the bones of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and a kidney stone the
size of a peach removed from the Duke of Marlborough, in a shaded nook
of the Royal London Hospital Archives and Museum, sits a forgotten wood-framed
vitrine. Inside the vitrine is a second solid box made of sturdy pine
and, although quite old, painted a shining black. At first sight the long,
narrow box resembles the case of some prodigious musical instrument, an
overly large oboe or bassoon. A more martial observer might think it the
home of giant Dutch blunderbuss or a medieval pike. Both suppositions
are in error, for the case is in fact a temporary coffin. The adjoining
display sheds graphic light on the case’s purpose, but the small card
covered in neatly typed lines and affixed to a corner of the glass is
a subtle and better way to begin. The case, the card explains, is the
traveling tomb of J.H. Walter, better known as the Serpent-Man, a contortionist
performing with Martin’s Circus and Menagerie across the British Isles,
with occasional jaunts to the continent, in the two decades preceding
the twentieth century.
That a man like Walter could fit into the case—for
although fairly long, it is still very narrow—is not too difficult to
believe. His precursor in the rubber-limb art, a man by the name of Wentworth,
structured his whole act around his ability to fold himself within a box
23x29x16 inches and once within, having himself covered by seventy-two
bottles of English soda water. The box was then sealed and after a few
minutes, the lid and bottles removed. Wentworth sprung forth, his body
miraculously assuming a normal shape, and commenced sipping a bottle of
the soda water. He called the act Packanatomicalization.
Another performer in Paris assumed the stage curled
within a sphere double the size of a modern medicine ball. He would compel
the ball to roll up a plank and back down before squeezing out and continuing
with his act.
The black case was not used in Walter’s act; he was
an artist who preferred to work with his body alone. The case went with
him everywhere, from city to city, from town to town. A label with the
address not of Walter but of a London physician can still be seen glued
to the exterior, but the writing has long since blurred and nothing more
than the name of the city can be made out. Gummed to the red velvet inside
was a small packet of papers, each in a different language but bearing
the same message:
The persons who place the acrobat, J.H. Walter,
in this coffin, are begged to inject a solution of chloride of mercury
and acetic acid into his veins, according to the method used by the American,
In default of the above, an injection of about four
quarts and a half of sulphate of zinc may be used. The latter is even
preferable, if the coffin will be more than forty days on the road.
How Walter acquired this object, which understandably
came to haunt him, what it did to his promising career, and the mysteries
that still attend it are story enough, but this account hopes to get at
something deeper. What it means to be a Serpent-Man. How he cannot help
When the sun was still rising on Empire, in a world
where lilac-scented Wilde delighted theater audiences while a butcher
carved up wretches in Whitechapel, when everything, great or small, seemed
covered in part by smoke, soot, or mist, Walter achieved great success
with acts of physical dexterity. He wore a black bodysuit, stitched-over
in silver spangles, creating shimmering, twisting coils as he moved. He
always began standing with his back to the audience and would twist around
his spine until his head could look out into the darkness. He would then
bend at the waist, until his face touched the back of his knees. From
this position, he could grab an ankle with one hand and stretch the other
flat upon the floor. Other times he sat down upon the stage and pulled
his legs up and around his neck, crossing them in a way so that his head
looked like a skull and his legs, the supporting crossbones.
Imagine what he must have meant to his audience. To
men bound by thick overcoats and wool shirts, waistcoats weighted by gold
and brass watches, heads squeezed by tall hats. Women with their curves
twisted in whalebone and wire, hidden beneath long skirts and half a dozen
petticoats. Here was this man in a skein of black cloth bending and shifting,
contorting in ways the Creator had not made possible, but he was doing
it. He must have appeared a miracle
He claimed his ability derived from maternal impression,
his mother having kept by her bed an engraving of the Fall during her
confinement and favoring the image of the serpent over that of Adam. In
private, he might be more revealing, saying his father began bending him
at an early age, determined to create the world’s greatest contortionist.
His father was a gymnast of some ability, but he knew real wealth and
fame came from being an oddity. He would make his son one.
