Curious: Anne Eliza Leak – the armless wonder

Charles Eisenmann, 1872, Anne Eliza Leak – the armless wonder, USA, albumen silver carte-de-visite photograph, Te Papa O.042713.

This studio portrait of Anne Eliza Leak (also known as Thomson) was set up to emphasise her feet as a prominent part of the image. Leak is seated on a legless chair on top of a table along with a display of examples of activities and handicrafts she could make using her feet. Leak was a performer in Barnum’s American Museum and toured Australasia as part of the Cooper & Bailey Circus’s Pacific tours.

Leak capitalised on publicity for her shows with a superstitious and moralistic story that purported to explain the reason for her condition. Leak claimed ‘she was born that way because her pregnant mother had been surprised by the sight of her father coming home drunk with his coat thrown over his shoulders, his arms concealed in its folds.’1

Leak often wrote messages on the back of her portraits such as the one pictured below (also held in Te Papa’s collection), which reads: “Indolence and ease are the rust of the mind. Anne L. Thomson. Born without arms. Dec. 23 1839. Georgia U.S.A.”.

Leak along with her son and husband and a ‘learned pig’ toured New Zealand on their own during 1881-2. They appeared at the 1882 Christchurch Exhibition and afterwards at a shop in Christchurch and as the ‘Great Novelty Exhibition’, in a shop in Princes Street, Dunedin during March 1882.

1 Adams, Rachel. 2001. ‘Maternal Impressions’, Sideshow U.S.A. – Freaks and the Amercian Cultural Imagination, University of Chicago Press, p. 199.

Other stories in this series:

Curious: Miss Matilda Sanville – the smallest lady in the world

Curious: Martinho Lowande – ‘the Great Brazilian Bareback Hurricane rider’

Lissa Mitchell – Curator Historical Photography

Follow Lissa on Twitter @rainyslip

One Response

  1. Adele Pentony-Graham

    lovely petite lady.. now reading about her, reminded me off a burial at Woodville Gorge Cemetery, its African Aboriginal who died late 1890s, but I believe he was on display as there was something different about him, I think he died he was over 100, but also he could have been extra tall, am trying to find out more about him, and will let you know, he was listed with the name CRICKET. He was born in 1770s.. my question when and how did he get to NZ! I used to attend the Gorge Cemetery Tours this is how I found out about the grave, have his grave marker on my computer.. somewhere amongst 1000s of others!


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