Picked Punks have been a part of every well stocked cabinet of curiosity and perhaps the most controversial of all sideshow exhibits. A ‘Pickled Punk’ is a sideshow term for a preserved human fetus, usually deformed and usually displayed as a specimen in a jar or other vessel.
The practice of preserving and displaying prodigious births is centuries old. In the 1600’s King Frederick III of Denmark has a personal collection of punks numbering in the thousands – a collection started in the 1500’s by Frederick II. and during that same timeframe Ulisse Aldrovandi, an Italian naturalist, had a collection consisting of eighteen thousand various specimens.
The deformities present in pickled punks are incredibly varied. As varied as the nature of human inflictions.
The earliest and most well documented pedigree for a deformed punk display dates back to 1582 when Mme Colombe Chatri died at the age of sixty-eight – and a twenty-eight year old fetus was removed from her womb. The Stone-Child of Sens should have been born in 1554, however labor came and went with no delivery and in the resulting decades the fetus was calcified and ossified within the womb – which actually formed a shell. Mme Chatri seemed to have lived a normal life, with the exception of regular abdominal pains. Following her death and the ‘delivery’ of the Stone-Child – naturalists clamored to claim the fetus and the right to display the tiny marvel. Jean d’Ailleboust wrote a detailed pamphlet in 1582 – complete with illustrations – about the case, which became an instant best seller. Pare featured the infant in his book Des monstres et prodiges and reveals that the child was sold to M. Prestesiegle, a wealthy merchant in the 1590’s. He sold it to a goldsmith named M. Carteron who in turn sold it in 1628 to M. Bodey, a jewel merchant complete with a sort of ‘certificate of authenticity’. In 1653, the Stone-Child came into the possession of King Frederick III as well as a handwritten copy of the d’Ailleboust paper. By this point, the child was heavily damaged, with both arms broken and the marble-like skin worn off in places.
The Stone-Child remained in the possession of the Royal Museum for decades, cataloged in 1696, 1710, 1737 and was transferred to the Danish Museum of Natural History in 1826. The Stone-Child went missing sometime in the late 1800’s – it is believed that is was literally scrapped by Professor Reinhardt when he was director of the museum as he believed it was not a ‘scientific display’.
Strangely enough, the Stone-Boy condition – known today as lithopedion – is not all that rare as some 290 cases exist in modern medical literature.
The classic pickled punk – floating in a jar of preserving fluid – became most popular during the golden age of sideshow and experienced a great resurgence in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During that era many punks were linked to drug abuse, at least in the banner lines outside. Several sideshows featured extensive punk displays – some authentic and others gaffed (faked). Following this era, laws began to restrict the display of punks. To complicate matters, laws differed from state to state – making traveling displays almost impossible. Furthermore, the question of whether punks qualify as ‘human remains’ further complicates the laws.
The great modern showman, Ward Hall, once had one of the largest punk shows in the United States. During one season he was fined due to the fact that the display of human remains was illegal in the state he had set up his show in. He replaced his punks with rubber replicas – called ‘bouncers’ – and continued his tour only to be fined again in another state for being a ‘conman’, displaying ‘fakes’ and ‘false advertising’.
While there are still a few stationary legitimate pickled punk shows in the sideshow tradition. Today the best place to find pickled punks is in research or university laboratories or medical museums – like the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The world’s largest collection of pickled punks, once owned by Peter the Great, is currently on display at the Kuntskammer Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Image: Late Sideshow owner Captain Harvey Lee Boswell’s favorite Picked Punk
– a fetus with anencephaly –currently for sale at Madame Talbot’s.