“He sometimes broke my bones in training,” Walter explains.
“But I never held it against him. He understood the trade.”
Along with a passion for performing and a love of circus
life, Walter inherited something else from his father, a predilection
for speculation with cards and dice. Gambling was the Serpent-Man’s temptation,
his principal vice, but he dealt with it with a certain pride. He knew
the way some women looked at him, the trapeze artists who fluttered above
the gaslights like moths each evening and below in the bleachers the respectable
matrons, fingers in their silk gloves itching for touch and caressing
sugared almonds or a folded program. He knew what they saw in his twisting
and turning, what they thought of him in comparison to their heavy, dull
husbands and lovers. But he stayed away from the admiration of women like
a true mendicant, believing if he wrapped himself around limbs other than
his own, the purity of his art would surely suffer. And he had seen what
devoted love could do as well, in the form of the knife thrower, who after
his assistant rejected him, stripped the flesh from his arms and legs
with the very knives used in his performance, a billet-doux in
blood. Every circus performer had his vice—the strongman his alcohol,
the Ossified Man his opium—it was the way to stay centered when traveling
from city to city, from village to town, to remind yourself of who you
are. Your vice became the linchpin of identity, the key, the constant.
You cultivated it to keep away the loneliness of endless travel, the rootlessness
of the nomad’s life, the feeling of having no place and no purpose. At
least I don’t harm myself bodily, Walter thought. At least my habit
does not detract from my art.
So gamble he did, sometimes with the lion tamer and
Percy the Dwarf around an open fire at night, sometimes in a tavern or
pub. In the off-season, he went to Evian or Monte Carlo or Venice, living
a frail life of luxury and losing great sums. He often considered marking
his place in the suicide’s cemetery with a stone monument of a serpent
coiled around a massive playing card, but then the circus season would
start again and the managers would come calling with fat advances and
contracts dripping in gold ink. A whole month’s salary could be lost in
the draw of a single card, but Walter never hesitated, always assured
his body could replace what his mind and temperament had lost. As long
as the world kept itself tied in knots, people would marvel at him tying
himself in knots. The wonder will never cease, he reasoned, and gambled
At one particular low point, having lost the remainder
of his advance and two month’s worth of his salary, he wagered his wagon.
When he lost that, he began to sleep outside with only a blanket wrapped
around his shoulders, shivering at the edge of the circus fire. When the
blanket went with an unfortunate roll of the dice, Walter for the first
time began to worry. It was not good for him to be outside without protection
of any kind. Part of his success as a contortionist derived from the malformation
of his lungs, which were the size of the respiratory organs of a boy of
twelve, and he knew they were particularly susceptible to inflammation.
One day consumption would take hold and that would be the end of the Serpent-Man.
He thought of his body, of its ability to erase his debts, but even ten
performances a night could not now cover what he owed. He thought of his
body and then of the famed hunchback of the Pont d’ Austerlitz, a beggar
who could shift his misshapen mass from shoulder to shoulder and twist
his spine in a circle. His bleached bones, displayed in a Paris museum,
still drew a crowd. Walter asked Percy for pen and paper—the writing tool
no longer than the contortionist’s little finger, the inkwell no bigger
than a thimble—and wrote a notice meant for publication in The Era,
a sort of trade journal among circus types. A week later the notice appeared
in print communicating:
J.H. Walter, the celebrated Serpent-Man, will dispose
of his skeleton upon his death for one thousand guineas, payable at once.
A week after that, Walter, performing in London at
the time, received a response from a local physician. Walter agreed to
meet the doctor after the evening performance. Gentlemen physicians at
this time were Hans Holbein dreams, appearing more like undertakers than
soothers of bodily ills. The individual who turned up outside the red-striped
tent of the circus did not depart from the pattern. He wore a very black,
very stiff suit and carried himself with the proper reserve. He was a
bit shorter and a bit wider than he should have been for the role. His
skin was dark; a few threads of white hair provided contrast. He spoke
in a soft, seductive way, proving death really had a siren’s call. Walter
undressed as instructed, and the physician listened to the Serpent-Man’s
heart and ran his delicate fingers up the artist’s spine, lingering for
a moment upon each vertebra.
