Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.
The color of one’s creed, neckties, eyes, thoughts, manners, speech, is sure to meet somewhere in time of space with a fatal objection from a mob that hates that particular tone. And the more brilliant, the more unusual the man, the nearer he is to the stake. Stranger always rhymes with danger. The meek prophet, the enchanter in his cave, the indignant artist, the nonconforming little schoolboy, all share in the same sacred danger. And this being so, let us bless them, let us bless the freak; for in the natural evolution of things, the ape would perhaps never have become man had not a freak appeared in the family.
Since the beginning, there have been a few humans who, through some flaw in a gene or other reason, are born outside of the boundaries of “normal”. Mentally and/or physically, they are different from the majority. Some are taller than normal; some are smaller than normal. Some are physically joined to a twin sibling. Some have missing, extra or disproportionate body parts.
A hundred years ago performers from the Barnum and Bailey Circus, led by their own Bearded Lady, Miss Annie Jones, held a meeting in London to call for a less “opprobrious” classification than “freaks.” The euphemism they agreed on, “prodigies,” seems about a century ahead of its time.
They are many origins for the persons or animals regarded as a curiosity or monstrosity. The first distinction that can made is between natural freaks and made freaks. A natural freak would usually refer to a genetic abnormality, while a made freak is a once normal person who experienced or initiated an alteration at some point in life. When 19th and 20th century circus-goers weren’t watching men eat fire or women swing from trapezes, they could ogle at disabled and different people put on display in what were then called ‘freak shows’. Women with hairy faces, men born with no limbs, and a girl who resembled a bird were just some of the individuals being paraded around the seedier circuses in the United States. People were fascinated by the individuals, some of whom earned fame and wealth by performing, and others who endured something like indentured servitude as a result of their misunderstood disabilities. The 1932’s movie ‘Freaks‘, told the story of a group of performers in the United States who band together against a trapeze performer and her lover when the couple attempts to take advantage of them.
Watch the best movie about monsters and monstrosity directed by Tod Browning in 1932: Freaks.
Also, watch American Horror Story: Freak Show (the fourth season of the FX horror anthology television series American Horror Story). The season is mainly set in 1952 Jupiter, Florida, telling the story of one of the last remaining freak shows in the United States, and their struggle for survival and is a homage to the original Freaks.
A freak show is an exhibition of biological rarities, referred to in popular culture 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. 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 appeared to be otherwise ordinary, the underdeveloped body of his brother dangled from his chest. When Lazarus was not exhibiting himself, he covered his brother with his cloak to avoid unnecessary attention.
As well as 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.
It was in the 19th century, both in England and the United States, where freak shows finally reached maturity as successful commercially run enterprises.
During the late 19th century and the early 20th century freak shows were at their height of popularity; the period 1840s through to the 1940s saw the organized for-profit exhibition of people with physical, mental or behavioral rarities. Although not all abnormalities were real, some being alleged, the exploitation for profit was seen as an accepted part of American culture. The attractiveness of freak shows led to the spread of the shows that were commonly seen at amusement parks, circuses, dime museums and vaudeville. The amusement park industry flourished in the United States by the expanding middle class who benefited from short work weeks and a larger income. There was also a shift in American culture which influenced people to see leisure activities as a necessary and beneficial equivalent to working, thus leading to the popularity of the freak show.
The showmen and promoters exhibited all types of freaks. People who appeared non-white or who had a disability were often exhibited as unknown races and cultures. These “unknown” races and disabled whites were advertised as being undiscovered humans to attract viewers. For example, those with microcephaly, a condition linked to mental retardation and characterized by a very small, pointed head and small overall structure, were considered or characterized as “missing links” or as atavistic specimens of an extinct race. Hypopituitary dwarfs who tend to be well proportioned and physically attractive, were advertised as lofty. Achondroplasia dwarfs, whose head and limbs tend to be out of proportion to their trunks, were characterized as exotic mode. Those who were armless, legless, or limbless were also characterized in the exotic mode as animal-people, such as “The Snake-Man”, and “The Seal man”.
