Born John Eckhardt, Jr., on August 27, 1911, Eck was an artist, photographer, circus performer, magician, actor, and “King of the Freaks.”
Eck had essentially no body below his ribcage, but was otherwise healthy. His twin brother, Robert, and his older sister had no deformity. Despite his disability, Johnny taught himself to walk with his hands before his brother would walk with his feet.
At an early age Eck seemed headed for the ministry. In 1923, while the boys were attending a church fair, magician John McAslan was astonished by the half-boy and convinced his parents to let him join the carnival. Robert was hired as his manager and assistant. McAslan allegedly duped Eck’s parents by adding a zero to a one-year contract after it was signed.
Eck was a solo sideshow act, where he did magic tricks and acrobatics, including his famous one-armed handstand. Along with Robert, the twins were also used by a magician as subjects in a “sawn in half” illusion.
Eck is perhaps best known for his role in the 1932 cult classic film Freaks. He also had uncredited parts in three Tarzan movies.
In 1938, Eck walked the stairs to the top of the Washington Monument on his hands.
After his Hollywood and carnival career, the twins retired to Baltimore and operated a miniature train ride, with Johnny serving as engineer. He also had a custom miniature car that was street-legal. Eck was also an avid screen painter – a theme reflected in the headstone marking his grave.
In 1987, the brothers were robbed and physically assaulted in their home. Embittered and having lost his faith in humanity, Johnny spent his remaining years in total seclusion, contending that the real freaks were outside his house.
Eck died in 1991 at age 79, in the Milton Street house in which the twins were born. Robert died four years later.
Here is Eck in a clip from Freaks:
“I met hundreds and thousands of people, and none finer than the midgets and the Siamese twins and the caterpillar man and the bearded woman and the human seal with the little flippers for hands. I never asked them any embarrassing questions and they never asked me, and God, it was a great adventure.” (Johnny Eck)
Johnny Eck is buried along with Robert, at Green Mount Cemetery, 1505 Greenmount Avenue. They are located in Lot 19 of Section R.
GPS: N 39° 18.455’, W 076° 36.398’