Leonard Borchardt's “Oofty Goofty”
by Sam Breach
Leonard Borchardt's first glimpse of America was brief. The fourteen year old stowaway from Berlin was discovered en route to the new world by the Captain of the SS Fresia. He was forced to stay on the ship, join the crew to earn his passage, return to Germany and back again to the United States, before being allowed to disembark in New York. From there 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 - Borchardt deserted, sold his horse and gun to a farmer, and headed for San Francisco. He arrived 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", the scam that was to give him his infamous moniker. He was painted with glue, stuck with hair, and laid out on a roof to dry for five hours. Then he was shackled in a cage and fed raw meat whilst scaring visitors with grunts and wails of "Oof, Oof". He performed this act in the Dime Museum Show and was a huge success; but his manager skipped town with the proceeds, leaving Borchardt close to death on account of his pores being blocked by whatever it was that had been fused to his skin. Borchardt made the news and was visited by curious medical students as he lay in a Turkish bath for five weeks waiting for the glue to dissolve. This cost the City $300 before he was well again. From then on Borchardt was known throughout California simply as Oofty Goofty.
Bear climbing pole amusement in Woodward's Garden, one of Oofty Goofty's performing venues.
Instead of shying away from the limelight as some might after such a to-do, Borchardt (now a celebrity of San Francisco's Barbary Coast), embraced his new persona and no dare was considered too much of a challenge. From one day to the next you would not know if you might find Oofty Goofty acting as a human skittle in Woodward's Garden where patrons would win a cigar if they hit him with a baseball, performing next to Big Bertha in a Shakespearean spoof dubbed "Borneo and Juliet", or hear of him heading to New York pushing a shiny red wheelbarrow for a bet, (a challenge that failed after 40 miles when he was knocked over in the darkness, landing head first in a creek).
For $20 he even allowed himself to be shipped in a box to Sacramento as a joke gift for a young lady. That they carted him there with the box updside-down, and left the package unopened in a warehouse over the weekend, did nothing to lessen his bravado, although he later admitted he was "pretty near played out that time".
But Oofty Goofty was made from tough mettle. Not only did he survive a court martial for his earlier desertion, escaping three years of hard labor by throwing himself off a cliff to achieve early dismissal on grounds of disability - one of his better known local entertainment acts, was to allow gentlemen to strike him for a small fee. His San Francisco history generally ends with Oofty Goofty's story of being whacked by World Heavyweight Boxing Champion John L Sullivan, whose billiard cue is said to have broken in three, crippling the hapless Goofty.
While San Francisco would undoubtedly have liked to claim this colorful character forever as its own, Oofty Goofty actually moved to Texas where his antics continued. Sullivan's legendary belting did not stop him from traveling from one oil field to the next, where he would invite drunken workers to thrash him with a baseball bat for cash. Neither did his fertile imagination subside when it came to entertaining the masses with his fanciful schemes for making money. The last we hear of him, Oofty Goofty favored racing to drink beer with a bar spoon and quail-eating contests that became all the rage at the time. And although his story does not finish with us, perhaps it is not too outrageous to claim that with Oofty Goofy we sent a special dose of San Francisco-style eccentricity firmly in the direction of the Lone Star State.