“Ladies and gentlemen! Do you have an ache of the body? A pain of the heart? No matter: step right up! Here’s where you’ll find the cures to all of your suffering, now and forever!”
In the clearing, the deep voice of a lanky, fair-skinned Negro boy boomed over the crowd hovering outside the circus tent. He thrilled to the sound of his own voice and the steady gaze of the enraptured throng, who stood gathered around him. This was power--as close to it as he had ever come. Merely sixteen years old, Egbert Austin Williams had quit high school to follow his dream of becoming an entertainer. He had been snatched up by the world of the medicine show.
A carnivalesque atmosphere of overwhelming displays, magnificent claims, and stentorian voices, the medicine show was more show than medicine. Under makeshift tents filled with booths, famous and infamous self-proclaimed doctors hocked elixirs, promising magic and miracles to their ecstatic audiences. Engaging the audiences with dramatic testimonials and tales of new worlds plumbed to discover exotic ingredients, the “doctors” took their public on flights of fantasy that amused, shocked, and thrilled. Crowds of awed frontiersfolk swarmed, vying for the merest glimpse, the slightest touch, the most meager taste. And charlatans eagerly catered to the public’s craving, producing purported customers to illustrate their products’ effectiveness, and exhibiting circus-like “freaks” as the wretched unfortunates who went without treatment.
At the portal to this overwhelmingly white nineteenth-century world stood Bert, the barker. An unlikely guide for the mostly white audience, not only because he was a Negro--though light-skinned enough to appear white--but also because he was Bahamian. Bert and his family had left their native home of Nassau in 1884, when he was ten, fleeing the depression that plagued the Bahamian economy during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They eventually settled in Riverside, California, whose economy not only boasted an impressive citrus industry--and the seedless orange--but also the railroads, which serviced Southern California from San Diego to San Bernardino, later extending to transcontinental lines. Bert’s father, having gained knowledge of citrus farming from his father, Frederick Williams, Sr., could pursue work in the industry, or as a porter on the railroad. Committed to life in a new country, the family pursued its fortunes in America, never to return to the Nassau.
Although excitingly new to Bert and disturbingly unfamiliar to his immigrant parents, the medicine show had had a long history of capturing the imagination of audiences the world over. It could be traced back to Europe, to the mountebank, prevalent during the Renaissance and before. Mountebanks had been performers, often quacks, who traveled the European countryside selling their cures. Desperate to attract the attention of a crowd, they used numerous gimmicks and tricks designed to entertain, as well as to help them market their wares. Without such amusements, they could hardly hope to have buyers. Despite that distant history, right there, in the hinterland of rural Riverside, Bert had gained exposure to the fascinating world. Its tales and wonders had descended upon the town, eclipsing all else.
Copyright © 2007-2016 Camille F. Forbes. All Rights Reserved.