Sunday, May 29, 2016

Whatever Happened to Mortado The Human Fountain?

Whatever Happened to Mortado The Human Fountain?

By Tim Cridland ©2016

Mortado was a fakir performer from Berlin who was active in Germany and America from the late 1920s until the early 1930s.  He had permanent holes in his hands and feet that allowed him to perform a mock crucifixion act. He is best remembered for his "human fountain" act in which water streamed out of his punctured hands and feet as he posed on a throne.

Mortado at Coney Island

 His time as a performer was brief but spectacular. The image of him doing his human fountain act is unforgettable. Very little is known about him and this has given rise to the spread of unflattering misinformation. Specifically, his sudden departure from public view has been attributed to the public growing bored with his act and him being unable to come up with anything new, resulting in him "fading away."

 In this post I will show more about Mortado than is generally known and will present a much more likely reason for his disappearance from the public eye. I hope I will rehabilitate his reputation while doing so.

 Most of what we know of Mortado comes from two sources, and both are demonstrably unreliable, although both have elements of truth.
One of these is his pitch book. This contains a section with a fanciful tale as to the origins of his punctures. This involving him being captured and forcibly crucified when he was a German naval officer during World War One. This story is doubtful, difficult to verify and typical of the tall tales that were used by performers of the time. That he may have been in the German military is more likely.

 At the end of his pitch book he states "I first presented the exhibition in Berlin, in January, 1929, and it met with instant favor from both press and public. A New York booking agent, learning of my success, sent a representative to interview me with the result that I signed a contract to appear at Dreamland Circus Side Show, Coney Island, N. Y., for the summer season of 1930."

Pretty much all of this is demonstrably true.


Mortado can be seen presenting an earlier version of his act in the 27 October 1928 edition of the Hamburg newspaper Hamburger neust Zietung. He is part of a full page photo essay, "Fearless People," and is flanked by escape artists and acrobats. His act is not fully developed, as the photo shows him sitting with skewers going through his hands and feet.

Mortado in Berlin 1928

 When Mortado says that he first presented his act in January 1929, he was likely referring to his human fountain act. Whatever the case, by the end of that year he was a European sensation, with his Berlin performances appearing in major newspapers. The Estonian paper Virumaa Teataja wrote, "In Berlin a great deal of attention was created by fakir Mortado, who is going to let water belch like a fountain for 12 hours through holes drilled through his hands and legs."

Mortado in Berlin 1929

A Berlin newspaper reported that Mortado's exhibition took place at a restaurant. Strange as it may seem, at the time, Berlin restaurants would sometimes feature an unusual human attraction as ambience while people ate. Often times it would be a Hunger Artist, a performer who fasted for weeks on end. They would be locked in a transparent box as diners gorged themselves around them. The genius of Mortado's presentation is that he could just sit there for 12 hours and still be an attraction.

Mortado in Berlin 1929

His act did get noticed in America. The 16th November 1929 issue of The Billboard, a magazine for the outdoor amusement business, reported on Mortado's popularity in Berlin.

Coney Island

In 1930 Mortado was booked with the the Dreamland Side Show at Coney Island in New York, which opened on the 17th of April of that year (The Billboard, 26 April 1930). His time at Coney Island is the source of most of what has been written about him, as well as most of photographs that have appeared in books and now are now posted on blogs on the internet.

Mortado in Coney Island

Researcher and writer Joe Nickell has written about Mortado a couple of times. In his article "Sideshow!" in the December 1999 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer,  he uses an article by Hilary Barta from The Big Book of Freaks as his source. The Big Book of Freaks turns out to be... a comic book. As soures for his book, Secrets of the Sideshows, he uses that same comic; Dan Mannix's book, Freaks: We Who Are Not As Othersalong with the obligatory pitch book.

 The piece by Barta in The Big Book of Freaks presents the Mortado narrative but freely admits a lot of it is speculation.  An entirely fictitious account of his childhood contains the words and phrases "imagine," "must have," and "one wonders." This continues into the Coney-Island portion, with phrases like "he may...".  As for what happened to Mortado, Barta wrote, "When he failed to come up with anything new, his career slowly faded away." She then tells of an account of a person who had crucified himself on a train platform and speculates that this could have been Mortado. And the source that Barta uses? Mannix's Freaks book. In fact, Mannix's book and Mortado's own pitch book are the sources for everything that has been written about Mortado. And this is a big problem.

