The history of the freak show
Freak shows were popular attractions during the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries until changes in societal attitudes towards handicapped persons and tightening of local laws prohibiting “exhibition of deformed human beings” led to the decline of the freak show as a form of entertainment. Featuring attractions such as deformed humans and animals, unusual physical performers, “pickled punks” (abnormal fetuses preserved in glass jars), and occasional hoaxes (e.g. “bouncers” – fake pickled punks made from rubber), the freak show has captivated audiences since as early as the 16th century.
The 1600’s thru 1800’s
By 1600, severe physical human deformities and animal abnormalities were no longer deemed bad omens or manifestations of evil spirits residing within the person’s body and the public display of deformed persons began to see increased popularity. During the 1600’s through 1700’s, conjoined twins Lazarus Colleredo and John Baptista (whose upper body dangled from the front of Lazarus) toured England along with a “female about four feet high in every part like a woman excepting her head which nearly resembles the ape” made rounds in Europe. By 1810, Sarah Baartman (aka Hottentot Venus), a southwestern African woman was exhibited throughout London and France until her death in 1815 (at which time her body was dissected and her brain, skeleton and genitalia put on display for more than a century).
The heyday of Victorian-era freak shows
During the mid-1800’s, the display of sideshow freaks became big business, particularly in England and the United States. Small shows began to pop up in America in 1829, around the time of the arrival of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. In 1844, American circus pioneer P.T. Barnum travelled to England with his distant cousin, Charles Stratton (aka Tom Thumb). At just over two feet tall, the diminutive Stratton was instructed to lie about his age, claiming he was 11 years old instead of his actual age of five and billed as General Tom Thumb. P.T. Barnum had already experimented with faux-creations such as the Fiji Mermaid which he exhibited with great success in 1842.
By 1884, during the heyday of the Victorian-era freak shows, Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man) was displayed in London’s East End and billed as “half-a-man and half-elephant”. Merrick was exhibited in the back of an empty shop on Whitechapel Road (directly across the street from the London Hospital and near the location of the Jack the Ripper murders) by a man named Tom Norman, who collected and travelled the countryside with freaks such as Eliza Jenkins, Mary Anne Bevan, the Human Skeleton, and the Balloon-headed baby. Merrick had an iron bed with a curtain drawn around to afford him some privacy. Norman gathered an audience by standing outside the shop and drawing a crowd through his showman patter.
“Ladies and gentlemen … I would like to introduce Mr. Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Before doing so I ask you please to prepare yourselves—Brace yourselves up to witness one who is probably the most remarkable human being ever to draw the breath of life.”
The decline of the freak show
It was at this time that tastes changed and shows like Norman’s began to cause public concern, both because of the rowdy crowds they attracted and on the grounds of human decency. London police and magistrates became increasingly vigilant in closing freak shows down.
By 1932, Tod Browing’s Freaks movie, which featured many real-life freaks such as limbless Prince Randian, the legless Johnny Eck and conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, prompted public outcry and was relegated to obscurity until it was re-released in 1962. By the 1950’s, the freak show had almost disappeared entirely. Today, Coney Island in New York City remains one of the few providers of sideshow entertainment left in the world.
Legendary sideshow anomalies
Below are photos of some of the legendary freak show performers of past.
Conjoined twins Lazarus and John Baptista Colloredo
Lazarus and Joannes were Italian conjoined twins who toured Europe during the 17th century. The upper body of Joannes Baptista and his left leg stuck out of his brother. He did not speak and kept his eyes closed and mouth open all the time. When not performing, Lazarus covered his brother with a cloak.
Krao – the Missing Link
Krao on display in London in 1882. By 1885 she was moved to the Dime Oddities Museum in Philadelphia and toured with P.T. Barnum for some years. She ended her career as a performer at Coney Island in New York City.
Madam Gustika of the Duckbill tribe
Seen below smoking a pipe with an extended mouthpiece for her large lips during a show in a circus in New York on April 12, 1930.
The Salon Sisters – Ella and Elvira (1880)
The Salon Sisters as pictured on a vintage postcard. Billed as the Two-Headed Woman. The caption at the bottom reads “One girl, two heads, Two girls, one body – Alive!”
