Elasto Man and the Siamese Sisters
The “Circus World Museum” in Baraboo, Wisconsin is dedicated to an amazing collection of people and their stories as a traveling circus. With over a hundred years of memories stored in one place, people come to relive the heyday of when the circus traveled far and wide to bring feats of daring and strength, dazzling displays of colors and glitter, to cities everywhere. When the circus came to town, they brought with them, magic. Elephants pulled up big tents in abandoned lots. After the tent was set, posters displaying the coming attractions were posted all over town. Excitement reverberated. The high wire act drew in many people. Women in sparkling outfits, men in tight leotards flew across the sky on swings with only a small net far beneath them, should they slip and fall while defying gravity. Animals, calliopes, bands, cotton candy and popcorn hawkers. Circus visitors were breathlessly entertained and transformed as soon as they entered that world. The circus is rich in stories, some of them tall tales. The museum recording the history of circus life is complete with pictures of oddities, the bearded lady, the contortionist, Elasto-Man, the Siamese Sisters, lizard boy, two-headed cow, the six-legged sheep. Things nightmares were made of held viewers in rapt awe under the “Big Top”.
There has always been a seedy side to the circus. Drifters, grifters, charlatans trying to find a way to separate you from your money. But the inhabitants? Those folks were fiercely loyal to one another. They formed a misfit family thrown together by circumstance. In the museum you will find a display with pictures of Elliot “Elasto-Man,” and the famous “Siamese Sisters,” Ann and Annette Schemmer, conjoined twins. Today, I bring you their tale.
Elliot Gaston had stretchy skin, a condition he had when he was born in Paris, France in 1898. Elliot came to the United States to find work in the circus. In the early 1920s, Elliot received the name “Elasto-Man” because he could pull the skin of his cheeks away from his face over five inches in either direction. Such an odd talent he had. There was no feeling in the stretchy skin, making it possible to pierce it at will, much to the dismay of the audience who couldn’t turn away. Elliot had fallen hopelessly in love with the right half of Ann and Annette Schemmer, conjoined twins known as the “Siamese Sisters.” The sisters’ custody was handed over to the owner of the circus, Mr. Billy when their parents Doris and Harold Schemmer of Idaho could not feed their ever-expanding family. When the Schemmer’s were approached with a contract that would help them support the family, they signed. The girls spent the last ten years in the circus being fed, clothed, adored, and paid very well. Ann and Annette were costumed in a way that showed their midriffs were connected, making them one body with two heads.
The lovestruck Elliot was frustrated. He’d never had private time with his beloved Ann. Annette was always inches from Ann’s face. Town after town they traveled across the country. The show would end, the big top closed-up tight for the evening, Elliot would sneak off with the woman of his dreams, to be with her. Ann’s sister Annette did not want to be part of this tryst. Unfortunately for Annette, if she loved her sister, she had to go along with their clandestine meetings. Circus fraternization was frowned upon.
Elliot courted Ann in secrecy to all, but her sister. He longed to kiss Ann but was embarrassed at the thought of Annette watching them. One day, he figured out a way he could accomplish the kiss in private. Elliot told the sisters to close their eyes, they did as they were asked. Elliot stretched his cheek in between the sister’s faces so that he and Ann would have privacy. Annette, opening her eyes in the middle of the kiss, was rewarded with the view of Elliot’s outstretched cheek blocking her sister’s face. It was shocking and quite revolting. After their kiss, Elliot whispered tender things into Ann’s ear then left for his tent. Annette was quite put off by the whole event.
“I would like you to end things with Elliot,” Annette said tersely to her sister. Ann was shocked at Annette’s insistence.
“I think that I am in love with Elliot,” Ann told her sister. “and I don’t appreciate you not letting me live my life!” As Ann and Elliot grew closer, Annette became more emotionally distant from her sister. Their fighting could be heard day and night throughout the camp. The sisters barely speaking to one another, went to seek the help of a doctor. The surgeon who examined them realized there was only a thin flap of skin that held them together. Ann and Annette had bodies that were fully intact and independent of one another. A minor operation he said, would separate the two. After spending twenty-three years conjoined, they were excited at the prospect of being two separate people. They started to save their money.
