Sideshow Freaks: Susi the Elephant Skin Girl
Charlotte Linda Vogel was born in Charlottenburg, Berlin, February 26, 1908, the only person in her family with her peculiar skin condition. Hers was a different type of ichthyosis than that of her “alligator-skinned” contemporaries; Charlotte was not scaly, but rather covered all over in a thick, leathery, grey skin that formed deep creases at the joints. Epidermolytic hyperkeratosis (EHK) seems to be the most likely diagnosis.
She could not sweat and stayed cool by rubbing herself with ice, and had to lubricate her skin with baby oil several times a day to prevent painful cracking. She also could not produce tears and could only close her eyelids by sliding them down with her fingers. Charlotte was able to maintain a normal appearance from the neck up by peeling the excess epidermis from her face every night, though in her pitch book she claimed to have rid her face of scales with a type of X-ray treatment.
Charlotte toured Europe before coming to the United States in 1927 with her German manager, Julius Kuehnel of the St. Leon Bros. Circus, and his performer wife Erna. At Coney Island’s Dreamland Circus Sideshow, then under the management of Carl J. Lauther, Charlotte adopted the name “Susi, the Elephant Skin Girl”. Scantily costumed in a bikini, or sometimes even just a strategically-draped veil, pretty Susi told her life story to a captivated crowd. Susi shared a New York apartment with the Kuehnels and worked as their housekeeper. She became a U.S. citizen in 1936 but continued to make frequent trips back to Germany throughout the ’30s.
Susi left Coney Island in 1933 to be featured in the Ripley’s Believe it or Not?! exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, where she gave no fewer than eighty performances to a million curious viewers. When these grind shows became too exhausting for Susi, she traveled to New York and took a low stress job with the Gorman Bros. circus as a member of the menagerie, performing for just an hour a day next to an elephant named Lou. Susi spoke beautiful English and Walt Hudson recalled she “was a very pleasant girl to converse with”. Her favorite hobby was crossword puzzles, and she often asked people to save her the puzzles from their daily papers.
In the 1960s Susi opened her own show as “The Swamp Girl”, an improbable cross between a woman and a “swamp lizard”. This new setup was even less strenuous than the Gorman Bros. gig; Susi spent her days lying on a mattress in an air-conditioned trailer, while spectators filed past and peered in the window at her.
Suzi died in New York City on February 2, 1976, just short of her 68th birthday.