Freedom or Exploitation?
Ever since I was a little girl I was fascinated and terrified by the concept of the Sideshow. I wanted the mermaid girl to be real. I wanted to see the bearded lady. I wanted to meet Lionel the Lion Boy.
Freak shows, or side shows were popular entertainment throughout the Victorian Era. Although some side shows survived into the 1960s, very few are in existence today. Coney Island has the longest running side show and the only existing 10 in 1 show (10 attractions in one show.)
In the so-called Golden Age of Freak Shows, for many “freaks” it was their home, a place where they were not only accepted, but celebrated and made a very good living.
In the book, American Sideshow by Marc Hartman, he quotes Dick Best, promoter of oddities for Royal American and Ringling Brothers Shows, “An alligator girl can’t be a waitress, or a nurse, or a babysitter. How many job opportunities are there for Siamese Twins? How many personal managers are looking for monkey-faced boys? Would you climb into a taxi driven by a dwarf with a pointed head, or a guy nine feet tall?”
For many freaks, the choice was join the freak show and get paid to have people gawk at you, which they were going to do anyway, or be shunned by society living in poverty or worse yet, institutionalized.
Coney Island Showman Bobby Reynolds still occasionally comes out of "retirement" every year or so to run shows all over the world, promoting oddities such as two-headed babies, an all frog band, and giant rat, defends the freaks, Freak Shows and Sideshows. “Today, if you are a mutation of sorts, the only thrill you get out of life is opening the mailbox and getting a check from the government. Or they put you in an institution. When we had them out people would say, ‘oh, you took advantage of those people!’ We didn’t take advantage of those people. They were stars! They were somebody. They enjoyed themselves.”
In fact, it was “normal” people who were offended and the beginnings of political correctness in the late 1960s and early 1970s that brought about the end of the side show. Harvey Boswell, a North Carolina side show operator and paraplegic defended the practice, “I am stared at and it doesn’t bother me. Nor does it the freaks when they are stared at on the way to the bank to deposit $100, $150, $250 and even $500 per week that some of the sensational human oddities receive for their showing in sideshows.”
Side show freaks were often touted by for their normal abilities despite their deformities, such as the armless man who could light cigarettes and shoot a rifle accurately with his feet. They developed healthy relationships, got married and had perfectly normal children.
During the Golden Age of Freak Shows, from 1840 to the early 20th century, there were naturally-born freaks who acquired much fame and interest. These are the stories of successful men and women, who were born freaks, but became stars.
John Merrick - The Elephant Man
The Elephant Man
Probably, the most famous, was John Merrick the Elephant Man. Merrick was born in 1862. At age 5 he developed a disorder which caused his limbs to grow extremely large and misshaped. In 1884 he joined a side show attraction; reportedly he was well-treated and earned a nice living. A doctor saw him in one such show and made arrangements for Merrick to live a better life. Merrick died at age 27 from suffocation due to his condition. Doctors now, believe he suffered from Proteus Syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by bone and skin malformations and a variety of other symptoms. The malformations result from tissue overgrowth, which can affect the bones, skin, or any other part of the body. The underlying cause of Proteus syndrome is unclear, but the condition is present from birth.
The Half Lady
The Beautiful Half Woman
Mademoiselle Gabriella – the Half Lady, was born in Basle, Switzerland in 1884. She had a perfectly formed upper body that ended smoothly below her waist. She was quite attractive and joined the circus at the Paris Exposition in 1900. She travelled with the Ringling Brothers Circus and appeared at Coney Island’s Dreamland Show. She married at least twice.
The Bearded Lady
The Bearded Lady of Geneva
Billed as Madame Clofullia, she was born Josephine Boisdechene in Switzerland. She was born hairy and had a beard by the time she was 8-years old. She began touring Europe at 14 accompanied by her father and an agent. Later she was accompanied only by her father. While in Paris, she met Fortune Clofullia, a painter and eventually married him. Freak shows were popular with nobility and the ruler of France was no different. Perhaps this knowledge is what encouraged her to fashion her beard in the style of Napoleon III. In return he gave her a large diamond.
