Martin Joe Laurello, also known as the “Human Owl,” dazzled audiences in the 1920s and 1930s with his ability to turn his head completely backward.
Martin Laurello the human owl was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1885 and changed his name from Martin Emmerling when he immigrated to the United States in 1921. It’s unclear whether he chose his new name or was given it to him at immigration, but the talent he brought with him would soon be well documented.
At the turn of the century, no beacon shone brighter with opportunity than the United States.Untold numbers of people came to America in search of a better life. With the rise of circuses and sideshows, there was spectacle around every corner, with contortionist “freaks” like Martin Laurello making a living off of dazzled audiences.
Sideshows, which are based on death-defying stunts like lion taming and sword swallowing, also have people who have been disfigured for people to look at.
It was during P.T. Barnum’s heyday, when the obscene became profitable. Martin Laurello became known as the “Human Owl” because he turned his head 180 degrees when he was applauded, so people called him that.
Turned into the “Human Owl”
Martin Laurello, unlike the majority of his peers, did not appear to be a sideshow “freak.” On the contrary, until he revealed his shocking trick, he appeared to be just like any other citizen. That’s because he wasn’t born with the ability, and his head was never forced to face backwards. He had to train for years in order to master it.
Martin Laurello stood out among the countless Europeans who fled their homelands in search of better living conditions, fame, or fortune. He’d spent three years of his life perfecting his ability to turn his head more than 120 degrees, satisfied with every extra inch he could muster, and his skill was in high demand.
Martin Laurello the Human Owl Performed in Coney Island
Martin Laurello debuted his act at the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in Coney Island. At the seaside amusement park, Captain Jack Bonavita, a lion tamer, had previously lost one of his arms. Laurello made his name, or more accurately, became known as the “Human Owl” here.
Surprisingly, Laurello was able to drink beer with his head fully turned around. However, he was unable to smoke or take a breath. His act’s banner introduced him as “Bobby The Boy With The Revolving Head,” as sideshow men and women were referred to as “boys” or “girls” depending on their age.
Martin Laurello also performed at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circuses, but the acts were limited to indoor venues during the winter months. He found himself working with sword swallower Alex Linton, strongman Charlie Felton, and Roy Heckler, who commanded a well-trained group of fleas, at Hubert’s Museum in New York.
Martin Laurello the Human Owl’s Legacies
In the 1930s, Laurello was hired by the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium after years of traveling to cities like Philadelphia, Newark, and Paterson with Hubert’s dime museum. He was billed as “the only person on the planet who can walk straight ahead while looking straight back.”
While Martin Laurello was a celebrity to anyone who bought a ticket, his personal life began to suffer. He had married Laura Precht and had a son named Alexander, but they were eventually divorced, and he went on to have another disastrous marriage. Surprisingly, it ended with his arrest – in the middle of a performance.
Martin Laurello walked away from his second wife, Emilie Wittl, and never looked back after fathering two sons with her. On April 30, 1931, Baltimore police arrested Laurello for spousal abandonment after Wittl filed a formal complaint with them. He winked at the policemen as his head moved rearward.
The New York Times stated, “He was standing on a podium with his back to the crowd, gazing squarely at his audience.” He gave two officers and the audience a wink. They returned the wink before arresting him. He was being held on a $500 bond, and the New York Police Department was contacted.
Accusations that he was a Nazi sympathizer were among the most serious stains on his career. After fleeing his economically devastated fatherland shortly after World War I, Adolf Hitler’s insidious calls to strengthen the nation were likely a welcome sign. In 1938, Hitler was named “Man of the Year” by TIME magazine.
Percilla Bejano, a former colleague, described him as a Nazi. “He didn’t like the American flag, either.” On the sideshow, you encounter all kinds of people worse than me! “
In the end, little is known about Laurello’s latter years. A replica of his head swiveled in Times Square and at the 1939–1940 World’s Fair in New York. His final appearance was in 1952, three years before his death from a heart attack.
To fully turn his head, some claimed he had to “dislocate numerous vertebrae,” while others claimed he was born with a “twisted” spine. Finally, a lack of x-rays has kept that mystery unsolved for all time. Martin Laurello once asserted that with enough practice, anyone could do it, posing a challenge to anyone who desired to try it.
Watch the video of Martin Laurello’s performance here