Resilient Facts About Myrtle Corbin, The Four-Legged Woman

April 30, 2024 | Byron Fast

Resilient Facts About Myrtle Corbin, The Four-Legged Woman

Myrtle Corbin suffered a very major deformity from birth, but this tough cookie wasn’t about to let it ruin her life. 

1. She Was More Than A Woman 

When the Bee Gees wrote their hit song “More Than a Woman," they weren’t thinking about Victorian-era Myrtle Corbin, but they certainly could have been. From the waist down, Corbin was actually two women. Through a very rare birth defect, she’d grown two sets of everything in the lower half of her body. 

What followed was a degrading career in circuses and freak shows, but don’t get out your tissues just yet. Instead, let these facts lead to her shocking end.

Myrtle Corbin

2. She Had A Suspicious Birth

Josephine Myrtle Corbin was born on May 12, 1868, in Lincoln County Tennessee. Even before her mother delivered her, doctors noted something unsettling about the parents. They both had the same blue eyes, fair complexion, and striking auburn hair. They suspected that the parents could be not-so-distant relatives. 

The doctors prepared themselves for a potentially unusual delivery, but nothing could have prepared them for what happened next. 

Myrtle CorbinJames R. Applegate, Wikimedia Commons

3. She Had A Rare Condition 

Corbin’s mother’s delivery of the baby was absolutely normal, but when they looked at the newborn child the doctors were in for a shock. Due to a rare condition called dipygus, Corbin had two pelvises. These started at the waist and continued down the rest of her body. Of course two pelvises also meant four legs. 

Corbin’s parents had never seen a baby like this, and they anxiously turned to the doctors for an explanation. 

Myrtle Corban at the age of 4, Four-Legged  woman Joseph Jones, Wikimedia Commons

4. They Needed A Reason 

The doctors had originally thought that the mother and father were relatives, but they soon found evidence that this wasn’t the case. They came up with a second theory that was also about the parents. You see, the mother was almost a decade older than the father. Today this would mean nothing, but these doctors were grasping at straws for any reasonable explanation. 

Eventually a new and even more outrageous theory emerged. 

baby girl 1890'sLibrary of Congress, Picryl

5. There Should Have Been Two

Instead of seeing Corbin as a baby with two extra legs, some doctors saw it a very different way. They said that it wasn’t that her body had separated into two parts. No, they thought that Corbin started out as twins. What had happened was that Corbin’s twin sister only developed from the waist down. 

Clearly no one really knew what had happened, but they did agree on one strange thing. 

Conjoined TwinsNational Library of Medicine, Picryl

6. It Could Have Been Worse 

Doctors assured Corbin’s mother that even though she now had a baby with a major deformity she was actually quite lucky. The truth was that if the baby had had a breech presentation the situation could have turned very tragic. With a baby of these proportions a breech birth would have been fatal for the child and maybe for the mother too. 

There was another surprising reason for mom and dad to feel happy about their new baby girl. 

baby girl 1890'sLibrary of Congress, Picryl

7. She Was Healthy

In spite of her physical abnormality, Corbin was quite a healthy child. In fact, she was more than healthy. After an examination by a few local doctors, they said she was thriving and nursing well. She was a good size at the three week mark, weighing in at 4.5 kg (10lb). Everything, from the waist up at least, was perfectly normal. 

Sadly, there was something about her four legs that was going to be a major hardship for Corbin. 

baby girl 1890'sLibrary of Congress, Picryl

8. They Weren’t All The Same

As it turned out, Corbin didn’t have four regular sized legs. She had two strong legs on the outside, and two smaller, weaker ones that hung between them. Unfortunately, the way the legs paired up didn’t quite make sense. Instead of the strong and weak legs pairing together, each strong leg’s partner leg was one of the weaker ones. 

If this wasn’t bad enough, one of Corbin’s so-called strong legs had a problem of its own. 

Myrtle Corbin, Four-Legged GirlCharles Eisenmann, Wikimedia Commons

9. It Was A Struggle

Corbin’s two smaller, weaker legs did not develop enough to help Corbin walk. In fact they were both much shorter than the strong ones and had only three toes. To add to her difficulties, Corbin had another problem. Her right strong leg had a club foot, which meant that it pointed inwards. For Corbin, walking was going to be a major challenge.

