The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Freaks and Geeks
In the Smithsonian Institution Archives, we each have our favorite stories that are told through materials in our collections. Several times a year we might give "treasures shows" for interns or special visitors, and we pluck items that highlight moments and people in the Institution's history. We pull out a draft of James Smithson's will, letters from the Wright brothers, panoramic photos of the Canadian Rockies and other pieces of interest. Often we end with what we call the "freaks and geeks" portion of the tour (and we mean that in the most respectful and affectionate way possible).
Two of our most beloved protagonists come out of donation offers to the Smithsonian around the turn of the 20th century, and they are indicative of many offers made to the Institution since its founding: The Smithsonian is the "Nation's Attic" and takes everything, right? So they will surely want this, right? No, not really.
In 1902, the Smithsonian received two letters from Frank Elliott of Phillips Station, Pennsylvania (click on letter at right to enlarge). Mr. Elliott wanted to sell a dog to the Institution for $800. Pricey for 1902, yes, but this was no ordinary dog. Mr. Elliott wrote, "I have bin [sic] informed that you keep on record the habits and lives of all animals and so fare [sic] as possible have a sample of all kinds from all parts of the world." He had an animal that he had never read or heard about—it was a Scotch Collie-Spaniel mix born without front legs. Clelonda, as he was named, "…is the liveliest dog I ever saw, handling himself with only the two hind leggs [sic] as well as other dogs can with four; he walks on them in nearly a perpendicular position and sits up like a person; has a bright intelligent eye; is red and white in coller, mostley [sic] white; he will speak for his meals and ask to go out by barking; he can eat anything that a dog can eat; is partial to bones [punctuation mine]." Elliott further explained that he would like to sell the dog to pay for his "trouble of raising him." The Smithsonian declined. I wonder what happened to bright little Clelonda.
Another interesting donation story involves an 1898 letter to the Smithsonian from Joseph E. Girard of the Wonderland museum in Buffalo, New York. Girard offered for exhibition an actual freak—in his words, "the greatest freak in the country," Francis Lentini, a three-legged boy. Enclosed was Lentini's card, billing him as the "Wonder of the 19th Century." When our reference archivist made this find, though, it wasn't the image that caught her eye first, but the ornate letterhead that outlines the Wonderland's contractual rules and conditions placed on performers and freaks. Among the rules: "This is a first-class, strictly moral family resort for ladies and children, where no offensive word or action, under any circumstances, will be permitted."
There is no indication that the Smithsonian responded to Girard. Francis Lentini (he also went by Francisco and Frank) became quite a successful performer, touring with the Ringling Brothers circus act, Barnum and Bailey, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. His signature trick was to stand on two legs while kicking a soccer ball with his third.
Not all donation offers make it into the Smithsonian's collections. Each museum, archives, and library has its own collecting mission that outlines what it will and won't take. However, even declined offers can be interesting Smithsonian stories, and some of our favorites.