Compiled from a number of separate* interviews regarding the legendary circus strongman ‘Johnny Silver’ on the 30th anniversary of his death, 11th of September 1982. The many inconsistencies within the text are recorded verbatim. By Jr. T.
* The Tong sisters were interviewed together for logistical reasons.
Annie Tong (The Tong Sisters 1940-1960): Johnny Silver? Now there was a man. Everyone loved Johnny. Well, ‘cept that clown who killed him, of course.
Claude Wolfe (Wolfman Stunts 1966-present): The way I heard it, Terry, the old elephant keeper, he told me that they found Johnny strung up in the Top, hanging from the trapeze like Jesus on the cross. Arms spread, head hanging low, he’d been done in.
Chappie Quick (Quick Trapeze 1942-1968): Both our families have worked the Bear Family Circus for generations, so me and Johnny grew up together. Even as a kid, he was the centre of attention, the biggest, the smartest, the most handsome. All the girls loved him. He was born to be under the big top. When he started in the ring, well, that when the gadjes truly fell in love with him.
Gadjes? Oh you know, people from outside, the customers. You.
His first time out, he showed no nerves. Harry T had just warmed the crowd up, an old hand at it, he had em rolling in the aisles. Then Johnny walks out wearing nothing but a bearskin slung over his torso. All oiled up, he looked like a giant. The laughing died down and there was complete silence for a good sixty seconds while he stood, watching the crowd watching him. Pappy B, the old ringmaster, was just considering coming out to help him leave, when Johnny began to speak.
His deep voice boomed across the room as he told joke after joke about circus life, making it sound like he’d been performing for years while he set up the weights for his performance. The crowd was howling by the time he began hauling boxes, cannons, cars around the ring. When his half hour was up, the crowd booed Harry T off, demanding Johnny come back. And he only got more popular from then onwards.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear (Ringmaster 1952-Present): Johnny’s been gone a long time, over thirty years. He was gone before I took over the family circus from my Pappy, I never met him. The stories about him though, they keep getting told, changing over time. That’s the thing with myths, life of their own. Johnny knew that. Johnny used that.
Jade Tong (The Tong Sisters 1940-1960): Johnny did love his women, but he loved me best of all. He brought me the flowers that the gadjes threw at him in the ring, he helped me in my act…
Annie Tong: Rubbish, Johnny spoiled me the most, all those other women were just for show. He loved me, don’t you remember that silver locket he gave me…?
Jade Tong: No, I don’t. That’s your senility setting in. He never got you no locket. When that Hilda joined the circus, he had eyes for no-one but her. Love like that, even we wouldn’t get between. And boy, did we try.
Hilda Sweet (Gypsy Rose Fortunes 1948-1975): I joined Bear Family circus over thirty-four years ago. Found a bill in town, with a picture of the strongman. Gosh, did I have a hankering to meet him. And what do you know, but the first thing I saw when I entered the gaff was Johnny Silver himself. Standing in the ring, a gadje woman balanced on each arm. He turned, saw me and almost dropped those girls, running over to speak to me. I’d never dreamed of a career in the circus until I met Johnny. It was love at first sight, for both of us. I’ll never love anyone else in my life.
Chappie Quick: Harry T was an auguste, a fool of the clown world. The ones who trip over their own feet, who can’t do anything. He’d drive around in his tiny car, falling out, hitting things, the whole ring laughing at him. Harry was in the wrong job, he weren’t a man who took to being laughed at so much. But he was so short and stocky, little arms stuck out from his belly and no neck. What else could he be?
Harry T: He’s more myth than man, they idolise the old fool. They forget his sulphurous farts, his thinning hairline and the way he stole Hilda from me. Then they frame me for his murder.
Hilda Sweet: He used to lead the parades, did my Johnny. Marching through the town while the crew set up the gaff on the outskirts. He’d lead the way, pulling a cannon behind him, me sitting on it in a silly little silver outfit, waving to the men in the crowds. I think I could still squeeze into it if I tried. Oh, silly boy, I wish I still looked that good. I have kept my figure well though, haven’t I?
Claude Wolfe: Blood dripping, everywhere. Jimmy the snitch said it took him weeks to get the stain out of the silk lining.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: My only regret is not having kids with Hilda. She’d have made a great mother, four or five kids running around. But she wanted to wait, keep her figure for her career, then when we did try, nothing worked.