When the circus settled into their winter quarters, Ann and Annette went back to the surgeon. The operation took some time but was successful. For the first time in memory, Ann and Annette were more than six inches apart. They were placed in separate rooms at the hospital per their request because they were not speaking to one another.
When Annette woke up, she was amazed that she could turn over in her bed. Though the bandaged area was quite sore, she could still adjust herself into a position that she could get comfortable in. It was strange not having her sister block her view. Annette’s entire life was spent laying at an uncomfortable angle when her sister slept on her back. It was quite freeing.
Ann woke up in the room down the hall from her sister. She was amazed she could turn over unencumbered. Ann basked in the feeling of freedom it gave her, though it felt strange not to have her sister next to her. Elliot came to see Ann, for the first time they were able to kiss without Annette sighing or grunting in disgust.
“I can’t believe this is true!” Elliot said excitedly. He would now have Ann all to himself. Ann could not wait a day before she walked slowly down the hall to find Annette. The sisters stared at one another when Ann came into Annette’s room. They had never seen each other face to face before. They embraced, forgiving the other.
When the sisters were released from the hospital, Elliot took them back to the winter quarters for circus employees, a large hotel. Everyone they knew and loved was there to greet them. The owner, the ringleader, the bareback rider, the jugglers, the clowns, everyone. The party in their honor was celebratory until the owner, Mr. Billy, came up to the girls asking them where they were headed, now that they were divided.
“Why, we are staying here! This is our home.” The sisters replied. Mr. Billy cleared his throat.
“You cannot stay here any longer.” He said quietly. The girls were shocked as Mr. Billy added, “You are not an “act” anymore. You were hired as the “Siamese Sisters.” You are no longer together. You look as normal as apple pie. There is no room in the circus for your kind. I am sorry.” The party died after Mr. Billy said his piece.
The sisters were beside themselves with worry. They needed to find other employment. They helped support their parents back in Idaho. Now, what would they do? They hadn’t told their parents they’d had the operation yet. The only person who was truly happy with the transformation was Elliot. He had his true love alone for the first time since their affair had begun, and now that the sisters were no longer employed by the circus, Elliot and Ann were free to express their love openly.
Ann and Annette wrote to their parents, letting them know what had happened. They were no longer receiving an income since they had become two independent women. They had hoped their parents would send them money. A week later, they received a telegram from Idaho.
How selfish of you. STOP. Who do you think sewed you two together in the first place? STOP.
Do not come back to Idaho. STOP Too many mouths to feed. STOP
Mr. Billy leaned on the sisters. He needed to find a different act to replace them. There was no room for the new act to live in the winter camp. The girls were forced out into a boarding house in town. They found work as cleaning ladies and laundry women. For a month they toiled washing and scrubbing. Their lives were miserable, worse than when they were conjoined. The boarding house charged them for two, so most of their money went to rent. The sisters mourned their loss of intimacy with one another, forgetting why they fought in the first place. Elliot traveled with the circus leaving Ann behind. He was no longer part of Ann’s daily life anymore. As the months went by the two girls admitted they were sad. They decided to go back to the surgeon who had separated them.
“Please, put us back together!” they cried. The surgeon, appalled with their suggestion, understood why they wanted things back the way they had been. The sisters spent their lives as one body with two heads and had found a way to support themselves by being unique. Ann wrote to Elliot letting him know of her decision. She loved Elliot but could not bear to be apart from her sister any longer. She hoped Elliot would understand. She still loved him, but her sister Annette was blood.
The surgeon taking pity on them took extra time in putting the sisters back together. So that they were more comfortable, he added a larger piece of skin between them, allowing the girls more freedom of movement. With the extra skin, they would be able to lay on their backs side by side. Ann and her sister were back together. Mr. Billy, who was overjoyed, he took the Siamese Sisters back into his fold. Luckily he hadn’t found another sideshow act to replace them. Unfortunately, he still found himself shorthanded. Seems Elliot “Elasto-Man,” had donated all, of his stretchy skin to help his love Ann, be reunited with her sister.
Dawn DeBraal lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband Red, two rat terriers and a cat. Recently retired she has discovered her love of telling a good story can be written.