This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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John T. Owens, An Armless Artist

19 April 2013

What defines a virtuoso musician? It is more than just musical technique or artistic inspiration. It's about expanding the boundaries of music. I think that one of these two musicians had that special quality. People will pay attention (and money) to hear a man with no arms play a violin. Or a banjo. Or a guitar. A true virtuoso makes an audience sit up and marvel at a sound that before seemed impossible. This virtuoso was named John T. Owen.

Wearing a tight fitting theatrical costume, he is seated in a photographer's studio next to a guitar, a banjo, an autoharp, and with his bare feet he holds a violin and bow. He has no arms. Standing next to him is a woman holding a second guitar, and she appears to be able-bodied. She is his wife, Matilda.

This report appeared in The Salt Lake Herald on January 12, 1892.


John T. Owens,  the armless man gave an exhibition of his wonderful skill last evening. 
He is an accomplished musician and a fine and rapid writer. A ball was given in his favor.
His violin and banjo playing gave every satisfaction to the most fastidious.
Specimens of his writing are held by a good many of his patrons as mementoes of the occasion.
He does his own tuning of the instruments and can use his feet with incredible dexterity.

This cabinet card came from the Wendt studio of Bonton, New Jersey which had a specialty in making souvenir photos of the many entertainers performing in the music halls, circuses, traveling shows, and curiosity museums of the late 19th century.

This excerpt from the Cleveland Plain Dealer of October 24, 1893 gives a good description of what could be seen at one of these exhibitions of strange and wonderful oddities.


The leading features this week are John Owens, the armless wonder,
who is endowed with such phenomenally nimble toes
that he plays well on the violin, guitar, banjo, autoharp
and other instruments, and is a dead shot with rifle and pistol;
the genuine and only Albino Indian child;
the three-horned cyclopian dwarf bull;
and Hamlin, who walks honestly, if gingerly on the sharp edges of a double row of swords.
The craze to show fate-lined palms to the gypsy free fortune teller shows no sign of abating.
Prof. Hugo gives an unusually entertaining exhibition of magic in the upper auditorium
and the vaudeville theater offers a varied and artistic bill.
Crowds swarm around the big window at the museum entrance, fascinated
by Frank Rallston's fearless familiarity
with sixteen venomous rattlesnakes.

Under the long list of Chicago amusements found in the March 3, 1895, Chicago Inter-Ocean was this listing. 

Kohl & Middleton's Dime Museum

... In the curio department will be seen the oddest of married couples,
Miss Lizzie Strugeon, the armless pianist,
who plays skillfully with her toes;
and John T. Owens, the armless, who is an expert rifle shot,
holding his weapon with his toes;
"Whale Oil Gus," the Arctic traveller, wit, and story teller;
accompanied by "Monday," the only boy ever born on board a whale ship;
"Polly," the wonder talking seal;
the Russian lady orchestra; and the Yankee whittler.

The State Street Globe Museum will have
the Midway dancers, acrobats, musicians,
and other Orientals as one of its principal features.
Professor J. King, lightning calculator;
Hubin, the king of magic; Mlle. Betra, snake enchantress;
Jules Carr and his troup of wrestling bears,
and Miss Mabel Milton, long haired beauty.

On the back of the photograph is the distinctive signature of John T. Owens under a fanciful doddle of a bird.  Was he left footed or right?

Much of his history is now lost, but one website specializing in circus oddities and freak show performers, posted a short biography giving his full name as John Timothy Owens, born 1865 in Pattonsburg, Missouri to a large family. His wife's name was Matilda Fry and they had three children. John Owens died in Missouri in 1918.

On April 5, 1903 the Ardmore OK Ardmoreite ran this short report which corroborates much of this information. By this time he has acquired the title of Professor which was commonly added to the names of bandleaders and solo musicians.

The Armless Man

Prof. J. T. Owens, the armless wonder, who has been on our streets for some days, has gone.   The marvelous man is really a curiosity. He is 35 years old, born without arms or hands, belonged to a family of seven or eight brothers and sisters,
reared in the Grand Valley of Colorado,  herded  cat­tle with his brothers,
fell in love and married and now has two children.

The professor plays the violin, ban­jo, guitar and autoharp, writes, sews, whittles, shaves, strings and tunes his own instruments and is an expert rifle shot.

