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The History of the Freak Show

Updated on October 1, 2014

History of the Freak Show

What is a freak show?

The freak show is one of the oldest forms of human entertainment. Dating back to the 1500's (and likely before), people have been exhibiting disfigured or unusual people for the amusement of others. The tradition is said to have started in English taverns, later spreading to circuses, carnivals, and traveling fairs. Pretty much anyone with any sort of physical oddity could be displayed in these shows. The most common attractions were dwarves, giants, twins, conjoined twins, the extremely obese or the extremely thin, people from foreign countries, ladies with excessive facial, and men covered in tattoos or piercings. This is definitely not, however, an exhaustive list of performers. Many shows also featured people with unusual talents, magic shows, or stunt performances. Freak shows also came to be called side shows.

The Types of Freak Show

As the freak show grew in popularity, exhibitors began to latch on to the craze more and more, making freak shows bigger, grander, and more diverse than anything that had been seen before. Soon, freak shows sort of divided themselves into a few different groups based on their characteristics.

The first two types, sometimes referred to as 'grind shows' allowed patrons to enter the tents and peruse the exhibits at their leisure.

The first type, the Museum Freakshow, didn't usually feature living people. They often had cages with exotic or rare animals, taxidermied animal oddities, mummies, petrified fish, or artifacts that were said to belong to famous (or infamous) people. Some of the most popular items were weapons used by serial killers.

The second type, the Single-O Freakshow, was usually one attraction or one act. This was typically a single artifact (like a mermaid) or a single person. These didn't draw crowds as large as the other types, but they were still popular in smaller carnivals or fairs.

The main type was the Ten-in-One Freakshow which featured multiple performances or multiple oddities. In addition to the typical midgets/giants/bearded ladies, these shows would have daredevils, contortionists, fire dancers, or a number of other exotic acts. These were the largest and most popular types of freakshow. When the initial performance was over, there was almost always an additional act tacked on to the end that would be marketed as something excessively grotesque. In fact, it was often suggested that women and children not see the final act.

P. T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum, an extremely inventive 19th century businessman, forever changed the face of the freak show when he introduced the first major hoax of his career, a taxidermied piece featuring the head and body of a monkey fused with the tail of a fish. Known as the Feejee mermaid, this hoax became incredibly popular and drew enormous crowds, making Barnum a significant amount of money during its tour in 1844. Shortly after, Barnum began to exhibit his distant cousin, Charles Stratton.

Charles Stratton, more commonly known as General Tom Thumb in the circus world, was only four years old when he first got into the sideshow business. Barnum, however, claimed that he was an 11 year old. Stratton was born with a disease which caused him to stop growing at the age of six months. When he entered the circus, Stratton was four years old and stood at a whopping 25 inches tall. He weighed only 15 pounds. Growing up in the freak show, Stratton learned how to use his small stature to gain the awe of the audience. By age 11, he was smoking and drinking on stage, much to the amusement of the patrons. Stratton became so popular that he actually met Queen Victoria on a tour through Europe. It is said that she was immensely amused by the little man, but also exhibited some real sympathy for his situation.

Other major acts that were procured and exploited by Barnum included a black dwarf (the Man-Monkey William Henry Johnson) who spoke to the audience exclusively in a language that had been made up by Barnum himself, a giantess named Anna Swan, and Commodore Nutt, a newer version of Tom Thumb. These acts went to the White House and met with Abraham Lincoln. Barnum's sideshows enjoyed their greatest success during the Civil War, as many people sought out the circus as a way to divert their attention from the horrors of the war.

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Tom Norman

Tom Norman was essentially the English version of P.T. Barnum. Nicknamed "The Silver King", Norman had an eye for showbiz. In fact, he made a fortune off of his acts that often didn't have anything particularly unusual about them, notably his gang of "savage Zulus" who were actually nothing more than retired military men painted black and speaking gibberish to amuse their audiences. Of course, Norman also utilized plenty of deformed individuals and outlandish acts alongside these tame exhibits. One of the most grotesque acts in the Norman show was a woman who would sit on stage, biting the heads off of rats. This act was exclusively marketed for men, as women were seen as far too frail to see such a disgusting act. Along with his circus sideshows, Norman operated a number of shops and taverns in Nottingham and London, which allowed his acts to cycle through different parts of the country and keep them from becoming too stale or too well-known.

The most famous of Norman's contacts was Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man. Initially arriving in London in 1884, Merrick's severe case of disfiguration was almost too much for Norman, who worried that allowing him to be shown to the public would cause negative publicity. He finally decided, however, that it was worth the risk and allowed him to perform in London at a gaff shop across the street from the London Hospital. After being viewed by a number of doctors and medical staff, a surgeon named Frederick Treves brought him to the hospital to be studied and examined. Merrick's case was an extremely profitable one for Norman, especially as the word of his deformities spread throughout the English medical communities inciting curiosity among the upper classes.

