Perhaps the most famous of these was Krao, a Thai girl born around 1872 in a small village in Laos. A thin layer of coarse black hair covered the child's body from head to toe, and she was also endowed with supernumerary teeth, a secondary feature of hypertrichosis, and hyperextensible joints, a common genetic variation in humans. Krao was first discovered in Laos by a Norwegian explorer, Karl Bock, and his assistant, Professor George Shelly, scouts for the showman G.A. Farini who had heard of Barnum's success with the Burmese hairy family (Mah Phoon, Moung Phoset and Mah Me) and sought a hairy freak of his own. Following leads from local people, Bock stumbled into Krao's native village, where a mother and father were exhibiting their remarkable hairy daughter as a curiosity. When the little girl wandered away from her parents, they called her back with the word krao, which Bock assumed to be her name. Bock and Shelly paid the parents $350 to take the child with him back to England.
In London she was presented to – and ultimately adopted by – Bock's employer, the eccentric showman Guillermo Antonio Farini. In actuality, Farini was William Leonard Hunt, a Canadian medical school dropout from Bomanville, Ontario, but he styled himself as an "Italian savant" and had a penchant for "adopting" underage performers, sometimes with questionable motives. The most famous of these was "Lulu", a child acrobat who was born a boy but lived as a girl for most of her life.
Farini first exhibited Krao, then eleven years old, at the Royal Aquarium at Westminster in London in late 1882. The description of Krao published at the Royal Aquarium exhibition is peppered with references to her simian attributes: "The eyes of the child are large, dark and lustrous; the nose is flattened, the nostrils scarcely showing; the cheeks are fat and pouch-like; the lower lip only rather thicker than is usual in Europeans; but the chief peculiarity is the strong and abundant hair. On the head it is black, thick and straight, and grows over the forehead down to the heavy eyebrows, and is continued in whisker-like locks down the cheeks. The rest of the face is covered with a fine, dark, downy hair, and the shoulders and arms have a covering of hairs from an inch to an inch and a half long." She was even rumored to have a tail: "There is, it is said, a slight lengthening of the vertebrae, suggestive of a caudal protuberance." (All of these attributes, except for the supposed tail, are consistent with ordinary hypertrichosis – not with any subhuman status.)
Her monkey-like features were excitedly reported second-hand by dozens of newspapers, yet anyone who had the opportunity to meet her face-to-face became immediately skeptical. In contrast with her apelike appearance were her quiet, refined personality and keen intelligence. After just a few weeks in London she had already learned a few words of English and a few words of German. And, despite her whiskered face, she was undoubtedly feminine, taking great interest in fancy dresses, ribbons, and jewelry. She called Farini "papa" and Professor Shelly "uncle", and allegedly preferred the new arrangement to her old life. "No houses, no shops, no toys, no fine dresses in Laos," the newly Westernized child told a reporter in her broken English. She displayed the proper modesty of a Victorian lady and showed appropriate affection for her adoptive family.
So successful was the Aquarium show that Farini and Shelly brought Krao to New York the following year. There, she was exhibited in Central Park and examined by a number of men of science. Previous doctors' doubts of her monkeydom notwithstanding, Shelly earnestly reported that "the hair on her back grew downward and inward, as it does on the apes; that the dimensions of her head corresponded with those of the orangs, and that, like them, she had 13 dorsal and 4 lumbar vertebrae, instead of 12 dorsal and 5 lumbar, as a properly built human being ought to have" and acted most impressed when she picked up a handkerchief with her toes. Even the fact that Krao didn't like candy was taken as evidence that she was not fully human.
From New York, Krao embarked on a dime museum tour, beginning with Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Dime Museum. By now the child was quite adept at manipulating crowds and eliciting wonder. She signed her pitch cards in fancy penmanship, picked up objects with her toes, and opened her mouth to reveal her extra teeth and the supposed pouches in her cheeks where she was said to store nuts. She found that Westerners especially loved her embellished tales of her wild life in Laos, living in the trees with her monkey-like parents and other members of her strange, simian race.
