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By Hank Nuwer

As a young journalist, I interviewed novelist Harry Crews. His books contained characters who performed in traveling “freak shows.”

Always he presented them as sympathetic beings. I asked Crews why. He said he traveled with a circus for six months after his Marine Corps service,

“One guy had a deformity in the middle of his forehead that looked just like an eye, so they billed him as Cyclops. And there was a woman with a beard — I don’t mean just fuzz, I mean a black beard.

“They let me sleep in the back of the trailer, and I remember one morning seeing them alone together. I could cry right now because it was just so sweet. He was kissing her, and she was hugging him, and they were talking about what they were going to have for supper.

“Now, how is that being a freak? I think it’s a man and a woman doing the best they can with what they got.”

Which brings me to a sad local story that happened in 1901.

A widower named Samuel Deeter once was a respected citizen and talented carpenter living in Greenville but, after the death of his beloved wife Mary, he transformed into a local odd duck.

He grew his grey hair down past his shoulders and parted it in middle. He wore a battered white sombrero like some Old West character. He began preaching his philosophy of life on city street corners, his big hat parked between his boots for spare change.

He filled every inch of his house with odd collections. Barrels of cockleburs. A room filled with banana stalks. Stacks of moldy newspapers.

One day he read a story about a woman billed as a carnival “fat lady” who quit and opted to live in a LaPorte County, Ind. asylum to get away from her bizarre employment.

Deeter, then about 75, grew enamored of Lucy Havens, impressed by the article declaring that she gave up a fat $25 weekly paycheck so she could get away from the freak-show life.

He proposed to the former performer with an ardent mailed letter.

She was then just shy of 30, and estimated by reporters to weigh between 285 and 400 pounds on a frame short of five feet.

She had tiny feet and exposed them while shopping barefoot. Her clothing was rakish and as colorful as Joseph’s coat of many colors.

Newspapers ate up the saga of their courtship. She agreed to come east by rail to marry an elderly eccentric she’d never met.

Some 1500 persons greeted her at the Portland, Ind. rail station where a local woman agreed to house her until the wedding.

Deeter then did more strange things. He asked one and all to call him “Doctor,” though he held no degree.

He asked that reporters change his name in their copy from Samuel Deeter to “Doctor ZA,” short for the first and last letters of the alphabet run backwards.

Finally, the marriage took place in Union City’s Grand Opera House.

Doctor ZA charged admission, and ticket prices soared as seats became scarce. The mayors of each Union City reportedly mock feuded over which of them might perform the ceremony.

The sidewalk preacher dismissed the two mayors and announced to reporters that he planned to conduct his own ceremony.

The ceremony itself had an iota of dignity that reminded me of what Crews told me about the circus performers he lived with. A local orchestra serenaded them with “I Don’t Know Why I Love You But I Do.”

“We will have no secrets from each other, and I intend to protect and cherish her, and she to love and protect me until death do us part,” Doctor ZA told the audience as she slipped on a ring.

If the marriage ceremony in Union City was offbeat, a mock reception that followed days later in Muncie, Ind. was pure farce. Out of a misguided sense of fun, Muncie abandoned all community civility. The organizers hired a brass band, put on a comic parade, and ended with a fireworks show.

The Evening Times of Muncie ran a headline titled “Good Sense Shocked.”

It chided the organizers of the reception, including the rival Muncie newspaper, the Star Press, a main sponsor.

“The good sense of the community was inexpressibly shocked yesterday afternoon by the dragging into the city of two forlorn and helpless individuals to be hooted, jeered and ridiculed by small boys and irreverent elders,” wrote an Evening Times commentator. “The gray hairs of the man and the fact that his companion was a woman furnished no protection from the ridicule which they openly received.”

Sadly, either because money was tight or the couple was desperate to cling to stage spotlights, immediately after the wedding they turned to sideshows billed as “Doctor ZA and Mrs. ZA.”

A mere four months after the wedding, they performed in a sideshow at the Darke County Fair. They then took their show to Union City. ZA’s posters filled the post office’s walls.

Unfortunately, while performing, Lucy developed a coterie of fawning male admirers. Doctor ZA successfully sued a would-be suitor for attempting to alienate her affections.

Their marriage ended soon afterwards, although poverty united them on occasion.

Dr. ZA died alone in a Michigan City, Ind. hovel in 1907.

Lucy wed once more but that marriage also failed. Her death certificate said she died from pneumonia and chronic myocarditis at age 50 on Dec. 3, 1922. She died in an asylum similar to the one Doctor ZA enticed her to leave.

Oh, I can’t help wishing their story had turned out to be a romantic fairy tale come true.

Instead, it remains for all time, an American tragedy.