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Museum of DisABILITY History

Eli Bowen

Eli Bowen with his wife and child
Eli Bowen with his wife and child.

Sometimes referred to as the "handsomest man in showbiz," Eli Bowen was born of humble beginnings. Born in 1844 as one of ten children—all the others "normal"—Bowen turned his phocomelia (a rare birth defect where the upper part of a limb is absent or poorly developed—causing the foot or hand to be attached to the body by a short, flipper-like stump), into a money-making gift. He joined Major Brown's Coliseum at the age of 13, performing acrobatic and tumbling tricks. He later joined Charles Tripp (the Armless Wonder) with P. T. Barnum and rode their famous tandem bike, with Eli steering and Charles pedaling. Eli was able to turn a medical "disability" into something that provided for his livelihood, which helped him meet his wife and start a family.

Charles Tripp and Eli Bowen
Charles Tripp and Eli Bowen riding a tandem bicycle, circa 1890s.