But there was another, even more daunting, obstacle. Dealing with people’s prejudice. 

baby girl 1890'sLibrary of Congress, Picryl

10. They Called Her Names 

Doctors and scientists wasted no time in writing about Corbin and her unusual condition. Sadly, they were not kind in their descriptions. In one article, Dr Brooks H Wells said she belonged to the "class of monsters by fusion". Dr Joseph Jones cut the description short and just called her a “living monstrosity”. 

But name calling wasn’t enough, they were also guilty of a severe invasion of her privacy. 

freak showLibrary of Congress, Picryl

11. They Got Too Personal

In the name of science, some doctors began to write about things that were very private. They described in detail exactly what it looked like between Corbin’s legs and even how she went to the washroom. The public was soon very knowledgeable about all things Corbin, and all this attention was turning her into a public figure. 

This gave her father an idea—one that would alter Corbin’s life forever. 

writing desk 1890'sState Library of Queensland, Picryl

12. They Were Poor

Life at the Corbin household was far from ideal. Corbin’s father, William had sustained injuries while fighting with the army, which made it impossible for him to work on a farm. To make matters worse, they had no sons who could do the work for him. The Corbins had to put food on the table and soon were looking at their daughter as a source of income. 

A baby earning money? It sounds like a disaster in the making. 

Officers in tentNational Archives and Records Administration, Picryl

13. They Put Her On Display 

When Corbin was just five weeks old, her parents saw a way to earn some money for their struggling family. They invited neighbors to pay a small fee and then exposed Corbin’s legs for their inquisitive eyes. To his surprise, William Corbin saw that his daughter could bring in some serious cash. Once all the neighbors had paid and gawked, the money tree dried up.

That’s when William took his idea to the next level. 

US dollar billsrafastockbr, Shutterstock

14. He Wanted More 

In an effort to make more money, William put ads in the newspaper to attract even more people. The ads showed a drawing of Corbin in her high chair with her mother standing beside her. Corbin is wearing a short dress which allows easy visual access to her four legs. The newspaper-reading public went absolutely crazy and Corbin was now a national celebrity.

William had the public where he wanted them, and now he had to deliver the goods. 

Midway Rides at Idora Park 1912Unknown Author, Picryl

15. He Packed Her Up 

William Corbin moved the family to Blount County, Tennessee and then packed up his daughter and left. Together they embarked on a tour where he showed off his four-legged daughter in side shows and fairs across the country. It couldn’t have been easy, carting his daughter from place to place, but their need for money was paramount. 

The weeks soon turned into years, and there was no end in sight. Corbin then attracted the attention of a very important man—one who could change the course of her life forever. 

Blount County, TennesseeTennessee Valley Authority, Wikimedia Commons

16. He Was A Scary Man

PT Barnum was a showman, a philanthropist and a politician, but he was also a scammer. In fact, some say he was the original user of the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute”. Part of Barnum’s nefarious business model was putting "freaks” on display—and Barnum wanted to meet Corbin.

This meeting had “big break” written all over it, but Barnum was a scary man that they could not trust. 

P. T. BarnumUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

17. He Had A Reputation 

Barnum later earned the reputation as the “Greatest Showman," but his methods were far from ethical. He had once “bought” an elderly Black woman named Joice Heth. He put her on display and told audiences she was George Washington’s 161-year-old wet nurse. Barnum would do anything for a buck, and it was clear that Corbin would not be safe in his greedy hands. 

Joice Heth PosterJ. Booth & Son, Wikimedia Commons

18. She Was Sunshine

Barnum met Corbin and her father, and he could not resist the money-making prospect of a girl with four legs. There was something more to her, though. Rather than being a shy, sad child with a deformity, she had a very upbeat and positive personality. Barnum was very pleased and saw great potential for Corbin. 

Next, it was time for negotiations. I’m not sure how much luck Corbin’s naive father would have against the very shrewd Barnum. 

P.T. Barnum freak showW. Schaus, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Made It Big

All those years on the road and had apparently made William Corbin into a wise negotiator. After the meeting, Corbin walked away with a very healthy contract. Her weekly salary would be $250—a whopping $7,000 in today’s dollars. Barnum didn’t do that badly either, as Corbin soon became one of his top acts. 

Sure the money was good, but now Corbin would be left in the hands of this very unscrupulous man. 

