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Series Feature #5 – Life in The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – Myrtle Corbin (The Four Legged Girl)

Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit.  The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.

In our last visit to the modern circus we had the opportunity to continue our journey to the future of the modern circus entrepreneurs.  Last week we visit with one of the most prominent entrepreneurs James A. Bailey which was known as the great promoter of the international circus, a much-needed addition to P.T. Barnum. 

Considered one the best organizers in the business, making him the perfect partner. At the time there was still one main competitor Ringling Brothers, which would one day join the ranks of P.T. Barnum and Bailey, making them Ringling Brothers Barnum and Baily Circus which is the circus most of us will remember.

The Ringling Bros and Their Entrance

The Ringling Brothers, a family of American circus proprietors who created the Ringling Brothers circus empire in the late 19th century. The members active in founding and running the family circus were all brothers which included :

Albert C. (1852-1916), Otto (1858-1911), Alfred T (1861-1919), Charles (1863-1926), John (1866-1936), and occasionally August G (1854-1907) and Henry (1869-1918).

The sons of August Rungeling, a German-born harness maker, Charles, Albert, Otto, Alfred and John in 1882 formed a song and dance troupe, the classic and comic concert CO. and went on the road for two seasons. They began adding circus acts to their show, and they organized their first small circus which opened on May 19, 1884 in their hometown of Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Their progress was slow until they acquired their first elephant in 1888, after which the circus expanded rapidly. In 1890 the Ringling brothers first began loading their circus wagons on railway cars, enabling them to make a much longer tour.

The Competition of Ringling Bros.

By 1900 the Ringling Brothers were actively competing with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and they subsequently started buying up other circuses.

In 1906 they acquired the Forespaugh-Sells Circus after James A Bailey died and they bought the Barnum and Bailey circus in 1907, becoming the leading circus in the country, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey combined shows.

After Charles death in 1926, John ran the empire along for 10 years. In 1929 he bough the American Circus Corporation , thus bringing a total of 11 Major circuses under Ringling control.

By the time Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus had a main-tent seating capacity of 10,000. John died in 1936, and the circus finally passed out of the Ringling family hands in 1967, when it purchased by the Feld family.

In 2015 Feld entertainment, the corporate parent of Ringling, announced that the circus would no longer feature elephant acts, a response to decades of complaints by animal rights advocates that the circus mistreated the animals. Due to this issue, resulting in the decline in ticket sales, led to Feld’s decision in 2017 to close the circus in May of that year.

Keeping with tradition from previous weeks, we had the great honor of learning about those very special performers that many of us are curious about. We have had the honor to visit with the Bearded Women, Camel girl and the Siamese Twins. I encourage you visit these stories here :

Previous Profiles and Stories

Koo-Koo the Bird Girl –


Bearded Womenhttps://josephmeyercreatives.com/2020/08/09/life-in-the-circus-bearded-woman/

Camel Girlhttps://josephmeyercreatives.com/2020/08/15/series-feature-2-life-in-the-circus-from-yesterday-to-today-ella-harper-the-camel-girl/

The Siamese Twinshttps://josephmeyercreatives.com/2020/08/23/series-feature-3-life-in-the-circus-from-yesterday-to-today-siamese-twins-bunker-twins-chang-and-eng/

As with tradition we continue our profiles on those performers commonly referred to as freaks. This week I think it would be interesting to profile those that maybe you and I have not heard of. This week we look at Myrtle Corbin the four-legged girl.

Many times my interest in figures or people comes from film and TV but this individual I was unaware existed until really starting to researching.

Josephine Myrtle Corbin (May 12, 1868 – May 6, 1928)

An American sideshow performer born as a dipygus which is a severe congenital deformity where the body axis forks left and right partway along the torso with the posterior end (Pelvis and legs) duplicated.

Another way to best explain in non medical terms as having two separate pelvises side by side from the waist down, as a result of her body axis. Each of her smaller inner legs was paired with on of her outer legs. She was said to be able to move her inner legs, but they were too weak for walking.

Born in Lincoln County, Tennessee. Parents were William H. Corbin, aged 25 at the time of his daughter’s birth and Nancy Corbin aged 34. Corbin entered the sideshow circuit with the moniker “Four-Legged Girl from Texas” when she was 13 years old; one of her first promotional pamphlets described her as being as “gentle of disposition as the summer sunshine and as happy as the day is long” Her popularity in this industry was such that other showmen turned to exhibiting four-legged gaffs.

The tiny body of her twin was only fully developed from the waist down and even then was malformed – tiny and processing only three toes on each foot. Myrtle was able to control the limbs of her sister but was unable to use them for walking and she herself had a difficult time getting around as she was born with a clubbed foot. Technically, the four-legged women only had one good, usable leg.

Myrtle was a popular attraction with P.T. Barnum and later with Ringling Bros and Coney Island. Her popularity was likely linked to her showmanship – She would often dress the extra limbs with socks and shoes matching her own and this gave her a truly surreal appearance. Myrtle was so popular that she was able to earn as much as $450 dollars per week.

At age 19 she married James Clinton Bicknell, with whom she had four daughters and a son.  In the spring 1887, approximately a year after marrying Bicknell, Corbin became pregnant for the first time, a condition was discovered by Dr. Lewis Whaley. Examining Corbin, Whaley discovered that the duplication of her external sexual organs was mirrored by a similar duplication internally. He determined that is was in her left uterus that Corbin was pregnant.

The pregnancy caused Corbin to become gravely ill and after consulting with colleagues, Whaley decided to perform an abortion eight weeks after her initial examination. She was reportedly, between three and four months pregnant at the time. Making a full recovery, despite her unique anatomy which did not prevent her from successfully carrying future pregnancies to term.

She died in Cleburne, Texas. Dying as a result of streptococcal skin infection. Though antibiotics make the condition easily treatable today, in the 1920’s there was no such treatment available.  Her casket was covered in concrete and various family members kept watch until it fully cured to prevent grave robbers from stealing her corpse. Several medical practitioners and private collectors offered financial compensation for her corpse.

Works Cited


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