There were four ways freak shows were produced and marketed. The first was the oral spiel or lecture. This featured a showman or professor who managed the presentation of the people or “freaks”. The second was a printed advertisement usually using long pamphlets and broadside or newspaper advertisement of the freak show. The third step included costuming, choreography, performance, and space used to display the show, designed to emphasize the things that were considered abnormal about each performer. The final stage was a collectable drawing or photograph that portrayed the group of freaks on stage for viewers to take home. The collectable printed souvenirs were accompanied by recordings of the showmen’s pitch, the lecturer’s yarn, and the professor’s exaggerated accounts of what was witnessed at the show. Exhibits were authenticated by doctors who used medical terms that many could not comprehend but which added an air of authenticity to the proceedings. Freak show culture normalized a specific way of thinking about gender, race, sexual aberrance, ethnicity, and disability.
During the first decade of the twentieth century the popularity of the freak show was starting to dwindle. In their prime, freak shows had been the main attraction of the midway, but by 1940 they were starting to lose their audience, with credible people turning their backs on the show. In the nineteenth century science supported and legitimized the growth of freak shows, but by the twentieth century, the medicalization of human abnormalities contributed to the end of the exhibits’ mystery and appeal.
Freak shows were viewed as a normal part of American culture in the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The shows were viewed as a valuable form of amusement for middle-class people and were quite profitable for the showmen. Some scholars[who?] have argued that freak shows were also beneficial for people with disabilities, giving them jobs and a steady income, rather than being institutionalized for their disabilities. Other scholars have argued that the showmen and managers exploited freak show performers’ disabilities just for profit.
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. As previously mysterious anomalies were scientifically explained as genetic mutations or diseases, freaks became the objects of sympathy rather than fear or disdain. 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”. During the start of the 20th Century, movies and television began to satisfy audiences’ thirst to be entertained. People could see similar types of acts and abnormalities from the comfort of their own homes or a nice theater, 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 from others’ misfortune: the days of manipulation were done. However, in many places freak shows are still popular features. Today, popular networks 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 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, bringing 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.”
Although freak shows were viewed as a place for entertainment, they were also a place of employment for those who could advertise, manage, and perform in its attractions. In an era before there was welfare or worker’s compensation, severely disabled people often found that placing themselves on exhibition was their only choice and opportunity for making a living. Despite current values of the wrongness of exploitation of those with disabilities, during the nineteenth century performing in an organized freak show was a relatively respectable way to earn a living. Many freak show performers were lucky and gifted enough to earn a livelihood and have a good life through exhibitions, some becoming celebrities, commanding high salaries and earning far more than acrobats, novelty performers, and actors. The salaries of dime museum freaks usually varied from twenty-five to five hundred dollars a week, making a lot more money than lecture-room variety performers. Freak shows provided more independence to some disabled people than today’s affirmative action programs. Freaks were seen to have profitable traits, with an opportunity to become celebrities obtaining fame and fortune. At the height of freak shows’ popularity, they were the only job for dwarves.
Many scholars have argued that freak show performers were being exploited by the showmen and managers for profit because of their disabilities. Many freaks were paid generously but had to deal with museum managers who were often insensitive about the performers’ schedules, working them long hours just to make a profit. This was particularly hard for top performers since the more shows these freaks were in, the more tickets were sold. A lot of entertainers were abused by small-time museum operators, kept to grueling schedules, and given only a small percentage of their total earnings. Individual exhibits were hired for about one to six weeks by dime museums. The average performer had a schedule that included ten to fifteen shows a day and was shuttled back and forth week after week from one museum to another. When a popular freak show performer came to a dime museum in New York he was overworked and exploited to make the museum money. For example: Fedor Jeftichew, (known as “Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy”) appeared at the Globe Museum in New York, his manager arranged to have him perform twenty-three shows during a twelve to fourteen hour day.
Modern freak shows
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. To cater to current cultural expectations of disability narratives, 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”.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; and Jeremy Hallam ‘AKA: Goliath’ (Dwarf strongman).
In popular culture
Freak shows are a common subject in Southern Gothic literature, including stories such as Flannery O’Connor’s “A Temple Of The Holy Ghost,” Eudora Welty’s “Petrified Man” and “Keela the Outcast Indian Maiden,” Truman Capote’s “A Tree of Night,” and Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
The musical Side Show centers around Daisy and Violet Hilton and their lives as conjoined twins on exhibition.
