The Missing Link

When she made her first public appearance at the London Aquarium on Westminster Road in 1882, she was billed as "A Living Proof of Darwin's Theory of the Descent of Man".The handbill advertisement added that, "The usual argument against the Darwinian theory, that man and monkey had a common origin, has always been that no animal has hitherto been discovered in the transmission state between monkey and man. "Krao", a perfect specimen of the step between man and monkey, discovered in Laos by that distinguished traveler Carl Bock, will be on Exhibition in the new Lecture Room"

Krao certainly had an unusual appearance. Believed to be born in Thailand (then Siam) in 1876, Krao was born fully covered with hair including a long mane extending Krao[1] down her back. Being double-jointed in her hands and hips, as well as unusually prehensile, Krao first came to the attention of Carl Bock. The Swedish naturalist, who was acting as an agent for showman William Leonard Hunt (a.k.a. the Great Farini) had been investigating legends of tailed people living in Sumatra and was under orders to bring back a "monkey-man" specimen for display.

After striking a deal with Krao's parents, Farini brought Krao to Europe. Since Darwinism was all the rage at the time, Farini enthusiastically presented her as a "missing link" who was living proof of Darwin's theory. He even hinted that Krao (which he claimed was a Laotian word for monkey) was part of a race of "small hairy people" who could be found in that remote region. Considering the exotic appeal that faraway lands had for the general public, the notion that there was a hidden tribe of ape-men waiting to be discovered by science seemed plausible enough.

Naturalists were more skeptical though. In an 1883 edition of Nature, A.H. Keane reported on his own investigation of Krao and concluded that she was completely human and simply suffered from a condition that made her appear unusually hairy (hypertrichosis). Carl Bock and other naturalists disputed Keane's findings and reported on legends in parts of South-East Asia concerning a "hairy family of Burma" with a long lineage of unusually hairy features. Members of this "hairy family" had been signed on as performers by P.T Barnum and sent on tour as part of his circus in the 1880s.

As for Krao, she was a lively and intelligent girl who eagerly learned English and invariably charmed her public with her graceful manner. When presented to an audience of scientists, physicians, and journalists at a meeting in Dublin, Krao came forward and shook each person's hand with a polite greeting. According to a description of the meeting, "all were amazed at how prettily she spoke. At the end she bowed them out saying distinctly, "Hope ge'men, you come again". During that same meeting, the physician who presented her case described her "simian features" and spoke enthusiastically about plans to educate the "monkey-child" when she was older.

When Farini took Krao on a tour of the eastern U.S. in 1884, P.T. Barnum, who never missed a chance to make a profit, was moved by Krao's success to find his own "missing link".   Locating a 16-year old Russian boy named Fedor Jeftichew who also suffered from hypertrichosis, Barnum brought him to the US in 1884 and billed him as "Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy".  Barnum invented a story of Fedor being a wild savage who had been captured in a cave and slowly civilized. He also said that Fedor and his father had been examined by scientists in London and boasted that they were living proof of the "Darwin Theory established" and were classified as "homo troglodytes" (not an accepted scientific term). During the show, Fedor learned to bark and growl on cue and generally behaved the way that a "missing link" was expected to behave but, much like Krao, became well educated.

As a popular star, Fedor was eventually able to control how he was being displayed and managed to have the "missing link" label dropped from all of his advertisements. In fact, he and performers like him later managed to have the hated "freaks" label dropped by 1898 and earned the legal right to be displayed as "prodigies" instead (political correctness isn't just a 20th century phenomenon).It probably helped that billing side show performers as "missing links" had long since lost its appeal for audiences (although geek shows still managed to live on).

Krao continued to be a famous performer with star billing at circus shows, including Ringling Brothers.  To his credit, Farini allowed her a full and independent life and she was spared the hideous exploitation that scarred the lives of other "freaks" like Saartjie Baartman, Ota Benga, and Julia Pastrana.   As an adult, Krao was a vivacious and dignified performer (despite the "monkey-girl" label) who spoke five languages fluently and became an accomplished pianist.   Though she never married, she had numerous friends and admirers and maintained her own apartment for the last twenty years of her life.  She died of pneumonia on April 16, 1926.

While "freak shows" continued to exist, their popularity had long since waned and formerly independent performers found themselves becoming increasingly unemployable. There is a certain irony that the same period that saw the decline of freak shows also saw the rise of the eugenics movement stressing the careful control of genetics and the weeding out of hereditary inferiors. By the 1920s, freaks were no longer viewed as curiosities to be stared at but as examples of the kind of biological "throwbacks" that needed to be dealt with by any means necessary.

A new era had begun.

           

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