Chappie Quick: Harry, he were just a run-in. Ran in to do something to fill the pauses between acts. He never had his own performance, kids were too scared of him. I think he liked that, too. His whiteface was slapped on so thick he looked like a monster. Wasn’t a night didn’t go by one kid or another wouldn’t want to leave, crying.
Harry T: People who say I’m bitter, they forget I was the one invited her to come to the circus. We’d been handing out bills when I seen her, holding her bonnet, her mouth a red cherry, her black hair flowing real beautiful like all round her face. Girl like that was made for life under the top. Double somersault and a back flip to land a bill right in her hand. No way could she forget me, till that giant fool came along.
Chappie Quick: Harry can complain all he wants, but I was there. You could power a town for a year from the sparks flying between Johnny and Hilda. First time in all the years I’d known him that one woman was enough for him. She tamed him. It was sad to see. That’s when he really died.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: Posters would go up in towns, bills handed out on parades which he led. His face was everywhere, his legend growing as the rumours spread. Always had to always be the loudest, the most entertaining.
Hilda Sweet: The acrobats, dancers, elephants, clowns, they all followed behind Johnny, trying to grab some attention. But the crowds, they followed him like a magnet. You’ve never seen a big top so full night after night. And the best thing, even knowing every woman in every town wanted him, I knew my Johnny only had eyes for me.
Jade Tong: What killed Johnny was a broken heart. Asked Hilda to marry him, but she said no, next day, he woke up dead.
Annie Tong: You remember wrong as always, sis. They found him hanging in his trailer, a note about her rejection in his hand. He should have asked me. I think he would have too, if she hadn’t bewitched him.
Chappie Quick: But the best part about Johnny was his kindness. He knew I was scared to go into the ring. Sure, I’d been walking the rope since I was a baby, but the difference of practicing and then climbing to the top of the ring in front of an audience was huge. See, in those days, it was better to tightrope walk without a net, really got the crowd going.
But Johnny, he helped me, got in a few people to watch me practice, then a few more, till I had no fear of anyone in the crowd distracting me. I got so good my act was second last of the night, just before Johnny’s closing set.
Hilda Sweet: My stage name was Gypsy Rose. When I was younger, my curves were in all the right places. I used to be so pretty, thick black hair and green eyes. These gadje men would pay any price to look at me while I told them their future. But Johnny never listened. I told him, marry me, our future is bright. His other path, well, it dripped red.
Claude Wolfe: One bullet to the chest, a barney with some gadje guy whose wife got a little too friendly after his strongman act. Jenny the pianist told me and she was there.
Chappie Quick: I do miss the women. Johnny, he used to draw hordes of them, his smile on the posters, when he led the parades through town. There were always a few spare legs floating around for those of us less blessed in the looks department.
Hilda Sweet: Since when does a man like Johnny Silver listen to the worries of a scared girl? How can a legend hide behind a woman’s skirts, even the woman he adored? Someone like Teddy, he’d listen to me. That’s how a relationship lasts.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: Johnny, he was never the marrying sort. His image had taken years to build up and a little wife would ruin it. What woman would pay to see the strongest married man in town? Hilda, she knew it wouldn’t work, but she kept hoping.
Annie Tong: Let me just say, his strong man act wasn’t all show. 6’ 6”, built like a tree trunk, he was. And that was all over, mind you. When he dated me…
Jade Tong: Us.
Annie Tong: Us… he’d set up, make love to me… us… go do his strongman act, sneak in another quickie, then clear down the top before keeping us awake till dawn.
Jade Tong: Until Hilda.
Annie Tong: Hilda never gave him what we did… we should have told him about…
Jade Tong: Hush now, dear. Kid here isn’t interested in our old gossip.
Hilda Sweet: Of course I know about the other women before me. Johnny never covered it up. He was young, twenty two when I met him, but he’d been popular. Yet he stopped it all for me, said I was all he ever wanted. Poor Annie.
Claude Wolfe: Theo, he’d seen the body, you know. Well, I call it a body. Chopping into tiny little pieces. Minced. Like beef. He quit as caterer after that, says he couldn’t look at raw meat ever again.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: The weight of a myth can crush a man, even the biggest man the circus had ever seen.
Harry T: Even though I’m innocent, they still blame me. They say the knife wounds were so low down in his groin, only a midget would stab him there. That’s bollocks, I could easily reach his stomach, see?
Hilda Sweet: Yes, I know the Tong sisters blame me for what happened. But I forgive them, it’s only because they adore him too. They miss him more than anyone, at least I still have my Teddy. We’re as in love now, as when we first married and it’s our thirtieth wedding anniversary this year. Yes, it was soon after Johnny left us, but when it’s right, it’s right.