American Horror Story: Freak Show also focuses on freak shows. Some of its characters are played by disabled people, rather than all of the disabilities being created through makeup or effects. However, an article in The Guardian criticized the show, saying it perpetuated the term “freak” and the negative view of disability associated with it.
In J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World creative universe, the Circus Arcanus is a freak show for individuals with rare magical conditions and deformities, as well as a variety of magical animal species and hominids. The characters Nagini and Credence Barebone worked here during the 1920s, one, a Maledictus (a woman with a magical blood disease that leads to the turning of that individual into an animal for the rest of their life,) and the other, an Obscurial (a young person who develops a magical parasite that sometimes envelops and controls their body, caused via the suppression of magical powers).
The historical traditions of freak shows and exhibitions date back to the reign of England’s Elizabeth I. As early as the 16th century, severe physical deformities and abnormalities were no longer deemed as bad omens or evidence of evil spirits residing within the person. Those with unusual physical characteristics became a public curiosity and were shuttled throughout Europe under the guidance of sideshow managers. While it is unknown whether Lazarus Colloredo employed a performance manager or operated under his own authority when touring Europe, many so-called “freaks” readily agreed to the notion of working under a manager and splitting the profits. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that freak shows and novelty acts caught the imagination of a larger viewing public willing to pay for the opportunity to witness human medical oddities. It became a booming business, as people with physical abnormalities grew into a highly profitable market, specifically in England and the United States.
A Brief Description of Sideshows
Sideshows, or freak shows as they are sometimes referred to, contained various forms of entertainment in one evening. Ten in One shows displayed 10 freaks on a platform in front of an audience, as people slowly walked past them. Every now and then, a magician would be thrown into the mix to give the crowd a brief respite from some of the more unsettling abnormalities they were witnessing. However, not all performers were “natural” freaks born with physical deformities. Some were performance artists who had unusual talents, such as fire eating, sword swallowing or full-body tattoos.
Some shows were regarded as inappropriate for women and children and were categorized as “men only” performances. These often included the display of exotic or unnatural objects, such as “pickled punks” which were abnormal fetuses preserved in glass jars. The Piccadilly Egyptian Hall, for example, was home to British naturalist and antiquarian William Bullock’s array of curiosities from around the world, which were on display in the early-19th century.
A Growing Phenomenon
In 1844, American circus pioneer and entertainment business manager P.T. Barnum traveled to England with his latest sensation, Tom Thumb. Born Charles Stratton, Tom Thumb was Barnum’s distant cousin and most recent success story. Barnum trained Stratton in the arts, teaching the young boy how to sing, dance and impersonate famous historical figures. Once Stratton was properly groomed for a life in the public eye, Barnum gave him the stage name of General 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. Barnum believed that, in making Tom Thumb older than he actually was, it would make his short stature seem all the more remarkable. In order to draw curiosity seekers in London, Barnum also changed Stratton’s nationality from American to English to bring in larger crowds of people hoping to catch a glimpse of a “local” sideshow performer. Tom Thumb was eventually presented to Queen Victoria on two occasions, as she was, herself, a fan of sideshows.
Small American freak shows first started to spring up in 1829, around the time of the arrival of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. As American sideshows began hitting its stride in the 1840s, English versions gained similar popularity. The Victorian era is often viewed as the heyday of the freak show. It was an age of scientific and medical advancements and, consequently, the public was naturally curious about unexplained oddities. Freak shows were staged at both entertainment and scientific venues, drawing everyone from young children to seasoned medical professionals.
With the growth of industrialization in large English cities came rapid imperial expansion and the discovery of “exotic” people. Families left the countryside for the city, seeking job opportunities brought about by the countless mills and workhouses that were springing up throughout the nation. Men, women and children were all put to work, making London the greatest and most profitable industrial city in Europe.
