Freaks, Human Oddities, Freak Shows and Side Shows: Part II - Freak Shows’ Dark Side

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Exploitation, Slavery and Tragic Endings


While there were good and scrupulous side show businessmen like P.T. Barnum who treated his performers with dignity and kindness, there was a darker side to side show. Before Barnum, carnival, circus and side show owners often mistreated acts and even fabricated freaks by mutilating orphaned children. This hub article examines the more disturbing side of freak shows.

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Slavery and the Freak Show

Side shows were popular in the United States from 1840-1940. Slaves who were born with any type of deformity were sold to side shows as they were of no use to the slave master. For conjoined twins Millie and Christine who were born into slavery in 1851 it turned out better than one would expect. Jabez McKay sold Millie and Christine along with their mother to Carolinian showman, John Pervis for $1,000 when the twins were eight months old. Pervis began exhibiting them immediately but sold them within a year to Joseph Pearson Smith and his partner, known only as Brower. Almost immediately Millie and Christine were kidnapped and for three years they were taken on display, mostly to medical institutions, while Smith and Brower frantically searched for their investment. They finally found the girls on exhibit in Brighton, England. Slavery was illegal in England and the matter went to court. Custody was granted to their mother. She didn’t know what to do with them so she turned them over to the custody (and therefore ownership) to Smith.

Public interest in conjoined twins had started to wane and Smith needed something more keep the girls a lucrative investment. He gave them a very rare gift – an education. The girls were given music lessons, taught etiquette and social graces. They exhibited a great talent for singing. He billed them as the two–headed nightingale.

In 1862 Smith died and willed the girls to his son, Joseph, Jr. He profited from the confusion on whether or not they were two separate people. Even the girls referred to themselves as “I” and not “We.” They were no longer two individuals, but one girl with two-heads, four arms and four legs – Millie-Christine and they rocketed to stardom. They became known more for their singing than their appearance and gained and audience with Queen Victoria and other European nobility.

Millie and Christine gained their freedom with the emancipation act and went on to earn more than $250,000 in the course of their career. Sadly, Millie died of tuberculosis and because of a shared circulatory system, Christine died 17 hours later. They were 61; the oldest recorded conjoined twins.

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The Hottentot Venus

Another story is that of Saarjite Baartman, a young Khosian woman from Southern Africa who became known as the Hottentot Venus. For five years she was put on public display in England and France due to her large posterior. She was brought from Cape Town to England by the ship’s surgeon, Alexander Dunlop who wished to publicly exhibit the woman's steatopygia, her enlarged buttocks. In fact he promised her fame and fortune; however he promptly sold her to showman, Henrik Cesar. She was immediately put on display for two shillings per look. Baartman was exhibited in a cage at Piccadilly, England outfitted in tight clothing with African beads and ornaments around her naturally tiny waist.

Charles Matthews an avid viewer of London freak shows penned this account of his encounter:

“He found her surrounded by many persons, some females! One pinched her; one gentleman poked her with his cane; one lady employed her parasol to ascertain that all was, as she called it, ‘nattral.’ This inhuman baiting the poor creature bore with sullen indifference, except upon some provocation, when she seemed inclined to resent brutality.”

He also claimed she was “restrained by her keeper.”

Abolitionists tried to put an end to Baartman’s public display, but reportedly she refused help and told them that she participated in the spectacles of her own volition. She said even shared in profits with her exhibitor. One has to question, truly, how much say does a slave have in whether or not she will be put on public display.

The Morning Chronicle published a letter stating ‘It was contrary to every principle of morality and good order. ’ Cesar argued that it was Sara’s right to exhibit herself and thus earn her living, just as if she were a giant or a dwarf. Sarah was more than the average human oddity – she was female, black, physically unique and sexually intriguing.

The case eventually went to court with the decision siding with Cesar. He and Baartman left London for Manchester. In 1814 she was taken to Paris with an animal trainer and 1815 she was studied by professors from the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. There she was studied nude and the resulting images of her were presented in a book about exotic animals. Voyeurism disguised as science continued even after her death in 1815. Georges Cuvier paid particularly distasteful attention to her genitalia. A cast of Sara’s body and her skeleton remained on show in Paris until the late 1970s. It took 170 years for the general public to take same stance of The Morning Chronicle had done in 1810, and declare the display an ‘offence to public decency’.

