Martin Laurello- The Man Who Could Turn His Head Around

Martin Joe Laurello, often known as the “Human Owl,” dazzled audiences in the 1920s and 1930s with his ability to swivel his head entirely backward.

At the start of the century, an untold numbers of people came to America in quest of a better life. With the emergence of circuses and sideshows, there was entertainment around every corner, with contortionist “freaks” like Martin Laurello making a fortune off of dazzled audiences.

Sideshows, which are rooted in death-defying exploits like lion taming and sword swallowing, also feature disfigured people for crowds to stare at.

It was P.T. Barnum’s heyday, when the obscene became profitable — and Laurello earned the nickname “Human Owl” for spinning his head 180 degrees in response to applause.

How He Become a ‘Human Owl’

Martin Laurello, unlike the majority of his peers, did not appear to be a carnival “freak.” On the contrary, until he disclosed his astonishing technique, he appeared to be just like any other citizen. That’s because he wasn’t born with the skill, and his head was never forced to face backwards. He had to train for years in order to master it.

Martin Joe Laurello was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1885 and changed his name from Martin Emmerling when he immigrated to the United States in 1921. It’s unclear if he picked his new name or was given it to him at immigration, but the talent he brought with him would soon be extensively chronicled.

Laurello stood out among the other Europeans who fled their homelands in pursuit of better living conditions, fame, or money. He’d spent three years of his life perfecting his ability to move his head more than 120 degrees, satisfied with every extra inch he could muster, and his skill was in high demand.

Laurello debuted his act at the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in Coney Island. Captain Jack Bonavita, a lion tamer, had previously lost one of his arms at the seashore amusement park. Laurello made his name, or more accurately, became known as the “Human Owl” here.

Surprisingly, Laurello was able to sip beer with his head fully twisted around. However, he was unable to smoke or take a breath. His act’s banner introduced him as “Bobby The Boy With The Revolving Head,” since sideshow men and women were referred to as “boys” or “girls,” depending on their age.

Laurello also appeared at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but the acts were limited to indoor locations during the winter months. He found himself working with sword swallower Alex Linton, strongman Charlie Felton, and Roy Heckler, who commanded a well-trained troupe of fleas, at Hubert’s Museum in New York.

In the 1930s, Laurello was employed by the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium after years of traveling to places including Philadelphia, Newark, and Paterson with Hubert’s dime museum. He was billed as “the only person on the planet who can walk straight ahead while looking straight back.”

While Laurello was a celebrity to everybody who paid a ticket, his personal life began to suffer. He had married Laura Precht and had a son named Alexander, but they were eventually divorced, and he went on to have another disastrous marriage. Surprisingly, it ended with his arrest – in the middle of a performance.

The Legacy Of Laurello

Laurello walked away on his second wife Emilie Wittl and never looked back after fathering two sons with her. On April 30, 1931, Baltimore police arrested Laurello for spousal abandonment after Wittl filed a formal complaint with them. He winked at the policemen as his head tilted rearward.

The New York Times stated, “He was standing on a podium with his back to the crowd, gazing squarely at his audience.” “He gave two officers and the audience a wink. They returned the wink before arresting him. He was being held on a $500 bond and the New York Police Department was contacted.”

Accusations that he was a Nazi sympathizer were among the most serious stains on his career. After fleeing his economically devastated fatherland shortly after World War I, Adolf Hitler’s sinister demands to strengthen the nation were likely a welcome sign. In 1938, Hitler was named “Man of the Year” by TIME magazine.

Percilla Bejano, a former colleague, described him as a Nazi. “He didn’t like the American flag, either.” On the sideshow, you encounter all kinds of people – worse than me!”

In the end, little is known of Laurello’s latter years. In Times Square and at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York, a replica of his head swiveled. His final appearance was in 1952, three years before his death from a heart attack.

To fully turn his head, some claimed he had to “dislocate many vertebrae,” while others claimed he was born with a “twisted” spine. Finally, a lack of x-rays has kept that mystery unsolved for all time. Laurello once asserted that with enough practice, anyone could do it, posing a challenge to anyone who desire to try.


2 thoughts on “Martin Laurello- The Man Who Could Turn His Head Around

  • June 22, 2022 at 5:44 pm

    Awesome stories. Fills the mind with items and other history of people who would of not been known.

    • June 22, 2022 at 6:58 pm

      Happy you enjoy them


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