Articles

Mermaids Made to Measure

Do you need a wambeezil? Or a whiffenpoof? Archie Johnston liked freaks so much that he started in making his own. A mummy will set you back about $125

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN June 1 1950
Articles

Mermaids Made to Measure

Do you need a wambeezil? Or a whiffenpoof? Archie Johnston liked freaks so much that he started in making his own. A mummy will set you back about $125

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN June 1 1950

Mermaids Made to Measure

Do you need a wambeezil? Or a whiffenpoof? Archie Johnston liked freaks so much that he started in making his own. A mummy will set you back about $125

Articles

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

ARCHIE EDWARD JOHNSTON IS a banjoeyed, sporty-looking ex-sideshow pitchman of 56 who makes fake mummies, mermaids, man-fish, two-headed giants, dog-faced boys, pigheaded girls, wambeezils, whiffenpoofs and other biological accidents for carnivals, collectors, phony museums, curiosity shops and anyone who wants to gather a crowd.

The chances are that you have paid to see these fakes on the CNE midway or at any of several touring carnivals ant! l\;ve l>een fooled by them

along with the rest of the spectators. With 30 years of experience Johnston can turn out jobs that only experts can distinguish from genuine exhumed, embalmed and pickled freaks of nature.

Yet, for versatile Archie this is but a sideline. For five months of each year he works for the Canadian National Exhibition, where he is in charge of the bill room, a branch of the publicity department which looks after the distribution of advertising posters. Also he does rough carpentry, and contracts for general building repairs, working out of his house in Toronto’s old Cabbage Town, where he lives with his 83-year-old mother.

The evening I talked to him a fossilized mermaid

lay cheek down on his desk like a tired zombie trying to do one more pushup. Mermaids have been wriggling through the pages of literature for hundreds of years, surfacing in stormy seas off remote coasts, getting caught in nets, giving out lamentations of distress, and nostalgically putting their ears to shells.

“I’ve done a lot of mermaids,” Johnston says softly, blinking from beneath the green visor he sometimes wears. “People seem to go for them. Nice hips and long hair, but no sex.”

Anyone who likes to think of a mermaid as something resembling Hedy Lamarr with fins would get. a nasty shock Continued on page '(4

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from one of Johnston’s ghoulishly realistic jobs, which have the general appearance of a chicken rack rolled in mud, given a face and human hair and viewed through a fog of green beer and dill pickles.

Johnston starts with an animal skull, usually a cat’s, builds it up with papier-mâché into a nightmarish likeness of a human face, provides it with real hair which he scrounges from a hairdresser friend, gives it the right appearance of decay by dipping it first into a dilute solution of sulphuric acid and sawdust, then into soda; then he adds leg segments of chicken bones, a torso of a beaver’s ribs and vertebrae, fingernails of chicken claws, teeth of polished codfish bones, and a posterior of pure fish. Sturgeon are best, but sometimes Johnston uses yellow pick-

The whole thing is given a dug-up look by smearing it with papier-mâché mixed with burnt umber and colored clays. Johnston then moistens the “body” and sprinkles it with a mixture of black loam, sifted ashes and sand, and dries it rapidly, sometimes over his stove, to prov'ide a nice shriveled, atrophied complexion.

When Johnston ships it off to the customer he composes and encloses a spiel which has a tone of scientific sincerity which is actually pure hooey. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he writes, “you are looking at the marvelously preserved boc y of a woman-fish or mermaid. Actually these specimens are not rare. A great number have been found along the shores of the China Seas— probably washed ashore by tidal waves and buried in the hot, preserving silicon sands for centuries.” Other curios are “preserved by absorbing arsenic from the clay of the caves in which they lay for untold ages.”

The last price list Johnston published, before the war, listed: Egyptian Mummies, $50; Hieroglyphical Case, $50; Two-Headed Giant, 9 feet high, complete with traveling case, $37.50; Mermaids, $30 to $40; Small Mermaids, $20; Boma Twins (a name invented by Johnston for his own version of Siamese twins), $35; Dog-Faced Boy, $20; Pig-Headed Girl, $20; African Pigmy, $28. Johnston’s freak-making has tapered off a bit in the last couple of years, so that he’s a little hazy about current prices, but, with the cost of living as it is, he doubts if it would be worth his time to turn out a mummy today for less than $125.

