The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
THE LION BOY AND OTHER MEDICAL CURIOSITIES
Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2018 www.amberley-books.com softcover 288pp; illus; sources ISBN:9761445676289 £14.99
I am irresistibly drawn to reading about “freaks”, but discomforted in equal measure by my curiosity and interest. I am appalled that people used to pay to gawp at these unfortunate people in carnivals, penny gaffs and stage performances, but conscious that I am doing the same thing, albeit reading about and looking at pictures of them in books. What really gets me, though, is the way some people, authors included, are barely able to stop drooling with delighted horror and disgust at these poor people.
But what I like about Bondeson’s books on this subject is his detachment. He never forgets that these were real people, people who inside their heads and hearts were just like you and I. Bondeson tells the stories with sympathy and understanding, and with a doctor’s genuine interest.
And, of course, Bondeson’s flair for historical research and digging out that obscure background detail is matched by his writing ability.
In The Lion Boy Jan Bondeson revisits a subject he first investigated in his successful collection Cabinet of Medical Curiosities back in 1999, which I’m impressed, albeit unsurprised, to learn has sold 20,000 copies.
I think the provisional title of this book was “The Fat Boy of Peckham”, which I preferred but which could have caused some readers to mistake it for some sort of diet book. The “Fat Boy’s” story begins Bondeson’s tour of the weird and the wonderful. His name was John Thomas Trunley, who was born on 14 October 1898 in Peckham, south-east London, which just over eighty years later would be made famous as the stamping ground of “Del Boy” Trotter.
Trunley was big. Very big. When aged five he was 4ft tall, had a chest measurement of 44 inches, and weighed 10 stone. He was also starting to attract attention and at the end of 1903, having added four stone to his weight, he made his stage debut as “The Fat Boy of Peckham”. Over the next few years he continued the plough on the weight (at one point reaching 33 stone) and tour the country, becoming a national celebrity.
Then he lost weight. It was the Great War that did it, specifically the air raids and wartime rations. Trunley was terrified of the raids, his terror causing the stones to fall away, and the rations not being sufficient to put them on again. He managed to put some of the weight back on, but the mood of the post-war nation caused his celebrity to vanish. His life thereafter wasn’t a decline. He married, had a son, maintained a career as a clockmaker, and in 1944 succumbed to tuberculosis and pneumonia.
What’s slightly worrying is that as the 20th century dawned a fat man was such an abnormality that he was a carnival performer, a rarity, a freak who people would pay money to look at. A century later you can see people like him in the street of every town and city. It’s a sobering thought.
Bondeson kicks off this collection of medical curiosities with the rather questionable display of morbidly fat people for entertainment, and there were quite a few, from the renowned Daniel Lambert, through fat boys and girls of various nationalities, to named performers such as 42-stone Tom Tonn. Afterwards, we meet giants, dwarfs, porcupine men, a transparent man, and people with physical and other deformities. As well as explorations of a number of odd but commonly-held expected beliefs (such as the eye retaining the image of the last thing a person sees, and whether one’s hair can turn white overnight.
The Lion Boy makes a good cover-to-cover read, or an equally good dip-into book.
Review by Paul Begg.