Exploitation, Mutilation and other inhuman treatment


Wanting to cash in on the popularity of human oddities and freak shows, some unscrupulous showmen mutilated young children to create freaks. In parts of southern Europe there existed a nefarious trade in in maiming and mutilating young children for the purpose of producing distressing deformities to excite pity and thus induce alms. Victor Hugo wrote L'Homme qui rit, “The Man Who Laughs,” based on the practice. The hero is a gentle and generous soul, Gwynplaine, whose face had been cut and scarred into a grotesque smiling clown mask.

Although many freaks willingly entered the side shows, as explained in Freaks, Human Oddities, Freak Shows and Side Shows: Part I - Famous Freaks, others were sold by their parents or guardians into freak shows. Those who were given no choice were usually very young children or mentally retarded. Common attractions were pin heads, those afflicted with microcephaly, or some other mental retardation. They usually were well formed in body but their heads were generally cone-shaped, thus giving them a non-human appearance. They were promoted as "Darwin's missing link" or the surviving children of a lost civilization. They usually had little or no comprehension of what was happening to them. Some like the famous Shlitze where happy, well treated and loved by their fellow performers. Others basically lived a life of slavery.

Tragic Endings


Some famous freaks like Johnny Eck and the Hilton, enjoyed a happy and prosperous life while employed by the side show. Life after the side show was decidedly less attractive, especially in the case of the Hiltons sisters.

For Johnny Eck it was a crime committed against him and his elderly brother late in life that made him bitter and disillusioned with humanity. Johnny Eck was born twenty minutes in 1911 after his perfectly formed twin brother Robert, to his horrified parents and midwife who declared him a broken doll. Born a half boy, with small withered and useless legs, he was born John Eckhart, Jr. Johnny taught himself to walk on his hands at the age when most children learn to walk on their feet. Both twins were bright boys who excelled in school, and John aspired to be a preacher, but his deformity had destined him otherwise. The twins visited a local side show where a performing magician persuaded Johnny to join the side show. By 13 his career was shaping up as the “King of the Freaks.”

Johnny loved show business. He did acrobatics with his extraordinarily strong arms, trained animals, juggled, and played the front end of the magician's "sawed in half" illusion. When not performing as a circus freak, he and Robert conducted their own Baltimore-based orchestra. Johnny also drew and painted, and drove a custom-built race car, the "Johnny Eck Special". Johnny also starred in the 1932 cult classic Freaks! With other famous freaks Shlitze and the Hilton sisters.

In 1987, Johnny and Robert were viciously attacked and beaten during a robbery in their home. Old and feeble the once strong, Johnny was unable to defend himself and his brother against the attackers. He was quoted as saying, “If I want to see freaks, I can just look out the window." He died of a heart attack in 1991 after living for years in seclusion. His brother Robert died in 1995.

The Hilton sisters were conjoined twins born to an unwed barmaid in England in 1905. Their mother’s employer Mary Hilton convinced their mother to sign over custody to her. She was a strict and abusive disciplinarian who taught the twins singing and dancing. She took them on tour on tour at the age of three. When Mary died in 1930 her daughter and husband took over custody. The twins, Daisy and Violet, eventually sued for their freedom and won their freedom and $100,000 dollars in damages. They began performing in Vaudeville acts. They dressed differently and Daisy dyed her hair blonde so they could be distinguished from one another. Daisy was the more outgoing of the two and had numerous famous suitors. They also starred in the movie Freaks! and Chained for Life , and exploitation film based loosely on their lives.

Unfortunately the twins were incapable of properly managing the fortune the earned over the course of their careers and ended up destitute. There final public appearance was at drive in theater in Charlotte, NC, where their manager abandoned them penniless. A local grocer hired them and even provided them with work dresses because all they had were show clothes. In 1969, they didn’t show up at work. Concerned their boss called the police who found them dead in their home, reportedly of the Hong Kong flu. Daisy had died first and it is believed Violet died 2-4 days later.

Freaks by Design


Finally, Part III examines people who purposely turned themselves into freaks, like the Tattooed Lady, performance artists like fire-eaters and sword swallowers, as well as the modern day freak show.

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Comments 3 comments

clairemy profile image

clairemy 4 years ago

Very interesting and well informed.

Voted up .


clairemy profile image

clairemy 4 years ago

Very interesting and well informed.

Voted up .


Tess45 profile image

Tess45 4 years ago from South Carolina Author

Thank you clairemy

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