Soon, Krao and her handlers had concocted an entire storybook world of hairy ape-men. The Krao-Moneik were a tribe of "man-monkeys" from the deepest jungles of Laos, one of the last unexplored regions on Earth. Any European explorer who attempted to penetrate the region soon died of malaria. The Krao-Moneik took to the trees to avoid the swampy ground and the venomous snakes that patrolled it. They lived in huts woven from the branches of living trees and climbed with their hands and feet like monkeys. They had no knowledge of fire; their diet consisted of dried fish, wild rice and coconuts. Their primitive language consisted of only about 500 words, and they had no religion.
Bock and Shelly had discovered the Krao-Moneik on an expedition with ten native Laotian soldiers who led them deep into the bush on elephant-back. The hairy people remained elusive, as their keen sense of smell enabled them to evade the search party be climbing high into the trees. After passing numerous empty huts, the party stumbled upon a family: father, mother, and daughter, who were naked except for their heavy coats of black hair. The two adults were captured with little resistance, but the child – Krao – fought fiercely and bit and scratched her captors. For emphasis of this point, Shelly displayed an undeniably human bite mark on his arm.
Bock and Shelly took the hairy family back to the king of Laos, who had funded the expedition. He showed a great fondness for the mother and kept her in his court as a sort of mascot. The party then departed for Bangkok, where they would board a ship to England. On the way, an outbreak of cholera killed the hairy father and three of the Laotian soldiers, and made Bock very ill. When the diminished party reached Bangkok, Bock and Shelley successfully petitioned the king of Siam to take the little girl back to Europe for scientific study. The king found Western science silly but nonetheless desired to help the English people. He granted permission, and Bock, Shelly and Krao landed in England on October 24, 1882. With great effort Krao was taught to speak, wear clothes, and eat cooked food.
All this humbug made Krao one of the biggest draws in America, and its earnest scientific undertones elevated her above a simple museum freak. In 1885 she left the museum circuit and went on tour with John B. Doris' New Mammoth Shows, a minor Midwestern circus, as part of the menagerie, with a billing that became increasingly more ape and less human: "Her skull is entirely flat above the lower part of the brain. The upper jaw comes forward in an angle of 54 degrees. Her head is as broad as it is long. She has pouches inside her cheeks, where she stores food away like apes. She uses her toes equally as well as her hands. Her fingers bend back to the dorsal surface of her hands, so do her toes. She has ears and nose devoid of any cartilage, the nose and ears being only flesh. She has one extra backbone like the gorilla and chimpanzee's, the man monkeys. She has 13 pair of ribs, like those of an ape, and the same that Adam had before Eve's creation." The adolescent missing link earned $200 a week (about $4,500) – less than contemporaries Jo-Jo, the Dog Faced Boy and Millie-Christine, the Two-Headed Nightingale, but still quite a handsome salary.
One of the visitors to the Doris circus in St. Joseph, Missouri, that year was E.S. Cole, a former missionary to Siam. Miss Cole knew Krao in her native Siam in 1878, before she was a missing link. The little hairy girl, Miss Cole said, was treated as an oddity for her hairiness, but her secondary attributes – her tree-climbing skills, prehensile toes, cheek pouches, and extra bones – were pure fabrication. Krao was a genuine freak, yes, but not a missing link. Miss Cole's protests were evidently ignored, however, as Krao was billed once again as a missing link when she appeared the following year at New York's Ninth and Arch Museum with legless acrobat Eli Bowen and glass-eater Bill Jones.
Krao established her permanent home in Brooklyn, where she worked at New York City's numerous dime museums and at Coney Island as a bearded lady. She lived with a German couple, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Zeiler, with whom she was close friends and could converse in German. She had her own apartment in the Zeilers' building, where she cooked and kept house for herself. Her favorite hobby was the violin. "Music makes me happy here," Krao told a reporter in 1903, gesturing to her heart. Entirely self-taught, she played by ear in a style that was more folk than classical. She also loved to crochet and was quite fond of books. On the streets of the city she kept her beard covered with a veil. She also maintained a close friendship with the bearded lady Grace Gilbert until Grace's death in 1924.
Krao fell ill with influenza in 1926 and passed away on April 16. She wished to be cremated so no one could exhibit her body after her death, but New York law insisted that she must instead be buried. At her funeral, the rest of the Coney Island freaks paid their respects, and fat lady Carrie Holt said, "If anyone has gone to heaven, that woman has."
Photos: Top, Krao, about 14 years old, with G.A. Farini (Monestier). Center, Krao as a bearded lady. Bottom, Krao with carnival employees (Rusid).