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The Claw

Clawman: oil on canvas 142x92cm

Thomas Brigham Prentice b. Carbon City, Utah 1901 d. unknown

Thomas Brigham Prentice was born a partial ectrodactyl. His right hand was a claw –his left hand and feet developed normally. Two younger brothers were unaffected by the condition.

Though another of his stage names was ‘the Fiddler Crab’, he was actually more famous as a banjo player. As a youth his unique pizzicato style had proved a popular novelty in his home state of Utah and this eventually brought him to the attention of the Langstrom Brothers. His first public appearance with their travelling show in 1911 came to the notice of the Cincinnati Daily Press. Its reporter remarked upon Prentice’s “wonderfully lustrous appendage, at once disturbing and admirable”, and set off by “a quite singular stage costume, painted of earth reds and ochres, redolent of his native Canyonlands… his visual stagecraft indubitably elevates him above his fellows.” Twelve seconds of footage from 1918, lodged in the U.S. National Film Registry in the Library of Congress, show him entertaining troops in Battery Park, New York, before their embarkation onto troopships heading for the Western Front.

Fame beckoned, and with his first-hand experience of the new theatrical medium of cinematography, he headed west to Los Angeles when the industry relocated in the 1920’s. He should have been an automatic choice for a role in Tod Browning’s film about circus curiosities, ‘Freaks’ [1932], but for some reason he failed his audition. While his friends, Prince Randian [the Human Caterpillar], and Johnny Eck [the Half-Man] were propelled into the national consciousness, Prentice descended into depression. The release of the film damaged his future prospects still further; moral indignation was directed not only against the movie, but also against the practice of exhibiting victims of physiological deformities for entertainment and profit. With opportunities to earn a legitimate living closing around him, Prentice turned to Hollywood’s underground movie industry comprising the burgeoning low-grade horror and ‘skin-flick’ genres.

Through this channel, he developed a network of dubious entertainment contacts and eventually found his natural audience in Las Vegas, playing private shows in the casino hotels. Some of these were unquestionably of a pornographic nature; others were tableaux highlighting his musicianship. At one of these parties, he had the mixed fortune to accompany Frank Sinatra. Initially, things went well, but the crooner was visibly affronted when upstaged by an over-extended electric ukulele solo. After this incident, the Vegas nightclub community closed ranks and Prentice found himself unable to gain further bookings for his musical entertainments.

Perhaps this was just coincidence; it is quite possible that Sinatra’s ire did not ensure that Prentice found himself on a venue blacklist, but it has to be noted that ’The Claw’ made just two more appearances in public before retiring into impenetrable obscurity. The notion that this disappearance from the spotlight had been engineered with mafia interference persisted. Furthermore, it was rumoured that he had been used to supplement the foundations of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in 1970. Events of September 2001 failed to verify this.

From Little Histories of Fragile Creatures: Glenn Ibbitson. Nant Books ISBN978-0-9563567-8-9


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