P. T. Barnum in suitCharles DeForest Fredricks, Wikimedia Commons

20. She Showed Them Off

Corbin’s performance for Barnum was really quite simple. She would appear on stage looking quite normal in her long skirt. The only suggestion of anything different was that her hips looked wide for her body, and of course her slight limp. Corbin would then sit down and slowly—and dramatically—pull up her skirt. When the audience saw her four legs, they were awestruck. 

Sounds like a pretty easy way to make a buck, until you factor in the horrible world that Corbin had to live in. 

P.T. BarnumCBS, Barnum (1986)

21. It Was A Toxic 

Life as one of Barnum’s “freaks'' had the potential to be a nightmare for Corbin. First off, Barnum used tortuous methods to train his animal performers. In fact, his minions literally burned elephants to make them behave. To earn her weekly salary, Corbin had to spend her time within the cruel world of PT Barnum. 

Unfortunately, Barnum’s horrible treatment didn’t stop with the animals. 

P.T. BarnumCBS, Barnum (1986)

22. He Didn’t Treat Them Right

Barnum wasn’t all that kind to his human performers either. One “freak” that Barnum employed was a man suffering from microcephaly, which meant that his head was smaller at the top. Barnum gave him the name “Zip the Pinhead” and billed him as “The What Is It?”. Barnum heartlessly displayed “Zip” in a cage with monkeys and suggested he was the missing link. 

Corbin somehow survived the humiliation of working for Barnum, but she soon came to a depressing realization. 

Barnum freaksUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

23. She Wanted To Be Normal

Corbin soon grew tired of being a person who the public just liked to gawk at. To make matters worse, she had to stand by as her younger sister, Willie Ann did normal things like go on dates and then plan a wedding. For Corbin, the dating world would present another challenge. As a woman with four legs, she would be facing an uphill battle. 

The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on EarthLibrary of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

24. She Was A Catch 

Due to Corbin’s extensive travel with Barnum, she was actually quite a cultured young lady. She was also pleasant to look at and had musical abilities. When you add her whopping salary to this, Corbin was actually quite a catch. Various men, at least the ones willing to overlook her extra limbs, made romantic advances toward her. 

There was one big problem. Corbin didn’t know if she could trust any of them. 

Barnum's circus in Bridgeport, ConnecticutUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Couldn’t Tell Them Apart 

You see, Corbin’s colossal salary turned many men into scoundrels. They saw the money and falsely showed romantic interest in her. Sure, some of them may have been sincere, but Corbin had no way to tell the honest ones from those trying to take advantage of her. Luckily, fate had a twist in store for her.

Myrtle CorbinGeorge M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle, Wikimedia Commons

26. She Had A Plan

In 1885, Corbin’s younger sister was about to walk down the aisle. Willie Ann’s groom was Hiram Locke Bicknell and there was something about Bicknell that interested Corbin. He had a brother. Corbin assumed that she could trust James Clinton Bicknell and perhaps hoped that a romance would begin. 

Choosing Bicknell was the easy part. Figuring out how to engage with him romantically was something she’d never done before. 

grayscale close up photo of wedding ringsMegapixelstock, Pexels

27. She Took A Walk 

As it turned out, Corbin didn’t have to use any of her charms to lure in Bicknell. He was already interested. What made Bicknell perfect was that he was about to be a doctor and clearly not in need of her freak show salary. Six months after her sister’s marriage, Corbin and Bicknell walked down the aisle and Corbin said goodbye to her work in freak shows. 

It was the end of an era, but something strange happened as soon as she quit. 

freak showUnknown Author, Picryl

28. There Was An Epidemic 

Corbin had retired from being a sideshow performer, which left a gaping hole in the industry. Her condition was very rare, so it wasn’t likely that anyone would be filling her four shoes in the near future. And then the impossible happened. There was another four-legged woman, and then another, and then still another. 

It appeared to be an epidemic of women who had Corbin’s same deformity. Clearly something fishy was going on here. 

young woman sits on her sofa with four legsEverett Collection, Shutterstock

29. They Copied Her 

As it turned out, this new group of four-legged women all had one thing in common. They were all fakes. They shamelessly attached phony smaller limbs that hung between their real legs. Corbin was still the original and only four legged woman. Well, you know what they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. 

Corbin didn’t have time to worry about these fakes, she had a new crisis on her hands. 

