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Eli Bowen, the Legless Acrobat

Eli Bowen

Eli Bowen, Wife and Child
carte de visite, 4 x 2.5 inches, circa 1875, photographer's logo stamped on reverse
photographer: A. Newman, 228 North 9th Street, Philadelphia PA

Eli Bowen, the Legless Acrobat, was a native of Ohio and the only physically abnormal child in a family of ten children. His condition, phocomelia or "seal limbs", manifested itself in such a way that his feet protruded directly from his pelvis without intervention of any of the bones that would normally make up the leg. Bowen learned to walk on his arms using wooden blocks to provide ground clearance for his hips. The tremendous strength he developed in his arms and chest allowed him to perform all manner of climbing and tumbling stunts.

At the age of thirteen, Bowen joined a traveling wagon show. Part of his stage routine consisted of swinging on a tall pole. In the course of his long career he went on to work with many of the premier circuses and dime museums of the day, including those run by Sells Brothers, Adam Forepaugh, and P. T. Barnum.

In 1870, Bowen married a 16-year-old beauty, Mattie Haines. Together they produced a family of four boys: Frank, Robert, Adrian and Victor. As in this photograph, various members of the Bowen family often appeared with Eli in his later pitchcards — sometimes including the family goat! Very often one sees Eli's sons mimicking their father's customary gesture of a right hand tucked Napoleon-like in his vest.

In later years, Bowen created a sensation when he would team up with Canadian armless wonder Charles Tripp. Together — in a famous photograph — the two would pilot a tandem bicycle: Bowen steering while Tripp pedaled.

[Special thanks to Eli Bowen's great-greatgrandaughter, Gabrielle Bowen (descended from Eli's son Adrian in the photograph above), for providing the following additional information on the Bowen family.]

“Eli's third born son, Adrian, was my greatgrandfather. [Adrian] was a musician and traveled around a lot. He kept in touch with second born Robert, but no one in the family knows anything about first born Frank or last born Victor…

“My grandfather met Eli when he was young, but it wasn't a joyous meeting. It has been mentioned in biographies about Eli that he didn't care for little boys, and it was true, unfortunately. My grandfather never said anything bad about anyone, but he said Eli wasn't very nice. Eli was closest to his [eldest] son Frank. I think because Adrian's wife died so young and that Adrian had two sons to raise alone, he probably didn't have time to keep close to his father on the other side of the country.

“My family never seemed to be embarassed by him. We were all impressed by him. He was a very successful man. I wish I new more about him.”

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All Images and Text © James G. Mundie 2003 - 2010