Dr Derek J Ripley on the shameful past of the Lancashire freak show
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 August 2014 | UPDATED: 18:03 19 January 2016
Now that we have access to 24 hour TV channels - and thanks in no small part to wall-to-wall reality shows like Biggins’ Brother and I’m Famous, Put A Wasp In My Mouth - the public has become almost immune to ghastly sights and disturbing celebrities. But it was not always thus.
Back in the 19th century, dozens of circuses and shows toured our fine county, exhibiting strange acts and creatures to gullible Lancashire folk who should perhaps have known better.
None was more notorious than that operated by Stuart Morocconi and his brother Ennio, ably assisted by their trusted henchman, Marcus Radclyffe-Hall. The Morocconi Brothers were itinerant showmen who made a living in what (in less enlightened days) were called ‘freak shows’, and amongst the exhibits they displayed were talking heads, pixies and flaming lips.
But by far the most terrifying sight was hidden behind a curtain. It could only be seen by those who were prepared to pay an extra tuppence for the privilege and who also met the minimum height restriction of 4ft 11in. When the curtain was pulled back there were gasps of horror. The hideous sight was neither a man nor a biscuit but something which was, incredibly, both man and biscuit.
The freak show travelled the length and breadth of the Lancashire, where The Man Who Is Half Man And Half Biscuit’s appearance would change according to local tastes. In the north he would take the form of a Jammie Dodger and in the more refined south, a Rich Tea. In Lytham, he would be a lemon and chocolate wafer.
The Morocconis were cruel men. If The Man Who Is Half Man And Half Biscuit disobeyed their instructions, they would hold his head in a huge vat of hot tea until it began to melt. Whether or not the story of this sad individual has a happy ending rather depends on the version of events to which you subscribe.
According to one account, one night he escaped to France disguised as a gingerbread man. Here, he made a modest living as a scarecrow and became president of La Société Nationale Pour L’Avancement Des Hommes De Pain D’Epice but died, a broken biscuit, in 1899 after his eyes, nose and ears were pecked out by blackbirds.
A more cynical view argues this is a myth concocted by The Morocconi Brothers in order to make money from a credulous public. According to this theory, the exhibit was actually a huge biscuit, the size of a man, which was covered in a cloak and cap – a view supported by the fact that, although many people saw the exhibit, no one ever saw it move.
Moreover, Ennio Morocconi had previously served an apprenticeship with a Wigan confectioner, adding grist to this line of reasoning.
More controversially, Nigella Huntley and Kirsty Palmer in A Brief History Of Biscuits suggest that The Man Who Is Half Man And Half Biscuit was actually George McVitie, a petty criminal from Birkenhead. An occasional employee of The Morocconi Brothers, he resembled a gingerbread man on account of his ginger hair, pock-marked complexion and missing right eye and was forced to flee to France to avoid arrest for a variety of minor offences.
The Morocconi Brothers continued to ply their sordid trade until the advent of the Jaffa Cake. A number of complaints were made that their advertising materials should have been more accurately described as The Man Who Is Half Man And Half Small Cake With A Smashing Orangey Bit In The Middle.
The Morocconi Brothers were found guilty of misleading the public and were fined 100 guineas, a sum which effectively bankrupted them. They disappeared from the pages of history although it is believed that they subsequently found employment in the music business.
As for The Man Who Is Half Man And Half Biscuit – his remains formed the base of a tarte au citron which has been preserved and is on display in La Musee Des Beaux Biscuits in the village of Galettes d’Antan, Normandy (currently closed for refurbishment).