Sounds of the Fair: The Human Block Head (and other oddities)

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This week we’re celebrating the sounds of The Erie County Fair.

The oddities shows were once very much a part of the fair.

Melvin Burkhart nails it 1978

Melvin Burhardt had a few different acts over the decades. He was “the man with the rubber neck” and spent some time with the Ripley’s Oddotorium as “The Two Faced Man.”

He could contort his face so that half was Happy Melvin– with a raised eyebrow and a smile, and the other half was sad Melvin– with a scrunched eyebrow and a scowl.

The James E. Strates Shows have provided the midway attractions for the Erie County Fair since the 1920s. When Burkhardt joined Strates in 1956, his act was one of 18 sideshows.

1939 article talks about Strates’ side shows.
Strates’ 8 Foot Man. 1958.

He was best known to Erie County Fair goers as one of many “Human Block Heads” who came through the fair. Through the years, there were dozens of people who learned the Nail Head trick of hammering nails, or ramming knives, right into their faces.

It’s not comfortable– but it’s also not actual hammering. You can see the trick explained all over the internet.

There were many acts through the years named Alligator Man or Alligator Boy or Alligator girl– those were people who suffered from ichthyosis, which causes profound scaling of the skin. Tall people with Marfan syndrome. Hairy people with Hypertrichosis.

The human oddities are gone from the fair and most circuses and fairs, in part because of our changing sensibilities, but also because most of what we once considered odd or freakish is not so much anymore– especially when YouTube is filled with great, scientific explanations for the tricks and diseases which people put on display during these shows.

Strates showbill, 1959

While they are gone and never to return, the oddities and sideshows are a part of the history of the fair that shouldn’t be forgotten.

1971.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. writing about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and is the News Director at WECK Radio. A 25 year Buffalo media veteran, Steve's contributed more than 1400 Buffalo History stories to The Buffalo News, worked at WIVB-TV, Empire Sports Network, and spent ten years as a newsman and News Director at WBEN Radio. He's also put his communication skills to work as an adjunct professor, a producer of PBS documentaries, and even run for Erie County Clerk. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.