 Mannix was a good writer and wrote some enjoyable books. His Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, which I read under the title Step Right Up, was one of my favorites. I pretty much believe that Memoirs happened just as Mannix wrote it.

 Then a friend loaned me a book of articles compiled from a mens' magazine, Saga or Argosy something like that. It had a few stories by Mannix. One of them was a story that he told in Memoirs, except it was different in some key points... a lot different. Later I heard that had Mannix had taken a lot of liberties in Memoirs to create a better story, like combining two seasons into one. I am pretty convinced that one of the stories he tells in Memoirs is something that he only read about, and then wrote that is something that happened to him personally.

 Undoubtedly, Mannix did have first-hand knowledge and experience working in sideshow, but I am convinced he would never sacrifice a good story for the truth, even if there is truth in his stories. This is a problem for entertainment historians in general. There is so much good-natured fabulism in show business -- from performers, press agents, and journalists -- that it is difficult to be sure what is what. This is even more prevalent in sideshow than in regular show business. Ironically, Nickell -- who is an investigator for Skeptics organization Committee for Skeptical Inquiry --  would never put up with someone promoting ghost stories that used a comic book for its source and that source uses a source that is also less than accurate as its source... and that turns out to be the only source. But I am not singling out Nickell. Everyone -- from Ricky Jay to today's internet authors -- have been using Mannix's book as their source, as there is little else to be found.

 Mannix does have some sourced information in his book. For instance, there is an oft-told tale about how Mortado would put fake-blood packets in his pre-drilled wounds, so that when he did his crucifixion act the "blood" would squirt, and this story is attributed to Whitey Sutton, a showman who worked in New York and is likely true. But the most-repeated (and unflattering) part of the Mortado mythos is unsourced and seems to be pure speculation on Mannix's part.

 It is Mannix who wrote, "During his last years, Mortado dropped from popularity..." and then goes on to reminisce about a newspaper account, where a man was found crucified on a New York train platform, but the police thought that it was a hoax and that the man had crucified himself.  "I have often wondered if this was Mortado making a last bid for fame," Mannix wrote. This is also unsourced, despite being a newspaper article.

 I will now resume my narrative and will show what I think is a more likely reason for Mortado's egress from the public eye.

Coney Island and USA Continued

 Mortado became a star attraction at the Dreamland Side Show at Coney Island. He became the blow-off, the act that people paid extra to see, a tradition that Dreamland had discontinued but resumed, we are told, because of the spectacular nature of Mortado's act. Dreamland manager Namy Salih is quoted in The Billboard, 17th May 1930, as saying, "...after scouting the field carefully I located... Mortado the Human Fountain. I am convinced with my theory that attractions of this caliber will always be received with favor by the public." Spoken like a true publicist.

 Something else happened that summer in Coney Island. Mortado got married, presumably to another employee of Dreamland, and with the reception taking place on premise. One story going around about Mortado is that his wife was a nurse who attended to him, but because it is known that his piercings occurred before he met his wife, it is more likely that she donned a nurse outfit to become part of the act.

 Issues of The Billboard show that during 1931 and 1932, Mortado and his wife performed in different shows, most notably with World's Museum. They appeared in Philadelphia, Newark, Buffalo, and other cities. They returned to Coney Island for the summer seasons, sometimes doing the crucifixion act.

Return to Germany

 At the end of the 1932 season, it was announced that Mortado and his wife were going to Germany where they were planning a new act for the upcoming World's Fair in Chicago.

 A lot of interesting things happen at the 1933 World's Fair, which began in May of that year. Ripley's Believe it or Not presented their first ever "Odditorium," a venue that had live acts. Mortado would have fit in well, yet I have found no evidence that he was there, or anywhere else at World's Fair. So what happened?

At the beginning of 1933, the political climate in Germany was changing rapidly, to say the least. In January, Hitler was elected chancellor. The Reichstag fire happened in February. In March, the Enabling Act was passed.