I could only find John T. Owens in the 1880 census when he was 14, but no other records of his adult life. In the photo he appears to be about 30, so it was likely taken around 1895. Except for these few newspaper accounts, his name shows up only on a few more vaudeville notices in the 1900s.  Lemar, Iowa in 1900. Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1902. Bemidji, Minnesota in 1904. Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1913. And in 1915, in between the feature films at a Moulton, Iowa cinema.

In this era it must have been a challenge to tour the country as a disabled man. There was actually quite a lot of competition from similarly handicapped circus and carnival performers who had developed various footwork skills that the public would pay to see. Almost all seemed to be presented in a dignified manner that promoted the "armless wonder" for their inspiration at overcoming adversity. Many were very adept at feats of skill and sport, and learned to play several musical instruments too.

I doubt that John T. Owens saw himself as having any handicap. He probably thought he could do anything he set his mind to. And I think he knew he had a gift. That gift is what a virtuoso knows will make us wonder to see and hear.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you will meet more extraordinary and astonishing people.


Brett Payne said...

I've long been fascinated with one-man bands, but the idea that one man could play all those instruments with that adversity - whether he thought it was one or not - is remarkable. Overcoming those difficulties and making the most of his talents demonstrates his determination, even if it seems a tad cringeworthy that he should have to appear alongside "the genuine and only Albino Indian child" and "the three-horned cyclopian dwarf bull," so it's nice to read that they seem to have been presented in a dignified manner. I particularly like Owens' signature bird doodle.

Wendy said...

I've never been able to look at my own feet and imagine my toes typing or creating art. Owen's story is indeed odd but amazing.

Karen S. said...

Wow, what a story, odd, maybe but completely wonderful, amazing in so many ways.

Kathy Morales said...

What a story he had! The town of Moulton, Iowa is about 20 miles from where my grandparents grew up. They would have been teenagers at the time of his performance. Now I'm wondering if they ventured off to see him. Or at least heard stories from those who did. And I also wonder why he was in Moulton rather than the county seat of Centerville, which was a larger town.

barbara and nancy said...

I loved seeing his signature and the little drawing of the bird. So heart warming.

Alan Burnett said...

I always choose the theme image about three weeks before the Sepia Saturday it will be featured on. I must confess, whenever I choose one I always think, "what on earth will Mike come up with for this one?" But then I file the speculation away for two and a half weeks until, yet again, you amaze me by matching my daft themes with perfect posts.

anyjazz said...

An excellent example for the theme this week. It is good that you were able to find so much information on this musician. It's wonderful that there is a photograph to document this genius.

Teresa Wilson Rogers said...

You know, sometimes when I'm too lazy to bend over to pick something up I sometimes use my toes instead. I feel very talented being able to do that, however after reading this story I am amazed at all John Owen was able to accomplish.

On a second note, you know I got terribly squeamish when I read about the 16 venomous rattlesnakes.

Kat Mortensen said...

Utterly amazing! I can't do much with my toes, in fact, they cramp up if I try to bend them too much! I'm afraid, should I lose my upper limbs, I'd be rather lost.

I can't imagine going to an event just to see people with deformities or unusual physical traits. I guess entertainment was very different in those days.

On the other hand, I think it would have been something to see John T. Owens.


It would be politically incorrect nowadays to call such folks freaks but one has to admire how one surmounted his disadvantage to pursue his passion, or was it HIS passion? Or just something he happened to be good at and could make a living off? We'll never know now what was truly in his heart,but only his art.
I wonder, since it was customary back then to greet people by tipping your hat and/or shaking hands, how did you greet him?!?
Does one shake foot?!?

Casey said...

He was my 2nd great grand uncle and what a life he lead. Thanks for this.

Laurie said...

My grandfather's uncle and cousins (Samuel Brock and family) traveled with John T Owens show from 1896 to 1902. It was a magic act. The children also did acts. In 1899, nine year old Violet was doing an act where she would go through a 10 inch hoop. Violet died 4-6-1900.

My distant cousin wrote... "John T Owens had no arms. He used his feet like hands. Carried his money in his shoes. Dad told many stories of him. He whittled a pair of wooden pliers and gave them to Alley. They really worked. Could do most anything with his feet."


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