Fake,  liesLightspring, Shutterstock

30. She Needed A Doctor 

About a year after her wedding, Corbin’s health began to suffer. She had a fever, headaches and a pain on her left side. They sent for a Dr Lewis Whaley, who examined Corbin to see what was the matter. What Whaley discovered was a surprise for everyone close to Corbin. 

Medical Horror StoriesShutterstock

31. She Had A Condition

What Dr Whaley discovered was something that most women eventually encounter. Corbin was pregnant. Because she had two of everything from the waist down, the pregnancy was only on one side: the left. When Whaley told Corbin she was pregnant on the left side, her reply shocked everyone. 

Pregnant woman embracing belly while standing in forestHelena Lopes, Pexels

32. She Had A Preference 

What surprised Corbin was that her pregnancy was on her left side. The doctor was initially confused by Corbin’s comment. Corbin didn’t have to be indelicate and spell it out as the truth suddenly dawned on the doctor. When it came to bedroom times with her husband, she had a choice of sides and it was the right. 

No one with Corbin’s condition had ever given birth before. She had no choice but to go bravely forward with no idea what the outcome would be. 

vintage bedroomTama66, Pixabay

33. She Got Worse

Sadly, Corbin’s pregnancy soon took a turn for the worse. She was now feeling very ill, and they summoned the doctor once again. Whaley examined Corbin, and they nervously awaited his professional opinion. When the doctor told them what he thought, Corbin and her husband realized it was the last thing they wanted to hear. 

Woman in bedDigital museum, Picryl

34. She Had A Problem

A woman giving birth with Corbin’s unusual condition was completely new territory, and the doctor had to rely on his knowledge but also on instinct. Corbin was still very ill, so Dr Whaley felt forced to make a tragic judgment call. Eight weeks after he examined her, he decided they had to terminate her pregnancy. 

Corbin likely wanted to mourn the loss quietly with her husband. Sadly, this is not what happened. 

surgeryymkaaaaaa, Pixabay

35. They Wanted To Know

The public had pretty much forgotten about Corbin, but when news of her pregnancy got out, there was a revival of interest. Doctors in the US, and even abroad, were once again writing about her condition in medical journals. It looked like Corbin was heading back to the humiliation and the name calling that she so despised. 

Screenshot of Peter Cushing writing a note - from The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)Triad Productions, The Flesh And The Fiends (1960)

36. She Got Respect

The renewed interest in Corbin had the potential to once again put her on display as a freak, In fact it was the opposite that happened. These new articles about her focussed on what was normal about Corbin. They said she was attractive, intelligent and capable of maintaining a household. Corbin was finally getting the respect that every woman deserved. 

woman 1900'sEverett Collection, Shutterstock

37. She Had A Full House

After her loss, Corbin continued to try to get pregnant. It could be that she tried too hard. Over the next few years, she delivered seven children. Sadly, only four of the children lived beyond infancy, but she eventually had a full house and was a successful parent. It was time for Corbin to forget about her days as a circus freak and focus on her family. 

You’d think this would be her happy ending. Nope, Corbin still had some surprises left. 

Myrtle Corbin with husband and daughterUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

38. She Got Bored 

The next years of her life, Corbin spent raising her children. The family made a move from Tennessee to Texas, and there, the children slowly reached maturity. It was a quiet life for Corbin, living far from the spotlight and fame. Maybe it was too quiet, because Corbin’s next move was rather unexpected.

Track Maintenance, Locomotive - 1946Southern Methodist University's Central University Libraries, Picryl

39. She Fell On Hard Times

Some speculate that Corbin and her husband had fallen on hard financial times, but no one seems to know for sure. Whatever the reason, twenty years after the last time she’d put her four limbs out for public appearance, Corbin was ready to lift her skirt again. Wait a minute. This doesn’t sound like that happy ever after that we all expected. 

But there was something very different this time around. 

Vintage showEverett Collection, Shutterstock

40. She Took Control

Corbin was now in her forties and, like a modern day pop star, she was ready to take complete control over her act. This time there was no Barnum breathing down her neck. She was independent and even made her own decision about her wardrobe. What she did worked and her public performances were instantly popular. 

But Corbin was just getting started. 

Grayscale photo of old Theater interiorNational Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia Commons

41. She Went Big 

The rebooted Corbin show was a big success, and she wanted to make it even more so. Corbin was soon lifting her skirt in places like Coney Island in New York, Riverview Park in Chicago, and even the Ringling Brothers Circus. Her weekly salary went from $250 when she was a young woman to a whopping $450 as an adult. 

Corbin was once again at the top of the game, but there was some serious competition coming her way. 

Barnum & Bailey greatest show on EarthStrobridge Litho. Co., Wikimedia Commons

42. He Was A Rising Star

Francesco Lentini was almost twenty years younger than Corbin. He came from Italy to America and immediately started to wow audiences. Lentini’s claim to fame was having three legs and they were all of different sizes. Even more astonishing was that he could kick a soccer ball with one leg and use another as a stool to sit on. Lentini was young, athletic and charming. 

It was time for Corbin to take a second retirement. Sadly, it would not be a peaceful one. 

Frank LentiniUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

43. She Bowed Out 

After a few years of her second spot of fame, Corbin started to slowly remove herself from the spotlight. After only a couple of years of rest and relaxation, Corbin was once again facing a very scary situation. Out of the blue, her right leg had developed a rash. She quickly called the doctor and fearfully awaited a diagnosis. 

Theater stageGunnar Assmy, Shutterstock

44. They Couldn’t Cure Her 

Today, doctors could quite easily cure the skin infection on Corbin’s leg with antibiotics. Sadly, back in 1928, they could not. A week after the doctor gave his diagnosis, Corbin was gone. It was May 6, 1928 and she was just 59 years old. The good news was that now she would be able to finally rest in peace away from the public eye. 

Not quite, the gawkers continued even after she’d gone. 

Cleburne, TexasUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

45. Her Funeral Wasn’t Normal

Corbin’s family was ready to lay her body to rest, but it could not be a conventional burial. They had to take the unusual step of covering her coffin in solid concrete. Even more surprising was that they had to have family members keep watch over the coffin until the concrete had become completely solid.

It seemed like the family had become strangely paranoid. As it turned out, there was one very good reason for their concern. 

Public domain photograph of funeral procession - 1930Digital museum, Picryl

46. They Had A Gruesome Interest

The family’s concern was about something very macabre. They assumed that grave robbers would be chomping at the bit to get their hands on Corbin’s very unique remains. In fact, some scientists and collectors had offered the family money to purchase her skeleton. It was, after all, certainly one of a kind. 

Well, it was one of a kind…at least until the 1990s. 

old gravecongerdesign, Pixabay

47. She Hit The Tabloids 

In the 1990s, a shocking wedding picture of one Ashley Braistle hit the tabloids. In it, Ashley was in her wedding dress with her four legs on display. When the headlines later pronounced that a skiing accident had taken her life, it became clear that this was just a hoax. Corbin's reign as the original four-legged woman still remained. 

It was no surprise that a tabloid newspaper would try to cash in on Corbin’s life. But what happened next thrust Corbin’s name into the highfalutin world of poetry. 

LiarOllyy, Shutterstock

48. She Was An Inspiration 

In 2015, poet Diane Seuss released a collection of poetry that she called Four-Legged Girl. The book used an image of Corbin on the cover, and Seuss says this was because she took inspiration from her. Seuss often thought that her life, like Corbin’s, was on exhibit. 

It seems surprising that a Victorian-era four-legged woman could inspire a modern day poet. As it turned out, Corbin also inspired modern day freaks. 

Woman writing poetryKhwanchai AMstocker, Shutterstock

49. She Instigated A Change

Corbin’s second era in the spotlight had been as an independent performer and this inspired some modern day “freaks”. Places like Coney island and Venice Beach have recently seen a revival of freak shows. Like Corbin, these “freaks” are the ones controlling the power of their uniqueness. 

They’ve even formed a union that offers them something unheard of in Corbin’s day: retirement benefits. This advancement would have made Corbin insanely proud. 

Coney Island Freak ShowCP Hoffman, Flickr

50. She Was Decoration

In 2021, a shopper in Waterloo, Canada came across what he thought was a heartless find. He was shopping in a craft store when he discovered images of Corbin used as Halloween decoration. The photo showed Corbin sitting pretty in her carefully matched socks and shoes. 

I guess to some backward thinkers Corbin's image belonged with the ghosts and goblins of Halloween. 

assorted old photos placed on a tableSuzy Hazelwood, Pexels

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