The Strange Life of Oofty Goofty

Oofty Goofty was the stage name of a sideshow performer who lived in San Francisco in the late 19th century. His real name was Leonard Borchardt and he came to America from Berlin at the age of fourteen as a stowaway aboard the SS Fresia in 1876.

He was discovered en route to the new world by the Captain of the ship and forced to join the crew to earn his passage. He returned to Germany and back again to the United States aboard the Fresia, before being allowed to disembark in New York.

Borchardt drifted from state to state before signing up for the U.S. Cavalry in Detroit. After learning he would be fighting Native American Indians who might scalp him, he deserted, sold his horse and gun to a farmer, and headed for San Francisco. He arrived there in 1884 at the age of 22. 

Borchardt would try any crazy scheme for money, starting with his impersonation of a “Wild Man of Borneo”. This, in fact, was the scam that gave him his infamous stage name.

He was covered from head to toe with road tar, into which was stuck a great quantity of horsehair. This gave him a savage and ferocious appearance.  He was then locked in a heavy cage, and large numbers of people paid a dime each to gaze upon the wild man recently captured in the jungles of Borneo and brought to San Francisco at enormous expense. To add to the supposed realism, large chunks of raw meat were poked between the bars by an attendant, and the wild man gobbled ravenously, occasionally growling, shaking the bars, and wildly yelping, “Oofty goofty! Oofty goofty.”

He performed this act in the Dime Museum Show and was a huge success; but the act only lasted about a week before he became ill, unable to perspire through his thick covering of tar and hair.  Doctors at the Receving Hospital tried in vain for several days to remove the tar and hair, finally dousing him with a tar solvent and laying him in the sun, on the roof of the hospital in order to soften and remove the foul mixture. 

Oofty then turned to the theatre, sort of at least. He secured a spot at a local beer hall, but after just one song and dance he was flung into the street. What might otherwise have been a humiliating and painful experience actually worked in Oofty’s favor. It showed him the direction in which his career should then turn. 

Despite being kicked ferociously and landing heavily upon a stone sidewalk, he discovered that he felt no physical pain. For the next several years he exploited this new found talent by touring the city and allowing himself to be kicked and battered by all who chose to pay a price that depended upon the degree of brutality they each wanted to inflict.

For instance, for ten cents Oofty Goofty would allow a man to kick him as hard as he pleased. For a quarter he would take a beating with a walking stick.  For fifty cents Oofty Goofty would become the willing recipient of a blow with a baseball bat which he always carried with him. It was his custom to approach groups of men, in the streets and in bar-rooms, and inquire:  “Hit me with a bat for four bits, gents.  Only four bits to hit me with this bat, gents”. 
It was only when, in 1891, heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan struck Oofty with a billiard cue, fracturing three vertebrae, that he finally called it a day with that act. The blow from Sullivan caused Oofty to walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and he was no longer immune to pain, flinching at the slightest touch. 

Instead of shying away from the limelight as some might after such a to-do, Borchardt, performed as a human skittle in Woodward’s Garden where patrons would win a cigar if they hit him with a baseball. He also performed along with a plus sized actress of sorts who went by the name of Big Bertha in a Shakespearean spoof dubbed “Borneo and Juliet”. He performed in character as the Wild Man of Borneo, though the story line followed the original script to a large degree.

For $20 he even allowed himself to be shipped in a box to Sacramento as a joke gift for a young lady. A feat made more harrowing by the fact that they left him upside-down, in the unopened package in a warehouse over the weekend. It was an ordeal that didn’t seem to lessen his bravado, although he later admitted he was “pretty near played out that time”.

Oofty Goofty eventually moved to Texas where his antics continued. There he travelled from one oil field to the next, where he would entertain drunken workers by racing to drink beer with a bar spoon and engaging in quail-eating contests which were all the rage at the time.

It’s not known when he died, but it was probably in the middle of the 1890’s, since all mention of him and his antics seems to stop by 1894 or ‘95. Whether or not the blow from Sullivan’s pool cue sped up his demise isn’t known, but then again, Oofty Goofty certainly had a lifetime of odd, dangerous, and strange behavior that could likewise have shortened his life considerably.

4 comments on “The Strange Life of Oofty Goofty

  1. Gindy51 says:

    I believe the “quail” Offty consumed were some of the last passenger pigeons as these died out due to over hunting and habitat destruction (they need huge numbers to nest not just trees).

  2. Stephen Goodwin says:

    I guy called Mr Goodwin has just done this, still walking ok- I think.

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