Man-Woman a Woman Now, 1937
OK, what? A peculiar and devastatingly under-explained little article from The Mirror, 1937.
This article reminded me of Tod Browning’s Freaks, the controversial 1932 cult horror film, which depicted the dying days of the freakshow. On account of its cast being real sideshow performers and its shocking plot, it was banned in the UK for 30 years. My favourite member of the cast is the “Half Woman-Half Man” played by the very cool Josephine Joseph, who claimed to be exactly split down the middle, gender-wise. The split-in-two depiction of a hermaphrodite was one of more popular types of sideshow “freak”, and was apparently mostly performed by males, who would exercise one half of their body and leave the other “female” side to go flabby and “moob up”. After ensuring you had two different hairstyles on either side of your head, you were away.
Now, this is where I get a bit excited. While writing this post I was suddenly overcome with curiosity about Josephine Joseph’s life. But….well, there’s hardly anything online at all. All I really found was that on Wikipedia, it’s claimed that she/he was 19 in Freaks, born in Austria, and was 5’6. That’s it! No one seems to know anything more – her/his real name, death or even if she/he were really a man or woman. Although some online commenters are pretty sure that J.J. was a man, in line with the tradition of such performers.
Me, I’m 100% convinced she’s a woman, and a pretty foxy one at that. I’m also rather sceptical of the claim to be 19 years old in Freaks. She looks a fair bit older than that to my eyes. And that was before I dug up something quite interesting in the British Newspaper Archive. Even more excitingly, it’s local to my part of the country too, the North West of the UK.
Now, the British Newspaper Archive doesn’t show up on Google searches as it’s a subscription service. And seeing as I’m newly armed with a month’s unlimited browsing, I decided to have a peek (it’s only £1 with the code News01, still valid until the end of January 2015, guys).
I found a rather intriguing article about a “Half Woman-Half Man” sideshow act called Josephine Joseph, who was the defendant in what sounds like a quite sensational, yet obscure, case in 1930. J.J. and her husband George Waas were an American couple who had been running a show at a “Coney Island” attraction in Blackpool. Their poster read:
“Josephine Joseph. Half Woman. Half Man. The most sensation freak of nature. Brother and sister in one body.”
J.J.’s name is given officially as Josephine Waas in the newspaper articles. They appeared before Blackpool Magistrates on August 22nd, 1930, charged with false pretences and conspiracy in order to “protect the gullible public” who paid to see their show. Brilliantly, the headline wearily calls this “Another Half Man-Half Woman Case”. You can’t move for them.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of that case, just for fun, let’s have a quick detour around the world of August 22nd 1930, as seen by the Lancashire Evening Post. It was in this issue that Princess Margaret’s birth was announced. It also reported on the birthday of Mrs Tackley, a 96-year-old woman who thought modern women’s dresses that showed their knees were “disgusting” and that there was “too much electricity about.”
There was the death of William Henry Townsend, the would-be assassin of Victorian Prime Minister Gladstone – who couldn’t go through with it because Gladstone smiled at him. He was still banged up in Broadmoor for the rest of his life though.
Vimto is marketed as an energy drink for boxers:
And cottage cheese is advertised as a way to keep policemen “nobby”:
Right, so back to Josephine Joseph. I think I know why this is piece of information has been left uncovered so far. The story was covered in two, local, newspapers – The Lancashire Daily Post and The Yorkshire Post – and it wasn’t a big trial that might have attracted national interest. Although the British Newspaper Archive is largely local newspapers so I’m not sure what national coverage this got, if any. George and Josephine complain about being summonsed only the day before and having no time to prepare a defence. They also apparently left the country immediately afterwards. Plus, J.J.’s big claim to fame in the movies was scuppered recognition-wise as Freaks was banned for so long.
Here’s the full article in the Lancashire Daily Post, and also a shorter version from the Yorkshire Post:
And here’s some close ups of the first article so it’s easier to read (although a bit awkward because of the columns):
It sounds quite riotous. They refuse to submit Josephine to a court doctor’s examination to prove hermaphroditism, but offer to provide X-rays to the court instead, given an adjournment. The adjournment was refused and the X-rays rejected as evidence without even being seen. A shame; I would have loved these, possibly doctored, items to still be available somewhere.
“Josephine Joseph” sounds a lot like a pure stage name, and there’s no photographs attached to the articles. But what makes me absolutely sure this is the same woman in Freaks are the descriptions of her in court. She is said to be a man on the right side, and a woman on the left, with her right arm longer than her left. Her eyebrows were different on either side. The Yorkshire Post article describes her stage costume as a bare right leg with a sandal, and a black-stockinged left leg with a woman’s shoe. Finally, her hair was brushed from the right side to the left, giving the impression of short hair on the right hand side. Now look at this picture of J.J. as she appears in Freaks two years later. Every point is the same:
Ultimately both pleaded guilty, the conspiracy charge was dropped and the show was ordered to be stopped immediately. Interestingly, only George was fined £25, while Josephine was discharged despite also pleading guilty. That seems quite unusual, but maybe she cast a bit of a spell on the courtroom. She sounds like a cool customer – it’s noted that she was smiling broadly when the verdict discharging her was announced, to some surprised murmuring in court. And there’s this exchange with Superintendent Hannan as he announced what he thought of Josephine’s physical attributes:
Superintendent: “I have no idea what the medical testimony may be, but I do say this, that the woman so far as I know does show to the public certain muscles on one side of her body which are more developed than those on the other side. She also has a male voice and a female voice. She may be without breast on one side, but this does not make her half man and half woman, as it can be brought about by operation or by physical exercises. Muscles can be developed on one side of the body and not on the other.
Turning to the woman defendant, the Superintendent remarked, “I see she is smiling.”
The Woman, “Can you stretch bones, Superintendent?”
There was laughter in the court and the Superintendent did not answer the question.
In the end, rather than submit to trial by jury in Preston, George Waas states:
“I want to plead guilty and get it over with. You are not going to crucify me entirely, are you? We both plead guilty.”
Asked if he anything to say to the magistrates, Waas replied, “I am sorry. I will give up this show and leave the country.”
As a postscript, I might have uncovered a bit more information on her life, but it’s not conclusive. Searching ancestry sites for George and Josephine Waas comes up with nothing that seems to be of a relevant time period for a Josephine. But there’s something very promising for George, and, after all, Josephine was probably a convenient stage name anyway. These are the details from the 1930 US Census. A George Waas was married to Betty Waas, and they later ended up in Los Angeles. Betty Waas was born in 1897 in Romania, and if this is our Josephine, that would make her 35 in 1932, a more realistic age for the performer in Freaks, in my opinion.
So there it is. A little light hopefully shed on a largely unknown life. I believe that Josephine Joseph definitely was a woman – or possibly of intersex gender, but not a man anyway, if she was indeed married to a man. And quite possibly she was really called Betty Waas, Romanian, and aged 16 years older than Wikipedia thinks. And this is where I came in – the title of the unrelated little article at the start of this post now seems to fit my findings pretty well, in the end.
I’m off to fiddle with Wikipedia and think about what a great film this could make. I can’t imagine anyone but Reece Shearsmith as the lead role. Wouldn’t he be amazing in it?
And, lastly, here’s Josephine herself, as she is in Freaks. Well, any excuse to post this – always and forever one of my favourite things on the Web, Ricardo Autobahn’s The Golden Age of Video: