Marshall P. Wilder, born in 1859, was a highly visible public figure who is now forgotten. A famous vaudeville performer often described as a "hunchback dwarf," Wilder played dynamically with the disabling discourses that framed him, and he resisted tokenization by developing and claiming cross-disability (as well as cross-class) alliances with marginalized others. His work speaks not only to disability studies but to the conjunction of performance studies and critical prison studies. Early in the last century, he set the stage for productive connections to be made in this one between the theaters of disability, poverty and incarceration.

With the notable exception of histories of the freak show, work in disability performance studies tends to focus on contemporary examples.1 Petra Kuppers' 2003 summary of the prehistory of contemporary disability performance cultures offers a typical version of the past giving way to the present. Beginning by acknowledging "the history of oppression that…kept disabled performers away from the 'aesthetic' stage and its inducements of prestige, potential careers, and professional lives," Kuppers notes that from the eighteenth century onward disabled people's performances were "historically confined" to sideshows, freak displays, and the medical theater.2 The contemporary performers she goes on to discuss take, then, to a "different kind of stages," challenging the boundaries of disability display, uncontained by but at the same time mindful of a past history of performance as and in confinement.3

This story of the past still demands telling, particularly because the theaters of disability containment persist in forms old and new. However, in the exceptional case I am about to discuss this trope seems — well — too confining. Marshall P. Wilder, the disabled performer who is my subject here had an ample share of conventional professional prestige and a successful, well-publicized, theatrical career. At the same time, he used his professional influence to bring his own work to different kinds of stages and "proscenium cages," resisting exceptionality and performing solidarity by seeking to reclaim the medical and institutional theaters of confinement from the inside out.4 In this way, Wilder's work speaks not only to disability studies but to the conjunction of performance studies and critical prison studies and to historiographies of drama work in penal institutions.5 Early in the twentieth century, he set the stage for productive connections to be made in this one between the theaters of disability, poverty and incarceration.

In 1915, at the height of a national controversy over the murder of a disabled infant by Chicago doctor Harry Haiselden, Jane Addams gave a public lecture denouncing euthanasia in general and Haiselden in particular.6 Asserting that the "highest moral law requires the saving of every life that can possibly be saved," Addams added that "defectives were not necessarily a burden to society and in many cases of persons, living as well as dead, they had been among the world's greatest men and women." For the rest of the speech, Addams enumerated her "List of Noted Defectives." The names are mostly familiar. Unsurprisingly, the list begins with Helen Keller. It includes John Milton ("he wrote Paradise Lost even though he was blind") and a host of other famous people readers might or might not recognize as disabled: De Quincey ("generally credited with having been what scientists term to-day a 'mental defective'"); Robert Louis Stevenson ("tubercular from early life"); Napoleon ("according to the modern physician he probably went through life without a thyroid gland"); Demosthenes ("born tongue-tied"); Tallyrand ("born a cripple"); and Emperor William of Germany ("with only one good arm the Kaiser does many things to-day that an ordinary man with two arms cannot do"). It also includes Marshall P. Wilder, "one of the world's greatest comedians."

Marshall P. who? Addams assumed her listeners knew and emphasized that he was internationally famous: "Though a physical dwarf, he taught himself to be so entertaining that the world forgot his deformity." At the peak of his early twentieth century career the name Marshall P. Wilder was practically a household word, and his death shortly before Addams made this speech had magnified his celebrity. For most of his adult life, Wilder was a highly visible public figure. But after his death, his story was buried, even within the uneven but persistent memory of disability history within the twentieth century's disability rights movements. Few readers today ever have heard of him.

Born in 1859, Wilder was a performer first on the Sunday school and Chautauqua circuits and later in vaudeville. His humorous monologues were characterized by what Caroline Caffin, in her 1914 book Vaudeville, called "dry whimsicality."7 In Anthony Slide's encyclopedia of vaudeville, which notes that Wilder was earning a hefty salary of $600 a week before his death ("and he was worth it," writes another vaudeville historian, "for he drew well"), he is described as follows: "Marshall P. Wilder was a curious character, a hunchbacked dwarf."8 Publicists billed him as "the greatest one-man or 'one-half-man' company on the road."9

To a significant extent, Wilder seems to have avoided being made into that form of "curious character" that gets called a freak. Histories of vaudeville such as Joe Laurie Jr.'s standard source Vaudeville: From the Honky Tonks to the Palace devote lengthy discussions to oddity or "freak acts," which include not only disabled people — such as the armless Lutz brothers sharpshooting with their feet, the 'Shrapnel Dodgers" (singing injured veterans who recounted their war experiences), conjoined twins such as Daisy and Violet Hilton, and Helen Keller — but also crack typists, a Jewish soccer team and Aimee Semple McPherson.10 Wilder never appears in these chapters. Instead, he shows up in discussions of monologists, humorists and storytellers. The same holds true in histories of the Chautauqua circuits where he got his start.11

A waxwork statue of Wilder appeared in 1900 in New York's Eden Musee novelty museum, not in their sections devoted to curiosities but in a grouping variously called "People Talked About" or "Prominent People, Past and Present," in which a wax replica of Wilder conversed with a wax Florence Nightingale, a wax Booker T. Washington and an assortment of wax military generals.12 This arrangement strongly coincides with Wilder's own self-representation, in which he consistently portrayed himself in social relation to others, often "prominent" others. His several autobiographies are composed largely of portraits of and anecdotes concerning his famous friends, as the title of The People I've Smiled With, his first book, suggests. In that volume and its sequels, chapters are devoted to, among others, Wilder's friendships and meetings with Henry Ward Beecher, General Grant, a number of U.S. presidents, the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria, Baron Rothschild, Oscar Wilde, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Adeline Patti, Sarah Bernhardt, James Whitcomb Riley and Buffalo Bill Cody. If this name-dropping approach functioned partly as a form of stigma management, as the subtitle of People I've Smiled With — Being Recollections of a Merry Little Life suggests, that was not its only use and effect.

Disability theorist David Hevey has written of the importance of "traveling off the body" in disability representation, of turning attention away from constricted fixation on the disabled body and towards the body's social context.13 In his written, textual representations of himself Wilder practices a graceful political strategy of "traveling off," partly through presenting his life as a literal "travels" or travelogue. This is particularly true in his third autobiography, Smiling Round the World, dedicated to "Sophie, my wife," which presents accounts and photographs of their honeymoon travels in Asia, Africa and Europe, using a marital "we" pronoun throughout.14 In earlier books Wilder presented himself as traveling solo, recording his observations of the White House or the streets of London. Borrowing two anachronistic terms, one too early and one far too late, one from the nineteenth century and the other from postmodern insider disability culture (their combination suggests something of the unstable, clashing dynamics of Wilder's modernity), we might define Wilder's social form as the style of the crip flaneur.15

Importantly, Wilder's relational strategy of self-representation and his traveler persona, his presentation of himself as a touring man of the world and a strolling man about town, insistently countered that obligation to be shut-in, which is at the core of ideologies of disability. It is no accident that the cover of his second memoir juxtaposes a portrait of the author with a street scene, or that his name crops up with great frequency in the New York Times's "man on the street" column in the early twentieth century. Wilder asserted, by consistently assuming, his free mobility in urban space, in the national scene, and around the globe.

Not that he could avoid disability subjection. The vaudeville world in which he worked was perfectly capable of generating assessments like Robert Benchley's hateful humor at the expense of the "Singer's Midgets" troupe: "If the Ku Klux Klan will include thespian midgets in their list of undesirables we will promise to take out a two-weeks' guest card in the order."16 Jane Addams might claim that "the world forgot [Wilder's] deformity," but apparently some people had more stubborn capacities for memory. The first vaudeville historian, Laurie, Jr., puts Wilder in his chapter on "Animal Acts."17 This kind of dehumanizing reception was not uncommon. Wilder's autobiographies celebrate his chats with the Prince of Wales, but privately a friend wrote to him commiserating about the "painful stories afoot, concerning the inhumanity of the British to you on your recent visit to London."18

Still, Laurie's other mention of Wilder, the "international storyteller," simply embeds his name in a long list of great headliner "single-men entertainers"; Wilder's placement in the scheme of "freak/animality" vs. "cosmopolitan/urbanity" was not fixed (198).19 A letter written to Wilder on the birth of his daughter by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 provides a good example of Wilder's complicated cultural positioning. Roosevelt was a champion of eugenics, telling eugenicist leader Charles Davenport, "I agree with you…that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind."20 Men of small stature with hunched backs, as the photographs in eugenics films like The Black Stork show, were obvious candidates for and often used as visible signs of the eugenic category "degenerate." Yet Roosevelt wrote to Wilder of the news of Grace Isabel's birth, with no irony whatsoever, "Dear Mr. Wilder: Good for you, and three cheers for the visible proof that the Wilder family is all right on the anti-race suicide issue!"21 Certainly Wilder's all-American whiteness secured his position vis-à-vis "race suicide" (a U.S. brand of whiteness he shored up by performing typical vaudeville routines buffooning Italians and other immigrants), but it is nonetheless striking that his size and impairments did not preclude Roosevelt's hearty congratulations on his paternity.

All of this might suggest nothing more than that Marshall Wilder was at times a token exception, a precursor for others placed in those roles of "supercrip" and "overcomer" which contemporary disability activists have decried. But this kind of disavowal in hindsight does no justice to the intricacies of Wilder's situation. It also obscures both the ways in which Wilder himself played dynamically with the dwarfing discourses that framed him and the ways in which he resisted tokenization by developing and claiming cross-disability (as well as cross-class) alliances with marginalized others.

He made complex use, for instance, of potentially confining types in his writing, taking up two trite figures given over to the "dwarfed" in American culture, "sunshine" and the "jester," and reconfiguring them with a sharp edge for his own ends. The rhetoric of "sunshine" was far from Wilder's alone. On the Chautauqua circuit where his career took off, spreading "sunshine" was practically part of the job description, and Wilder shared the tents and stages with other inspirational speakers like Methodist "Apostle of Sunshine" A.A. Willetts, "Take the Sunny Side" Lou Beauchamp, "Sunshine Dietrick" and the man called "Sunshine Bates" who specialized in a lecture called "The Silver Lining" ("Happiness is the joy of overcoming").22 But the notion of "sunshine" has a loaded, pressured history for people of short stature; it was part of Wilder's baggage.

Being "sunny" was (and to some extent still is) so thoroughly obligatory for little people that it has sometimes been constructed as genetic disposition.23 Wilder plied the droll inspirational mode epitomized by the title of his memoir The Sunny Side of the Street, but his performance of sunshine did more than preach the joy of overcoming. In Wilder's discursive contestation of the given terms of dwarfhood, for one thing, cheer is less innate than strategic, and to the extent that he presented his merriness as natural he also took pains to present it as individual. The People I've Smiled With accounts for "why one man should smile more than some others, and how I chanced to be that man" in this way:

Dame Nature appeared to be out of sorts when she got hold of me. She put a couple of feet under me, but she left a couple of feet off of my stature….After a while Dame Nature took another look, and seemed to think she hadn't done the fair thing by me, so she gave me an expansive smile and a big laugh. I liked them both; they amused me a great deal whenever there chanced to be nobody else looking after me. I cultivated that smile and that laugh until…both became so prominent as to attract a great deal of attention.
Pretty soon they began to make themselves useful to me.24

Undoubtedly this passage speaks the discourse of nature, but (self) nurture appears here as well. In the gap between Dame Nature's first conception and her second intervention, and in the emphasis on "cultivation," Wilder begins a narrative of self-making, marshalling the ideology of American individualism in order to speak of and talk back to American ableism.

The familiar quotation "Fate handed me a lemon — but I have made lemonade of it," attributed to Wilder, is probably the most influential of his rhetorical turns in this mode, surviving today ("when life gives you lemons") in the sphere of popular inspirational kitsch. Whether or not the line originated with Wilder, chances are good that he popularized it.25 If so, a faint strand of disability arts history ties Wilder to the late twentieth century American writer Mark O'Brien, the disabled poet and journalist who named his publishing company The Lemonade Factory. In both cases the cloying aspects of the one-liner are cut somewhat by its hint of the bitter, by the way it is designed to leave (even as it masks) a bit of a sour taste in the mouth.26

This acerbic trace is all the more evident in Wilder's most durable contribution to American popular humor. The story appears in many versions; here is Theodore Reik's, from Jewish Wit (1962):

Once a Jew, always a Jew. The story is told in New York of the banker Otto Kahn and the humorist Marshall P. Wilder who was a hunchback. Strolling along Fifth Avenue, Kahn pointed to a church and said, "Marshall, that's the church I belong to. Did you know that I was once a Jew?" Wilder answered: "Yes, Otto, and I was once a hunchback." The conviction that there is an unalterability about being Jewish is expressed better in this dry sentence than in many treatises. It seems it is as difficult for the Jew to get rid of his Jewishness as it is for the ancient mariner to lose the albatross. 27

Here modern hunchbackedness and modern Jewishness emerge, as Boyarin, Pelligrini and Itkovitz have put it in another context, "as traces of each other."28 (Both, too, are traces of Coleridge's curse of the ancient mariner: Jewish instead-of-the-crossness and disability as albatross that around the neck is hung.) In retellings of this tale, the point of the analogy is always a point about Jewish identity. Jewish "unalterability" proves itself through the logic of the Jew-hunchback equivalence. The meaning of "Jewish" depends upon the meaning of "hunchback," but the analogy, like those that Janet Jakobson has examined, makes "the first term the center of analysis while marginalizing (if including at all) any analysis of the second term."29 The joke's critique deflates what it identifies as a fantasy of Jewish passing by setting up the "hunchback" as the always-visible sign of deviance and of utter unassimilability. In this story, Jewish positioning is dynamic, though repositioning is futile; but the hunchback position is static, a bottom line the punchline must insist upon. "Hunchbacks" can't hide, and they don't even run; Wilder's humor depends upon its own fantastic impossibility. Wilder, who "is" (rather than "has") the thing called hunchback, gets (dryly) sentenced in the story (via his own wry words) to interminable hunchback identity, in order to teach Jewish people something about Jewishness.

But suppose we try to turn the metaphoric transfer round, and read the anecdote, against its grain, as a parable of disability identification? I think it's possible to find an additional set of meanings here. If Wilder functions as messenger of self-acceptance for Otto Kahn, he also offers a stringent critique of "cure" — a notion with a specific and sometimes painful history for disabled people. In the context of Wilder's autobiographical account in The Sunny Side of the Street of failed and brutal attempts to correct his orthopedic differences in childhood, the "I was once a hunchback" line takes on additional valences:

[P]art of my treatment was to lie in bed, locked in braces, for hours every day, and each of these hours seemed to be several thousand minutes long. So many other boys were under a similar treatment that an attendant, named Joe, was kept busy in merely taking off our appliances. These were locked, for between pain and the restiveness peculiar to boys, we would have removed them for ourselves and for one another.30

Once disability becomes the frame in which we set the story, both disabled self-love and the danger of obsession with a cure come to the fore. Wilder's memoir of being "a crip kid at the mercy of the fix-it fanatics," as Cheryl Marie Wade puts it in her review of Jim Ferris's The Hospital Poems, quietly anticipates Ferris's far more open protest in poems like this one on his childhood stay in a Shriner's hospital:

…until we make our sacrifice,

until our bodies are corrected,

until the gods deign to let us go,

we are children of no one,

wards of the Shrine…. (9) 31

Writing on Ferris's work, Paul Longmore describes the childhood experiences of many disabled people: "[Ferris's] poetic memoir will recall to them, not just the physical ordeal of a protracted surgical campaign, but the psychic anguish, the personal costliness, of a program that aimed to refashion a boy into something he never was and never would become." The "course of corrective treatments utterly failed to achieve its medical goals," Longmore writes, "let alone its social ones. It did not make him over physically, it could not make him over socially."32 Yes, Otto, and I was once a hunchback. Ferris's "children of no one" can claim Wilder as a forefather.

Characteristically, Wilder framed his own hints of physical ordeal and psychic anguish in his most personal memoir with surrounding assertions of good cheer. "A hospital is not a place that anyone would visit if he were in search of jollity," begins the chapter in which he recounts his institutionalization as a child,

yet some of the merriest hours of my life were spent, some years ago, in the National Surgical Institute of Philadelphia. I was one of about three hundred people, of all ages, sizes and dispositions, who were under treatment for physical defects. Most of us were practically crippled, a condition which is not generally regarded to be conducive of hilarity, yet many of us had lots of fun, and all of it was made by ourselves.33

This is an inspirational set-piece, to be sure — no wonder the Chautauqua audiences went for Wilder — and yet there's more here than the rhetorical equivalent of a brave smile. For one thing, the passage refuses pity, that foundational move in the history of disability advocacy. For another, it insists upon the community and self-sufficiency of the disabled people living in what Wilder later called "The Cripple's Palace." Compare David Hevey's innovations in disability photography, in which Hevey countered the grim black-and-whiteness of documentary realism that is generally assigned to the representation of disabled people with flashy Poloroid color in photographs that disabled people took of each other and themselves. Wilder's account of hospitalization achieves a somewhat similar effect.

"I live on the sunny side of the street," the memoir begins; "shady folks live on the other." If being "sunny" means purveying honest, squeaky-clean good humor, it also means refusing consignment to the "shade," a location given explicit disability association in the chapter on performing "Sunshine in Shady Places," with its subheadings "Insane People as Audiences," "Some Pathetic Experiences," and "A Poorhouse That was a Large House." "Shady"'s meanings for Wilder come close to those of that loaded legal word "unsightly."34 To be shady was to be made deviant, degenerate, fraudulent, criminal, wretched. Though Wilder's opening line removes him definitively from association with the shady, the book on the whole does not so much repudiate "shady places" as redefine them. Throughout, Wilder articulates a social model of sunshine.

His jester discourse works similarly. People of short stature and/or anomalous bodily shapes have long been assigned the court fool role; in 1858 when Dr. John Doran went to argue, for instance, that Socrates was a fool, he proved it as follows: the philosopher's "ugliness, deformity, and uncouthness…have been cited as foundations for reckoning him among the jesters."35 Wilder played the jester all the way to the bank. One of his books has a jester's cap embossed upon the cover, and he marketed a set of playing cards in which the jokers bore his image.36 But he played the jester/joker with an edge.

Early on in Sunny Side of the Street comes an extended passage expounding on the meaning of the jest:

Nature has put up many effective brands of concentrated sunshine in small packages; but the best of these, according to all men of all countries, is the merry jest. As far back as history goes you will find the jest, also the jester. Some kings more powerful than any European sovereign is to-day are remembered now only by what their jesters said.
All these jesters are said to have been little people. I am doubly qualified to claim relationship with them, for I am only three and a half feet high, and I have been jester to millions of sovereigns — that is, to millions of the sovereign American people, as well as to some foreign royalties.
The reason for little people taking naturally to sunshine and good-natured joking is not hard to find, for it is a simple case of Hobson's choice. It is easier to knock a man out with a joke than with a fist-blow, especially if you haven't much height and weight behind your fist. Tis the better way, too, for the joke doesn't hurt….
as soon as the world…got full enough of people to set up kings in business, the jester appears in business….The only one of them that survives is Persia, where John the Jester is, as he always was, in high favor at court. When trouble is in the air he merely winks at the Shah and gets off: "Oh, Pshaw!"…and the headsman sheathes his sword and takes a day off.37

Performing the American jester served a variety of purposes for Wilder. It aligned him in a heritage of people of short stature. It claimed a position of knowledge, wisdom and ethical superiority. It embodied dissidence; the jester "merely winks at the Shah," showing his hunch to the political father. And at the same time it embodied patriotic loyalty. Wilder sealed his Americanness, along with his audience's, in an invocation of democratic inclusivity, while subtly putting himself on top when he reminded the "sovereign American people" that some kings are remembered only by what their jesters say. Performing risibility opposed Wilder to the bitter, vengeful model of reactive disability epitomized by Shakespeare's Richard III and Horatio Alger's Hugo the Deformed.38 Yet this passage also quietly expresses some anger (why, after all, do little people need to knock men out?), and it clearly puts forward, with its "Hobson's choice" model, a social analysis of disability oppression and interaction.

In a similar section in People I've Smiled With, Wilder attributes the fact that he "make[s] it my business to smile for revenue" to the fact that there "was no chance for me in Congress, for the Speaker couldn't see me, to recognize me, unless I stood on a chair, which would be contrary to The Rules of the House!" Behind the corny humor lies a potentially discomfiting indictment of the ways in which disabled people like Wilder are denied political and social recognition. Certainly Wilder made himself the model of American making-do, continuing, in this passage, with another round of jollity: "if I, with the handicapping I was enduring, could smile and be merry, any big healthy fellow ought to go out in his own back yard and kick himself whenever he found himself being miserable."39 But consider the implications of "with the handicapping I was enduring." The gerund ("handicapping," not "handicaps") and the ongoing nature of "was enduring" suggest clearly that Dame Culture, not Dame Nature, is doing the disabling here.

