Myrtle Corbin was known far and wide in the late nineteenth century as the Four-Legged Woman. While at a glance one could plainly see four legs dangling beyond the hem of her dress – only one pair belonged to her, the other set to her dipygus twin sister.
Born in Lincoln County, TN in 1868, the girl with the incredibly rare condition spent most of her childhood in Blount County, AL. The tiny body of her twin was only fully developed from the waist down and even then it was malformed – tiny and possessing only three toes on each foot. Myrtle was able to control the limbs of her sister but was unable to use them for walking and she herself had a difficult time getting around as she was born with a clubbed foot. Technically, the ‘Four-Legged Woman’ only had one good, usable leg.
Myrtle became an exhibit at thirteen. Her first promotional pamphlet (Biography of Myrtle Corbin, 1881) describes her as “gentle of disposition as the summer sunshine and as happy as the day is long.”
Myrtle was a popular attraction with P.T. Barnum, and later with Ringling Bros. and at Coney Island. Her popularity was likely linked to her showmanship – she would often dress the extra limbs with socks and shoes matching her own and this gave her a truly surreal appearance. Myrtle was so popular that she was able to earn as much as $450 dollars a week, a handsome sum in that era.
Myrtle’s younger sister, Willie Ann, married Hiram Locke Bicknell in 1885. Hiram’s brother Dr. James Clinton Bicknell proposed to Myrtle shortly afterward, and the two were wed in June 1886.
It’s clear that James Bicknell married Myrtle for love, and not for money, for upon their marriage he insisted she leave show business. It was then that other aspects of her bizarre anatomy became evident. It seems that her twin sister was also fully sexually formed – thus Myrtle possessed two vaginas.
In the early 1890’s, James & Myrtle moved their family from Blount County, AL to Johnson County, TX, settling near and finally moving to Cleburne City. The farming couple lived happily and over time produced a brood of eight children, half of whom died in infancy. The 1900 census for Johnson County states that Myrtle was the mother of five children, only three then living. The 1910 census for the same county states that she had had eight children, four then living. The surviving Bicknell children were Nancy Estelle, Francis Clinton, Ruby, and Lillian J.
It has been rumored that three of Myrtle’s children were born from one set of organs and two from the other. Whether this is true or not, it is medically possible. In ‘Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine,’ by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle it was observed that both vaginas menstruated – thus indicating both were possibly sexually functional.
We don’t know the specifics of the Bicknell family’s economic situation, but it must have deteriorated severely. Showpeople like Myrtle came out of retirement simply because they needed the money. Just so, the Four-Legged Girl from Cleburne, TX was back in the business appearing at Huber’s Museum in New York in 1909 at age 41.
The family no doubt intended this new turn of events to be temporary. But then 1910 turned into 1915: Dreamland Circus Sideshow, Coney Island. Riverview Park, Chicago. Myrtle worked the circuit and Myrtle made money. It had been more than 20 years since she last exhibited. She appears to have finally stopped exhibiting around 1915.
In 1928 Myrtle developed a skin infection on her right leg. When it failed to heal she finally went to a doctor in Cleburne. He diagnosed her as having erysipilas – a streptococcal skin infection. These days, a simple round of antibiotics would have eliminated the problem and Mrs. Bicknell would be on her way. Unfortunately, Myrtle lived in those days.
On May 6, less than a week after being diagnosed, Josephine Myrtle Corbin-Bicknell was dead.
Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, by Robert Bogdan, University of Chicago Press, 1990