Unusual human beings have been exhibited in public since antiquity. The first traveling "freak show" appeared in 1738 in Europe. Curiosity seems to be the motivating factor of the audiences.
For over 100 years, carnival and circus freak shows were immensely popular in America. At one time, there were 105 exhibitions of human freaks traveling about the United States, as well as many featured in amusement parks.
P.T. Barnum was the most famous and successful impresario of freak shows in American history. His human freaks generally included giants, midgets, bearded ladies, fat ladies, tattooed men, and thin men, along with the usual sword swallowers and fire eaters.
Those with progressive ideas began raising objections to exhibitions of human freaks in the 1930s, deeming them shameful "pornography of the disabled." By 1970, enough laws had been passed to kill traveling freak shows.
I have for your pleasure an assemblage—a Baker's Dozen as it were—of the stars of the human freak shows of old. But first . . .
All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here--Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvelous craft
Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o'-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters. Tents and Booths
Meanwhile, as if the whole were one vast mill,
Are vomiting, receiving on all sides,
Men, Women, three-years' Children, Babes in arms.
Schlitzie Surtees (1890-1971) was born Schlitzie Metz in The Bronx, New York. Sometimes billed "The Pinhead," he suffered from microcephaly—an unusually small brain. Schlitzie had the mind of a three-year-old. His parents sold or gave him to a freak show.
Schlitzie was adopted by a chimpanzee trainer named George Surtees, who by all accounts took great care of him for decades. Schlitzie would become a big star for the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1920s and 1930s. He achieved more fame in one of the four films in which he appeared, Freaks (1932).
Schlitzie was 4' tall and dressed in a moo-moo because he wore diapers, which gave the impression he was female. Schlitzie was well loved by his fellow performers for his child-like innocence, exuberance, and unconditionally loving and affectionate nature. He loved the spotlight; he lived to sing, dance, and perform for people.
George Surtees died in 1965. His daughter committed Schlitzie to a mental hospital. It so happened that a sword swallower named Bill Bunks, who knew him, worked at this hospital during the off-season. Finding Schlitzie utterly despondent, Bunks arranged his release and return to the freak show. This made Schlitzie very happy. He lived to the ripe old age of 81, before he succumbed to pneumonia.
Lazarus Colloredo (1617-1646) is perhaps the earliest example of a man who became widely famous as a human freak. Born in Genoa, Italy, Lazarus toured Europe for a decade. He made his living by exhibiting himself to a public that was drawn to see the unusual.
Lazarus Colloredo was a handsome, courteous man. He got married and fathered several children, all of whom were normal. Lazarus also had a parasitic twin named Joannes Baptista, who dangled from his midsection.
Joannes Baptista had only an upper body and a left leg that protruded out of Lazarus. Joannes never spoke; he never opened his mouth or eyes. Lazarus kept him covered up with a cloak when not performing.
Chang & Eng
Chang & Eng (1811-1874) were born conjoined identical twins in Siam (Thailand). Thus we get the portmanteau "Siamese Twins." If born today, Chang & Eng would easily have been separated.
Chang & Eng were discovered by a British merchant and exhibited as human freaks on a world tour. They settled in the United States and worked fifteen years for P.T. Barnum as sideshow freaks, which made them fairly wealthy. They adapted the last name of Bunker for unknown reasons.
Chang & Eng bought a 1000 acre plantation in North Carolina, and purchased a few slaves to work it. The plantation was near Mt. Airy, the inspiration for the fictional city of Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show.
Chang & Eng married American sisters and fathered 21 children between them. Their respective children were genetically double-first-cousins and half-siblings.
Chang was the dominant brother and a heavy drinker. Eng was known as a quiet intellectual who loved to play poker. Chang died of pneumonia at age 63. Eng lived three hours longer.
General Tom Thumb
General Tom Thumb (1838-1883) was the stage name given by P.T. Barnum to a dwarf born Charles Stratton in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Barnum discovered Charles Stratton and "leased" him from his carpenter father at age 4.
General Tom Thumb was trained in courtly manners by P.T. Barnum. Tom became one of the most famous persons in the world. He entertained millions over the years through dancing, acting, impersonations, and comedy. A highlight was when he performed for Queen Victoria.