A part of Mortado's press book that is likely true is that he was in the German military in World War One. It has a photo of him in uniform with the caption "Mortado when an OFFICER in the German Navy, 1914." James Taylor, who reprinted the photo in an issue of his Shocked and Amazed magazine, assures me that the man in uniform is unmistakably the same person as the Human Fountain. It is not difficult to imagine what may have happened to him that prevented him from returning to the USA. For a former German military officer in Berlin in 1933 with his new American wife, coming up with new ways to present an act would be the least of his worries.


 The record shows that Mortado was a very successful performer who able to change his act and keep the public's interest. His act was popular until his last appearance in America, and he planned to return. The political turmoil in his native Germany was probably the reason he was unable to continue to perform.

 There is still a great deal to be uncovered about the man behind Mortado. The exact nature of his surgery, the when and why of it, and the biggest mystery of all: what was his legal name?

 Once Mortado's real name is discovered, his true history will be revealed, as well as the actual circumstances of his post-Mortado life. His name can be checked against public records.

 His name may be revealed in New York marriage records. We have the date and location of his marriage. His name might be in the employment records of the Dreamland Sideshow, assuming these have been saved in an archive somewhere. I will leave this for future researchers.

One More Thing

 Hey, you might be thinking, what about that crucifixion story that Mannix wrote about? If that was not Mortado, who was it?

 Come on, you guys, you can't expect me to do everything! I mean, Mannix did not even give a source for that story. Or even a real date. Well, OK, here goes....

 In March 1936, papers nationwide published a story about a man in Florida was found nailed to a cross. It further stated that the police thought it was a hoax and part of their reasoning was that this man was a "human pin-cushion." 

 The incident happened in Florida, not New York, but other than that, it fits Mannix's description almost exactly. It was printed in New York papers, so it is possible that Mannix jumbled the facts when remembering it. The guy is probably not Mortado, but until we know Mortado's real name, this is difficult to say with certainty.

 [Update 22 June 2016: An issue of the Dutch newspaper Heldersche Courant dated 07 June 1934 confirms that Mortado continued to perform his crucifixion and human fountain act in Europe]


 George J. Timmerman, 39, had nail holes through his hands and feet today as the result of a “crucifixion” which Sheriff S. C. M. Thomas declared faked for notoriety or sympathy.

   Found by Friend

   The jobless bricklayer and carpenter who was employed until recently on the cross-Florida ship canal was found by a friend James M. White, shortly after dawn yesterday in a wooded section near where he lived in a housecar.

   Seemingly semi-conscious, Timmerman told a rambling story about being pounced upon by a group of men and nailed hand and foot to an improvised cross.

   He stuck to that story through a day of questioning but investigators discounted his claims.

   “He is faking,” said Police Chief J. H. Spencer, “he is seeking either notoriety or sympathy.”

   Although in a hospital for treatment, Timmerman showed no outward signs of great pain from his experience which also included having his lips stitched together.

   No Bones Broken

   These was little blood on the makeshift cross when Timmerman was found, but police officers who pulled out the spikes said there was some bleeding from his hands. No bones were broken by the big nails which pierced his hands.

   White was held in jail for further questioning today. No charge has been placed against him.

   Officers investigated reports that Timmerman had given exhibitions of a “human pin cushion” allowing pins, needles and nails to be punched through his hands, lips and other parts of his body.

   -Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 19 March 1936

Thanks to Mel Gordon and James Taylor for sharing some information about Mortado

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Click Below to See Tim Cridland as Fakir Zamora

Links to Mortado Information

Ripley's Fountain

 The Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco had an exhibit depicting Mortado performing his human fountain act. You can see the photo of Mortado in his military uniform beside it in one of the photos

Mortado Banner at Brockton, MA touring Dreamland Sideshow

Sideshow World on Mortado.

The text of Mortado's pitch book is included in this post.

Joe Nickell

 An article by Joe Nickell in The Skeptical Inquirer that mentions Mortado


Jay's Journal of Anomalies by Ricky Jay includes an interesting section on crucifixion acts that mentions Mortado

Secrets of the Sideshows by Joe Nickell as mentioned in the text, includes a reference to Mortado.

Big Book of Freaks as mentioned in the text, includes a reference to Mortado.

Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others by Dan Mannix as mentioned in the text including information and photographs of Mortado.

Shocked and Amazed by James Taylor includes a section on Mortado and reproduces his pitch book.


All quotations and images used in this post are intended to be within the Fair Use Act for purposes of commentary and criticism