Interesting Facts

The Incredible Story of Martin Laurello, The Sideshow Performer With The Revolving Head

Martin Laurello was also known as 'The human owl'. He was born with the ability to turn his head a full 180 degree.

Nothing shone with more opportunity at the turn of the century than the United States. Many thousands of people came to America in search of a better life. With the popularity of sideshows and circuses, spectacle could be found everywhere, and people like Martin Laurello, who performed tricks for large audiences, could make a living.

Aside from featuring life-threatening acts like lion taming and sword swallowing, sideshows also featured disfigured individuals on stage for onlookers to marvel at.

Martin Laurello could drink but not smoke or breathe when his head was turned. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Laurello earned the nickname “Human Owl” for turning his head 180 degrees in response to applause during the height of P.T. Barnum’s success, a time when the obscene was turned into profit.

Turning Into The “Human Owl”

Martin Laurello didn’t look like a sideshow “freak,” in contrast to most of his contemporaries; instead, up until he revealed his startling trick, he looked like any other citizen. That’s because he never forced his head to face backward; rather, he was born with the ability. He had to spend years training in order to become an expert in it.

When Martin Joe Laurello arrived in the United States in 1921, he went by Martin Emmerling, despite being born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1885. It’s unclear if he chose the new name he had acquired or if immigration had given it to him, but his talent would soon be widely recognized.

Laurello stood out among the many Europeans who fled their homelands in pursuit of better opportunities, notoriety, or wealth. He had spent the better part of three years learning how to turn his head around to a maximum angle of 120 degrees, and he was happy to gain any extra inch that he could. As a result, he was in great demand for his abilities.

People standing in line to see a “freak” show in Coney Island. Photo Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Laurello debuted his act at the Dreamland Circus Sideshow at Coney Island. Captain Jack Bonavita, the lion tamer, had lost an arm in the seaside theme park before. This is where Laurello gained notoriety—or, more accurately, the moniker “Human Owl.”
Laurello’s ability to sip beer with his head fully turned around was remarkable. Nevertheless, he was unable to breathe or smoke. The name “Bobby The Boy With The Revolving Head” was printed on the banner that went with his act. Sideshow performers, regardless of age, were referred to as “boys” or “girls” respectively.

Laurello also appeared in shows at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, although the performances had to move indoors during the winter. He was employed by strongman Charlie Felton, sword swallower Alex Linton, and Roy Heckler—who was in charge of a well-trained group of fleas—at Hubert’s Museum in New York.

The Martin Laurello Legacy

The Legacy Of Martin LaurelloLaurello was hired by the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! after years of touring cities like Philadelphia, Newark, and Paterson with Hubert’s dime museum! The Odditorium, circa 1930. “The only person in the world who can walk straight ahead and look straight behind” is how he was marketed.

Even though Laurello was a household name to any viewer who purchased a ticket, his personal life started to suffer. Alexander was the son of his marriage to Laura Precht, which ended in divorce, and he later entered into another unsuccessful marriage. Interestingly, it resulted in his apprehension while he was performing.

Laurello left his second wife Emilie Wittl and their two sons behind, never to be seen again. After Wittl filed a formal complaint with the police, on April 30, 1931, Baltimore police quickly arrested Laurello for spousal abandonment. He turned his head back and winked at the officers.

According to The New York Times, “he was looking right at his audience, standing on a platform with his back to the crowd.” He gave the two cops and the audience a wink. They winked back, took him into custody. The New York police were notified and he was placed under $500 bond.

The claims that he was a Nazi sympathizer were arguably the darkest stain on his legacy. He most likely saw Adolf Hitler’s subtle calls to fortify the country as encouraging since he had fled his devastated fatherland soon after World War I. In the end, Hitler was named 1938’s “Man of the Year” by TIME.

Related Articles

According to his former coworker Percilla Bejano, “he was a Nazi.” “And he didn’t like the American flag. You meet all kinds on the sideshow — worse than me!”

In the end, not much is known about the last years of Laurello. His head was replicated and rotated in Times Square during the New York World’s Fair in 1939–1940. Three years prior to his heart attack death in 1952, he gave his final performance that was officially documented.

Some said that in order for him to fully turn his head, he had to “dislocate several vertebrae,” while others asserted that his spine was “twisted” from birth. Ultimately, that mystery will always remain unsolved due to a lack of x-rays. A challenge to those who wish to give it a try, Laurello once asserted that anyone could accomplish it with enough practice.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x