His stage repertoire of jokes extended this social analysis. Consider this example, characteristically framed by Wilder as a Sunday school story told by a friend (and not just any friend but the tycoon John Wanamaker):

Boys, it isn't right to laugh at anyone's affliction. Besides, you never know when your own words might be turned against you. I once knew a deaf man — let us call him Brown — who was disposed to stinginess and to getting every dollar he could out of everybody and everything. He never married; but he was very fond of society, so one day he felt compelled to give a banquet to the many ladies and gentlemen whose guest he had been.
They were amazed that his purse-strings had been unloosed so far, and they thought he deserved encouragement, so it was arranged that he should be toasted. One of the most daring young men of the company was selected, for it took a lot of nerve to propose a toast to so unpopular a man as Miser Brown. But the young man rose, and Brown, who had been notified of what was to occur, fixed his face in the customary manner of a man about to be toasted. And this was what was heard by every one except Brown, who never heard anything that was not roared into his ear:
"Here's to you, Miser Brown. You are no better than a tramp, and it is suspected that you got most of your money dishonestly. We trust that you may get your just deserts yet, and land in the penitentiary."
Visible evidences of applause made Brown smile with gratification. He got upon his feet, raised his glass to his lips, and said, "The same to you, sir."40

This anecdote strikes back at the makings of cultural unsightliness (the "tramp," "dishonesty," the "penitentiary"); it places the hearing, not the deaf, as the butt of the deaf joke; and it delivers a rebuke to what today in Deaf critique would be called "audism."41 Like others of Wilder's jokes, it takes a generous approach to subjects like disability and fraud that Americans at the time often approached tensely and meanly. In his set piece "The Pensioner's Story," for instance, he played an old man spilling fables about how he lost his arm till the punchline: "I never had but one." The performance builds on the material of a common cultural phenomenon at the time, the unsightly begging expose — the fake sob story, the plea for pity, the putatively disabled beggar revealed to be a fraud — but its emphasis on the sheer pleasure of the old man's ingenuity and on the market demand for stories of injury make it very different tonally from the faker stories circulating in dominant U.S. culture.

But Wilder did not — far from it — limit himself to the disability beat on stage. And when cross-disability issues did show up in his repertoire, he represented his relation to them as provisional, fluid, and interactive. He told a story, for instance, about how he was "afflicted by a fit" in the middle of a hospital charity performance.

I had just got a recitation under way when a woman in the audience began to have a fit, at the most critical part of my number. I had to stop as it was not a duet, and go off of the stage. Mr. Snyder asked:
"What's the matter, Marsh?"
"There's a woman out there having a fit."
"Oh, go back and do the best you can," he replied.
"This is not where I fit," I answered. But I went back and told my pianist to play number seven of my repertoire, which was called "Poor Thing!"
The audience saw the joke, and helped me out.42

In the play on "fit" here (Wilder is afflicted by someone else's "fit," but this is not where he "fits"); in the multiple meanings of "poor thing," which both mocks pity and invokes it for the upstaged performer at least as much as the woman having a seizure; and in the relatively relaxed, "fits happen" stance toward social improvisation, Wilder models a self-conscious and flexible response to bodily and social vulnerability. Here a communal we, not a stigmatized I, is enduring and surviving the handicapping of the "fit." The humor is of the sort analyzed by British disability theorist, scholar and performer Tom Shakespeare: "disabled people have discovered and proved that impairment is not the end of the world, that it does not undermine subjectivity or possibility; and they have demonstrated this by developing an alternative comic language around the body. Impairment is not unspeakable or unacceptable, but quotidian and banal" (51).43

Wilder did not do this work alone. After his death Jane Addams may have placed Wilder on her list of "Great Defectives," but in his lifetime he placed himself squarely among other ordinary, and particularly disenfranchised, disabled people. Sometime in the late nineteenth century he made an arrangement with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt would pay him a regular salary to visit and perform for the inmates in New York City institutions such as the Almshouse, the Penitentiary, the Newsboy's Lodging House, the Home for Consumptives at Fordham, the Insane Asylum at Blackwell's Island and the Home for Incurables, all the "shady places," in short, that comprised the social geography of the "defective" and the "unsightly beggar."

Wilder's chapter in Sunny Side of the Street on his use of institutions as counterpublic sites for what now might be called a disability arts culture consistently defends the disabled and other marginalized people who comprised his audiences. "I always found insane audiences very appreciative," he wrote with sincerity. "Probably the majority of them were 'out of their head' on one subject only. Certainly their enjoyment of story and pantomime was very keen." He wrote at length about a "feeble minded boy" in the Home for Incurables who was "useful in many ways" and acted as baker for the institution: "his bread was delicious, too" (169). He described a paralyzed old man who "repelled the idea that he was unfortunate" (169).44 About the prisoners he performed for he wrote of their "native cleverness":

It takes brains to place and accomplish anything, whether legal or illegal, and prisoners of the class that is sent to the Reformatory have proved their ability to think, or they would not be there. There are thousands of good men who are stupid, but among criminals the rule is not reversible, for I have yet to see a criminal who is a fool. (169)45

The chapter as a whole functions as an impassioned critique of the widespread notion of "defective, dependent and delinquent classes."

Refusing token status, Wilder allied himself with other disabled people and also with criminals. In an article he wrote about writer and printer Elbert Hubbard , who founded the utopian Arts and Crafts Roycroft community in East Aurora, New York, Wilder focused on "a girl who is deaf and dumb and nearly blind."