As a result of those steady, albeit labor-intensive, hours on the job, people sought new forms of entertainment, to take their minds off their hardships and financial woes. For a small fee, they could enter a world of medical wonders and human oddities, unlike anything they’d ever seen. In an age where scientific reasoning started overshadowing traditional religious values and medicinal advancements claimed stories of miraculous and life-saving surgeries, freak shows introduced the average layman to medicine and science, while enthralling them with tales of exotic locales and mysterious people discovered via colonial expansion.
One famous incident involved Hoo Loo, a Chinese man with a 56-pound tumor on his scrotum. Although he was not publicly displayed as a freak, he was brought to London for a medical procedure. When people got word of Hoo Loo’s arrival, crowds swarmed to the operating theater in Guy’s Hospital to witness the medical wonder. Although Hoo Loo died on the operating table after having bled to death, his story swept through England. Historian Meegan Kennedy argues in her essay, “Poor Hoo Loo: Sentiment, Stoicism and the Grotesque in British Imperial Medicine”, that as a medical oddity, Hoo Loo came to symbolize both the limits of Western medicine while also representing the “recovery” or acceptance of the patient (or freak) through empathy from a large audience. He embodied the contrast of both the positive and negative aspects of drawing attention due to a severe deformity. A man like Hoo Loo provoked discussion among those who perhaps knew very little about medicine, science or “exotic” Oriental ideologies in understanding such severe medical anomalies. Although not a sideshow performer, Hoo Loo’s medical predicament was just the sort of “freakery” gaining popularity by the mid-19th century.
The Role of the Showman
The showman was an essential component to the freak show. His talent was in the ability to recruit a person with an unusual disfigurement, disability or talent and use them as an attraction. A showman would often have an alter ego; a stage persona that became a public identity that his audience could recognize. Showmen rarely allowed their freaks to be seen before the show in order to preserve the element of shock and surprise.
The larger-than-life personalities of Victorian-era showmen became an art form in and of itself, as they created narrative histories for each of their freaks in order to create drama and heighten the excitement in the audience. As England’s Tom “The Silver King” Norman later wrote in his memoir, The Penny Showman, “it was not the show, it was the tale that you told”.
The average showman was also often susceptible to the spreading of the occasional lie in order to swindle a little extra cash from the crowd. P.T. Barnum was a shrewd businessman and was not above deception in an attempt to amass large crowds. One of his few faux creations was the Fiji Mermaid, which he debuted in 1842, prior to traveling to England with Tom Thumb. Barnum commissioned a colleague to obtain the skull of a monkey and attach it to the skeletal tail of a large fish.
Tom Norman was the English counterpart to Barnum, picking up where the American showman left off, as Barnum briefly struggled through debts incurred during the 1850s after a handful of poor business ventures. Raconteur-extraordinaire, Norman earned his nickname, “The Silver King” from Barnum himself when the two men met in 1882, after one of Norman’s shows at the Royal Agricultural Hall. Barnum introduced himself and noticed a heavy and expensive-looking silver watch hanging from Norman’s pocket and called him “silver king” and the name stuck.
Like most other showmen, Norman relied on the kindness of strangers in order to house his exhibits. It was common practice for poor tradesmen to rent out their stores for the display of oddities. Norman rented the shops of small businesses for a few days, erecting a small stage or a large curtain inside. In the 1870s, he had debuted Eliza Jenkins, the Human Skeleton, and Balloon-Headed Baby, among others. He traveled with them from Nottingham to Glasgow, renting tiny trade shops along the way. By the early 1880s, around the time of his meeting with Barnum, Norman’s traveling freak show was a surefire hit wherever it went. By the latter half of the 19th century, London’s West End appeared to be a revolving door of exhibitions featuring freaks and novelty acts. It became a permanent fixture at entertainment venues around the city. By 1883, Norman had acquired two of his greatest freak show sensations: Mary Anne Bevan, the World’s Ugliest Woman, and Joseph Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man.
Sideshows were often categorized each night, depending on the entertainment for the evening, whether it was dwarfs, tall men or bearded ladies. It was also com- mon to have specific exhibits set aside solely for women and children. Norman would resort to this tactic on occasion, advertising certain shows as family-friendly and others as geared more towards adults. However, a sideshow exhibit, such as that of the Elephant Man, would have been open to all ages due to his notoriety.
