Friday, November 13, 2015


I have often said, when writing stories for this blog that you can’t really tell much about a person’s life just by looking at their tombstone.  You would never guess by looking at the simple tombstones of Al Capone or Michael Heitler that they had led nefarious lives. Conversely, you can’t tell by looking at the simple tombstone of restaurateur Fanny Lazzar that she was the confidant of kings and presidents.  Take a look at this tombstone from Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois:

Just from looking at her tombstone, what can you tell me about Martha Morris?  You can’t tell from the stone that Martha Morris was known as “The Armless Wonder.”  You can’t tell that she was a featured entertainer at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933, and you certainly can’t tell that she was in Tod Browning’s cult classic film ‘Freaks,’ yet all of these are true.

Since one of the purposes of this blog is to tell the story buried under the tombstone, let’s see what we can find out about Martha Morris “The Armless Wonder.”

Martha Morris was born October 10, 1902 in Chicago to David Morris (1862-1928) and Jennie, nee Strumpf (1868-1938).  Martha was born without any arms, and shorter-than-normal legs.  David and Jennie Morris had seven other children:  Joseph C. (1889-1959), Louis Frank (1891-1952), Ralph (1893-1963), Dorothy -  called “Dora” (1895-1979), Manuel Edward (1898-1966),  Benjamin - called “Bennie” (1901-1974) and Rose – called “Rosie.” (1907-1966).  Martha was the only one of the children born with birth defects.

Young Martha Morris

Both David Morris and Jennie Stumpf had been born in New York – he in December of 1862 and she on March 17, 1868.  David was from Russian Jewish stock; Jennie’s ancestors had been German Jews.  They were married in Manhattan on August 19, 1888.  David Morris was a tailor by trade, as was his father.  Their first two children were born in New York; the rest in Chicago, so David and Jennie must have moved to Chicago in about 1893. 

The first US Census that Martha was alive for was in 1910.  The Morris family was living at 2141 W. Crystal Street in Chicago:

2141 W. Crystal Street, Chicago

Jennie Morris indicated that she had given birth to eight children, and all eight were currently alive.  David indicated that he was a “Tailor in a Tailor Shop.”

Martha Morris 1918

I was unable to find Martha or her family in the 1920 or the 1930 US Census. Perhaps they were on tour as part of a traveling show when the census taker called – Martha had worked for several different traveling shows through the years.

According to Google there is an eight page booklet published in 1924 called Life History of Martha Morris: The Armless Wonder that may better explain Martha’s travels during the 1920s but I was not able to locate a copy.  We do know during the 1920s Martha appeared as a featured attraction at Coney Island, and was one of the featured entertainers at the traveling Freak City Show.

Martha's circus act - note the large posters of her on the back wall

This might be a good point to talk about Martha’s handicaps and how she overcame them.  As I mentioned at the start of the article, Martha Morris was born without arms and with shorter-than-normal legs, leaving her unable to walk.  I was unable to discover the specific medical diagnosis for what caused her to be born this way.  There are cases of children having severe birth defects if their mothers had taken the drug thalidomide, but thalidomide was not developed until 1954, so there is no chance that Martha’s mother Jennie could have used it. The other causes for this condition are genetic.  The American Journal of Medicine lists a condition called Phocomelia (from the Greek work for the animal the seal), which is an extremely rare congenital disorder involving malformation of the limbs.  Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire coined the term in 1836.  There is another similar condition known as Amelia with similar results.

Martha Morris was deprived not only of her arms, but a portion of her legs as well.  Her feet appeared just below the hips, leaving her unable to walk or dress herself.  Martha got around with the aid of a wheelchair and someone to push it.

But the amazing thing about the story of Martha Morris is what she did with her life.  Many families would have immediately institutionalized a child born with these severe birth defects, or kept them at home limiting their exposure to the world and its ills, but the Morris family did exactly the opposite.   New Zealand lawyer Rod Haines puts it this way, “I was born armless, not brainless.”  While on exhibit Martha would demonstrate remarkable dexterity with her feet by writing and typing with her toes as if they were full-fledged fingers.  She could even thread a needle.  Rather than hiding her handicap, Martha Morris decided to make the most of it.

Martha’s father David Morris died on September 14, 1928 at the age of 67.  He is buried at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery at Gate 54, Order Brith Abraham, Row 21, Lot 421, Grave 6:

As I mentioned above, Martha Morris had been on the road since she was a teenager.  By 1930 she was a veteran performer with thousands of performances and thousands of miles under her belt.  All indications are that Martha enjoyed her life as an entertainer, but the high point of her life came in 1932 when she appeared in Tod Browning’s film ‘Freaks,’ alongside another famous armless wonder, Frances O’Connor.  Martha was a huge movie fan and any night she wasn't working she was at the movies.  So when the chance came for Martha to be able to star in a real Hollywood motion picture she was thrilled.

Here are two photos of Martha Morris from 'Freaks:'

For those of you not familiar with the film, 'Freaks' is the story of a beautiful circus trapeze artist who agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.  Director Tod Browning had been part of a traveling circus in his youth, so to give 'Freaks' a shot of realism he cast many circus performers as themselves.  In addition to the circus entertainers who were in the film, Martha appeared with seasoned actors Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova and Roscoe Ates.

The point that Browning wanted to make, was that these people who may not look like everyone else, were, in fact, just like everyone else under the surface - some good, some not so good.  In the film, the physically deformed "freaks" are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the "normal" members of the circus who conspire to murder one of the performers to obtain his large inheritance.

All reports were that Martha loved every minute of her Hollywood film debut.

After the release of 'Freaks' Martha returned to her hometown of Chicago where she appeared at the Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933.

Martha at her typewriter

Martha Morris died on April 5, 1937 in her home at 3206 W. Ainslie in Chicago (now a parking lot). The cause of death was pneumonia caused by rheumatic fever.  She was 34 years old.  Here is her death certificate: 

Here is her obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune from April 6, 1937:


and here is her Death Notice:

Martha was buried at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, Gate 105, Cong. Atereth Israel.  Here again is her tombstone:

Although she did not live a conventional life, Martha Morris packed a lot of living into her 34 years.  Rising above a serious disability that would have kept most people at home, she traveled the country showing just how much a person could accomplish, no matter what the handicap.  She was a featured entertainer all the way from Coney Island in New York to the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago.  And to top it all off, Martha Morris, movie fan extraordinaire, got to star in one of Hollywood’s cult classic films, Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks.’  Not bad for a little girl with no arms and shorter-than-normal legs.  Some might have thought that Martha was exploited by those who put her on display, but Martha, with her positive attitude, would have said instead that it gave her a chance to travel the country and show people what you could do with pluck and perseverance.  Martha Morris is an example to us all. 

Martha Morris - The Armless Wonder - May she rest in peace.

1 comment:

  1. Incredible article and a wonderful woman.... God rest her soul.....