Johnny Eck, born John Eckhardt, Jr. (August 27, 1911, Baltimore, Maryland – April 28, 1991, Baltimore, Maryland) was an American freak show performer born without the lower half of his torso. Eck is best known for his appearance in the 1932 cult film Freaks.
Johnny Eck was born to working class parents, Amelia Dippel and John Eckhardt, Sr., who lived in a rowhouse in Baltimore. Eck had an older sister named Carolyn and a twin named Robert, neither of whom were born with Eck's congenital birth defects: Eck was born with virtually nothing beneath his rib cage, as well as a tongue permanently embedded in his cheek. At birth, Eck weighed two pounds and was less than eight inches in length.
Eck was educated at home by his older sister Caroline, and had learned to read and write by 4 years of age. His mother intended that he would go into the ministry, and the young Eck was often called upon to perform impromptu sermons for guests. "I would climb atop of a small box and preach against drinking beer and damning sin and the devil," Eck recalled in an autobiographical fragment. These sermons quickly came to an end when Eck began passing around a saucer for donations.
Eck and his brother enrolled in public school at age 7. He recalled that larger students would "fight each other for the 'honor' or 'privilege' of lifting me up the stone steps" to school, and that school windows were blacked out to discourage throngs of curious onlookers from peering in at Eck during his studies.
At an early age, Eck developed an interest in painting and woodworking, and would spend hours with his brother carving and painting elaborate, fully articulated circuses.
In December of 1923 Eck and his brother attended a performance of stage magic at his local church. Eck clambored onto the stage at one point to accept a gift from the magician, who was flabbergasted at the sight of the boy. The magician offered Eck a contract with a local carnival, and his parents signed a one-year contract, which Eck claims the magician later changed to a 10-year contract by adding a zero.