By Jim Linderman
“A favorite for long with Argentine circus-goers was “Blackamon, the Living Corpse.” A swarthy, stocky Italian, Corpse Blackamon favored satin turbans and gaudy oriental robes, fascinated the steeply banked audiences in Buenos Aires’ permanent single-ring circus by sticking pins through his cheeks and arms. Invariably he climaxed his performance by shuddering, screaming, and going into a trance. Uniformed attendants lifted the rigid Blackamon into a specially prepared glass-faced coffin, buried him eight feet deep in the sandy floor of the circus ring. For three hours he would remain there…”
I cribbed that opening from Time magazine of September 23, 1929.
I happened upon an archive of original photos and some correspondence for the fuzzy haired “Great Indian Fakir” as he was billed once, and pulled the trigger. I thought I was purchasing photographs of a most remarkable previously unknown African-American circus performer, but when they arrived and I learned he was Italian… eh. Still a pretty interesting dude, if maybe a bit racist. Which is what my wife said when she looked at the photos… “Like THAT’S not racist” was her comment.
Well, I dunno… there has always been a curious “Black Italian” thing bubbling around. There still is: The Daily Kos ran a story titled “There are no black Italians” in 2012 about racist soccer fans. But Blacaman (or Blackamon) does seem to have “adopted” the race more than been a member of it. He had quite a career, and was known as “The Great Hindu Animal Hypnotist” too. He traveled the world with his own unique gambit. One “Antonello” comments on the Raffaele De Ritis website “I’m almost sure that Blacaman was a man from Italy, exactly from Castrovillari, a little town in Calabria; in old local chronicles I found notices about him; his name came from Black Man.” What Blacaman did was cheat death while others watched, but the animal act filled the seats too.
I have also learned Blacaman played opposite W.C. Fields in the film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man in 1939… except that he couldn’t have, for as Time magazine hints above, he might have died ten years earlier in Argentina. Still, in the film Blacaman is given a credit “as himself” and the IMDB is never wrong. They report his name as “Pietro Blacaman” but if you click “see full bio” there isn’t much there. Like everyone I have seen the film but forget Blacaman now. One day it will come along again and I will watch for him. It is a masterpiece for the ping-pong scene alone. Look it up.
Billboard, at the time industry bible for ALL things entertainment (not just bad music… Justin Bieber was awarded SEVEN Billboard Awards last week) announced his death in 1929 too. Reconcile that with the Milwaukee Journal article of 1940 which declares “Some circus people say that Blacaman puts a strong scent that pleases the animals on his beard and the scent soothes the beasts. Blacaman has his beard insured for $125.000.” Interesting. A scented beard. That would seem to be a possible market expansion for Old Spice. If we are to believe anyone at all (or at least the San Jose News) Blacaman made his American debut in 1938. At the time, he was traveling with 32 lions, a “unique crocodile village” and the famous Wong troupe of Royal Chinese acrobats, contortionists and jugglers.
But what the hell does a circus freak from Italy have to do with the greatest formerly living writer in the world?
In the late 1960s, apparently, no less than Gabriel Garcia Marquez used Blacaman as inspiration for his short story Blacaman the Good, Salesman of Miracles. The story is also known as Blakaman, the Good Vendor of Miracles. This connection seems not to have been picked up by literary scholars, but as Marquez casts his Blacaman as a man who dies and comes back to life I think it no coincidence. I am going to guess the great Blacaman’s reputation spread far and wide across the Spanish-speaking sideshow world. Marquez seems to clone him… his story has TWO Blacamans! There is a good one who studied under the bad one who had a magic snake potion which would bring him back from the dead. Somehow, the good Blacaman ends up as a dictator. Or something.
Here is how Blacaman’s death is described by the Nobel Prize Winner:
“The swelling snapped the laces of his leggings and the seams of his clothes, his fingers grew purple from the pressure of the rings, he turned the color of venison in brine and from his rear end came a hint of the last moments of death, so that everyone who had seen a person bitten by a snake knew that he would be crumbled up that they’d have to pick him up with a shovel to put him into a sack, …the women who’d come out of church blocked their intentions by covering the dying man with a blanket and laying blessed palms on top of him…”
“Everybody had given him up for dead for dead when he pushed aside the palms with one arm, still half-dazed and not completely recovered from the bad moment he’d had, but he set the table again without anyone’s help, climbed on it like a crab once more, and there he was again, shouting his antidote was nothing but the hand of God in a bottle, as we had all seen with our very own eyes, but it only cost two cuartillos because he hadn’t invented it as an item for sale but for the good of all humanity, and as soon as he said that, ladies and gentlemen, I only ask you not to crowd around, there’s enough for everybody.” Esquire magazine first printed Blacaman the Good, Vendor of Miracles in 1972 and reprinted it again last month in honor of the author’s demise. They fail to credit the inspiration… apparently a black man from Italy.
Maybe Blacaman really DID defeat death, not just at carnivals around the world. Maybe he did it in a piece written by the man who used to be referred to as the greatest living author in the world. The writer passed away himself in April 2014 after teaching many how to use and appreciate words. I would like to think he has some of the snake potion.
Blacaman may have died for real in 1949, but I haven’t confirmed this. I like to think he lives on in literature, photographs and the hearts of hypnotized lions everywhere.
NOTES: Read about Blacaman’s scented beard in the Milwaukee Journal HERE. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote Blacaman el bueno vendedorde milagros HERE in Spanish, and you can read it in English HERE. The Daily Kos article on Black Italians is HERE. A survey of conjurers who really DID die in the line of duty by Joshua Jay is HERE. Additional photographic discoveries about the bearded man who continues to cheat death will appear on the author’s website DULL TOOL DIM BULB around the same time this article is available. They may be shared with credit and citations to this article. Thank you. Those of you who would like to purchase one of those “cheat on your homework” summaries of Blacaman the Good can go HERE. Blacaman’s solitary film credit, alas, is HERE.
Jim Linderman is a Grammy-nominated collector, popular culture historian and author. His network of blogs is approaching 4 million page views, and his VINTAGE SLEAZE BLOG which tells a true story from the golden age of smut every day has over 500,000 Facebook followers. For several years he has been working on TIMES SQUARE SMUT which will tell the story of several long forgotten writers, illustrators and mob-connected publishers from the 1950s who ultimately influenced contemporary culture.