Timeline of Well-Known 'Freaks'

 
 
 
1630
Lazarus Colloredo & John Baptists
Conjoined Twins
1810
Sarah "Hottentot Venus" Baartman
African Slave Dancer
1870
Eliza "The Human Skeleton" Jenkins
Extremely Skinny, Possible Anorexia
1884
Joseph "Elephant Man" Merrick
Disfiguration
1884
Mary Ann Bevan, "The World's Ugliest Woman"
Unattractive
1880's-1926
Krao Farini "The Missing Link"
Presented as Half Ape, Missing Link in Evolution

Slaves or Celebrities?

The lives of the so-called freaks is something that is often pondered. Were these people slaves, exploited for profit by their show masters, or were they more likened to celebrities? Did they enjoy their work, or was it an awful end for them?

These questions really have no concrete answer. Historical documents suggest that the lives of many of those in the freak shows were relatively happy ones. For those who suffered extreme deformities or were mentally challenged due to their conditions, the circus life was significantly better than any life that they would have likely led on the outside. As a circus performer, they were often very sheltered. Their show masters typically made it a point to keep them safe and insulated from abusive or overly zealous audience members, as they did not want to upset their performers or allow any harm to come to their "investments". Pinheads were among those for whom the circus life was seen as a very positive experience.

Others certainly enjoyed their lot as well, or seemed to, at least. For many of these people, there was no acceptance in society at large. For them, the circus gave them a community in which they could build friendships, partnerships, and even relationships. Additionally, almost all of the performers were paid for their time, meaning that they had a steady income. In society during this age, there were often no jobs available for people with deformities, disfigurations, or any physical or mental limitations. There was actually an extreme prejudice toward these individuals. Many people during this age saw them as 'cursed'. Being a part of the freak show gave them a level of fame and a paycheck that they could be proud of.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. A good portion of the side show performers were abandoned or abducted and forced to work in front of an audience from a very young age. For slave dancers, dwarf children such as Tom Thumb, and many of the ethnic performers, leaving their home was not a choice and being an exhibit in a travelling circus or stationary shop was not optional. For this population, life in the circus was surely much more grueling and unhappy.

Side Shows and Medical Mysteries

The Freak Show Today

Today, freak shows in the style of the Victorian era are extinct in the developed world. Beginning in the 1890's, the popularity of the show declined slowly and were essentially put to death with the arrival of the home television in the 1940s and 50's.

Many people, namely Henry Mayhew, a British historian and journalist, never liked the idea of the side show, freak show, or other similar types of entertainment. Instead of seeing these kinds of shows as enlightening, exciting, or amusing, Mayhew and his colleagues began to argue as early as 1861 that freak shows were nothing more than an extreme show of human cruelty, moral debauchery, and cruel human degradation.

About 40 years after the appearance of Mayhew's article against the freak show, the general public began to follow his way of thinking. Beginning early in the 20th century, a rise in human rights interests made people begin to turn of the side shows. As people fought for equal rights, the disabled were not entirely forgotten and freak shows became the symbol of exploitation. Additionally, travel became more common and the desire to view foreign objects or exotic people began to lose its appeal. Now, people could travel and see new things for themselves, rendering the side shows much less exciting than they had previously been. Advances in medicine meant that many of the 'freaks' exhibited were actually diagnosed with scientific diseases, disorders, or conditions, meaning that they were no longer a mystery.

In the modern day, there are still a few side shows throughout the world, one of the biggest being Coney Island's "Sideshows by the Seashore". These shows, however, are filled with performers rather than kidnapped people or freaks who were abandoned on the circus doorstep. These people work willingly in the side show and are subject to the same laws and work regulations as any other business. In short, they are entertainers much like Cinderella at Disney World.

Modern 'Freak Shows' and Where to Find Them

Name
Location
Acts
Side Show by the Seashore
Coney Island, NY
Human blockhead, contortion, fire breathing, sword swallowing, snake charming, and more!
999 Eyes
Travels, Austin, TX
Glass walking, balloon swallowing, medical anomalies, bed of nails, and more!
Venice Beach Freakshow
Venice, CA
Human blockhead, deformed animals, sword swallowing, electric chair, curios
The Freakshow Deluxe
Travels
Knife throwing, sword swallowing, animal traps, contortion, seances, fire play, and more!
Pickled Brother's Circus
Travels, Cincinnati, OH
Bed of nails, bullwhip artistry, juggling, sword swallowing, fire eating

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    • lorddraven2000 profile image

      Sam Little 3 years ago from Wheelwright KY

      I am actually a fan of the sideshow and it's obsdure nature. Very good read my friend.