William Durks — "Bill" to his friends — was among the most unusual of all those who ever
worked under canvas. Durks was billed at various times as "The Two-faced Man" and "The Man with Three
Eyes and Two Noses". The reason for these appellations was that Bill Durks had perhaps the most
severe cleft palate anyone has ever seen. His face was effectively divided in twain, with his eyes
spaced widely apart and a single nostril balanced on either side of the deep rift that
extended from brow to mouth. His appearance could be startling, but Bill would heighten the uncanny
effect by painting a third eye in the depression between his original sockets. Actually, the three-eyed man only had
one eye, as his left was damaged during birth.
Bill Durks had a lengthy sideshow career, working with many of the premier shows. Durks appeared with
Slim Kelly and Whitey Sutton's outfit for more than thirty years, but also spent time with Gooding's Million Dollar Midway,
and the Hall & Christ and James E. Strates shows. One story has it that Bill's career began at fourteen when he walked onto a local
fairground near his home in Jasper, Alabama. He came to see the show, but the showmen who saw him knew they had to have him up on
the platform. From that point on he was in showbiz, but the arrangement was not always a good one. Early on he was frequently
exploited and management often took advantage of him. In many ways, this was just an extension of his
upbringing; but whereas Bill's family had been ashamed of his appearance and hid him away from prying
eyes, these showmen put him up front and center.
Bill's good friend Melvin "The Anatomical Wonder" Burkhart, who met Durks when they were both working for
Strates, said that when Bill arrived he was a very shy individual. Bill and Melvin struck up a friendship during
the drives from one town to the next. At that point Bill hadn't even developed much of an act for
himself, but Melvin encouraged him to participate in the lecture and talk about his pitchcards. Soon Bill's confidence was
such that he would lecture about himself and was selling many more cards.
Melvin Burkhart was more than a career councilor for Bill — he was also a matchmaker. It was Melvin who encouraged Bill and Mildred, an alligator-skinned girl,
to overcome their initial misgivings and get to know each other. Soon afterwards they — like Al and Jeanie Tomaini or Emmitt and Percilla
Bejano — became another "World's Strangest Married Couple". They were inseparable until Mildred's untimely death in 1966 due to a severe asthma attack. Bill was
inconsolable, but was encouraged by his step-daughter Dorothy Hershey to return to the show where his friends and the work would distract him from his grief. Bill Durks
continued to work for several years until he passed away in 1973.
The inspiration for this drawing came from Domenico Ghirlandaio's Old Man and Child in the
collection of the Louvre, and an affectionate snapshot of Bill Durks with his young stepdaughter, Dorothy. In the original painting, an old man with a nose distorted by rhinophymic
growths looks down at the tow-headed child in his lap. One might think of the painting as a meditation on youth and old age, or an expression of love that transcends
To see a detail enlargement (89K) of this drawing, please click here.
One of Bill Durks' pitchcards may be seen in the Sideshow Ephemera section.
[For more information about Bill Durks, see the article "In the Kingdom of the Blind" in Shocked and Amazed.]