She was sent by someone to East Aurora with no return ticket and no money, her belongings wrapped in a newspaper. She was brought to Mr. Hubbard by a station agent and in her hand was a newspaper clipping to the effect that the Roycrofters never turned anyone away who applied for work. She was nervous, irritable and unhappy, but work was found for her…and to-day she is one of the most expert folders in the shop. She is contented….46

Wilder described his own stint of work in the Roycroft print shop, recording how a woman visitor said upon seeing him, "Look at that face — Crime is plainly stamped upon it." The newspaper in which this article was published employed this line as a comic pull quote, clearly intending its audience to understand the ludicrous nature of the woman's mistake when she took the great American humorist (he of the famously mobile face) for a common degenerate. But remarkably, Wilder himself did not attempt to shake off the taint of criminality, not because he claimed crime but because he refused either to stigmatize or to be stigmatized.47 He followed the woman's comment with a mild celebration of Roycrofters' embrace of felons: "Perhaps a remark of Mr. Hubbard's, widely quoted, has somewhat to do with this impression. He has said, 'We never ask anyone of their past when they come here. No one confesses his sins in East Aurora; he does better — forgets them.'" No doubt Wilder's physical anomaly contributed to the woman's discovery at Roycroft of the stigmata of degeneration in his face, but he did not dignify her outburst with a direct response.48 Instead, he reframed the reading of "crime" and its "stamp," putting forth a Progressive model of human reform and malleability.

On the one hand Wilder insisted upon his status as one of the elite and the elect, recounting his friendships with princes and presidents. Funded by a Vanderbilt, he in many ways played out the role of patronizing do-gooder, a charitable visitor to the institutions to which he brought his performances. On the other hand, however, he insisted upon his affiliation with those in the marginalized institutions for whom he performed or with whom, as at Roycroft, he worked alongside. During one of his visits to a poorhouse, he wrote, "I was startled by coming face to face with a notice which read 'Almshouse Wagon Reserved for Marshall P. Wilder'….It took some jollying of myself to ward off gruesome imaginings and keep my risibilities in working order" (166-167).

This kind of jollying, echoed in some of the press coverage of Wilder, had a distinct double edge. A 1906 newspaper recounted Wilder's recent visit to Atlanta, where he "disappointed his friends" by substituting for an opera-house perfomance a show instead at a federal prison that the prisoners were given "a half holiday" to see. The article praises the "delicate humor" with which Wilder "began touching out the hard lines that will come with the separation from home and loved ones" and the ensuing laughter "certain to ring through the iron and steel" of the prison cells." A final twist engages in its own jollying:

Bertillon expert J.M. Nye made some pictures of the very un-Reverend Marshall P. Wilder which would suggest that he is guilty of all the crimes in the calendar, in spite of the fact that at this moment he is still at large.49

The joke's on (and with) Wilder here, but it is also on Bertillon's methods of surveillance and identification. Wilder's very un-reverence, grounded not only in his generous humor but in the disability effects of his body on the stage, challenged both the constitutional theories of physiognomy that underlay eugenic criminology and the associations of outward physical form with inward psychic state that underlay American acting and performance tradition.50 Drawing on his disability experience, Wilder brought to multiple sites of confinement in the early twentieth century the promise of performances both on edge and at large.


  1. See, for instance, Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander, eds. Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005); Victoria Ann-Lewis, Beyond Victims and Villains (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2006); Thomas Fahy and Kimball King, Peering behind the Curtain: Disability, Illness, and the Extraordinary Body in Contemporary Theatre (New York: Routledge, 2002); the special issue of Text and Performance Quarterly on "Disability Studies/Performance Studies" edited by Bruce Henderson and R. Noam Ostrander (28:1-2, January 2008); the special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review on "Disability and Performance" edited by Petra Kuppers (Summer 2001). There has been a significant amount of writing on disability and drama before the late twentieth century, but it focuses on the representation of disability rather than on performance itself. The substantial body of disability studies work on freak shows is summarized and extended in Michael Chemers' Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Mitchell and Snyder develop a strong objection to the equation of disability performance and freakery in "Exploitations of Embodiment: Born Freak and the Academic Bally Platform," Disability Studies Quarterly 25:3 (2005). http://www.dsq.sds.org.

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  2. Petra Kuppers, Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge (New York: Routledge, 2003), 31. Chemers argues that "although not every disabled body in performance is freakery, every disabled body in performance (on stage or in everyday interaction) enters into some kind of dialogue with the perceived history of the freak show" (25).

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  3. Petra Kuppers, Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge (New York: Routledge, 2003), 31.

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  4. I take the phrase "proscenium cage" from Lawrence Tecchi's book of the same title on U.S. prison theater programs: The Proscenium Cage: Critical Case Studies in U.S. Prison Theatre Programs (Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2007).

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  5. See, for example, Rena Fraden's Imagining Medea: Rhodessa Jones and Theater for Incarcerated Women (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2001) and James Thompson's collection on Prison Theatre (London: Jessica Kingsley 1998). Future work on what Avery Gordon calls the "catastrophic pattern of abandonment" and what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls the "rigorously coordinated and organized setting aside of people" in the processes and forces of globalization today will do well to attend to the ways in which people labeled disabled are often "stuck in space" and stranded "in that terrible place where you're abandoned but never on your own"; such work might link critical prison studies to analysis of the nursing home and the "health industrial complex." Avery Gordon, "A World Map," in Liza Mogel and Alexis Baghat, An Atlas of Radical Cartography (Los Angeles: Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, 2007), 142-143. Gilmore is quoted in this essay, which prefaces the related conceptual map by Ashley Hunt, "A World Map in Which We See." Wilder's outreach or inreach into settings like the asylum might also be contextualized by comparing earlier precedents; see for instance Benjamin Reiss, Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) and Sheila Moeschen, "Suffering Silences, Woeful Afflictions: Physical Disability, Melodrama, and the American Charity Movement," Comparative Drama 40:4 (Winter 2006/7): 433-455.

