Freak show

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This article is about an exhibition of biological rarities. For other uses, see Freakshow.
Coney Island and its popular on-going freak show

A freak show is an exhibition of biological rarities, referred to as "freaks of nature". Typical features would be physically unusual humans, such as those uncommonly large or small, those with both male and female secondary sexual characteristics, people with other extraordinary diseases and conditions, and performances that are expected to be shocking to the viewers. Heavily tattooed or pierced people have sometimes been seen in freak shows, as have attention-getting physical performers such as fire-eating and sword-swallowing acts.


In the mid-16th century, freak shows became popular pastimes in England.[1] Deformities began to be treated as objects of interest and entertainment, and the crowds flocked to see them exhibited. A famous early modern example was the exhibition at the court of Charles I of Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, two conjoined brothers born in Genoa, Italy. While Lazarus was handsome and functioning, his parasitic brother just dangled before him in a mass of limbs from his chest. When Lazarus was not exhibiting himself, he covered his brother with his cloak to avoid unnecessary attention.[2]

As well as crazy exhibitions, freak shows were popular in the taverns and fairgrounds where the freaks were often combined with talent displays. For example, in the 18th century, Matthias Buchinger, born without arms or lower legs, entertained crowds with astonishing displays of magic and musical ability, both in England and later, Ireland.[3]

A freak show in Rutland, Vermont in 1941

It was in the 19th century, both in England and the United States, where freak shows finally reached maturity as successful commercially run enterprises.[1]

P. T. Barnum in the United States was a major figure in popularizing the entertainment. However, it was very common (primarily how he conducted business) for Barnum's acts to be schemes and all together not true. Barnum was fully aware of the improper ethics behind his business as he said, "I don't believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them." During the 1840's Barnum began his museum, which had a constantly rotating acts schedule, which included The Fat Lady, midgets, giants, and other people deemed as freaks. The museum drew in about 400,000 visitors a year[4]

In 1842, Barnum introduced a major hoax, a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish, known as the "Feejee" mermaid.[5][6] The mermaid was originally purchased by an Englishman who bought it from Japanese sailors for $6,000. He then rented it to Barnum for $12.50 per week. In order to make money and to make the purchase worth it, Barnum made an entire campaign trying to prove that it was indeed a real mermaid. He distributed about 10,000 pamphlets to get people in the door. Barnum wanted them to pay, but then didn't have much to say when audiences discovered it was not a true mermaid. [7]

Barnum followed that with the exhibition of Charles Stratton, the dwarf "General Tom Thumb" who was then 4 years of age but was stated to be 11. Charles had stopped growing after the first 6 months of his life, at which point he was 25 inches (64 cm) tall and weighed 15 pounds (6.8 kg). He was brought into the freak at merely 4 years old, but was advertised to be 11 years old. With heavy coaching and natural talent, the boy was taught to imitate people from Hercules to Napoleon. By 5, he was drinking wine, and by 7 smoking cigars, for the public's amusement. During 1844–45, Barnum toured with Tom Thumb in Europe and met Queen Victoria, who was amused[8] and saddened by the little man, and the event was a publicity coup.[9] Barnum paid Stratton handsomely - about $150.00 a week. When Stratton retired, he lived in the most esteemed neighborhood of New York, he owned a yacht, and dressed in the nicest clothing he could buy. [10]

In 1860, Barnum introduced the "man-monkey" William Henry Johnson, a microcephalic black dwarf who spoke a mysterious language created by Barnum. In 1862, he discovered the giantess Anna Swan and Commodore Nutt, a new Tom Thumb, with whom Barnum visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. During the Civil War, Barnum's museum drew large audiences seeking diversion from the conflict.

One of his most famous schemes was early in his career. He bought a blind and paralyzed slave for $1,000. He claimed this woman was 160 years old, but she was actually only 80 years old. This lie helped Barnum make a weekly profit of nearly $1,000. This hoax was one of the first, but one of the more convincing. Barnum was a businessman and exploitation brought in business. [11]

