MOUNT VERNON -- What is it about humans that makes us gawk at anyone different? And if the difference is different enough, it can become fodder for not just a proverbial, but a literal freak show.
That's what happened to a pair of mentally disabled brothers who grew up in Pleasant Township in Mount Vernon in the 1830s.
But in the end, they had the last laugh.
Despite varying claims for their ages in later sideshows, it appears that Hiram Davis was born around 1829 in New York to his parents David and Catherine Davis. The family then moved to Knox County, Ohio, where a younger brother, Barney, was born in 1831.
While other families members were more average, Hiram and Barney were both quite small in stature and said to be what we would describe today as intellectually disabled, though in the brutal fashion of the day were called “idiots.”
Their father passed away in 1842 and their mother remarried. As the boys did farm work it was noticed that they both were unusually strong for their small sizes. Each boy could lift much more than his own weight.
In 1852, the young men were discovered by a traveling showman who called himself Doctor Warner.
He offered to take the brothers on the road, and it was he who gave them their stage names Waino and Plutano. He also cooked up a wild story about them being captured in the jungles of Borneo.
In an age where the average citizen didn't have the slightest idea what a native of Borneo would actually look like, it was an easy scam. Before long, their shows were doing well.
Even early on, there were detractors, though. An editorial in the Baton Rouge Daily Gazette and Comet in 1853 says, “Where is the scientific Physiologist who has pronounced the wild men of Borneo anything but idiotic dwarfs — that came from — the Lord only knows where. Their claim to the title of wild men of Borneo is based upon no better evidence than the disinterested word of the keeper ...”
But the duo's career path continued to gather steam. A notice in the July 14, 1862, Buffalo Courier warns audience members that the afternoon show will be sold out to school children and that adults will have to wait to come to the evening show at 7:30 p.m. and pay 15 cents instead of the 5-cent matinee rate.
The New York Sun in April 1877 described the fearsome poster used to advertise the Wild Men when they were on display in the city:
"Above their misshapen heads towered their hair, as though it were on end with rage; a horrible scowl sat upon their dark faces, over which bristles were scattered; their eyes glared and gleamed like tigers; the thick lips of their huge mouths seemed eager for prey; their naked bodies, scarred in many fights, were tattooed to terrify; and the big clubs they held in their hands were such as only wild Bornese could yield."
The article goes on to tell how the Wild Men's keeper described how they were known to wade into slaughter, devour their victims, then dance around the raging fires with their hosts of wives.
Supposedly caught at great risk and expense, the Wild Men were then said to have been transported to the United States for exhibition – at 15 cents per view.
The article gleefully concludes that the Wild Men were never heard to speak any English, only their “cackling” native tongue. At least, that is, until a small fire broke out at their show in Newark, New Jersey, where one of the brothers is claimed to have said to the crowd “This show is done gone for tonight; that's certain sure.”
In the 1880s, the Wild Men came under the direction of the promotional wizard P. T. Barnum, who toured them worldwide and brought them very impressive salaries. Despite the notorious reputation of sideshows, it appears that the Davis brothers were treated reasonably well by all their managers.
Perhaps they weren't as dull-witted as the image had it.
In 1899, a condescending article in the London, England, Daily News gleefully reported on a meeting of Barnum sideshow performers who had assembled to protest being called “freaks” and were proposing that term “prodigies” instead be used.
The reporter complained that in normal clothes, many of the performers seemed “uncommonly like other mortals,” though he noted that the Wild Men of Borneo stood out, dressed as they were in solemn black with “queer little black hoods surmounting their gnome-like figures.” The article concludes with the reporter stating that “a member of the press” stood up and suggested the whole protest event was actually a promotional ploy staged by Barnum himself.
The reporter claims that the newsman was then advanced at by some of the performers, and that “the wild men from Borneo, who are enormously strong, were only held back with great difficulty by the man with elastic skin.”
An article in the Saint Paul Globe in 1899 observed the Wild Men near the end of their career.
In spite of their age, the little men are as cheerful and full of life as when they first came to this country. Their eyes are bright, their hair shows no signs of gray, and the only signs of approaching old age is a slight deafness and a diminution of their enormous strength.
When they were in their prime, one of them could lift two good-sized men with ease although they stand only three feet in height and weigh but 45 pounds.
The feats of strength were discontinued after a show in Boston where the aged Plutano (Barney) attempted to lift a 300-pound man. The man panicked upon rising off the ground and shifted his weight, causing them both to fall over, with the heavy man landing on top of Plutano.
The article notes that the men seemed to know little English, communicating with sign language and their own indecipherable words, an apparent way the brothers developed to communicate secretly.
Again, it makes one wonder just how accurate the description of them as mentally slow truly was. Surviving photographs suggest that they indeed suffered from dwarfism. Whether there was any actually mental disability is less clear.
Whatever the case, the Wild Men certainly weren't poor. The Davis brothers regularly made wages of $300 to $400 per week in their heyday, both amassing considerable fortunes over the years that allowed them to go into semi-retirement in comfort, living with their manager in Massachusetts and spending time playing with the local children, who delighted in the old men who matched them in stature.
Good-natured playfulness wasn't their only attribute, though, as a 1901 wire article quotes a local Massachusetts farmer as saying once years earlier he had lost his temper at one of the “wild men” and tried to hit him with the handle of a spade. The little man proceeded to come after him with his fists and gave the farmer a good thrashing.
A 1903 article interviews the manager, Mr. Warner, who talks about how Hiram (Waino) had become blind over the years. Warner said that originally Waino was the principal entertainer of the two.
“Waino used to cut quite a dash with the ladies in his palmy days,” Warner said. “He didn't have much to say — neither of them ever did — but he used to jump round lively as a cricket, going through pantomime and selling photographs.”
Warner also described his charges' appearance over the years.
“No, they never did look just exactly what you would call young. Kind of drying up, don't you think?”
Hiram died in 1905 in Massachusetts, and the New York Times carried it as front page news:
When Waino, his flesh and spirit worn by his 80 years, lay dying, Plutano was in an adjoining room, silent in his grief, and since the death he has been like a child, although in previous years his strength was that of a Titan, and his temper ferocious.
Barney survived until 1912, passing away at the age of 90.
According to information filed in probate court, the Davis brothers' legal guardian, Senator L. B. Houck, had a balance of $1,142.59 left over after expenses were all paid off after Barney's death. Even after extremely long lives, the Davis brothers still had money left over.
Both were originally buried in Massachusetts, but were later transferred to Mound View Cemetery by Senator Houck, where they are buried in section H, under a shared stone headed, “Little Men.”