A Mummy in His Yard

Johnston first got the idea of manufacturing these weird wonderful creatures when, soon after World War I, he became connected with the old Grand Opera House in Toronto as cloakroom and candy-counter concessionaire and part-time propman. A regular reader of Billboard, a theatrical magazine, he often ran across advertisementH drawing the attention of carnival owners to the merits of fake freaks, which don’t have to be fed. Johnston made a test run on a small mummified girl. It turned out pretty well, although by his present standards it was a crude beginning.

“Them days, I just boiled old newspapers,” he says. “Now I have superior methods.”

His career didn’t really start until in 1924 he temporarily left the Grand Opera House and shipped as assistant steward on the Y'irterbo, a Norwegian

tramp which took him to Africa. In a museum in Cairo, Egypt, he saw a lot of genuine mummies. During World War I, while in London with the Royal Canadian Engineers, he had seen the mummy of Sety, an Egyptian warrior who lived about 1300 B.C., and his semitranslucent coffin in the British Museum. Always vaguely interested in this sort of thing Johnston had made bales of notes. Now he made a lot more.

When he got back to Toronto he ran an ad in Billboard and got an order for a mummy right away from the Heidelberg Museum, a phony freak spot in St. Paul, Minn. He used a sheep’s skull, some boiled newspapers, sugar sacking, sand, ashes, paint and miscellaneous guck. He bleached the sugar sacking, rubbed it with ashes, bleached it again, then dragged it through the mud a few times before cutting it into mummy bandages.

“You can fool the so-called experts, but not the real authorities,” Johnston says. “An Egyptologist could spot my fake mummies at a glance because, for one thing, a real mummy is bound in a cloth of ancient Egyptian weave. Short of swiping one of the Pharaohs’ spinning wheels you can’t fake that

He buried the whole mess in his yard and dug it up again, just to give it an extra touch of authenticity, and whipped it off, enclosing an invoice and a spiel. A week later the cheque arrived. A year later, when he visited the Heidelberg Museum, he listened to a lecture on his mummy, which the lecturer described as “the marvelously embalmed body of a beautiful Egyptian slave girl who lived 3,000 years ago.”

Red Hair and Harp Hips

He made quite a few mummies after that. He got orders from the Victory Shows, a small carnival which toured Canada in the early ’30s, another quack place in Buffalo called Doctor Lynn’s Museum, Solomon’s Amusement Park, on Toronto’s Centre Island, and several other buyers. But after the first mummy he had already begun to extend his technique to bigger and more hideous things.

Johnston’s freaks, although several points below zero aesthetically, are cleverly realistic jobs with proven box-office appeal. In 1932 he made a mermaid for an English showman named Harry Humphries who took it to Britain and exhibited it in a silklined casket with a glass cover at a hobbies and models exhibition in Manchester City Hall. Humphries reported that more than 8,000 people saw it in a week.

The mermaid was exhibited around Britain for five years until it wore out from repeated shipping. Mermaids, and an occasional merman, have been among Johnston’s most consistent best sellers. In 1942 he made a mermaid four feet, six inches long for another synthetic palace of culture, the Well’s Curiosity Shop, in Philadelphia. With the war on, he tailored his spiel to public feeling: “This fossil was a

Japanese Man-Fish, an evolutionary beginning ol the Japanese race.”

Sometimes Johnston makes freaks just to see how gruesome he can get. He gives them names that are only slightly less horrible than the models: the williespoof, the whiffenpoof, the warnheezil, III«' dragon of St. Vitus. One of these, the warnheezil, an indigestible mixture of rabbit arid deer, was spotted by the late Lou Marsh, sports columnist for the Toronto Star, who ran a deadpan description of it in his column and gave its habitat as the Holland River swamps, near Schömberg. fint When sceptical letters to

the editors began to arrive Marsh got a wambeezil from Johnston and displayed it in the Toronto Star window.

Unabashed by the bronx cheers of his readers Marsh followed this up by exhibiting another Johnston job, a 17-inch mermaid with a long crop of red hair, shapely hips, a sharklike tail and two dorsal fins, which Marsh termed a shebe-fish, or golliwog carp, “a petromummified specimen of the Plethodonglutinoserne family.”