Percy later claimed to recognize the man. He was the
same surgeon who bought bodies from Burke and Hare but did not join them
in their swing on the gallows. No, no, said the Ossified Man between protracted
draws on his reed-thin pipe. That’s the man who wanted O’Brien the Irish
Giant’s bones. When the Giant refused, the fellow hounded him. Turning
up at every exhibition, determined to get the bones. And when the Giant
died, having paid sympathetic fishermen to dump his massive corpse at
sea, the doctor paid the fishermen a greater sum and got his bones.
Walter did not believe the stories, for the physician
would have been very old if he were either individual. All he was concerned
with was the check the man produced after his examination. It seemed to
appear in his gloved hands the way a coin or card does in the palm of
the conjuror. Walter took the check without a second thought, and the
doctor said he would return the next day with a special case, a temporary
coffin, if Walter were to die while traveling.
This is how Walter acquired his curious black case
with its instructions for embalming and bearing the address of the mysterious
doctor. His bones were no longer his property, but he thought nothing
of it. He had a thousand guineas, enough to last for a spell, enough to
keep away the cold and consumption. His body could now do the rest.
It would be pleasant to assume Walter carried the coffin
with him as a conversation piece, incorporated it into his act, and when
he finally died—not from disease but from breaking his neck, as befits
the world’s greatest disarticulated artist—his bones found eternal rest
in some country churchyard. But such is not the case. Almost immediately
the presence of the case began to trouble him, but he could not bring
himself to leave it in some city or town or village. He said it was because
he was a man of his word, but there was something more. Nor could he return
the doctor’s money, for he had gambled it away in a month’s time, despite
having promised himself to have changed his ways.
Faro tables at Evian led to gambler’s dens in SoHo,
crisp cards to slippery dice. Walter lost his wagon a second time to the
Ossified Man, who seemed to possess a rare talent at Van John. Left alone
with his stretched wool blanket, his black and silver costume thinning
at the knee and elbow, Walter continued to place wagers by the fireside.
His nightly earnings, instead of bringing food and a bed, slipped into
the pockets of other men. A soft, consistent cough settled into the chest
of the contortionist. He wished to break his neck on stage, to perish
in a way honorable to circus folk, but knew his demise would be slow,
prolonged, the slim flesh of his body receding into bone. Bone that would
go to a London physician. Bone that would be bleached and strung on wire,
poked at by boys in long, gray coats, prodded by the curious who now gathered
to see the wonders of his muscles and tendons. The thought of forever
being on display began to horrify him.
The king of hearts, that mad-self-regicidal-throat-stabbing-thug,
mocked him, for there was never a card that better captured the gambler’s
situation, his self-determined dance with death. The Serpent-Man knew
he was killing himself by degrees, but he could not stop. The same impulse
that compelled him to bend and torque under gaslight, the same craving
for huzzah and applause, made him gamble in a good frenzy.
I am a good man, he would tell himself as the last
farthing disappeared. I do not drink. I do not consort with women of low
character. I work hard. I use all the talents the Creator bestowed. But
I have this frailty of temperament. This little weakness, not of my own
making. Were I not to have it, I would not be me. Not be Walter, the Serpent-Man,
the greatest disarticulated artist in the world.
As the cough worsened and tubercular sores blossomed
on his bluish skin, the Serpent-Man did not stop his play. He said he
would, promised himself he would, and perhaps he would hold onto his wages
for an evening, for two or three nights, but then someone, perhaps Percy
the Dwarf would rattle a can with dice, and Walter would assume his seat
by the fire, unroll the bills kept in a tobacco tin, and reach out his
disjointed, frail hand. The dream of winning it all back did not consume
him, for he had long ago given up that hope, but the desire to play remained
strong. At this point he became almost philosophical. Why was he compelled
to dissipate himself? Was he angry at his father for turning him into
this monstrosity of rubber limbs and rotating spinal column? Did the desire
to appear before the public produce a twin desire to remove himself from
its scrutiny? Was he sick in the head as well as the lungs? Was he really
just a weak man? His soul as elastic as his skin?