General Tom Thumb married a fellow dwarf in 1863. The newlyweds had dinner in the White House with President Abraham Lincoln. When Tom died suddenly of a stroke in 1883, his funeral was attended by 10,000 people.
Charles Stratton was a big baby at birth, weighing 9 pounds 8 ounces. When he was six months old, he suddenly stopped growing at 25" (18 lbs.). He did have a later growth spurt that put his adult height at 3'4". As General Tom Thumb, he became a rich man with a snazzy wardrobe, his own yacht, and a fancy home in Manhattan.
Myrtle Corbin (1868-1928) was born in Tennessee. She suffered from an extremely rare condition called dipygus. Myrtle had a conjoined twin in her lower half only. Her spinal column divided in two just below her third lumbar vertebrae.
Myrtle Corbin was born with four legs, two complete pelves—and two vaginas fully functional for coitus; much to the delight of her future husband. She married a doctor when she was 19 years old. Myrtle gave birth to five children: three from one womb and two from the other.
Myrtle Corbin made a good living, happily working first as a touring carnival freak; then in circus freak shows for P.T. Barnum, and Ringling Brothers; and finally at Coney Island.
Prince Randian (1871-1934) was born in British Guyana to slave parents from India. P.T. Barnum hired him for circus freak shows in United States in the 1890s. Prince Randian also worked under various names in carnival freak shows during his 45 year career, including "The Living Torso," and "The Caterpillar Man." His longest stint would be with the sideshow freaks at Coney Island.
Prince Randian moved like a snake. He became famous for rolling his own cigarettes with his mouth, which was featured in the 1932 film Freaks. Prince Randian could write and paint as well.
Prince Randian was known as a clever, quick-witted man who spoke four languages. He got married, had four normal children, and settled in New Jersey, where he died of a heart attack at age 62. Prince Randian was a practicing Hindu.
Mademoiselle Gabrielle Fuller was born in Basle, Switzerland in 1884. She had a completely normal—in fact beautiful—body down to her hips; her body there came to a smooth end.
Mademoiselle Gabrielle joined the Paris Exposition in 1900 as a sideshow freak. This was followed by a career that included tours with Ringling Brothers circus freaks, and a stand with the Coney Island freak show.
Mademoiselle Gabrielle was married twice. It is unclear how long she lived. Of her disability she said: "Women really do not need legs. I have never had them and have never missed them. I enjoy life and do everything I want without them."
The Mule Faced Woman
Grace McDaniels (1888-1958) was born in Iowa afflicted by the very rare degenerative disease called Sturge-Weber Syndrome. She won an "ugly woman" contest in 1935, and soon thereafter joined a traveling troupe of carnival sideshow freaks. Grace enjoyed the attention and made a good living from exhibiting herself as a human freak, including a run at Riverview Park in Chicago.
Grace McDaniels was a kind, friendly, lovable person. She is unusual among sideshow freaks in that she strongly and publicly objected to being called a "freak" (and to the moniker "The Ugliest Woman in the World"). She preferred to be called "The Mule-Faced Woman." And so she was.
Grace McDaniels died of cancer in 1958. Her son (and manager) passed away later that same year.
Lionel the Lion Faced Boy
Stephan Bibrowski (1890-1932) was from Poland. In 1901, after he was abandoned by his mother, he was hired to join the circus freak show of Barnum & Bailey. Bibrowski was billed as Lionel the Lion-Faced Boy. He was afflicted by hypertrichosis—one of only 50 documented cases in 500 years. His five siblings were normal.
Lionel the Lion-Faced Boy had 8" of long hair on his face. The rest of his body, except the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet, was covered with 4" long hair. He had only two teeth.
After six years with the circus freak show, Lionel the Lion-Faced Boy moved to Germany, where he proved enormously popular working as an added attraction for a wax museum. 1913 found him back in the United States, where he worked for fifteen years in the freak sideshow for Coney Island Dreamland.
In 1928, Stephan Bibrowski retired to Germany, where he died of a heart attack four years later. Lionel the Lion-Faced Boy was noted as an educated, impeccably dressed, perfect gentleman. He spoke five languages, was a skilled gymnast, and he was recognized as a fine landscape watercolorist.
