Eli Bowen, the Legless Acrobat, was a native of Ohio and the
only physically abnormal child in a family of ten children.
His condition, phocomelia or "seal limbs", manifested
itself in such a way that his feet protruded directly from
his pelvis without intervention of any of the bones that
would normally make up the leg. Bowen learned to walk on his
arms using wooden blocks to provide ground clearance for his
hips. The tremendous strength he developed in his arms and
chest allowed him to perform all manner of climbing and
At the age of thirteen, Bowen joined a traveling wagon show.
Part of his stage routine consisted of swinging on a tall
pole. In the course of his long career he went on to work
with many of the premier circuses and dime museums of the
day, including those run by Sells Brothers, Adam Forepaugh,
and P. T. Barnum.
In 1870, Bowen married a 16-year-old beauty, Mattie Haines.
Together they produced a family of four boys: Frank, Robert,
Adrian and Victor. As in this photograph, various members of
the Bowen family often appeared with Eli in his later
pitchcards — sometimes including the family goat! Very often
one sees Eli's sons mimicking their father's customary
gesture of a right hand tucked Napoleon-like in his vest.
In later years, Bowen created a sensation when he would team
up with Canadian armless wonder Charles Tripp. Together — in
a famous photograph — the two would pilot a tandem bicycle:
Bowen steering while Tripp pedaled.
[Special thanks to Eli Bowen's
great-great granddaughter, Gabrielle Bowen (descended from
Eli's son Adrian), for providing the following additional
information on the Bowen family.]
born son, Adrian, was my great grandfather. [Adrian] was a musician and
traveled around a lot. He kept in touch with second born Robert, but no
one in the family knows anything about first born Frank or last born
grandfather met Eli when he was young, but it wasn't a joyous meeting.
It has been mentioned in biographies about Eli that he didn't care for
little boys, and it was true, unfortunately. My grandfather never said
anything bad about anyone, but he said Eli wasn't very nice. Eli was
closest to his [eldest] son Frank. I think because Adrian's wife died so
young and that Adrian had two sons to raise alone, he probably didn't
have time to keep close to his father on the other side of the country.
never seemed to be embarrassed by him. We were all impressed by him. He
was a very successful man. I wish I new more about him.”
Prodigies by James G. Mundie
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