Barnum's most popular and highest grossing act was the Tattooed Man, George Contentenus. He claimed to be a Greek-Albanian prince raised in a Turkish Harem. He had 338 tattoos covering his body. Every one was ornate and told a story. His story was that he was on a military expedition but was captured by Natives. Theses savages gave them the choice of either being chopped up into little pieces or receive full body tattoos. This process supposedly took three months and Contentenus was the only hostage who survived. He produced a 23 page book, which detailed every aspect of his experience. This really drew in the crowd. When Contentenus partnered with Barnum, he began to earn more than $1,000 a week. His wealth became so staggering that the New York Times wrote, "He wears very handsome diamond rings and other jewelry, valued altogether at about $3,000 [$71,500 in 2014 dollars] and usually goes armed to protect himself from persons who might attempt to rob him." Though Contentenus was very fortunate, other freaks were not. Upon his death, he donated about half of his life earnings to the other freaks who did not make as much money as he did. [12]

Though Barnum was and still is criticized for exploitation, he paid the performers fairly handsome sums of money. Some of the acts made the equivalent of what some sports star make today. [13]

Barnum's English counterpart was Tom Norman, a renowned Victorian showman, whose traveling exhibitions featured Eliza Jenkins, the "Skeleton Woman", a "Balloon Headed Baby" and a woman who bit off the heads of live rats—the "most gruesome" act Norman claimed to have seen.[14][15] Other acts included fleas, fat ladies, giants, dwarves and retired white seamen, painted black and speaking in an invented language, billed "savage Zulus".[16] He displayed a "family of midgets" which in reality was composed of two men and a borrowed baby.[17] He operated a number of shops in London and Nottingham, and exhibited travelling shows throughout the country.[14]

Most famously, in 1884, Norman came into contact with Joseph Merrick, sometimes called "the Elephant Man", a young man from Leicester who suffered from extreme deformities. Merrick arrived in London and into Norman's care. Norman, initially shocked by Merrick's appearance and reluctant to display him, nonetheless exhibited him at his penny gaff shop at 123 Whitechapel Road, directly across the road from the London Hospital.[14][18] Because of its proximity to the hospital, the shop received medical students and doctors as visitors.[19] One of these was a young surgeon named Frederick Treves who arranged to have Merrick brought to the hospital to be examined.[20] The exhibition of the Elephant Man was reasonably successful, particularly with the added income from a printed pamphlet about Merrick's life and condition.

At this time, however, public opinion about freak shows was starting to change and the display of human novelties was beginning to be viewed as distasteful. After only a few weeks with Norman, the Elephant Man exhibition was shut down by the police, and Norman and Merrick parted ways.[21] Treves later arranged for Merrick to live at the London Hospital until his death in 1890. In Treves' 1923 memoir, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences made Norman infamous as a drunk who cruelly exploited Merrick.[14][15] Norman counteracted these claims in a letter in the World's Fair newspaper that year, as well as his own autobiography.[14] Norman's opinion was that he provided Merrick (and his other exhibits) a way of making a living and remaining independent, but that on entering the London Hospital, Merrick remained a freak on display, only with no control over how or when he was viewed.[22]

These changing attitudes about physical differences led to the decline of the freak show as a form of entertainment towards the end of the 19th century.[citation needed] As previously mysterious anomalies were scientifically explained as genetic mutations or diseases, freaks became the objects of sympathy rather than fear or disdain.[citation needed] Laws were passed restricting freak shows for these reasons. For example, Michigan law forbids the "exhibition [of] any deformed human being or human monstrosity, except as used for scientific purposes".[23] During the start if the 20th Century, movies and television began to satisfy audiences' quench to be entertained. People could see similar types of acts and abnormalities from the comfort of their own homes or a nice theatre. They no longer needed to pay to see freaks. Though movies and television played a big part in the decline of the freak show, the rise of disability rights was the true cause of death. It was finally viewed as wrong to profit off of others' misfortune. The days of manipulation were done. [24] However, in many places freak shows are still popular features. Today, popular network like TLC offer shows that exploit people in the same way that Barnum's museum did. Their shows like "Little People, Big World" and "My 600 Pound Life" look at the oddities of human nature and create audiences for them. This rise in demand only causes for more shows to be produced, such as "The Man with a Half Body" and "I Am the Elephant Man." These modern freaks are also paid handsomely. They bring in on average $8,000 an episode. Though paid well, the freaks of the 19th Century didn't always enjoy the quality of life that this idea led to. Frank Lentini, the three legged man, was quoted saying, "My limb does not bother me as much as the curious, critical gaze."[25]

Historical timeline[edit]

Madam Gustika of the Duckbill tribe smoking a pipe with an extended mouthpiece for her lips during a show in a circus. Her lips were stretched by the insertion of disks of incrementally increasing size, similar to some earrings used today. United States, New York, 12 April 1930.