Lionel, the Lion-Faced Boy
Instead of drawing on his bestiality, Lionel, the Lion-Faced Boy dressed in the best clothes and demonstrated his ability to speak five languages. He was literate and charming. Lionel, was born Stephan Bibrowsky in Poland in 1890, to normal parents, much like the majority of human oddities. He was born with the hypertrichosis, a rare genetic disease that covers the entire body with a thick coat of fur. This condition is so rare only 50 cases have been reported since the Middle Ages.
The Camel Girl
Ella Harper, the Camel Girl
Ella Harper had a deformity that caused her knees to bend backwards. During her time, photography was popular and printing process was cheap enough that freaks could have cards printed with their images and on the backside they would provide information promoting themselves. Ella had inscribed her card, “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.”
General Tom Thumb
P. T. Barnum’s most successful performer was the diminutive Col. Tom Thumb. Born Charles Sherwood Stratton in 1838, Stratton was a normal baby weighing in 9 pounds, 2ounces. By his first birthday it was evident to his parents that he had simply stopped growing. Barnum, who some people say was a distant relative of the Strattons heard about the boy and negotiated with them to exhibit Stratton on a trial basis in Barnum’s own NY museum. The family was paid a princely sum of 3 bucks a week plus room, board and travel expenses for Stratton and his mother. Barnum, ever the showman concocted an elaborate backstory, trained Stratton in courtly etiquette and billed him as Gen. Tom Thumb, of nonspecific European origins. Stratton could sing, dance, act, do celebrity impersonations and recite of dozens of sassy witticisms. Stratton excelled at mimicry, imitating a Scottish highlander, Hercules, Cupid and Napoleon, among others. The public adored him. Around 5 years of age Barnum took Stratton to Europe. Stratton appeared twice before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. One historian notes that on one of these occasions he was attacked by her pet poodle, which dwarfed him. He was an international sensation and everywhere he went a throng of fans mobbed his tiny carriage
Barnum had great affection and friendship for Stratton, even after Stratton left Barnum’s show. Stratton had met and fell in love with one of Barnum’s other diminutive performers, the delicate, dark haired doll, Lavinia Warren, Barnum threw them a lavish wedding. The wedding was held a the Grace Episcopal Church on Feb. 10, 1863, The reception was held at the Metropolitan Hotel where the couple stood atop a grand piano in New York City’s Metropolitan Hotel. More than 2,000 guests were in attendance to congratulate the new bride and groom. George Washington Morrison “Commodore” Nut, another little person performer for Barnum was the best man. Lavinia's even smaller sister, Minnie Warren was the maid of honor. Pres. Abraham Lincoln received the couple at the White House after the wedding. Stratton and his wife toured together in Europe as well as Japan.
Barnum made Stratton a very wealthy man. The Strattons were part of New York’s wealthy socialite society.
Stratton retired from public performance in 1878. Two major tragedies sent the Strattons into retreating from the public eye. First Lavinia’s younger sister died while giving birth to a full size baby. This event sent Charles and Lavinia into a deep depression. Trying to pull is old friend out of depression Barnum convinced Stratton to do one more tour. While in Milwaukee in 1883, a terrible fire broke out at the hotel. Seventy-one people were killed. Sylvester Bleeker, their manager managed to save them, but Mrs. Bleeker died after jumping out a high window. Stratton never got over it and died of a stroke while Lavinia was on tour. Barnum buried Stratton in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Stratton’s hometown. Barnum commissioned a life-size statue and placed it at the grave as a marker. When Lavinia died she was buried next to him with a marker bearing only the dismissive signifier of “his wife.”
In 1959 vandals destroyed the statue. The Barnum Festival Society and Mountain Grove Cemetery Association raised funds by public subscription to have it restored.
To be continued...
These are but a few of the so-called freaks who found fame, fortune and happiness in the side-shows of America. Unfortunately, not all freaks were happy and well treated. There was a darker, uglier side to the side show. That is the subject of Part II.
- Freaks, Human Oddities, Freak Shows and Side Shows: Part II - Freak Shows’ Dark Side
Part II of the the hub Freaks, Human Oddities, Freak Shows and Side Shows examines the darker side of freak shows.
Tess45 (author) from South Carolina on February 14, 2017:
I appreciate you taking the time to read it and for your kind comment.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on February 09, 2017:
Yes, shame they were known as freaks back then. Thankfully times have changed. Really interesting reading your hub.