could Helen be Frank Lentini’s second wife or a companion in his later life?
One other reference – “The People’s Almanac – Footnote People in American History” by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace mentions “[Frank], Helen, and their four children – all healthy and normal – made his home for many years in Wethersfield, Conn.”
The issue of Frank Lentini’s Florida hometown is also not totally settled. One of the Lentini’s two former neighbors above remembers him from his Miami (southern Florida) neighborhood.
But “Carny Folk: The World’s Weirdest Sideshow Acts” by Francine Hornberger avers that Lentini “retired from show business in the early 1960s and moved with his family to Gibsonton, Florida, home of retired freaks.” Ten miles south of Tampa, Florida [in mid west Florida] – “Gibtown”, as it is called by its 8,000 residents, was once the retirement site or home-base for a variety of mostly-circus show business performers. Town citizens such as Priscilla the Monkey Girl, the Alligator Man, the Lobster family, or Dotty the Fat Lady, who may have met with some degree of social rejection in other locales, were treated as average people bonded together by the nomadic lifestyle of the traveling show.
Even after moving to Florida The Great Lentini never stopped touring. According to “The People’s Almanac” he was traveling with the Walter Wanous Sideshow when he fell ill and was hospitalized in Jackson, Tenn. This source goes on to say that he died there on Sept. 22, 1966, at the age of 77. Other materials indicate his place of death as Jacksonville, Florida on the same date. The author sought official death information from the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Florida and the Tennessee Department of Health Office of Vital Records.
Florida replied that it had no record of a Frank Lentini dying in that state in 1966. Tennessee did. The “Certificate of Death” from Tennessee reads in part:
Name, Frank Octavis Lentini; Date of Death, Sept.21, 1966; Widowed; Date of Birth, May 19, 1889; Birthplace, Rossolini (sic), Italy; Age 77; Place of Death, Jackson; Usual Residence of Deceased, Uleta, Florida [western section of North Miami Beach]; name of Husband or Wife, Theresa Murray Lentini; Informant, Natale Lentini; Kind of Business or Industry, Cliff Wilson Shows; Usual Occupation, Showman.
On Ellis Island a quote speaks to the Italian immigrant experience and, the author believes, to the life of Frank Lentini. “I was told that in America the streets are paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: one, the streets were not paved with gold; two, the streets were not paved at all; and three, I had to pave them.”
In the 1900s a number of “freaks” like Francesco Lentini (some immigrants, some not) showcased their disabilities in order to pave their way to the American dream of family, home and financial security.
“For the most part, the whole thing was a joke to the people who participated in it,” says Robert Bogdan in his book, “Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit”. “It wasn’t this heavy, dark thing. For them, the issue was: How much am I going to get paid to get gawked at? They were people trying to make a living. I’ve interviewed promoters who have said, ‘We didn’t exploit them. We gave them good money and contracts. You’re the one who’s exploiting them, writing about them without paying them a dime.'”
Despite the unconventionality of his career (or perhaps because of it) the life of Frank Lentini is an immigrant success story of historical significance.
“Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with the trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” (Diane Arbus)
by William Woodsworth
All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here – Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvelous craft
Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters. Tents and Booths
Meanwhile, as if the whole were one vast mill,
Are vomiting, receiving on all sides,
Men, Women, three-years’ Children, Babes in arms.
Hartford Courant: September 27, 1959
Town Clerk, Wethersfield CT
“Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit”, Robert Bogdan, University of Chicago Press, 1988.
“The People’s Almanac”, David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace, 1975 – 1981
“Carny Folk: The World’s Weirdest Sideshow Acts”, Francine Hornberger, Citadel Press
Photo of adult Frank Lentini from http://www.oddycentral.co.uk/the-man-with-three-legs
About the Author: Jim Meehan