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Freak show

This article is about an exhibition of biological rarities. For other uses, see [[Freakshow (disambiguation)#REDIRECTmw:Help:Magic words#Other
This page is a soft redirect.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]

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. In 1842, Barnum introduced his first major hoax, a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish, known as the "Feejee" mermaid.[4][5] Barnum followed that with the exhibition of Charles Stratton, the dwarf "General Tom Thumb" who was then four years of age but was stated to be 11. Charles had stopped growing after the first six months of his life, at which point he was 25 inches (64 cm) tall and weighed 15 pounds (6.8 kg). With heavy coaching and natural talent, the boy was taught to imitate people from Hercules to Napoleon. By five, he was drinking wine and by seven smoking cigars for the public's amusement. During 1844–45, Barnum toured with Tom Thumb in Europe and met Queen Victoria, who was amused[6] and saddened by the little man, and the event was a publicity coup.[7]

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.

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.[8][9] Other acts included fleas, fat ladies, giants, dwarves and retired white seamen, painted black and speaking in an invented language, billed "savage Zulus".[10] He displayed a "family of midgets" which in reality was composed of two men and a borrowed baby.[11] He operated a number of shops in London and Nottingham, and exhibited travelling shows throughout the country.[8]

Most famously, in 1884, Norman came into contact with Joseph Merrick 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.[8][12] Because of its proximity to the hospital, the shop received medical students and doctors as visitors.[13] One of these was a young surgeon named Frederick Treves who arranged to have Merrick brought to the hospital to be examined.[14] 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.[15] 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.[8][9] Norman counteracted these claims in a letter in the World's Fair newspaper that year, as well as his own autobiography.[8] 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.[16]

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".[17] However, in many places freak shows are still popular features.

Historical timeline

File:Extended mouthpiece for pipe smoking woman.jpg
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.[18]
Peter the Great collected human oddities at the Kunstkammer in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia.[19]
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."[20]
Sarah Baartman (aka "Hottentot Venus") exhibited in England and France.[21]
Joseph Merrick, exhibited as "The Elephant Man" by Tom Norman in London's East End.[22]
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.[23] Two stars of the film were Daisy and Violet Hilton conjoined sisters who had been raised being exhibited in Freak Shows.[24]
Albert-Alberta Karas[25] (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.[26]
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.[27]
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.[28]
"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.[29]
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 Past." In attendance were: Bill Quinn, the halfman; Percilla, the fat lady; Mighty Mike Murga the Mighty Dwarf; Dieguito El Negrito, a wildman; fireeaters; sword swallowers, and more.[30][31]

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.[32][33] 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".[34]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Strange and Bizarre: The y 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. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Stabile, Susan M. "Still(Ed) Lives." Early American Literature 45.2 (2010): 371-395. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
  6. ^ Queen Victoria and Tom Thumb
  7. ^ Kunhardt, Kunhardt & Kunhardt 1995, p. 73
  8. ^ 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 
  9. ^ 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", <span />National Fairground Archive<span /> (University of Sheffield), retrieved 19 May 2010 
  10. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 69
  11. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 70
  12. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 72
  13. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 5
  14. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 77
  15. ^ Howell & Ford (1992), p. 30
  16. ^ Durbach (2009), p. 34
  17. ^ "Michigan Penal Code (Excerpt), Act 328 of 1931: Section 750.347, Deformed human beings; exhibition". 1931-09-18. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  18. ^ Armand Marie LeRoi, Mutants, Penguin Books, pp. 53.
  19. ^ "The History of Kunstkammer". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  20. ^ Bogdan, R. (1988). Freak Show. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 25.
  21. ^ "'Hottentot Venus' goes home". BBC. 29 April 2002. Retrieved 13 October 2008. 
  22. ^ Howell, Michael; Ford, Peter (1992). The True History of the Elephant Man (3rd ed.). p. 74. London: Penguin Books
  23. ^ "Missing Link reviews Tod Browning's ''Freaks'' (1932)". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  24. ^ "Bound by Flesh" (2013) directed by Leslie Zemeckis, IFC Films.
  25. ^ Albert-Alberta Karas, photographer unknown, Syracuse University Digital Library, retrieved May 6, 2006.
  26. ^ Grady Stiles, Jr. at the Internet Movie Database
  27. ^ Mancow Muller (with John Calkins) Dad, Dames, Demons & a Dwarf Regan Books 2004 pp. 121, 137-147
  28. ^ "Chicago Reader: Wanna See Something Really Weird?". Chicago, Illinois: Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  29. ^ "999 EYES BIO". Archived from the original on 2009-01-26. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  30. ^ "Wayne Schoenfeld". Wayne Schoenfeld. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  31. ^ "credits". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  32. ^ 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. 
  33. ^ Maher, Kevin (2007-03-14). "Last Night's TV - Times Online". London: Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  34. ^ Shaw, Chris (2006-02-20). "The lure of the weird | Media | MediaGuardian". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 

Further reading

  • 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