Harry T: I knew Johnny, he’d get tired of Hilda eventually, then I’d be there to mend her heart. Come on, look what he did to those twins. That was a stone cold bastard. But he dies, they kick me out real fast and then Edward appeared. That snake I did not expect. She married him before Johnny’s body was even cold.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: I don’t think Harry forgave me for marrying Hilda after Johnny passed. But she’d never had feelings for Harry. She only ever loved one man in her whole life. I’m a lucky guy.
Claude Wolfe: Head forced down the khazi, Harry standing above him. The musician Fernando told me, he never lies.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: I took over the Bear family circus maybe a year after Johnny was gone. When my Pappy died, I got called back to be the new ringmaster. I brought in lions, fireworks even girls wearing next to nothing doing acrobatics, but those receipts kept falling. It was only when I went in the ring, the people they started to come back. I was born to be under the big top.
Jade Tong: No strongman, crying women and a happy midget, the crowds, they stopped coming. We almost left then, but Teddy convinced us to stay. He’s ever better as a ringmaster than Pappy B ever was. Must be in the blood. He was only supposed to orchestrate the acts, but his own time in the ring grew as the people demanded more of him.
Annie Tong: He’s certainly no replacement for Johnny, more fool him for thinking that he ever could. I’d rather thing’s hadn’t changed at all. I’d rather Johnny was still here.
Jade Tong: Well, he isn’t still here,okay? He chose Hilda over us and he chose a new life… Junior, stop recording, my sister is crying, you jerk.
Claude Wolfe: Andy the geek, he heard that Hilda thought he’d run off with a gadje woman, they were always making cow eyes at her man. Found her stood over his corpse with the poison bottle still in her hand.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: But sometimes, you have to put your legend to rest.
Harry T: I’m the biggest star there is, in clowning, toured the world, in every clowning museum and yet all you people ever ask about is that colossal idiot. Those fuckers really got their revenge on me. Whatever I do, people only ever care about Johnny.
Chappie Quick: I proposed to Jade, you seen her? The Siamese twin? Hot damn, that’s a lady, even after all these years. Annie though, she don’t like me so much. Honestly, I think they’re both still half in love with him.
Jade Tong: When I think of him, I can only remember his romantic side. Coming back to my trailer and finding the bed covered in rose petals, a new tailored outfit hanging next to the bed for us. Champagne chilling in the kitchen while he cooked my favourite food.
Annie Tong: Remember that time the elephant got loose and knocked us down? He carried us in his arms to the hospital. Only after a doctor gives us the okay does a nurse get to see him. She tells him his left arm is broken in three places. She tells him he’s lucky he didn’t permanently damage it. He says he’d do it again in a second if he thought we needed help.
Jade Tong: And all we ended up with was a couple of bruises. How’d you think you’d do in that suitation, mister? He was a hero.
Harry T: His paunch was growing huge, his hairline gone and the wrinkles, let me tell you, years of sun will do that to a man. In a beauty contest today between me and him, I’d win, hands down. Even at my height. The man is lucky he died when he did, no-one would look twice at him today. There’d be no legend, just an old man with a cane.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: Only a fool would think he could be the strongest man in the world forever. And Johnny, you could call him a lot of things, but never dumb. Look around, look at fame. What’s the best way to be remembered as young and beautiful and wonderful? Go out on a high.
Chappie Quick: He were the best friend I ever had. He liked his bevvies, he could drink fifteen pints in an evening without breaking a sweat, but he always bought his round, always made sure his friends were okay. Adventure, girls, money, he lived like an emperor, but he shared the wealth with us all.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: Who could miss a life like that? Surely Hilda was worth losing it all?
Hilda Sweet: Who wants to see a strongman with wrinkles? With grey hairs? We needed a plan. He needed to disappear.
Harry T: In some ways, I don’t mind the rumours, I actually like them. Clowns scare people, it’s good for business. I’m one of the top clowns in the country now. Got a kushti little number here, I’m treated like a star. Kids both love and fear me, the expressions on their faces make it all worth it. Little bastards.
Claude Wolfe: Chappie told me how on passing through a town, Johnny saw a woman’s car broken down on the railway line, the door jammed tight, a baby screaming in the seat next to her, a train whistle seconds away. He opened the door and managed to hand the lady her baby, but he never got out of the way in time. Bam.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: Sure I’ve got a moment, this arm always gives me trouble in the rain. Monroe, James Dean, that rock kid, Corbain was it? By dying at the right time, they’re immortalised as young and beautiful and talented forever. But what good is fame if you’re dead?
