At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was the brightest beacon for immigrants looking for new opportunities. An innumerable number of immigrants migrated to the US in their quest for a better life. The growth of circuses and sideshows saw new spectacles at every corner of the nation. It was in this environment that people like Martin Laurello earned their livelihood by dazzling crowds. Sideshows were rooted in stunts like taming lions and the swallowing of swords. Sideshows also put in the forefront disfigured people in the spotlight for the audiences to stare at.
Martin Joe Laurello, who came to be known as the ‘Human Owl’ shocked audiences in the 1920s and 1930s with his skills at turning his head fully backward. The era was the peak of P. T. Barnum when the indecent was turned into profit for benefits. Laurello’s turning his head to 180 degrees was applauded by his audience as being a ‘freak’ thing to gawk at.
The ‘Human Owl’
Unlike many of his peers, Martin Laurello didn’t actually look like a freak from a sideshow. Rather he looked like any other person until he showed his dramatic ruse. This was probably because he couldn’t do his trick from birth and neither was his head ever turned backward forcibly by him. He had to master the ability and he had spent many years doing it. Martin Joe Laurello was born as Martin Emmerling in Nuremberg, Germany in 1885. He changed his name after arriving in the US in 1921. Whether he himself changed it at the time of immigrating isn’t known. But his talent would be soon noticed and registered.
Laurello was unique among the millions of Europeans who had left their countries for the US in search of a better life, fame, or future. He had devoted three years of his life to successfully being able to turn around his head at more than 120 degrees and being contented at every new turn that he could enable. Laurello had found that his skill was in high demand.
Laurello had first shown his act at the Dreamland Circus Sideshow at Coney Island. This amusement park situated on the seacoast had previously been the site where Captain Jack Bonavita, a lion tamer had lost one of his arms. It was at this place that Laurello achieved fame and became known as the ‘Human Owl’. Amazingly, Laurello could drink beer but not smoke or relax while his head was fully turned around. He was introduced as ‘Bobby The Boy With The Revolving Head’ as the participants in sideshows were called ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ irrespective of their age.
Laurello also performed at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. However, because of winters, his act got consigned to indoor venues. At Hubert’s museum in New York, Laurello worked with other actors like sword swallower Alex Linton, strongman Charlie Felton, and Roy Heckler, who had a well-trained group of fleas at his command.
Martin Laurello’s Legacy
After many years of journeying to cities like Philadelphia, Newark, and Paterson with Hubert’s dime museum, Laurello was employed by the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium in the 1930s. He was publicized as ‘the only one in the world who can walk straight and look straight behind.’ While Laurello’s professional career was going great, his personal life started to take a toll on him. He had initially married a woman named Laura Precht and had a son named Alexander.
But he subsequently divorced her and married for a second time to Emilie Wittl. This marriage ultimately resulted in Laurello’s arrest during one of his performances. He had two sons from his second marriage but walked out on his wife and children. This led to Wittl lodging a formal complaint about him with the police. This resulted in Laurello being arrested on the charge of spousal abandonment by the Baltimore police on April 30, 1931. The arrest happened when Laurello was standing on a stage with his back to the crowd as reported by the New York Times. He winked back at the audience and at the two officers, who winked back at him and arrested him. Laurello was held on a $500 bond and the New York police were informed about the arrest.
The biggest blot on Laurello’s legacy was the allegations that he was a Nazi sympathizer. He had left Germany after World War I when it had been economically ruined. He may have found and considered Hitler’s wily calls to strengthen the country as being a promising sign of resurgence. His former colleague Percilla Bejano had asserted that Laurello was an ardent Nazi who didn’t like the American flag. She claimed that it was so because all kinds of people were to be found in a sideshow, some of whom were even worse than her.
Laurello’s final years are little known. A duplicate model of his head revolved in Times Square and the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York. His last recorded performance took place in 1952, three years before he passed away of a heart attack. Some people had claimed that Laurello dislocated many vertebrae to fully turn his head while according to others, he had been born with a ‘twisted’ spine. However, this could never be known as there were no x-rays taken of his back. Laurello had once said that anyone could do what he did if they had enough practice. This presented a challenge to those who wanted to give it a try.