The Romans brought their daughter to New York City on several occasions, trying to determine a cause – and possibly a cure – for her hairiness. The experts agreed that her condition was the result of a genetic abnormality and could never be cured. Frustrated, and in need of funds to support his wife and other children, her father placed her on exhibition when she was three years old. When she was six, her father died and the show's owner, Carl Lauther, and his wife adopted her.
The Lauthers were as much doting parents as they were managers. They hired tutors to ensure Percilla got the best education. (She was already fluent in Spanish and English from living in Puerto Rico.) When Percilla complained of being lonely, they bought her a pet: a trained chimpanzee, Johanna, who would be Percilla’s constant companion, on and off the stage, for years to come.
Billed as "The Monkey Girl", Percilla became a great success with Rubin and Cherry Shows, where Carl Lauther ran a freak animal exhibit, Lauther's European Wonder Show. She was especially popular with spectators in 1924, in the wake of the famous Scopes "monkey trial" which brought the debate over evolutionary theory into the public eye. Who better to personify the issue than a living, breathing Missing Link? (Krao, G.A. Farini’s "missing link", was still performing, but had been relegated to the role of a simple Bearded Lady at Coney Island.) Percilla and a trained orangutan, Snooky, even staged a mock debate, with Percilla representing the pro-evolution argument and Snooky standing against it.
The strangest chapter in Percilla's life came when she was seventeen. While Percilla was appearing with her foster parents' show in Cuba, a strange woman dressed all in black and wearing a heavy veil appeared in the show tent and intently watched all of Percilla's performances. She then approached the Lauthers and introduced herself as Madam Obrea, an eccentric millionaire who lived in a mansion outside Havana. She was fascinated by apes and kept several of them as companions in her house. Madam Obrea offered to take Percilla as a protégé. She would ensure that Percilla got the best education, and would leave her fortune to Percilla when she died. Most importantly, though, she promised to fund an operation to remove Percilla's supernumerary teeth, which were causing her considerable pain. The Lauthers could not afford this surgery themselves and, though they loved their adopted daughter, begged her to accept the offer. Percilla, however, distrusted the strange woman and chose instead to stay with the life she knew. This story is probably not true, but serves as a poignant reminder of how many freaks, far from being imprisoned and exploited as critics often claim, accepted and even preferred their lives a performers.
In 1936 Lauther’s show, starring Percilla as well as three Ubangi tribeswomen and a fakir named Captain White, was signed with the Johnny J. Jones Exposition’s "Oddities of the 20th Century" show. Also in his employ was Emmitt Bejano, known as "Lobello, the Alligator Boy". He was born Emmitt Driggers in Punta Gorda, Florida, on August 23, 1914. His parents divorced when he was six years old and his father put him on exhibition with showman Johnny Bejano of Morris & Castle Shows. When Emmitt's father died, Bejano adopted him. Emmitt was afflicted with lamellar ichthyosis, a hereditary condition that causes thickening and cracking of the epidermis that resembles reptilian scales. By constantly oiling his face and hands, Emmitt was able to keep these parts scale-free, and could thus pass unnoticed in public wearing long sleeves and a high collar. Despite his freakish skin, Emmitt was notably handsome. Percilla, too, had grown into an attractive young woman, with a keen sense of humor and an exceptionally beautiful speaking voice (believed to be a secondary feature of hypertrichosis). The two young freaks felt an instant attraction and, after a few months' courtship, eloped in January of 1938.
On February 2, 1939, Percilla gave birth to a baby girl, Francina, at Millers Tavern, Virginia. Like Percilla, Francina was covered head-to-toe in black hair. The World's Strangest Married Couple were overjoyed about becoming the World's Strangest Parents, but sadly Francina succumbed to bronchial pneumonia at the age of just fourteen weeks.
In 1945 Percilla and Emmitt – as "Londo and Lobello" – left Lauther's show and signed on with a traveling Ripley's Believe it or Not?! exhibit. Among their colleagues were Joan Whisnant Beach, armless guitarist; Clara "Dolly" Regan (then Clara Schazer), the ossified girl; Grace McDaniels, the mule-faced woman; and W.D. "Tiny" Cowan, one of America's fattest men.
Sometime in the 1950s, Emmitt and Percilla bought an acre of land and a mobile home in the carnival community of Gibsonton, Florida. Desiring children, but fearing another tragedy, the Bejanos chose instead to adopt a baby boy, Tony, in 1960. Percilla nicknamed their homestead the P.E.T. Ranch – for Percilla, Emmitt, Tony. Tony traveled with his parents and worked as a ride operator and concession man with the carnival.
Throughout the '50s and '60s they ran their own show, known as the Bejano Family, with Gooding Amusements, and they performed with James E. Strates Shows into the 1970s, even as freak shows across the nation faced closures by well-intentioned disability groups. "We have fun in our work and we often feel that some of the people at the show need to be up on the stage looking down on us," Percilla told a reporter in 1978. "When they start making fun at me, I say, 'I can see you for nothing right here, but you had to pay to see me.'"
"[Sideshow work] keeps me off the relief line," Emmitt said in the same interview. "It's an honest effort, and I feel more or less proud of the fact that I can earn my own living and can do anything anybody else can. Nature does funny things sometimes, but I've lived a normal life." In the 1980s and '90s, Percilla and Emmitt retired from traveling, but made numerous television and film appearances as two of the last surviving veterans of the intriguing, yet increasingly taboo, freak show culture. The 1981 documentary Being Different features an interview with the couple and footage of Percilla in the supermarket with her heavy black beard covered by a veil. (If anyone asked, she told them she was "a Hindu".)
On April 17, 1995, Emmitt passed away. In mourning for her husband of nearly sixty years, Percilla began shaving her beard. Though she continued to make public appearances, she remained beardless until her own death on February 5, 2001.
Image: Emmitt and Percilla, ca. 1940s. Kobel collection.