Daisy and Violet Hilton
Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1969) were conjoined twins born in Brighton, England, to an unwed mother. As children they were adopted and exhibited at carnival freak shows by their landlady. The landlady died, and her daughter took over.
Daisy and Violet Hilton moved to the United States, where they became famous as a Vaudeville and freak show act. They hobnobbed with the jet set, becoming close friends with Harry Houdini and Bob Hope. In 1932, Daisy and Violet appeared in the controversial film Freaks, and in 1951 in the even more controversial, semi-autobiographical movie Chained for Life.
Violet had a string of well known boyfriends; both ladies were married for a spell. After freak shows fell out of favor, they ended up bagging groceries in Charlotte, North Carolina. There they died of the Hong Kong Flu—Violet outliving Daisy by nearly a week. I wonder what that was like.
Johnny Eck (1911-1991) was born in Baltimore, Maryland with nothing below his torso, a condition called sacral agenesis. His twin brother Robert was normal.
Johnny Eck would become internationally known as the "Half-Boy" and later the "Half-Man." He went to work for Ringling Brothers first, then Barnum & Bailey, and later Ripley's Believe It or Not. Johnny Eck, 18" tall, had a starring role in Freaks, and appeared in three Tarzan movies.
Johnny Eck was a bright boy who excelled in school and aspired to become a preacher. At age 13, he joined a carnival freak show and loved it. Johnny Eck walked on his hands. He also performed acrobatics, juggling, and illusions, and trained animals. Away from work, Johnny Eck was an admired painter, conductor, and race car driver.
In retirement in 1987, Johnny Eck was violently robbed in his home. This caused him to lose faith in mankind. The last four years of his life, the formerly ebullient, gregarious man secluded himself and lived in utter isolation. He died of a broken heart.
Betty Lou Williams
Betty Lou Williams (1932-1955) was the youngest of 12 children born to sharecroppers in Albany, Georgia. (My maternal great-grandparents were sharecroppers.)
At the age of two, Betty Lou Williams began to be exhibited by Ripley's Believe It or Not. While still a teenager, she had become quite wealthy. Betty Lou put all 11 of her siblings through college, and bought her parents a 260 acre farm, cash money.
Betty Lou Williams was known as a fine, generous person. Perhaps too generous, as her fiancé ran off with most of her money and disappeared. She died soon after, officially of asthma, but of a broken heart according to her friends.
Betty Lou had lived her 23 years with a parasitic twin embedded in her torso. Its head was literally in her torso, with two legs and one arm protruding.
Lobster Boy (Grady Stiles) is a strange case. Grady Stiles was 6th in a line stretching back to at least 1805 of men born with claws for fingers and toes—ectrodactyly. He was a murderer, and he was murdered.
The father of Lobster Boy starred in a carnival freak show, and incorporated his two children into the act as the Lobster Family. All of the Stiles family resided in Gibsonton, Florida, home to more former circus and carnival sideshow freaks than anyplace else in the world.
Grady Stiles (1937-1992) aka Lobster Boy was an abusive alcoholic with a hot temper. Unable to walk, he possessed incredible upper body strength. Of his four children, two also have claws. In 1978, on the eve of his daughter's wedding, Lobster Boy shot and killed her husband-to-be. He confessed but received no jail time as no facilities were deemed appropriate for a man with his disabilities. In 1992, the wife of Lobster Boy hired a hit man who shot and killed Grady Stiles. He got 27 years in prison—serving as catcher for the cell block.
Progressive thinkers ended the human freak shows of yesteryear. As usual, they favored politically correct conformity to their ideas by all citizens, as opposed to liberty and freedom for people to choose for themselves.
The human freaks in these shows enjoyed being in show business—who doesn't? Many of them grew wealthy and enjoyed a rich social life. In reading about their lives, one is struck by how much they valued the "family" of performers they traveled with—and how much they missed this atmosphere of loving friends when it was over.
Instead of the dignity of earning their own way in the world—which every person had to do before the welfare state; there were no layabouts in those days—all of them became wards of the progressive state. They were reduced to lonely lives with no social life, no crowds cheering, living off of government checks in squalor.