The exhibition of human oddities has a long history:

Lazarus Colloredo, and his conjoined twin brother, Joannes Baptista, who was attached at Lazarus' sternum, tour Europe.[26]
Peter the Great collected human oddities at the Kunstkammer in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia.[27]
The exhibition of a creature who "was taken in a wook at Guinea; 'tis a female about four feet high in every part like a woman excepting her head which nearly resembles the ape."[28]
Peter the Great's niece Anna Ioannovna had a parade of circus freaks escort Mikhail Alekseyevich Galitzine and his bride Avdotya Ivanovna Buzheninova to a mock palace made of ice.
Sarah Baartman (aka "Hottentot Venus") exhibited in England and France.[29]
Joseph Merrick, exhibited as "The Elephant Man" by Tom Norman in London's East End.[30]
Tod Browning's Pre-Code-era film Freaks tells the story of a traveling freakshow. The use of real freaks in the film provoked public outcries, and the film was relegated to obscurity until its re-release at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.[31] Two stars of the film were Daisy and Violet Hilton conjoined sisters who had been raised being exhibited in Freak Shows.[32]
Albert-Alberta Karas[33] (two siblings, each half man, half woman) exhibits with Bobby Reynolds on sideshow tour.
Jim Rose Circus plays the Lollapalooza Festival, starting a new wave of performers and resurgence of interest in the genre.
Grady Stiles (the lobster boy) is shot in his home in Gibsonton, Florida.[34]
Chicago shock-jock Mancow Muller presented Mancow's Freak Show at the United Center in the middle of 1996, to a crowd of 30,000. The show included Kathy Stiles and her brother Grady III as the Lobster Twins.[35]
Ken Harck's Brothers Grim Sideshow debuted at the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee run included a fat lady and bearded lady Melinda Maxi, as well as self made freaks The Enigma and Katzen. In later years the show has included Half-boy Jesse Stitcher and Jesus "Chuy" Aceves the Mexican Werewolf Boy and Stalking Cat. Brothers Grim toured with the Ozz Fest music festival in 2006,2007 and 2010.[36]
"999 Eyes Freakshow" founded, touting itself as the "last genuine traveling freakshow in the United States." 999 Eyes portrays freaks in a very positive light, insisting that "what is different is beautiful." Freaks include Black Scorpion.[37]
Wayne Schoenfeld bring together several sideshow performers to "The L.A. Circus Congress of Freaks and Exotics," to photograph sideshows folks for "Cirque Du Soleil - Circus of the Sun." In attendance were: Bill Quinn, the halfman; Percilla, the fat lady; Mighty Mike Murga the Mighty Dwarf; Dieguito El Negrito, a wildman; Christopher Landry; fireeaters; sword swallowers, and more.[38][39]

Modern freak shows[edit]

