Coney Island, New York, 1930. That’s where the census enumerator caught up with Robert James and Katherine (Katie) Ransdell Katell. Working for a carnival-style sideshow on the peninsula known for such entertainment venues, the two found happiness together in a world far removed from Katie’s roots in Ralls County, Mo.
Born to Charles H. and Engelina Ransdell circa 1903, in Clay Township, Ralls County, Mo., Katie attended school at Hydesburg along with her siblings. Her father died in 1911 when she was just 8, and her mother died in 1917, when she was but 14. Her parents are both buried at the Hydesburg cemetery.
After her parents’ deaths, Katie remained on the family farm along with her brothers, Bohle A. Ransdell, Charles W. Ransdell, John A. Ransdell and Henry R. Ransdell.
But sometime during the decade of the 1920s, she felt the need to branch out on her own. The main obstacle standing in the way of her success was a physical deformity. She used that deformity – abnormally swollen legs from the knees to her ankles – as her ticket to independence. She began traveling with a carnival sideshow – a ‘freak show’ - such as those featured on Coney Island.
Mary Muehring remembered her first cousin, Katie, and the stories told by family members. Before her death in 2003, Mary recorded many of those memories to paper, and shared them with other family members.
One such memory came from a time when Mary was a child, and the carnival that Katie worked for came to Hannibal. Mary wrote:
"One day my dad learned that she had been hired by a traveling carnival show and the show was coming to Hannibal. One feature of the carnival was to display ‘freaks’ and abnormal people. It was advertised in the local paper and even mentioned she had a family in this area. How embarrassing that must have been for her family. I recall my Dad took me with him to the carnival. When it was her turn to come on the stage, Katie was featured as ‘half man and half woman.’ Of course this was all nonsense, but I suppose many people believed it."
Among the recipients of Mary’s written stories is Hannibal native Marlene Ransdell Oglesby (who now lives in Springfield, Mo.) Marlene shared this story in hopes that she could learn more about her Aunt Katie, whom she physically resembles (according to Mary Muehring) but never met.
Robert J. Katell
Mary Muehring fondly remembered her cousin’s husband. "I was impressed with his good looks and talent," Mary wrote. "He was a very talented piano player and used to come to the school where I was teaching to put on a show."
That talent took him far from his Chicago roots, helping him to make a name for himself in the music world.
In May 1924 – before he married Katie Ransdell – Robert J. Katell held the world’s record for continuous piano playing: 84 hours, 15 minutes and 12 seconds.
On May 23, 1924, Katell, then living in Los Angeles, performed a promotional 24-hour marathon in the window of the H. Buchheim Music Co., store in Sheboygan, Wis.
By early February 1926, he was manager of The Boston ‘Entertainment Revue’ which was commissioned to present a comedy show for disabled veterans at the U.S. Navy Hospital in Boston. Katell’s troupe was to be accompanied by "Hallett and Harvey, Hourihan and Douchette and the McCabe sisters. Music will be given by Molesini piano accordion; Ethel Lyons, saxophone, and Stella O’Neil, pianist. Jerolyn Joffe, coloratura soprano, will sing," reported the Boston Globe.
And as previously mentioned, by 1930 Robert Katell and Katie Ransdell had married, and were living on Coney Island. A decade later, they were living in Guernsey, Monroe County, Ohio, where they settled into a farming community. In 1937, Robert was working as a salesman for Melancon’s department store in Birmingham, Ala.
On Aug. 16, 1941, Katie died in Cambridge County, Ohio, and family records show that she was buried at New Comertown, Ohio, near Zanesfield.
Robert died in 1958, in Los Angeles, Calif.
Best-selling author describes the life of a circus ‘freak’
Bruce Barton was an American businessman and writer, his lifespan encompassing the years 1886-1967. He is perhaps best remembered for his best-selling book, "The Man Nobody Knows."
On May 6, 1931, the following excerpt from an essay was published in the Palmyra Spectator.
It seems pertinent to this story.
The Way of Life
by Bruce Barton
May 6, 1931
The Palmyra Spectator
I once had (a conversation) with the press agent of a circus. In describing the freaks in the sideshow he remarked: "Every so often we have to send them away. They get sucker sore."
"Sucker sore!" I exclaimed. That’s a new one on me. What’s the meaning of sucker sore?"
He explained that, in the parlance of the circus, a customer is a sucker. It is not a derogatory term, merely the conventional phrase.
"The freaks sit there on their raised platforms, listening to the comments of the suckers who press around them all day long," he said. "The living skeleton hears the same rude jokes a hundred thousand times. The fat lady is poked at with umbrellas, and kidded by smart young fellows who imagine that their wisecracks are something absolutely fresh and new.
"Day after day the freaks put up with it, smiling patiently. But every day the strain of their suppressed emotions grows greater, until finally they want to jump down off their platforms and bite the customers. Then we have to send them away for a rest. They are ‘sucker sore.’"
Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com