Thankfully, the interest in American "freak shows" from the past has faded into the 19th and early 20th centuries. Carnival attendees were astounded by the bizarre offspring of bearded women, strong men, sword swallowers, and tiny people like Tom Thumb. However, it is difficult to understand how exactly these performers fared given the morbid fascination of paying patrons, especially given the paucity of reliable information about them.
The so-called "Three-Legged Man," Franceso "Frank" Lentini, made a living off his unusual condition of being born with a parasitic twin.
Frank Lentini’s Early Years
Frank Lentini was either an only child or the fifth child out of 12 when he was born in Sicily, Italy, in May 1889. He was born with three legs, four feet, 16 fingers, and two sets of genitalia.
His fourth foot protruded from his knee, and an extra leg grew out of the side of his right hip. A second embryo that started to develop in the womb but ultimately was unable to separate from its twin was the cause of his condition. As a result, one twin began to rule the other.
Lentini was taken to a specialist when he was four months old to discuss the possibility of amputating his extra leg, but the doctor decided against it due to the risk of paralysis or even death.
He earned the nicknames "u maravigghiusu" (Corsican for "the marvel") and, more cruelly, "little monster" in and around his hometown. As a result, Lentini's family moved him in with an aunt to keep him out of further trouble.
Lentini traveled to America with his father in 1898 when he was only nine years old, and they eventually met Guiseppe Magnano in Boston. A professional showman, Magnano had been in America for three years by the time he met with Lentini about potentially adding him to his shows.
Francesco "Frank" Lentini was listed as one of the top acts in the renowned Ringling Brothers circus just a year later, in 1899.
Lentini’s Intro. To The Circus
"The three-legged Sicilian", "the only three-legged football player in the world", "the greatest medical wonder of all time", or sometimes just "The Great Lentini" were all titles used to describe Lentini.
He was known to make the endearing joke that he was the only man who didn't need a chair because he could always use his third leg as a stool because he had a talent for charming self-deprecation.
Lentini became fluent in English while touring the country and became well-known for his poise, intelligence, and unbridled pride in his physical abnormality. He accumulated a lot of fame and wealth.
Despite having a unique career path, Lentini was successful in seducing Theresa Murray, a young actress, with the help of his charm. Josephine, Natale, Franceso Jr., and Giacomo were the four children born to the couple after their 1907 wedding.
The Great Lentini eventually parted ways with Theresa in 1935, but this did not prevent him from falling in love again. He would go on to spend the rest of his life with Helen Shupe.
A Storied Career
Lentini participated in sideshows for Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and the Ringling Brothers Circus. He had never once stopped touring by the time he passed away from lung failure at age 77 in 1966.
Lentini's hometown of Rosolini, Sicily, held a two-day memorial festival in 2016 to honor their unconventional hometown hero, 50 years after his passing. Any and all of Frank's descendants, from near and far, were invited to the memorial.
Although sideshows are no longer the main source of entertainment in America, the public's fascination with and even romanticization of the time period persists.
For instance, the 2017 movie The Greatest Showman included a revolving cast of sideshow characters who were all based on real-life performers. Naturally, Francesco "Frank" Lentini, portrayed by actor Jonathan Redavid, made an appearance.
The success of Frank Lentini serves as a reminder of how amazing and fantastical the American dream can be when it is fully realized. One of the many reasons Francesco "Frank" Lentini was successful and happy in America was undoubtedly his attitude toward his parasitic twin, which he saw as an advantage rather than a burden.
“I’ve never complained,” Lentini said in his later years. “I think life is beautiful and I enjoy living it.”