BANGOR, Maine — Tony Sohns had an eight-legged pig and nowhere to put it.
He’d bought it off a Pembroke man from whom he’d bought other dead things, for educational purposes.
“In conversation one day he said, ‘I’ve got this barrel full of piglets that were born all deformed.’ I said, ‘Oh, man, let me see those,’” Sohns said.
His take (“amazing”) was not his sisters’ (“hideous and horrific,”) so it was not welcome in their downtown store, The Rock & Art Shop.
Until the family decided to curate a freak show.
Then it found a home with a Jivaroan shrunken head, a rat-eating plant and a live 4½-foot electric eel shipped up from the Amazon (that, yes, has zapped Sohns a couple of times.)
The Natural History Freak Show opened last month. It runs through Nov. 13.
“In rural Maine, we don’t have any of these Ripley’s [Believe It or Nots] or even big natural history museums or zoos,” Sohns said. “As a kid, I’d look at the Ripley’s books [and think], ‘I want to see it; I want to believe it.’”
The show’s timing benefited from a confluence of weird finds. The pig came first, about four years ago. Next, Frank Zappa. (That’s the eel.)
Sohns, an educator known for his traveling Bug Zoo, told a pet shop owner and friend that he’d love to get a baby electric eel for teaching.
“I kind of forgot about it,” he said. “Literally three and a half years later, I got a phone call out of the blue, ‘Hey, your eel is in L.A.; it’s on its way.’”
Sohns readied a 10-gallon tank, drove to the airport.
“It came in this way-bigger box than I was expecting for a little fish and there were all these ‘cautions’ and ‘warnings’ and ‘be careful’ [stickers],” Sohns said. “I get it home and I open it up and there was this monster eel inside. It was way out of my league for using with kids, so I was like, what am I going to do?”
Enter the freak show. Frank is “The Living Lightning Bolt.”
Sohns and his sisters, Annette Dodd and Amanda Sohns, have given natural history spins to P.T. Barnum’s outlandish sideshow acts from more than a century ago. The Sohns’ Strong Man: a Rhino beetle that can lift 850 times its weight. The Pregnant Man: A Brazilian seahorse with a pouch to carry its young.
There’s also a “man-eating clam” (with nary a confirmed kill.) A skeleton of the world’s largest bat. The skull of a present-day fanged deer.
“When we started doing the research, we said, ‘We have to have a shrunken head; that’s a classic part of the freak show,” Sohns said.
The hitch? They’re illegal to import in the U.S.
Instead, he found a head made by a South American tribe from llama hide, molded and tanned, with lips, eyes and features that look eerily accurate.
“They’ve been faking them since the 1870s — that’s a lot of practice,” Sohns said. “We had to have all of these elements to tell the story. [Barnum's infamous] Fiji Mermaid came up and I was like, ‘Oh, man, how the hell am I going to get a Fiji Mermaid?’”
For that he found Juan Cabana, the Florida artist who’s made several of the mermaids from sewn monkey, bird and fish parts for photos in the Weekly World News.
The creature is blackened, lying on its side inside a steamer trunk in the Sohns’ show.
“This is the thing P.T. Barnum used to say, ‘It’s an authentic fake,’” he said.
The eight-legged pig, with two bums, two tails and one head, is real, though deceased. Frank, caught in Peru, is very much alive, though he’s fooled visitors who suspect the eel is fake or pickled. Mostly he lies still on the bottom of a rock-covered tank, next to a submerged human skull, coming up for air every 10 to 15 minutes.
He’s capable of generating 600 to 900 volts of electricity.
“They can get huge, too, from what I’ve heard,” Sohns said. “I’ve heard reports of 9-foot electric eels, which is terrifying.”
There is a chance, though, that Frank doesn’t acclimate to Maine. The show could be one-time-only, Sohns said. It might be impossible to sustain.
“The eel could croak tomorrow and the rat-eating plant, I might run out of rats,” he said.
He likes the show’s concept, much like the Pembroke pig, for the emotions it evokes: Awe. Revolt. Curiosity.
“Freak shows throughout history have always showcased that facet of nature, things that are ‘wrong,’” Sohns said. “Maybe some people are going to say, ‘I’m OK.’”
Despite the signs in the shop, he’s been surprised at the number of people caught unaware: “I say, ‘Oh, make sure you check out the freak show in the back room,’ and they think I’m joking.”
Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, unexplained and intriguing in Maine.