In an attempt to avoid any damage to the reputation of their exhibits, showmen often resisted having doctors visit their performers for fear that a diagnosis of the freak’s ailment or a classification of their deformity would ruin the appeal of the show. Their conditions would appear less mysterious or exotic if given a medical definition and the public would lose interest. Contrary to popular belief, freaks were rarely mistreated by the showmen who controlled their schedules. When Dr. Frederick Treves attacked Norman in his 1923 memoir, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, Norman retaliated. Even though, by that time, it had been years since the death of Joseph Merrick, Norman had no intention of allowing Treves to portray him as the villain in the short life of the Elephant Man. Treves had accused Norman of abusing and mistreating Merrick, forcing him to display his body against his own free will. In February 1923, Norman published a response in the World’s Fair and stated that, “the big majority of showmen are in the habit of treating their novelties as human beings, and in a large number of cases as one of their own, and not like beasts”. Barnum likely would have approved of Norman’s published rebuttal, having built a strong rapport with the majority of his freaks in the US, specifically with regards to his enduring friend- ship with Tom Thumb.
“Perhaps she would get me, after all!/If the links should break, I might feel small,/Young as I was, and strong and tall,/And blest with a human shape,/To see myself foil’d in that lonely place/By a desperate brute with a monstrous face,/And hugg’d to death in the foul embrace/Of a loathly angry ape”. ~Arthur Munby’s “Pastrana”~
When discussing freaks shows in England, it is impossible not to mention its connection with British ideology and imperial imagery. The narrator of Arthur Munby’s poem, Pastrana, feels his masculinity is under threat after he first lays eyes on Julia Pastrana, one of the Victorian eras most well-known freaks. He feels small in comparison to a human being who more resembles an ape than she does a woman. It illustrates the argument historians make about the role of the freak in 19th-century England. In a time of social upheaval and global expansion, such an extraordinarily abnormal figure as Pastrana would have helped drive home to the public what it meant to be British, as opposed to an exotic, foreign “other”. The shows came to represent a national identity, reinforcing the notion of what makes one quintessentially British and what does not. Julia Pastrana was a Mexican-born woman suffering from hypertrichosis, a disease that results in the person being covered from head to toe in long, thick hair. Other indicators often included exaggerated facial features, including a large nose and thick lips. She toured Europe in the 1840s and 1850s under the guidance of Theodor Lent, the man who would eventually become her husband. However, Pastrana died shortly after giving birth to a stillborn baby who had similar features to her own. Therefore, instead of abandoning the tour, Lent had his wife and child mummified. Even in death, Pastrana was destined for a life in the eye of the public.
Despite the sad circumstances surrounding Pastrana’s life, there were many freaks that were able to separate their stage persona from their own identity and genuinely enjoyed their newfound fame. Far from considering themselves exploited, these freaks became self-consciously complex in their stage presentations. Tom Thumb, Barnum’s tiny sensation, is an example of one who made his stage persona a caricature, completely separate from his identity as Charles Stratton, a man who eventually got married and had children of his own. Like an actor, Stratton was able to shed his guise as Tom Thumb at the end of each day.
Krao Farini, a Burmese girl who had been performing since the age of six, worked for Barnum from the 1880s until her death in 1926. She was billed as “The Missing Link”, a play on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, thus integrating science and Darwinism with entertainment. Farini had simian-like qualities, including flexible limbs and a hairy body. Despite her youth, she often performed scantily clad and audience members were allowed to reach out and touch her at the end of each show. This outrageous performance contrasted with her much more reserved personality, thus separating her personal identity from that of her shocking role as the Missing Link in entertainment venues.
Freaks were often perceived as apprehensive, docile and unhappy with their lot in life. In many cases during the Victorian era, nothing could be further from the truth. Many defended themselves against their managers, talking back and demanding raises. As early as 1851, it had become popular to sell trading cards of popular freaks throughout England and the US. Profits from these images went straight into the pockets of the performers themselves, as opposed to the showmen. Isaac W. Sprague, the American Human Skeleton, had one of the most successful trading cards. At 5’6”, Sprague weighed only 43 pounds. As he toured with Barnum in the 1860s, he made a good sum of money off of the sale returns from the card. Some of the more willing performers, like Sprague, even penned their own biographies to be published in freak show pamphlets.
