Freak Shows of the 1800s
Updated: May 8
Victorians Loved Spectacle and Human Deformity Became Entertainment
Victorians loved spectacle. The advent of photography and the career of history's greatest champion of spectacle, P.T. Barnum, provided a spectacular showcase of oddities, "freaks," and shocking images and performances. A favorite Victorian pastime was viewing such images in the privacy of their parlors on "magic lanterns," stereopticons and stereoscopes that projected amazing images in almost three-dimensional glory. Victorians especially loved images of Native Americans, pioneers, and frontier life, glorious scenery, and "freak" shows and circuses. The last half of the 19th century saw an insatiable market for photographic images produced for stereopticons, stereoscopes, and also postcards.
Although "freak" shows began to show up as entertainment in the mid-1500s in England, they reached their apex of popularity in the United States beginning around 1850 to the early 1900s. It was also during this era that traveling circuses and freak shows became immensely popular, even in the frontier. (If you haven't seen it yet, watch the Coen brothers' "Meal Ticket" a haunting short film about a small traveling frontier freak show, part of their Oscar-nominated Western anthology, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.")
Freak shows featured largely human beings born with stunning abnormalities. "Siamese" twins born fused together were common. Humans with extra limbs, no limbs or mangled limbs were also common attractions, as well as dwarves and giants, humans with excessive hair, malformed heads, or elephantiasis. Some people purposely altered their appearance with tattoos, strange prostheses, hair extensions, or other theatrical flourishes to make them look deformed. Then there were also completely concocted "monsters" made from animal or human skeletons or mummified bodies fused together with huge fish and other animal parts!
Freak shows embodied many ironies, not the least of which was the livelihood of the "freaks" who starred in the shows. Most were human beings who'd had the misfortune of being born with spectacular deformities that often rendered them unable to function in society or hold a job. Certainly, the culture of the times shunned and savaged such humans, unless exhibited as "entertainment." If a "freak" did not have a loved one wiling to care for them throughout their lives shut up in a private home, their fate was most often being imprisoned in an asylum for the insane or the infirm, in unimaginably horrific conditions. Often a job with a circus or freak show was their only salvation and they were able to live in a welcoming community of similarly ostracized people with abnormalities. Many actually married and had children and functioned with a modicum of normalcy, despite making their living performing for audiences as "freaks." Their stories embody the magnificent resiliency of the human spirit.
PHOTOS: (1) Fannie Mills was billed as "The Ohio Big Foot Girl." She suffered from Milroy disease, which caused her legs and feet to become gigantic. 1890 Charles Eisenmann Collection, Syracuse University Library.
2) John Merrick, immortalized in the 1980 David Lynch movie, The Elephant Man, chronicling his early life as an orphan in a workhouse, then in a freak show before a British doctor discovers him and takes him under his wing. Merrick is introduced into the upper class who discover he is a well-educated and articulate "gentle soul." Merrick died at age 27 of asphyxiation when he tried to sleep lying down. Merrick was originally diagnosed with elephantiasis, a form of neurofibromatosis. But, later in 1986, medical research diagnosed him with Proteus syndrome in which bones, skin, tissues, and organs enlarge erraticall
(3) Born into slavery, conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy would later be sold to the circus and travel the world for 30 years as a singing novelty act.
(4) Prince Randian was born in British Guyana in 1871 with no limbs, the child of Indian slaves. He appeared in small freak and vaudeville shows in Guyana when he was discovered by P.T Barnum and began a long 45-year career, billed as "The Human Torso," "The Human Caterpillar," and "The Human Worm," performing amazing feats such as shaving, painting, writing, rolling a cigarette, and unlocking. He was brilliant, eloquent, with a great sense of humor, and could speak four languages: Hindi, English, French, and German. He apparently was very adept at using his ONLY appendage; he married and had four children!
(5) Ella Harper was born with a very rare orthopedic condition that caused her knees to bend backward. She starred as the "Camel Girl" and received an immense $200 per week salary (for the 1870s and 1880s) as the star of a touring freak show. 1882 Charles Eisenmann Collection, Syracuse University Library.
(6) Fedor Jeftichew was a Russian immigrant performer whose stage name was "Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy." He became a star performer in P.T. Barnum's Show. Years later, he was an influence on the physical characteristics of Chewbacca in Star Wars. 1888 Fred Park Swasey photograph.
7) Frank Lentini was born with a parasitic twin in which a third leg and multiple penises were attached. When his family moved to the United States from Italy, Lentini was billed as "The Great Lentini," when he joined the Ringling Brothers Circus.
(8) Pasqual Pinon traveled with the Sells-Floto Circus in the early 1900s as The Two-Headed Mexican. He was working on a Texas railroad when he was discovered by the Sells-Floto circus promoter. Pinon was born with a large cyst on his forehead. The promoter (quickly realizing that two heads were better than one!) had a wax face crafted to affix on the growth. Pinon toured for several years with the circus. Reportedly, the circus owner eventually paid for the growth to be removed and Pinon returned to Texas to live a normal life. There is a condition in which a human can have two heads, called "craniopagus parasiticus." It is a form of conjoined twins in which one head is usually upside down on top of the other.
(9) The Feejee Mermaid, was one of P.T. Barnum's first major hoax, created in 1842 of a monkey mummy sewn to the tail of a fish, probably a monster sturgeon. The specimen had been originally sold to an Englishman by Japanese sailors in 1822. It was displayed in London for about 20 years, when Barnum discovered it. (Presumably, it had stop smelling by then!)
(10) George Contentenus was billed as "America's first tattood circus act." His 338 tattoos covered every inch of his body except his nose and the soles of his feet. His tattoos were ornate and exceedingly artistic, depicting elephants, dragons, horses, lions and tigers, bears, panthers, gazelles, birds, snakes, and other fantastical flora and fauna. Contentenus claimed an equally fantastical origin: an Albanian prince raised in a Turkish harem, he told his story of being on a military expedition in Burma when he was captured and given a choice between death or having his body completely tattood! He even published a book detailing his adventures.
"Freak Shows of the 1800s" was originally posted June 15, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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