Raja with a second face
Victorian-era postcard featuring “The Rajah with a second face”
The Jaramillo Sisters (1802)
Natalie and Aurora Jaramillo from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Miss Rosina (Rose Foster – aka Mermaidia, Miss Tiny)
Miss Rosina toured throughout Europe and despite having no arms, could crochet using her feet. She concluded her shows with the following: “In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I may say that as this is my means of getting a living, you will kindly recommend your friends to see my show.”
Lionel the Lion Faced Boy (Stephan Bibrowski)
Lionel the Lion Faced Boy moved to the United States from Poland in 1901 and began travelling with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. By 1920 he had moved to New York City and became a popular sideshow performer at Coney Island. He was known to be kind, gentle, and extremely intelligent (he spoke five languages).
Josephine Myrtle Corbin (1818)
Josephine had two separate pelvises growing side by side, each featuring one normal-sized leg and one smaller leg. She married Dr. Clinton Bicknell and had five children – reportedly three from her left uterus and two from the right uterus.
General Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton)
Tom Thumb gained fame as a midget performer under circus pioneer P.T. Barnum.
Oddly enough, Granger’s 13 inch waist (1959) was due to her husband, William Granger, who was obsessed with the idea of a wasp-waisted woman.
Ella Harper – Camel Girl (1870)
Ella was born with a rare orthopedic condition that caused her knees to bend backwards. Her preference to walk on all fours resulted in her nickname “Camel Girl”. The back of her pitch card read:
“I am called the camel girl because my knees turn backward. I can walk best on my hands and feet as you see me in the picture. I have traveled considerably in the show business for the past four years and now, this is 1886 and I intend to quit the show business and go to school and fit myself for another occupation.’
True to her pitch card, after 1886 there are no historical references to Ella Harper.
Alice Elizabeth Doherty (1887-1933)
Alice Doherty was billed as the bearded lady after her father recognized the potential to make money from her and began to display her at two years old.
Mirin Dajo, – the Invulnerable Man
Dajo could insert swords through his body without suffering any injuries. Several doctors examined Dajo, even performing X-rays on him with a sword still sticking through his body. In 1948, he claimed that voices compelled him to swallow a steel needle. He did and after complications from the surgery, Dajo died a few days later from an aortic rupture.
Laurello – The Human Owl
Yes, the photo is real. Laurello, “the only man with a revolving head” appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island in 1938.
Isaac Sprague – the Skeleton man
Sprague began losing weight at the age of 12 after feeling ill after swimming. The weight loss continued throughout his life. Doctors described his condition as “extreme progressive muscular atrophy”. He often carried a flask of milk around his neck that he would sip from time to time to keep himself conscious. Two years before his death, Isaac stood 5’6″ and weighed a mere 45 lbs.
Laloo and his parasitic twin
A rare image of young Laloo with parasitic twin (1874 – 1905). Laloo traveled with Barnum & Bailey and Norris & Rowe circuses.
Bill Durks – The Man with Three Eyes
Bill Durks (April 17, 1913 – May 7, 1975), AKA “The Man with Three Eyes” or “The Man with Two Faces,” appeared as though he had two faces on one head. He was born from normal parents. He joined the freak show when he was about forty years old. Durks and his wife, Mildrid Durks, AKA “The Alligator-skinned Woman,” were voted the world’s weirdest couple. Bill’s “third eye” was painted on for his sideshow acts.
Grace McDaniels, the Mule face lady
Grace, pictured below with her son Elmer, was billed as the “Mule-Faced Woman” due to a facial deformity known as Sturge-Weber syndrome.
Fannie Milles – the Ohio Big Foot Girl
Known as “The Ohio Big Foot Girl,” Milles suffered from a disease called Milroy Disease which caused for legs and feet to become gigantic. She was born in Sussex, England and had two sisters. Both other sisters were born normally. She was married to William Brown in 1886. William was born in 1834 and died in 1904. Fannie was only 39 when she died. She had a baby in August of 1887, but it died. Fannie’s feet got to be 17 inches long, until she died in 1899.