Although showmen and freaks would often split the profits from ticket sales and money made off of pamphlets or cards, the client was better off in the end. While the showmen had to pay for store rentals, heating and lighting, profits given to the sideshow performers went straight into their hands. It was not uncommon for freaks to be better off, in terms of wealth, than the majority of the public who came to see them perform.
It was no small wonder that both showmen and performers, alike, argued that it was better if the freaks were in public, displaying their abnormalities for profit, rather than struggling to live among everyday people without a job and in complete isolation.
The Decline of the Freak Show
By the 1890s, the popularity of freak shows started to dwindle. A variety of factors played a pivotal role in its almost complete disappearance by the 1950s.
British social historian and journalist, Henry Mayhew, had always been opposed to the very existence of both the popular sideshows and “penny gaffs” (considered a bawdy type of entertainment). As early as 1861, in his study, London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew wrote vehemently against them. He rejected the notion of such shows as a valuable form of entertainment, dismissing them as nothing more than moral corruption and human degradation. He wrote that, “instead of being a means for illustrating a moral precept, it turned into a platform to teach the cruelest debauchery”. In Mayhew’s opinion, the “men who preside over these infamous places know too well the failings of their audience”.
Although Mayhew voiced his aversion towards “low forms” of entertainment in the 1860s, it wasn’t for another 30 years before the rest of the public started to adapt to his way of thinking. In the early years of the 20th century, a rise in disability rights inspired people to turn against sideshows and what they deemed as exploitation parading as entertainment. With railways, steamships and more access for people to travel, the idea of the foreign and exotic “other” started to lose its appeal as people left England or the US to explore the world for themselves.
With advances in medicine, freaks were faced with actual diagnoses. As a result, sideshows began losing their appeal as their physical or medical conditions were no longer thought of as miraculous or entirely unique. Some even stayed away from sideshows for fear of catching the freaks’ “diseases”.
The First World War glorified its returning heroes, while sideshow performers were ignored as they stayed at home, performing for reduced price rates, while men and women fought on the front. By the 1930s, sideshows were deemed as lacking in dignity and the value of novelty acts was wearing thin. Tod Browning’s 1932 American film, Freaks, was universally reviled upon release. Featuring real-life freaks, such as the limbless Prince Randian, the legless Johnny Eck and conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, the plot revolved around a woman who marries a midget sideshow performer named, Hans (played by Harry Earles). Due to the controversy surrounding the film, many scenes were heavily edited and, as a result, have been lost over time. However, Freaks is now considered a cult classic and is still screened around North America at cult film festivals.
Many nations took to banning sideshows, including Germany in 1937. With the rise of television, the entertainment provided by freak shows was all but lost. More and more people shunned this “low brow” form of entertainment in favor of staying at home and watching television in the comfort of their own home.
Unable to land proper jobs and unwilling to fade quietly into the background without any money, freaks took to performing in traveling carnivals and museums for small amounts of cash.
Coney Island in New York remains one of the few providers of sideshow entertainment left in the world. Although well past its heyday during the early-20th century, Coney Island remains a staple of the type of old-fashioned freak shows that were once so popular. Since 1983, “Sideshows by the Seashore” has been a popular tourist attraction. It also boasts the last true Ten in One freak show in the world.
If you want to know more, read
The Sad Stories Of The Ringling Brothers’ “Freak Show” Acts
History of Freak Shows
Every Single Human Attraction From P.T. Barnum’s Freak Show
25 Photos Of “Freak Shows” That Are Thankfully A Thing Of The Past
Freaks, Geeks and Human Oddities
Shocked and Amazed – periodical devoted to sideshow and variety entertainment
Freaks and prodigies – Section of Monstrous.Com dedicated to freaks and prodigies
Sideshow World – “Preserving the past… promoting the future”
Congress of Oddities: James G. Prodigies – freak show ephemera from the collection of artist James G Mundie
Collection Guide to Human curiosity prints, playbills, broadsides and other printed material, 1695-1937 at Houghton Library, Harvard University