In 1930 Johnston made an octopus for the Johnny J. Jones Show at the Canadian National Exhibition. Jones wanted a genuine octopus, but Johnston talked him into using a rubber octopus which could be taken out of the tank after every show, washed off, and shipped to the next stand in a box. Johnston got hold of a real baby octopus from a fisherman, kept it in his hotel bathtub for a couple of days, then, when it died, preserved it in alcohol. Using it as a model he made a seven-foot octopus in clay. He made a plaster mold and cast the finished product from melted-down printer’s press rollers. It was a huge success.

In 1929 he made a two-headed baby for one of the sideshow operators in the Victory Shows. He used paraffin, beeswax and resin, “preserved” the monster in a bottle of water. The operator threw in a scientific lecture by one of the carnival girls who was rigged up in a nurse’s uniform.

One hot day when the sideshow operator was exhibiting it in Quebec City the “baby” put the “nurse” off her game by melting right in front of everybody’s eyes and floating to the top of the bottle.

Selling Sodas and Snake Oil

Johnston is the eldest of a family of four brothers and two sisters* He was born on Friday, April 13, 1894, at Carleton Place, near Ottawa. As a youngster he spent most of his time roaming around the woods stalking everything that flew, ran, jumped or crawled.

His father, a bridge and building master with the CPR, wanted him to be a railway man, but in the meantime went along with the gag by buying young Archie a book on taxidermy and some glass eyes. The joke was on Johnston Senior. It was enough to start Junior off, at the age of 11, as an amateur taxidermist and to head him in the rough direction of natural science, a course that, although he has veered considerably, he has never changed.

Swotting through a public-school and high-school education made no appreciable change in Johnston’s taste for off-trail interests; nor did an engineering course at McGill University, which he dropped at the outbreak of World War I to join the Royal Canadian Engineers.

After his war service he began to do so many things that he now has a hard time sorting them out. He made a buying trip to Mexico for Louis Rhue, a New York wholesale animal and bird dealer, hoboed around the States, worked as soda jerk and snake-oil salesman, and finally became a circus pitchman and advance billing agent. Whenever he was home in Toronto he picked up his loose connections with the Grand Opera House and ran a boys’ camp at Head Lake in Northern Ontario.

With confusing versatility he invented an electrocution box for animals, a ring curb for circus horses, a nickelodeon machine for penny arcades, a toy gun and carved birds for door knockers.

He made ventriloquists’ dummies, a cow that rolled its eyes, a dice trick and an egg trick. He built papiermaché window display miniatures of horse cars, prehistoric animals and insects for the Canadian National Exhibition, the Toronto Transportation Commission, Woolworths and the T. Eaton Company. For Thurston the magician he built a false-bottomed trunk and other apparatus. He made a complete miniature set of a Belgian village for Captain Bruce Bairnsfather’s Canadian-made movie. “Carry On, Sergeant,” and “bombed it out” for the cameras with a .22 rifle.

Two-Headed Man Was Real

The ethics of helping take people in with his fake freaks leaves Johnston unmoved. As long as people get their money’s worth by thinking they see what they pay to see nobody has been gypped, he feels. He even thinks it has a certain merit, although he is a bit vague about this.

“1 think it’s . ah . . . nice to fool people . . mmm ” Johnston has a habit of letting these observations trail into a soft humming sound.

Recalling the days he was with Barnum and Bailey, Johnston says, “Our circus freaks were the real thing. They were just poor unfortunate people. The fat lady was overweight, the tall man had pituitary gland trouble.” He recalls, too, rather enviously, that Barnum and Bailey had a real two-headed man. The second head was a freak of nature; small and dormant, it grew from the top of the man’s normal skull.

Johnston’s hobbies have got him into trouble on occasion. One night, in the back yard of his house on Toronto’s Wellesley St., which runs into a graveyard, he was tugging and twisting in a frenzy of creative inspiration at a mummy that was too big to get onto his workbench. He was spotted by horrified neighbors, who quickly phoned the police and reported him as a ghoul.

“Crazy people,” Archie shrugs, if