Harry T: Yeah, they made me leave right away, before they buried him even. Never met this Edward guy who married my Hilda, he arrived the week I left. Anyway, I heard Hilda’s shaved her beard off, I bet she’s plain as anything now. They say the crowds don’t want to see a bearded lady nowadays?
Annie Tong: Pappy B said it almost killed our circus then and there. Almost killed me.
Jade Tong: People coming to see the hero on the posters, well, remove him from the posters and there’s no more Johnny to miss. From man to myth in one step.
Annie Tong: And we get Teddy instead, still the same crowd pleaser, still madly in love with Hilda. Everything changed, and nothing. No room for Annie.
Chappie Quick: Before Hilda, Johnny did spend a lot of time with Annie, it’s true. They were hardly apart. But after Hilda joined up, the sisters went off to that circus, retreat thing for what… nine or ten months? It’s a good job they did, they were looking a bit chubby before they left… haha couldn’t have an ounce of fat in the costumes those gals wore then. My, they were pretty. Still are.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: But look at Elvis or Jim Morrison, some even say Michael Jackson. People say they never died, they just vanished, killed a double, pretended to die and disappeared. They freed themselves from the weight of their own lives, their own myths. Why couldn’t Johnny?
Hilda Sweet: I’m very happy with Teddy thank you. So we never had any kids, Teddy said he never minded. Anything Annie says different is pure spite. I haven’t thought of having his children in years.
Harry T: I never understood how Johnny could shag those twins, makes me sick to my stomach when I think about them three together. And how about their ‘retreat’? We all know whose it was. I wonder how Hilda feels about that, hah!
Claude Wolfe: Okay mister I like you, so I’ll tell you the true story of why they never found a body. Seemed Harry had knocked Johnny out, put his body inside the fireworks cakes and they’d blown him to pieces. They found Harry scarpering, saying it wasn’t him but had no proof of anything.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: Everyone gets old. Everyone dies, right? Well, no, you don’t have to. Johnny disappeared when he was young, when his legend was the strongest. Now he’s immortal. Living a normal life, wife, career, without the pressure.
Harry T: Haven’t you gone yet? Listen kid, piss off. I’m sick of your face, you remind me of him too much, ‘cept with those chink eyes ‘o yours.
Chappie Quick: Sure I miss the old… old Johnny. But Teddy runs a tight show and he’s a good mate. He’s not quite the same as Johnny now he’s married, but he’s my best friend still, that’ll never change. We grew up together. There’s weeks go by now before I think on the past.
Jade Tong: You look like him, you know. But younger. Skinnier.
Annie Tong: He has your eyes, Jade. How old did you say you were… 33… and your name is Junior…Oh, sister, he’s…
Jade Tong: Well now, there’s a surprise. We always did hope that you’d grow up smart like your Daddy. You spoken to Teddy yet, son?
Harry T: Don’t listen to that Chappie, he’d say anything for Johnny.. He’s the one that found the body. He’s the one that blamed me. No-one but him and Hilda saw the body anyway. Then this Teddy pops up the next week and takes over everything, including Hilda. Isn’t that suspicious? Now do you trust their stories?
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: I wish Annie would tell me what they called him, before they gave him up… Junior? You sure, did they tell you that?
Hilda Sweet: What most people didn’t know, his brain is his biggest muscle. He always had big dreams for us, how we could settle down, how we could have kids. He wouldn’t let a little thing like a legend stop him from achieving what he wanted. I’m so proud of him. And it’s worked, for thirty years, it’s worked, me and Johnny. Till you poked your nose in.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Bear: Oh, yes, you’re right, I do look quite a bit like him, but remember he was my second cousin, once removed. I don’t have his build though, or his hairline, ha ha! You’ve got good eyes, most people don’t spot the resemblance any more.
Don’t print that.
About the author: Georgina Kamsika is an Anglo-Indian British writer. She reads widely, everything from E.M. Forester to Chuck Palahniuk and values her comics collection – from Sandman to Preacher. She admits to being a geek and whenever she’s not writing, she loves reading and walking her two dogs in the local woods. Her partner, Andy, is very patient and supports her at all times, even when her only response is ‘shush, go away. Writing’. For more, see: http://www.kamsika.com.