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The Terrible Turk


Today’s story is about Joe Albert, who lived in the Belcourt area during the first part of the 20th century. In February 1940, he was interviewed by WPA workers in Williston as part of the Federal Writers Project for North Dakota, and authors William Sherman, Paul Whitney and John Guerrero later included his story in their 2002 book, Prairie Peddlers: The Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota.

Joe Albert came from Syria in 1901 and settled in the Turtle Mountains, where he married a young French and Chippewa woman. Many Syrian North Dakotans were peddlers back then, taking their wares from town to town and from farm to farm. Joe tried the life of a salesman at first, too, running a grocery store and renting out boats on Fish Lake.

But that’s not where his heart was – he wanted to be an entertainer. Joe was small, just a little over five feet tall, but he was very muscular and amazingly strong. Using nothing but his bare hands, he could straighten horseshoes, bend coins, and wrap steel bars around his thighs. Wherever he performed his “strong man” act, he drew appreciative audiences, and soon he decided it was time to leave the grocery business behind.

Joe got his own tent and took his act on the road, sometimes working solo and other times as part of a traveling circus. With the stage name, the “Terrible Turk,” he performed throughout North Dakota and other Midwestern destinations. One part of his routine included wrestling the strongest local man for money, and in another, he wrapped a rope around his neck and under his arms, and challenged audience members to pull (but not jerk!) on the rope in a sort of tug of war.

He also had a special harness with ropes he would attach to the rear ends of two different cars; he would position himself between the two and tell them to try to drive away in opposite directions. Instead of ripping him in two, the cars merely spun their wheels. He was also known to pull a freight car down a railroad track all by himself.

For a period of time, one of Joe’s friends dyed his body and turned himself into a half-man, half-animal. As part of Joe’s act, this “wild man” preformed from inside a cage, screeching, leaping and throwing dirt at the audience.

Then, Joe’s act became quite a bit more exotic; he started adding real animals. He had one – sometimes two – bears that he would wrestle. He didn’t muzzle them, so this act became a real crowd pleaser. He also had a white goat that could tiptoe on bottles and a “hairless Mexican dog” that did a high-wire act. Also in the menagerie was a costumed monkey; the “little fellow” would tip his hat and then pester the audience for money with his tin cup.

The authors of Prairie Peddlers state, “In 1997, Ahmed Kamoni, in a Valley City...interview, remembers that Joe Albert would ‘overnight’ at his father’s farm in Kidder County. On one occasion, Joe ‘housed’ his bear and monkey in the Kamoni barn. Ahmed said that when the sun arose, the Kamoni horses and cattle were ‘no where to be seen, they were scattered all over the county.’”

Unfortunately, Joe’s wife died young, leaving him with four children to raise. With one of his next three wives, he later moved to Oregon, where he continued performing his marvelous feats. Nobody knew Joe Albert’s date of birth, but some said he must have been “almost 100” when he died in Oregon City during the 1950s.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm