A short collection of things that caught my eye during the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans.
I’ve always been attracted to the odd and unusual, Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in the South or maybe a youthful obsession with The Brady Bunch, Maude, and Soul Train?
Whatever it is lured me into a tent one sultry summer evening at the Delaware State Fair to see “Angel the Snake Girl,” advertised as having the head of a beautiful woman and the body of an ugly 200-pound snake.
I paid the dollar admission fee and approached a makeshift wooden cage covered by chicken wire, expecting to see some sort of sad old medical oddity. What I saw instead was a woman’s head sticking up from a hole in the bottom of the cage and “attached” to the body of a large taxidermy snake.
“Hello there darlin,’ my name is Angel and I’m half woman half Burmese python. Her eyes are blinking a mile a minute and her tongue is flicking in and out.
She has an unconventional beauty, that’s for sure. And with her short hair and sly grin she looks a little crazy.
I introduce myself as a writer looking for some stories about the state fair and ask if she might have some time to talk.
“I got nothing but time cuz I’m in this cage ten hours a day, seven days a week,” she replies.
“But please, no pictures,” she implores. “They don’t like it, she says and gestures her head towards the skinny, mean-looking redneck taking tickets.
“And besides, I aint’ feeling pretty today.”
She asks what’s in the cup I’m holding. “Sweet tea and vodka,” I reply.
“I sure wish I could have me some,” she says, licking her lips. “It gets awful hot in this cage.”
She declines my offer of a beverage. All the sugar and caffeine and liquor will just make her jumpy and then she’ll have to go to the bathroom.
Angel only gets one break during her stint. “I peed myself once in Raleigh,” she tells me.
When a mother and two little boys approach the cage, Angel snaps back into character. With a rapt audience, she tells her story.
Seems her parents had been missionaries in Borneo in the 1950s and that her pregnant mother was unknowingly exposed to some experimental drugs left over from World War II.
Her mother died giving birth and her father ran off after seeing the half baby half snake slither out of the womb.
The good nuns in Borneo named her Angel because she was a beautiful gift from God. They taught her to speak and to read. Of course, she can’t write because she has no arms. But she can do some math in her head. When she was nine, she came to America and has been traveling with the carnival ever since.
The kids were spellbound, the mother horrified.
The little boys shrieked and ran off when Angel started her tongue flicking and telling them how she eats white mice and small children for dinner.
Once they’re gone, Angel admits to me that she actually prefers fried chicken and cold beer for her supper. I’m sure she likes cigarettes and whiskey too. She has that voice.
Angel the snake woman is what you call a classic carnival illusion show, in contrast to shows featuring human oddities like the world’s shortest man or performers with special skills like fire eating and sword swallowing.
She sits, I learn, in a chair with her head through a hole in the cage. The decapitated shellacked body of a real snake is arranged to look as though it is attached to the back of her head.
All around the front, sides, and back of the wooden cage are mirrors and wood chips. The mirrors hide Angel’s chair and give the illusion that the wood chips go all the way under the cage.
These kinds of sideshows have been around since the great English fairs of the early Renaissance. They became fixtures in America thanks to an enterprising showman named P.T. Barnum who began exhibiting albinos, contortionists, and magicians in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 had an area called the Midway that included rides, games of chance, burlesque shows, and freak shows. Its popularity catalyzed what became known as the traveling carnival.
You don’t see many freak show exhibits anymore in today’s more culturally sensitive society. Angel tells me there are only four here at the Delaware State Fair: a 29” woman, the world’s tiniest horse, the gorilla woman, and the museum of oddities (two-headed chickens, shrunken heads, space alien babies, etc.)
Her friend the human spider woman isn’t traveling with them this year because she hurt her back and they weren’t able to find a replacement in time. They haven’t had a headless woman in several years.
Angel and all the sideshow performers travel together in buses and campers around the country from carnival to carnival, eleven months out of the year. They return to Florida for a short vacation before the circuit starts up again.
Angel has been performing as the snake lady for only two years. Before that she operated kiddie rides.
I ask her why she wanted to become the snake lady and without hesitation she tells me how since she was a little girl the sideshows were always her favorite part of the fair. She likes being a performer. She’s proud to be part of a long carnival tradition.
Traffic picks up in the tent and Angel returns to character, flicking her tongue, and spinning her tale. Before I leave, though, she blows me a kiss.
Angel the snake girl isn’t a freak or an oddity. Angel the snake girl is a romantic.