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  6. On the controversy over Haiselden's killing of the Bollinger baby and the history of the film made by Haiselden about the case, The Black Stork or Are You Fit to Marry?, see Martin Pernick, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of 'Defective' Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915 (New York: Oxford, 1996). Addams' speech is reprinted in "Defective Chicago Baby Dies," Washington Post (Nov. 18, 1915), 3.

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  7. Caroline Caffin, Vaudeville (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914), 214.

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  8. Anthony Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville (Westport, Conn:Greenwood Press, 1994), 555; Douglas Gilbert, Vaudeville: Its Life and Times (New York: Dover, 1940), 159.

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  9. "The Passing Throng." Atlanta Constitution February 5 1906.

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  10. Joe Laurie Jr., Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace (New York: Henry Holt, 1953), 214-225. See also Gilbert, 159.

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  11. Gay MacLaren, for instance, in her memoir of the tent Chautauquas, mentions Wilder simply in this way: "Audiences…roared with the humorists, Mark Twain, Bill Nye, Marshall P. Wilder, and Robert J. Burdette" (168). Morally We Roll Along. Boston: Little Brown, 1938.

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  12. New York Times (November 4 1900), 20; James Huneker, "Passing of the Eden Musee," New York Times (June 20 1915), SM15.

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  13. David Hevey, The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography and Disability Imagery (New York: Routledge, 1992), 117.

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  14. Marshall P. Wilder, Smiling 'Round the World. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1908.

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  15. On "crip," see Carrie Sandahl, "Queering the Crip or Cripping the Queer? Intersections of queer and Crip Identities in Solo Autobiographical Performance," GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9:1-2 (2003), 25-56; Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 33-76; and Laura Hershey, "How Dare I Call Us Crip?" Crip Commentary: Laura Hershey's Weekly Web Column. http://www.cripcommentary.com/cc090299.html. Analyses that place "disabled" in relation to "flaneur" include Petra Kuppers' "Performance and Disability: An Introduction" in Disability and Contemporary Performance 1-3 and David Serlin, "Disabling the Flaneur," Journal of Visual Culture 5:2 (August 2006), 131-46.

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  16. Robert Benchley in Life (November 20, 1924), quoted in Slide, 468.

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  17. Laurie, 164. Compare the story of the "dwarf" (named N'Shugie-Gumba and posed as "the missing lynx") who stands in for a monkey after the monkey dies in W.L. Alden's Among the Freaks (New York: Longmans Green, 1896).

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  18. Letter from Clark Bell, Oct. 17 1885, in the Papers of Marshall Pickney Wilder (Box 1), Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Washington D.C.

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  19. Laurie, 198.

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  20. Letter from Roosevelt to Davenport, January 3 1913, quoted in Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 2003), 99.

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  21. Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Marshall P. Wilder, July 19 1905, in the Papers of Marshall Pickney Wilder, LOC, Box 3.

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  22. On "sunshine" and Chautauqua, see John Tapia, Circuit Chautauqua: From Rural Education to Popular Entertainment in Early Twentieth Century America (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1997), 60-61. Andrew Reiser discusses Chautauqua lecturers' marketing of themselves as "colorful and inspirational personalities" in The Chautauqua Moment: Protestants, Progressives, and the Culture of Modern Liberalism (New York: Columbia UP, 2003), 261. MacLaren writes of "Dear Old Sunshine Bates,"163.

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  23. Johns Hopkins doctor John Money (famous for his surgical interventions on intersex children), for instance, argued in the 1970s that one particular kind of medically-defined dwarfism, the achondroplastic, produces not only "chronic cheerfulness" but a "happiness syndrome." Though later research has debunked the notion that people with achondroplasia are constitutionally euphoric, the "popular expectation that dwarfs are supposed to be jolly" has outlasted, and certainly it long preceded, these medical debates. James S. Brust, Charles V. Ford and David Rimain, "Psychiatric Aspects of Dwarfism," American Journal of Psychiatry 133 (1976), 160-164; Money, "Dwarfism: Questions and Answers in Counseling," Rehabilitation Literature 28(5), 134-138; Philip Drash, Nancy E. Greenberg and John Money, "Intelligence and Personality in Four Syndromes of Dwarfism," in Human Growth, ed. D.B. Cheek (Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger),568-581. Joan Ablon summarizes these medical analyses in her Little People in America: The Social Dimensions of Dwarfism (New York: Praeger, 1984).

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  24. Marshall P. Wilder, The People I've Smiled With: Recollections of a Merry Little Life. (New York: O.M. Dunham, 1886), 2.

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  25. I have been unable to verify even Wilder's use of this line, much less his origination of it. It does not appear in his published written work or in the small cache of his papers at the Library of Congress. Citations on the web sometimes attribute it to him. It is certainly very much in his style, and even if he did not invent the formulation (I think he probably did) it's striking that it gets put into his mouth; it is unsurprising that disability would epitomize the "lemons" that fate deals like bad used cars.

