Jay and Silent Yobs Strike Back

Don't pay more for rhinoplasty! Peck & Snyder's nose-amputating knife makes a perfect holiday gift!
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Jay's Journal of Anomalies
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

"Ingesters of stones, stoats, and swords have long compelled my attention and motivated me to wield my pen," writes Ricky Jay. This line, typical in its pseudo-scholarly tone and near-Victorian diction, is the opening to an essay titled "The Ultimate Diet: The Art and Artifice of Fasting," which includes the odd story of one Bernard Cavanagh. In September of 1841, Cavanagh had just been confined to a garret in London for a full weekwithout food or water in order to prove that he needed neither for his survival. Further, Cavanagh contended that he had done without victuals and drink for more that five years, as he described in an odd exchange with a newspaper reporter.


    Q: Answer my questions in a straightforward manner. In this little book which I had given to me at the door, I find it stated that...you "refused both meat and drink." Is this true?

    C: (quickly) Yes, it is; I did refuse.

    Q: But did you eat anything notwithstanding your refusal?

    C: Why, I don't wish to make you believe if you won't.

    Q: I am sorry you are a countryman of mine, for I am afraid you are a sad imposter.


Of course, Cavanagh was a fraud--Jay tells of his later exposure after a laborer's wife caught him devouring a cooked dry sausage, threepenny bread, and a quarter pound of ham, "cut particularly fat," according to her account.

Ricky Jay's interest in Cavanagh is not that he was a fraud, but rather that he was a showman, admittedly one with a rather unusual and deceptive show. Jay's essay chronicles an ongoing public obsession with fasters, which transformed them into minor celebrities (and Kafka characters, too). "The annals of peculiarity are filled with similar tales of abstinence going back to antiquity," Jay points out, and then he tells of a Japanese holy man who claimed to eat nothing but leaves (another fraud: he had rice buried in the floor of his dwelling), a Westphalian wonder girl who claimed not to have eaten in a year (after only seven days of observation she pleaded for food), and Margarete Weiss of Speyer, who in 1542 claimed that she was fed by magical wafers that floated down from the heavens, prompting a mass pilgrimage to Weiss's side (she, too, broke down under close observation).

"Frankly, I don't understand people who are not interested in this sort of story," Jay confesses via telephone from Boston, where he is staging his card-trick show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. "I have always loved variety acts. When I was a boy, I was constantly around ventriloquists and the like. My grandfather was a great amateur magician, and these were all his friends."

Jay's whole career seems to represent an extension of this childhood obsession with performing curiosities. Jay himself became a professional sleight-of-hand artist and is widely regarded as being among the world's best in close-quarters magic, particularly tricks involving a deck of cards (he can throw cards across the room with enough force to drive them into a watermelon). As an actor, he has appeared in every film directed by David Mamet, who shares his obsession with artistic misdirection. Mamet often casts Jay as a superb con artist, such as in the recently opened Heist, where Jay played a morose and dapper-suited jewel thief who casually flings himself in front of a car to distract a pair of police officers.

As a scribe, Jay is the author of the perpetually popular Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, an anecdotal history of odd variety acts. In the early Eighties, as an extension of his research for Pigs, Jay produced a series of small-press monographs on the subject of peculiar entertainments. "I wanted a really first-class production of the material," Jay says. He titled the results Jay's Journal of Anomalies, and it is here where you will find his account of deceptive fasters. He published the journal approximately four times a year to a small base of a hundred or so subscribers who paid $90 per annum.

To these few readers Jay told stories of such obscure performers as Tommy Minnock, who in the 1890s sang "After the Ball Is Over" while nailed to a cross, as well as the Fakir of Oolu, who would cause his own daughter to levitate. The journal boasted meticulous design by Jay and printer Patrick Reagh, including gaudy and frequently arresting reproductions of circus posters, playbills, and lithographs, most from Jay's own extensive collection. All this has recently been republished by Farrar, Straus & Giroux as a sumptuous hardback.

"For me, it's always either the most simple, beautiful images," Jay tells me, "or the most crazy. Or both. I have a picture in my house of a rider riding a horse. The rider is blindfolded." Jay chuckles. "The horse also has a bag over his head."

The journal is filled with images intended to astonish: Mrs. Everitt and her son, the Gigantic Infant, in an engraving from London, circa 1780; a woodcutting of a nose-amputating knife, taken from an undated Peck & Snyder catalog. The latter shows a chubby man with a grim countenance and a Ben Franklin hairdo, his plump nose bisected by what looks to be an enormous butter knife. Alongside this image, Jay tells the story of a New York thug from the 1930s, "Bob the Nose-Biter." In his typically droll and densely worded text, Jay informs us that this goon "made the etymologically inclined recall the textbook definition of the word 'mayhem' (to bite off the nose or the ears) when he used his teeth to defile the noses of those silly enough to disagree with him."

"Researching this stuff is just a real pleasure," Jay says. "Wherever I go, I spend my time researching, I go to all the major institutions, such as the British Museum. I just spent the day today at the Harvard Library, looking through their extensive collection of books on the theater.

"It's much more than a lifestyle," Jay adds, "this interest in the strange and the ridiculous."

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