All the while, the black case came with him. It was
the one thing he would not wager. The one sign of self-control, of honoring
a gentleman’s agreement. Even though he began to loathe the black case,
to view it as his personal sword of Damocles. At times he blamed the case
for his misery. How easy it is to die when one sees one’s coffin before
him, when one is continually reminded of his ultimate fate. What is the
point of living when death is, regardless of the quality of the act, the
final performance? He became convinced the physician was following him
as well. Thought he saw him among the men gathered around the knife thrower
at a show in Manchester. Mixed in with spectators of the menagerie in
Bristol. The same grave, black-clothed figure, curiously small and dark-skinned,
but smooth and evil, unrelenting. He would collect his debt. He would
Then came the night he gambled with the dwarf and the
Ossified Man. An unfortunate fall of the dice lost him his stretched wool
blanket, a gift from his mother. She had been an equilibrist of some fame,
once crossing high above the Danube on a cord no thicker than a broom
hair. He remembered the end of her performances, how she blew kisses to
the crowd beneath her, bounced on the cord and back into the awaiting
net. For a brief moment before the soft mesh cradled her body, his mother
flew, and he knew the wonder he hoped to inspire. He never thought of
her leap as reckless, as a precursor of his own behavior. Now it seemed
so obvious. She didn’t fly. She fell.
The dwarf did not care for Walter’s teary-eyed stories
about his mother. He wiggled his maggot-like fingers and took hold of
the wool. Then he rolled the dice, and Walter parted company with his
silver spangles. No longer would he appear to slither upon the stage.
In his black bodysuit, he would appear a shadow, changing shape with the
flicker of the lamps.
“I’ll cut them down,” the dwarf said merrily. “Make
myself some right proper new robes.”
“Don’t forget my share.” The Ossified Man winked and
raised a skeleton finger to the side of his nose.
The Serpent-Man considered his situation and coughed
into the hollow of his hand. After a moment, he placed the black case
before the fire. It was all he had left, but he could not help himself.
He took the can from the dwarf. He said a small prayer and rolled.
With the loss of his coffin, Walter seemed to welcome
death. The contortionist became too ill to perform, and it was out of
pity and respect for his former talents that the circus manager did not
leave him by the side of the road but cleared a space for him in one of
the vacant menagerie cages, stocked it with straw and a sheet of muslin.
A stiffness struck the Serpent-Man’s limbs and then a sort of silence.
He wept bitterly over the state of his body.
“It gave me everything,” he said between lips barely
parted. “And it’s all I have left. I’ve betrayed it. I’ve betrayed it.”
He wanted his body burned on a pier. He would honor
it in death even though he corrupted it in life. It was his last possession,
and he would retain it. He made the dwarf swear to honor this deathbed
The dwarf had other plans. No sooner was the discovery
of the Serpent-Man’s body stretched out and motionless in the menagerie
cage made than the London physician appeared. He removed his bankbook
with a sly smile and, after a moment’s haggling, retrieved his black case
from the dwarf. Then he claimed the contortionist’s body and, despite
rigor mortis, folded it into the velvet-lined tomb. Boiling off the skimpy
flesh in lime water required little effort for a man so skilled. He took
the bones to his house near the coast where the sea air bleached them.
He varnished them with egg white. Then after using leather and brass wire
to string up the skeleton, he removed an ivory-handled glass from his
coat pocket to better inspect peculiarities in structure. Many long hours
were spent studying his new acquisition, and he often joked to himself
that he would have gladly paid two thousand guineas for such a fine specimen.
The bones, along with the black case, eventually made
their way to the Museum and Archives. Visitors can still see the skeleton
of the Serpent-Man, brittle as a bird’s, nearly translucent in the faint
museum light. Thick glass keeps the curious from poking the ribs or bending
back the slender fingers. One wonders at the fun the doctor must have