Circus banners for ‘Spidora’ and ‘Olga the Headless Girl.’
Originally conceived in the late 1800s by London-based vaudeville illusionist Henry Roltair and hugely popular at Coney Island in the late 1930s, “Spidora” was a disturbing illusion featuring the head of an actual woman with the body of a giant spider. When it comes to the equally disturbing “Headless Girl” sideshow attraction, we have a man from Hamburg, Germany purporting to be a physician called “Doctor Heineman” (aka Egon Heineman) to thank for “Olga the Headless Girl” which he debuted at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 to a crowd of stunned onlookers. But which macabre human/animal hybrid was the bigger faux freak? Before I let you the reader decide, let’s dive into a little history lesson on both bizarro illusions before we slug this one out.
According to details in Joe Nickell’s 2005 book, Secrets of the Sideshow, he saw an early iteration of Spidora at Coney Island when he was a kid. The Spidora illusion was wickedly popular and Nickell recalls the words of the carnival barker prepping the crowd for what they were about to see:
Step right up folks and meet “Spidora,” the Spider-Girl! Born with the head and face of a beautiful girl and the body of an ugly spider, she survives in total misery, for no man could ever love her.
The barker would also note that Spidora who made her living as a sideshow attraction and, just like a real spider, ate flies and other insects. There were several adaptations of Spidora, some more believable than others. At worst you saw a woman with her head protruding out of a box with a spider body crudely attached to her. At best you would be treated to an expertly crafted spider web made of white twine and spider body and legs made of fake fur. The legs would also include tubing so that the girl playing Spidora could make the legs appear to move on their own. Spidora’s actual body would be concealed behind a wall in a box in which her spider web, spider body, and head were macabrely displayed for curious onlookers to ponder before moving on to the next attraction. Spidora inspired many other human/animal hybrids such as the “human butterfly,” and “snake girl” illusions—and as I’m sure many of our readers will recall a character from Tod Browning’s 1927 film The Show “Arachnida - the Human-Spider,” played by the gorgeous Edna Tichenor.
The “Headless Girl” routine was a rather terrifyingly realistic looking illusion, especially given the time period in which it came to be. When Olga was displayed in a store window in London, shocked onlookers recoiled at the headless torso of a woman with tubes running from her throat to a contraption that supposedly controlled her food intake. As with Spidora, Olga would also be copied by other illusionists who called her “Tina” and the classier sounding “Mademoiselle Yvette” who all claimed that the woman—despite not having a head—was being kept alive by the feeding tubes and unexplainable technology. As you will see in the photos, the headless girl act is optically baffling. To help bolster the authenticity of the headless girl, many of the attractions would include backstory as to how the poor thing lost her head—such as a shark attack or an unfortunate showgirl who parted ways with her head thanks to a truck.
According to one of my favorite spots on the Internet, Sideshow World, the headless girl illusion continued to appear around the U.S. and the world through the 1980s and a version even made an appearance at Ozzfest in 2002. And as I’m a huge fan of all things Ozzy, it is that last bit that has me giving the edge when it comes to creepiness to Olga, and her many headless counterparts/knock-offs. I’ve included photos of both strange illusions below as well as a vintage footage of a headless girl illusion being performed at Coney Island. Stay sinister my friends.
A version of Spidora at a Virginia sideshow, 1938.
A vintage lithograph of Spidora by the great Adolph Friedländer.
A look at ‘Arachnida - the Human-Spider” from Tod Browning’s 1927 film ‘The Show.’
Spidora in a BOX!
A sideshow advertising a more modern version of Spidora.
Egon Heineman with “Olga the Headless Woman,” Blackpool, England late 1930s.
A “Headless Woman” making an appearance at the Iowa State Fair.
Novelist, editor, and magician, Clayton Rawson with a “Headless Woman” at the New York World’s Fair, 1939. Rawson authored a mystery novel ‘The Headless Lady’ in 1940.
A “Headless Girl” giving a radio interview in New Jersey.
Footage filmed in Coney Island of the ‘Headless Girl’ illusion.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Slither sisters: Vintage images of female circus snake charmers and their reptilian friends
Color photographs of Circus performers 1940-50
Gorgeous cast portraits from Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ (1932)