Feb 05, 2014 I Mysterious Universe

Two-Headed Giant From Patagonia: Goofy Gaff or Genuine Oddity?

This world is a weird place, it holds many weird things.  Just in general the world is weird, but when you start looking through our history with an eye toward Fortean mysteries, you end up in the deep end of the weirdness pool without your floaties.

The Fortean world is pretty much the place where all the strangest stories wind up, and a good many of them started out as side show attractions.  The infamous P.T. Barnum contributed much to this mass of mystery.  He was the king of the sideshow gaff, the tsar of taxidermy, the vicar of the very odd…OK, that’s enough of that.

He was rather fond of strange creatures preserved and ready to be showcased as an attraction in his production.  From mermaids (and mermen), to deformed cows and chickens, to mythological creatures (as though mermaids aren’t mythological).  The problem is, much of what he collected and charged curiosity seekers to see, were entirely fake.

They were what is known as gaffs, or the products of rogue taxidermy, as it’s known these days.  Creatures out of fairy tales and legends created by modifying the preserved corpses of other real animals, to make such things as the jackalope, or even dragons, chimeras, or unicorns.  There’s a real art to rogue taxidermy, and there is an entire community of gaff collectors around the world.

There may not seem to be a direction to all of this, but it bears relevance to the topic of this post, which is Kap Dwa, the two-headed Patagonian giant.

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Promotional image from Lord Thomas Howard's Kap Dwa Show

Kap Dwa’s story begins in 1673, where this poor fellow, a giant of over 12 feet with two – that’s right, two – heads, was captured by Spanish sailors and set captive on their ship.  The Spaniards lashed him to the mainmast, but he broke free (being a giant) and during the ensuing battle – which I imagine would have seemed right at home in one of Johnny Depp’s movies – suffered a fatal injury; they skewered him through the chest with a pike.

What happened to him next isn’t exactly clear, but his naturally mummified remains were eventually brought to England in the 19th century.   He then entered the Edwardian Horror Circuit and over the years was passed from showman to showman, eventually ending up at Weston’s Birnbeck Pier in 1914.  After spending the next 45 years on display in North Somerset, England, old Kap Dwa was purchased by one “Lord” Thomas Howard in 1959, and following a few more hand-offs he ultimately ended up in Baltimore, MD, of all places.[1]

He now rests in the bizarre collection of oddities that is Bob’s Side Show at The Antique Man Ltd in Baltimore, owned by Robert Gerber and his wife.[2]

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Photograph of the exhibit at Newcastle-on Tyne fair 1971

Now, you may have gleaned that this story is a touch fanciful, however, much of the above is completely true.  Kap Dwa does exist, or at least a mummified corpse of the ascribed dimensions and appendages exists and is housed in Gerber’s collection.

Gerber offers a somewhat different account of the big guy’s history.  He claims that the giant – which he labels an extant example of a nonexistent genus; homo giganticus – was found dead on a beach with a spear protruding from his chest.  By whom is not mentioned.  He was then mummified and venerated by locals in Paraguay (a fair distance from Patagonia I might add), who created some kind of religion based on his corpse.  Then one Capt. George Bickle, of the English clipper Olive Branch out of Plymouth, somehow heard of Kap Dwa, found his remains and through some sort of Indiana Jones-esque adventure, absconded with him.  Gerber claims Kap Dwa was then taken to England and wound up in the Blackpool museum, where he remained for several years, until he eventually embarked on his journey back to the America’s and finally came to rest in Baltimore.[3]

Both versions of the story have some merit.  Firstly, the Edwardian Horror circuit was famed for its grotesque oddities, and there are mentions of the exhibit at Birnbeck in the books An Innkeeper’s Diary (John Fothergill 1931) and Cider with Rosie (Laurie Lee 1959).  Also, the transactions through which the mummy changed hands seem to be supported by promotional images from the various exhibits over the years.

Though there are no dates given in Robert Gerber’s version of the story, Capt. Bickle did exist, and it appears he did command one of the five English Navy ships that bore the name HMS Olive Branch.  Unfortunately for Gerber however, there was no museum in Blackpool, England of the period.  Blackpool now hosts one of the world famous Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums, but this is a recent development and is not associated to the Kap Dwa story.

Kap Dwa promotional sign outside The Antique Man Ltd storefront in Maryland

Either way, Bob’s Side Show does certainly exist, as does the monstrosity he possesses which bears the name Kap Dwa, though according to some, it may no longer be on display.  Persons who have seen the mummy up-close are apparently unambiguous in their description of the remains.  No seams or stitching are visible, and since his body, though encased in glass, is covered only by a loin cloth, there is ample opportunity to examine it for the telltale signs of rogue taxidermy, of which there appear to be none.

So, what do we conclude from all of this?  In terms of the possibility that such a creature could exist, his height of 12 feet, which is probably exaggerated, isn’t outside of the natural variability known throughout our species.  The tallest man we know of was Robert Wadlow (1918-1940), who was 8 feet 11 inches tall, and while it would be unlikely to find anyone taller than that, it’s certainly not impossible.  As for his two heads, if he really did have two heads originally, conjoined twins are not exactly uncommon, especially in and of that era.  The conflicting stories may simply be the product of the natural promotion of such an oddity over so many years of sideshow display.  One might think that it would be in Gerber’s best interest to properly research his exhibits and provide his patrons with an accurate telling of a truly fascinating story, but who can say what goes through the minds of other people.

As for you, dear reader, you can make up your own mind.  Is the giant of Patagonia real?  Is he the product of unrestrained imagination and rogue taxidermy?  Or is he a combination of both?  If you’re anywhere near Maryland, go have a look and let us all know what you find.

[1] Two Headed Giant Fairground Exhibit has not been displayed for seven years. Fortean Times - http://www.forteantimes.com/strangedays/misc/74/the_twoheaded_giant.html

[2] Bob’s Side Show, The Antique Man Ltd. http://www.theantiquemanltd.com/page1.html

[3] M. Dion Thompson. Step right up, ladies and gentlemen Sideshow: A little shop of curiosities on Fleet Street has everything from Beatles dolls to Kap-Dwa, the 12-foot man from Patagonia. The Baltimore Sun - http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1996-12-26/features/1996361110_1_fiji-mermaid-beatles-dolls-dracula

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