The French stage performer Joseph Pujol (1857–1945), known professionally as Le Pétomane, became one of the most highly paid entertainers of his day. During performances, he would take in and expel air through his anus, doing sonic impressions and, with the aid of an attached flute or ocarina, playing short melodies. Le Pétomane might be translated as “the fart maniac”—“péter” in French means “to fart,” and the suffix “mane” is equivalent to the English “maniac.”
Separating fact from fiction in evaluating the career of Joseph Pujol is difficult. As Le Pétomane, he was a born showman who was skilled at sharing his unusual talents in an entertaining way. By the height of his career in the 1890s, Pujol was undoubtedly famous, although he was also the subject of a vast amount of publicity hype. As one report held, the king of Belgium stole out of Brussels to watch Le Pétomane's act and left him a gold piece as a tip. The entertainer was involved in various legal wrangles and sued a fraudulent female imitator. For more than a quartercentury, he was the talk of Paris, constantly developing and refining his act. Le Pétomane's strong fascination lasted well beyond his death; During the 20th century he was the subject of a French documentary film as well as an Italian fictional film; into the 21st century, American actor Johnny Depp considered making a film about Pujol's life.
Pujol was born on June 1, 1857, in Marseille, France. He was one of five children of a stonemason, François Pujol, and his wife, Rose, both who were of Catalonian background. Pujol finished school at age 13 and began an apprenticeship with a baker. He eventually opened a baked-goods shop in Marseille, locating it in a structure built by his father. A Rue Pujol, or Pujol Street, still exists in Marseille.
In 1883, Pujol married Elizabeth Henriette Oliver, the daughter of a local butcher. It was around this time that, while on a family trip to the seaside, he discovered he had an unusual ability, apparently due to a physiological abnormality. While swimming in the ocean, Pujol accidentally sucked seawater into his anus, felt a chilly sensation, and, upon emerging from the ocean, expelled the water onto the beach simply by pushing.
Audiences were mystified by Le Pétomane's early performances, but soon his natural gifts as a performer began to take shape. As word spread and he gained confidence, he took his act on the road to nearby cities. Pujol performed in Toulon as well as in Bordeaux, where doctors examined him; one Marcel Baudouin published a paper about him in La semaine medicale in 1892. By that year, the former baker decided that he was ready to travel to Paris and try his luck at the Moulin Rouge, then the king of the city's vaudeville halls. As he approached the club, with its trademark windmill logo (a “moulin” is a mill), he is said to have remarked that the windmill was appropriate to his act.
Pujol's technique for winning the confidence of the cabaret's booking manager was simple: he entered the club, announced that he had a gift that would draw crowds, and proceeded to demonstrate that gift. It was also convincing: He was hired for a performance that same evening. As Jean Nohain and F. Caradac noted in their book Le Pétomane, the poster for this initial Paris show billed him thusly: “Every evening from 8 to 9. Le Pétomane. The only one who pays no author's royalties.” In Paris he became an instant sensation; by the Sunday night following his debut, ticket receipts totaled 1,000 louis—a louis was a 20-franc gold coin.
Le Pétomane appeared on stage dressed elegantly in a red jacket, black pants, and a freshly starched dress shirt with a white butterfly tie. After announcing that his farts were odorless because he cleaned his colon daily (actually he was simply taking in and expelling outside air), he began to do impressions. Beginning with quiet farts (a little girl, a mother-in-law, a bride on her wedding night), his audible expressions then grew louder (the bride the next morning) and concluded with a ten-second blast that he likened to a dressmaker tearing a piece of calico cloth, followed by a series of cannon blasts. With appropriate discretion, he attached a tube to his anus, inserted a cigarette in the tube, smoked it, removed the tube, and expelled the cigarette smoke. Using a small flute attached to the tube, he also played several popular songs of the day and invite the audience to sing along, often while blowing out nearby gas jets to create a darkness-and-light finale.
As Pujol's son Louis Pujol later recalled to Nohain and Caradac, Paris audiences greeted this exhibition with “mad laughter” that “soon built up into general applause. The public and especially women fell about laughing. They would cry from laughing. Many fainted and fell down and had to be resuscitated.” Sometimes Le Pétomane gave special male-only performances at which he dispensed with the formal wear and appeared without pants, further reinforcing the veracity of his act. He would not charge for these rusticated performances but passed the hat at the end. Once, a well-dressed man in the audience left him a large gold coin as a tip. Le Pétomane asked how much change he should return, and the man told him to keep it all—he was the king of Belgium and he was traveling incognito because bad publicity might dog him if he attended Le Pétomane's show in his own country.
In the mid-1890s, Le Pétomane was said to be the highest-paid performer in Paris, eclipsing even the famed actress Sarah Bernhardt. He toured as far away as Spain, where he placated an offended audience by doing a clown act instead of the remainder of his pétomanie. With success came difficulties, however: Le Pétomane wrangled over contracts and payment with the Moulin Rouge.
Sometime around 1895, Pujol left the Moulin Rouge and opened a small Paris venue that he called the Théâtre Pompadour. There he staged full-evening vaudeville bills with himself as the closing act. He continued to develop new material, including an original song, “Chanticleer,” that described animals in a barnyard and included a fart impression of each one.
Unfortunately for posterity, no known actual sound film of Le Pétomane exists because film and recording technology were in their infancy during his career. Only a silent film of his act was recorded, by personnel from Thomas Edison's film studio, during the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900, a quasi-world's fair. A male Le Pétomane imitator later made a sound film that is sometimes presented as Pujol's work, but it may have had an unauthentic soundtrack grafted onto the 1900 celulloid original. This imitation film, available on YouTube, reveals a performer with substantially less musical skill than contemporary descriptions of Le Pétomane's performances indicate.
As with so many other aspects of the age known in France as the Belle Epoque (“Beautiful Epoch”), World War I brought an end to Le Pétomane's career. All four of his sons were drafted and saw action; two emerged from the war as invalids, and one was held in a German prisoner-of-war camp. “After the 1918 armistice, my father was so shattered by his trials and tribulations that he did not have the heart to take up his artistic career again,” Louis Pujol later recalled. The once-popular performer returned to Marseilles and then, in 1922, moved to Toulon, taking up his former profession of baker. While still in Toulon, he established a biscuit factory that was managed by his children. He died there on August 8, 1945, at age 88, and was buried in the nearby cemetery of La-Vallette-du-Var.
Nohain, Jean, and F. Caradec, Le Pétomane, 1857–1945, translated by Warren Tute, Sherbourne, 1967.
Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), April 22, 2002, Tim Harris, “Windbag Who Blasted Sarah Bernhardt at the Box Office,” p. 3.
Messy Nessy, http://www.messynessychic.com/2016/05/13/the-french-fartist-who-headlined-the-moulin-rouge/ (November 8, 2017), “The French Fartist Who Headlined at the Moulin Rouge.”
Retro, http://www.ljhelms.com/pet/_pujol/thestory/retro.htm (November 8, 2017), Garrick H.S. Brown, “Le Pétomane: The Strange Life of a ‘Fartiste.’”
Straight Dope, http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/363/did-a-french-vaudeville-star-once-specialize-in-trainedflatulence (November 8, 2017), “Did a French Vaudeville Star Once Specialize in Trained Flatulence?”□