Facts And Stories About Frank Lentini, The 'Three-Legged Man'
Francesco "Frank" Lentini was a Sicilian-American entertainer born in 1889 in Siracusa, Sicily. Due to a congenital defect, Lentini was born with a third leg that protruded from the right side of his body. Despite the many obstacles his disability presented, Lentini overcame adversity at a young age by learning to use his third leg to educate and entertain others.
At just 8 years old, the Lentini family immigrated to Bridgeport, CT, in the United States in search of the American dream. Not long after, Lentini quickly began to make a name for himself as a star attraction in the Ringling Brothers circus, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and a number of carnival sideshows.
In the 1900s, performers with disabilities, unusual body types, and extraordinary talents were commonly exhibited in what were known as "dime museums" or "freak shows." Both the Elephant Man and "The Great Lentini," as he would come to be called, were part of this unique community.
- Photo: unbekannt, Edena Studios / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
His Third Limb Was Actually A Partially Absorbed Conjoined Twin
Lentini was born with a congenital disorder known as heteropagus (parasitic) twinning, which is thought to occur in as little as one in 1 million births.
This medical phenomenon manifests in utero when one twin ceases to develop while the other - in this case, Lentini - develops fully through gestation. The incomplete twin's body parts then fused to Lentini, who was born with an extra pelvis bone, rudimentary genitalia, and a third fully formed leg.
Lentini's extra leg, which was 36" long, also had a fourth foot attached to the knee. All together, Lentini had 16 toes and two functioning penises.
- Photo: davesgreatcardsgalore / eBay
He Sold A Booklet Extolling 'The Vital Truths Of Sex Life'
For one of his acts, Lentini capitalized on the public's interest in his second set of genitalia. This also gave him an opportunity to present his crowd with a six-page booklet he wrote, titled The Life History of Francesco A. Lentini, Three Legged Wonder. It was sold for 25 cents.
In the booklet, Lentini described his condition, discussed good hygiene habits, and included information about sex and procreation. The titles of the pamphlet's chapters were: “Obey Nature’s Laws,” “Poisons Are Not Remedies,” “The Mother During Pregnancy,” “Illicit Intercourse,” and “Physicology of Sex Life.”
Eventually, Lentini's charming character won over a woman named Theresa Murray. The two married in Massachusetts and had four children together: Josephine, Natale, Frank, and James.
- Photo: Stranger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Though Frank Wanted To Remove His Third Leg, Amputating It Was Deemed Too Dangerous
It's believed that Lentini was examined at an institution for disabled children on the island of Malta because photos from the era belonging to a Maltese Professor of Medicine show a child between the ages of 7 and 9 with Lentini's identical condition. However, because the third leg was so close to Lentini's spine, doctors feared that if they removed it, the boy would become paralyzed.
As a young child, Lentini despised his third leg and was said to have been very embarrassed by it. He felt restricted by its presence because he believed he couldn't play sports and do things that most boys his age could do. Given the danger of removing it, though, Lentini had to make peace with his condition.
- Photo: Self-Scanned / Wikipedia Commons / Public domain
He Was Discovered And Brought To America By A Traveling Puppeteer
In 1890, a man named Vincenzo Magnano was touring Italy with a puppet show when he entered the town of Rosolini, Sicily, and encountered Francesco, who was 6 years old.
Magnano thought the boy would be an excellent addition to the Barnum and Bailey Circus, so he asked Francesco's parents if they would consent to their son moving to the United States. They agreed on the condition that they could travel to the US with Frank.
After raising money for their passage, in 1892, the three Lentinis along with Magnano and his pregnant wife made the one-month trip across the ocean to Bridgeport, CT.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Because He Had Control Of His Third Leg, Frank Rode Bicycles, Swam, And Did Everything Other Kids Did
As a child, Lentini visited an institution in Italy and witnessed deaf, blind, and severely disabled children who lived happy lives. This was a turning point for Lentini, who decided he could have a fulfilling life even with a third leg.
Though he couldn't use his third leg to walk (because of its short length), he learned to run and jump as well as ride a bicycle, ride a horse, swim, ice skate, roller skate, and drive a car. Moreover, he was able to control his extra appendage. In fact, he wrote in a pamphlet about his life that the third leg actually helped him when he swam: "One advantage I have over the other fellow when I swim is that I use the extra limb as a rudder."
Lentini earned the nickname the "Three-Legged Football Player" because he was able to kick a ball across the stage. He also revealed that the extra limb did not prevent him from a good night's sleep because he slept on his back or side and it didn't get in the way.
- Photo: Jack Delano / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
He Retired To The Same Town As Priscilla The Monkey Girl And The Alligator Man
In the early 1960s, Lentini moved 12 miles south of Tampa, FL, to Gibsonton, where many performers went when they retired from circus life.
Dubbed "Gibtown," it was home to a variety of sideshow acts, including Priscilla the Monkey Girl, the Alligator Man, and the Lobster family. While these people were often ostracized in other places, they felt at home in Gibtown and bonded with those who shared similar experiences.
A performer through and through, Lentini was performing with the Walter Wanous Side Show when he got sick. He was hospitalized in Jacksonville, FL, and passed on September 22, 1966. He was 77 years old.