The Black Scorpion performing in 2007

The entertainment appeal of the traditional "freak shows" is arguably echoed in numerous programmes made for television. Extraordinary People on the British television channel Five or BodyShock show the lives of severely disabled or deformed people, and can be seen as the modern equivalent of circus freak shows.[40][41] However, in order to make the shows respectable, the subjects are usually portrayed as heroic and attention is given to their family and friends and the way they help them overcome their disabilities. On The Guardian, Chris Shaw however comments that "one man's freak show is another man's portrayal of heroic triumph over medical adversity" and carries on with "call me prejudiced but I suspect your typical twentysomething watched this show with their jaw on the floor rather than a tear in their eye".[42] A modern example of a traditional traveling freakshow would be The Space Cowboy's 'Mutant Barnyard' museum show or his 'Sideshow Wonderland' human oddity exhibit that he runs with his partner Zoe L'amore. 'Sideshow Wonderland' includes performers like Erik Sprague 'AKA: The LizardMan', Donny Vomit, Heather Holliday, Jason Brott 'AKA: The Penguin Boy', Ruby Rubber Legs, Elaine Davidson, Jeremy Hallam 'AKA: Goliath' (Dwarf strongman).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Strange and Bizarre: The History of Freak Shows". Retrieved 2012-12-17. 
  2. ^ Bondeson, Jan. (2000) The Two-Headed Boy, and Other Medical Marvels ISBN 978-0-8014-3767-0
  3. ^ "Matthew Buchinger". Dublin Penny Journal at the National Library of Ireland. April 27, 1833. Retrieved 2009-06-03. Matthew Buchinger was born in Germany, without hands or feet, on the 3rd of June, 1674. He came over to England, from Hanover, in the retinue of George the first, with whom he expected to have ingratiated himself, by presenting to his Majesty a musical instrument of his own invention, resembling, we believe, a flute, and on which he played with considerable skill. ... 
  4. ^ Zachary Crokectt, "The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows", "Priceonomics", June 28, 2016
  5. ^ Schweitzer, Marlis. "Barnum's Last Laugh? General Tom Thumb's Wedding Cake In The Library Of Congress." Performing Arts Resources 28.(2011): 116. Associates Programs Source Plus. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
  6. ^ Stabile, Susan M. "Still(Ed) Lives." Early American Literature 45.2 (2010): 371-395. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
  7. ^ Zachary Crokectt, "The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows", "Priceonomics", June 28, 2016
  8. ^ Queen Victoria and Tom Thumb
  9. ^ Kunhardt, Kunhardt & Kunhardt 1995, p. 73
  10. ^ Zachary Crokectt, "The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows", "Priceonomics", June 28, 2016
  11. ^ Zachary Crokectt, "The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows", "Priceonomics", June 28, 2016
  12. ^ Zachary Crokectt, "The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows", "Priceonomics", June 28, 2016
  13. ^ Zachary Crokectt, "The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows", "Priceonomics", June 28, 2016
  14. ^ a b c d e Osborne, Peter; Harrison, B. (September 2004), "Merrick, Joseph Carey [Elephant Man] (1862–1890)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/37759, retrieved 24 May 2010 
  15. ^ a b Toulmin, Vanessa (2007), "'It Was Not The Show It Was The Tale That You Told' : The Life And Legend Of Tom Norman, the Silver King", National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield, retrieved 19 May 2010 
  16. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 69
  17. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 70
  18. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 72
  19. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 5
  20. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 77
  21. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 30
  22. ^ Durbach (2009), p. 34
  23. ^ "Michigan Penal Code (Excerpt), Act 328 of 1931: Section 750.347, Deformed human beings; exhibition". 1931-09-18. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  24. ^ Zachary Crokectt, "The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows", "Priceonomics", June 28, 2016
  25. ^ Zachary Crokectt, "The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows", "Priceonomics", June 28, 2016
  26. ^ Armand Marie LeRoi, Mutants, Penguin Books, pp. 53.
  27. ^ "The History of Kunstkammer". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  28. ^ Bogdan, R. (1988). Freak Show. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 25.
  29. ^ "'Hottentot Venus' goes home". BBC. 29 April 2002. Retrieved 13 October 2008. 
  30. ^ Howell, Michael; Ford, Peter (1992). The True History of the Elephant Man (3rd ed.). p. 74. London: Penguin Books
  31. ^ "Missing Link reviews Tod Browning's ''Freaks'' (1932)". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  32. ^ "Bound by Flesh" (2013) directed by Leslie Zemeckis, IFC Films.
  33. ^ Albert-Alberta Karas, photographer unknown, Syracuse University Digital Library, retrieved May 6, 2006.
  34. ^ Grady Stiles, Jr. at the Internet Movie Database
  35. ^ Mancow Muller (with John Calkins) Dad, Dames, Demons & a Dwarf Regan Books 2004 pp. 121, 137-147
  36. ^ "Chicago Reader: Wanna See Something Really Weird?". Chicago, Illinois: Archived from the original on January 25, 2007. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  37. ^ "999 EYES BIO". Archived from the original on 2009-01-26. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  38. ^ "Wayne Schoenfeld". Wayne Schoenfeld. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  39. ^ "credits". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  40. ^ Logged in as click here to log out (2008-02-21). "Last night's TV: Extraordinary People: The Boys Joined at the Head | Media". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  41. ^ Maher, Kevin (2007-03-14). "Last Night's TV - Times Online". London: Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  42. ^ Shaw, Chris (2006-02-20). "The lure of the weird | Media | MediaGuardian". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Martin Monestier, Human Freaks, Encyclopedic Book on the Human Freaks from the Beginning to Today. (In French: Les Monstres humains: Oubliés de Dieu ou chefs-d'œuvres de la nature)
  • Niall Richardson (2010) 'Transgressive Bodies' (Ashgate)

External links[edit]