At the height of the Belle Epoque, the cafés, cabarets and theatres of Paris were famously filled with music and dancing. The city was the capital of pleasure in Europe and nowhere represented it better than the Moulin Rouge. Toulouse Lautrec, Mistinguett, Sarah Bernhardt, can-can dancers – they are remembered to this day but there was one truly unique performer who today has been largely forgotten. A man whose act blew audiences away and out-grossed all others…
Joseph Pujol was born in Marseille in 1857 and he grew up to be a star thanks to his extremely unusual and quaint ability to take in air (or water) at will through his bottom. Through muscle control he was able to regulate the speed and force of expulsion. How on earth did he discover this talent you might ask? One summer he went swimming in the sea. As he was preparing to plunge his head under water, he took a deep breath and contracted his abdominal muscles. Suddenly he felt his insides fill with cold water. Terrified he rushed to the shore. He and others were amazed as he stood on the beach with water pouring out of his behind like a faucet. A doctor examined him and assured him that he was fine. Perhaps unusually, he started to practice and develop his new found “gift”.
Pujol was born to perform. Even as a child, he would sing, dance and play trombone for visitors to his parents’ home. Now he wanted to show off his newly discovered skill. He joined the army and developed his skills entertaining his comrades-in-arms. He would imitate a fountain, taking in water through his bum and then shooting it high into the air. He soon discovered that his ability wasn’t limited to water, and that he could also inhale and exhale air this way. He added to his repertoire with “music” and impressions.
It was also while in the army that Joseph acquired the nickname that would later become his stage name. He was called Le Pétomane which came from two French words: péter (to fart) and maniaque. This translates to something like “The Mad Farter”.
After the army, Joseph returned to Marseille where he worked as a baker, often entertaining customers with his talents. However, he yearned for a larger audience, so he left the bakery and took to the stage with his trombone. But soon he discovered that the audience preferred his other wind instrument. His flatulent act was a big hit in Marseille, and he decided give Paris a try.
The Moulin Rouge management offered him a contract, after all, a windmill seemed just the place for his windy act. Pujol was an instant success and people laughed so hard during his performances that it was said that some passed out. Women who were strapped into their corsets tightly couldn’t breathe when they went into fits of laughter and nurses had to be on duty in the theatre when the Le Pétomane was performing.
Pujol would appear on stage in his suit looking quite sophisticated. He would explain to the audience that the wind he was about to produce was completely odourless and that no one could say his show was smelly. Then he went on to entertain them with imitations of thunderstorms, cannons, and simple musical renditions. Later in the act, he would step offstage and connect a long tube to his derriere through a special discreet opening in the back of his trousers. Using this tube he would smoke two cigarettes at once – one with his mouth and one through his… tube. He would also blow out candles from an impressive distance before attaching a small flute to the tube to play more tunes.
To prove that there was no trickery, he gave performances (for men only) in his
underwear which was fitted with a hole in the back large enough for the men to verify that the performance was real. He also gave private performances to those who didn’t want to be seen publicly enjoying his low-brow humour, such as the Prince of Wales (the future king Edward VII of England) and King Leopold II of Belgium.
During the two years he was at the Moulin Rouge (1892-1894), he was an enormous success, earning even more than Sarah Bernhardt. But it all came to an end when, at the request of a friend, Joseph gave a performance at a fair. The Moulin Rouge saw this as a breach of contract, took him to court and Pujol lost the case and his job.
The Moulin Rouge lost their biggest money-maker and replaced Pujol with a female version of Le Pétomane. However, her talent was not a natural gift; she had a concealed bellow-like device hidden beneath her skirts. Joseph was furious and bought case against the Moulin Rouge for trickery. This time he won and was declared the only true pétomane when the imposter was exposed.
Pujol went on to open his own theatre where he performed his flatulent act for twenty years. In 1914, when the First World War broke out, he retired from the stage and returned to Marseille. He worked in a bakery and later bought a biscuit factory in Toulon.
He died in 1945 at the age of 88. Even after all those years, his special talent had not been forgotten and a Parisian medical school wanted to buy his body so they could study his curious anatomy. His family refused and he rests today in the cemetery of La Valette-du-Var.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she blogs as thecuriousrambler and is the author of French Holidays and Traditions. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.