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  26. Petra Kuppers' commentary on crip humor is pertinent to understanding Wilder's mode of comedy: "the disabled artists who…take to the streets, the web, the ice-rink, the stage, gallery and screen know much of this survival humor of the minor key, 'Galgenhumor' — gallows humor. Crip jokes can be harsh and discordant, but are often elegant and charming. A light touch can subvert the rigidities of fixed situations and sedimented certainties about the places for disabled and nondisabled people." Disability and Contemporary Performance, 2.

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  27. Theodore Reik. Jewish Wit. New York: Gamut Pres, 1962, 90.

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  28. Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz and Ann Pellegrini, Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (New York: Columbia, 2003), 1. The issue for Boyarin et al. is the "relays between Jewishness and queerness, between homophobia and anti-Semitism" — both issues to which disability has its own relays.

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  29. Janet Jakobsen, "Queers Are Like Jews, Aren't They: Analogy and Alliance Politics," in Boyarin et al., 67.

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  30. Marshall P. Wilder, The Sunny Side of the Street (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1905), 81-82.

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  31. Jim Ferris, The Hospital Poems (Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2004). The quotation from Cheryl Marie Wade is printed on the back cover of this volume.

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  32. Paul Longmore, "Foreword" to Ferris, vii.

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  33. The Sunny Side of the Street, 81.

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  34. As in, for instance, the "unsightly beggar" ordinances of the period. See Susan Schweik, The Ugly Laws (New York: New York University Press, 2009) for an account of Wilder's open opposition to the legal abjection of disabled people.

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  35. John Doran, The History of Court Fools (London: Richard Bentley 1858), 23.

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  36. Playing cards produced by the United States Playing Card company in Cincinnatti in 1896.

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  37. Sunny Side of the Street, 24-26.

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  38. In Hugo, the Deformed, hunchbacked Hugo is a classically vengeful character, impelled by bitterness, in the mode of a Richard III stripped of all ambiguity; and of course his evil plots are foiled. Horatio Alger, Hugo, The Deformed. 1857; rpt. Gilbert K. Westgrad II, 1978. This was Alger's first novel, originally serialized in 1857 in the New York Sun.

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  39. The People I've Smiled With, 4.

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  40. Sunny Side of the Street, 130.

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  41. For definition and discussion of audism, see H.D.L. Bauman, "Audism: Exploring the Metaphysics of Oppression," Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 9:2 (2004), 239-246.

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  42. Sunny Side of the Street, 48-49.

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  43. Tom Shakespeare "Joking a Part," Body & Society 5:4 (1999), 51. Wilder developed a comic practice, I am arguing, that was a direct precursor for the kind of disability humor both anatomized and performed by Tom Shakespeare today. In his "Joking A Part," Shakespeare takes up the project of developing "a grounded and politicized sociological approach" to "disability as comedy": "[M]y personal relationship to disability-as-joke is informed by a lifetime of experience of humour at my expense: I have restricted growth, a very visible impairment, with many connections to comedy and circus in our culture. But I have also played a public role, within the disability community, as a stand-up comedian (perhaps an unfortunate label in this context), drawing on the sub-culture of politicized disabled people." Shakespeare notes the close connection between the psychic work of jokes and the social discomforts of disability: "After all, Freud's Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious itself opens with a disability joke: the blind man asks the cripple 'How are you getting along?' to which the cripple replies 'As you see.'" Humor, Shakespeare argues, "plays a dual role for me, as it does for many other disabled people….By laughing at ourselves, we establish a rapport which enables communication to overcome stigma," but also, when "disabled people form the group," joking "contributes to shared identity among members of this subculture." Although there are significant historical differences between the terms and forms available for Wilder's comic language as opposed to Shakespeare's, there are equally, strikingly significant similarities. "Performing a joke, rather than being one, is another form of reversal" writes Shakespeare; Wilder made a practice of that reversal.

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  44. Sunny Side of the Street, 166, 169.

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  45. Sunny Side of the Street, 169.

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  46. "East Aurora is a Haven of Happiness, Says Marshall P. Wilder," newspaper clipping of unknown provenance in the papers of Marshall P. Wilder, LOC, Box 3.

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  47. Wilder was in fact very often accused publicly of one kind of white collar crime, plagiarism. In several histories of vaudeville charges that he was a "gag thief" appear. See, for instance, Douglas Gilbert, American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times (New York: Dover, 1940), 159; Slide, Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, 555. Wilder was probably attempting to ward off such attacks (as well as certifying the veracity of his accounts) when he prefaced The Sunny Side of the Street with the statement, "I have plucked blossoms from the gardens of humor and pathos, which lie side by side, and in weaving them into a garland, claim only as my own the string that binds them together." He was also, simultaneously, positioning himself as binder of, not bound (as in wheelchair-bound) by pathos. The claim to originality at the front of the memoir was otherwise unnecessary, for surely — whether or whatever Wilder plagiarized elsewhere — there were no other memoirs by famous hunchbacked vaudeville comedians of short stature from which to crib.

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  48. On stigmata of degeneration, see Arthur McDonald, Juvenile Crime and Reformation, Including Stigmata of Degeneration, Senate Doc. 532 (Washington D.C. 1908), 16-17. The classic source is Lombroso; see, for instance, Cesare Lombros and Gugliemo Ferrero, Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman, trans. Nicole Hahn Rafter and Mary Gibson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

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  49. "The Passing Throng."

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  50. On constitutional theories of physiognomy, see Nicole Hahn Rafter, The Criminal Brain (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 146-175; on physicality as an expression of inward state in acting tradition see Carrie Sandahl, "The Tyranny of Neutral: Disability and Actor Training," in Bodies in Commotion, 255.

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