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When looking for items for our recent Halloween event, we made an interesting and unexpected find that we wanted to share. In a folder titled “The Effect of Radiation on the World's Most Precious Material” in the Charles W. Shilling Papers, we not only found Dr. Shilling’s speech notes with
the aforementioned title, but also an informational pamphlet about Professor Heckler’s Trained Flea Circus at Hubert’s Museum in New York City, shown on the left. We are not exactly sure why Dr. Shilling had this brochure in his papers. Did he visit Hubert’s Museum in Times Square on a whim? Or did someone send this back to him? As a doctor who created a method of radiation sterilization of a fly was he keenly interested in seeing the famous flea circus?
One thing is sure—flea circuses were (and are!) a real thing! When we displayed the pamphlet at our Halloween event, we had several people ask us if flea circuses were a real thing and if they used live fleas or fake ones. After some research, we’ve learned while some flea circuses use mechanical or fake fleas, the ones performing in Professor Heckler’s show were definitely alive. He explains in the brochure below. [click to enlarge]
There is a lot of interesting history and information regarding both flea circuses generally and Hubert’s Museum specifically that we were unaware of until we stumbled upon this brochure in the archives. If you’re interested in learning more about this history, we suggest reading the articles listed at the end of this post.
We were looking for information about radiation, but instead we found information about performing fleas. Moments like this are certainly part of what makes working in archives exciting!
For further reading on Hubert’s Museum & Professor Heckler’s Trained Flea Circus:
“The Disappeared Building”, Emily Geminder, Observer, May 4, 2010: https://observer.com/2010/05/the-disappeared-building/
“Genuine Wonders From the Flea Circus: Photos by Arbus”, Randy Kennedy, The New York Times, November 22, 2007: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/22/arts/design/22arbu.html