Freak Unique

A potted history of fairground oddities

Disability and its exploitation is a sensitive issue. There are those who take the view that disabled “performance” of yesteryear was somehow immoral and even pornographic. Yet it could be argued that disabled performers of any previous era showed extraordinary bravery in making a living from a world openly hostile towards them.

Freaks, prodigies or marvels of nature were essential components of popular entertainment in Europe and America until very recently. What was saleable as far as the freak show was concerned was, of course, physical difference, in a form both marketable and palatable.

The showman was an essential component in this process and it was part of his “art” to take a person with a particular disability and transform them into an attraction. The relationship between the presenter and the exhibit was key in producing the sideshow exhibition.

Naturally, the exhibit could not be seen before a show and the showman did his utmost to market his attractions to a curiosity-seeking public. Showmen constructed a public identity and context for their exhibits, devising narrative and history. The telling of the tale was an essential part of the show and consisted of wonderful and medically impossible reasons to explain to the audience the history of the person they were going to see.

Sideshows were categorized into certain types based on physical descriptions such as dwarfs and midgets, tall men, bearded ladies, fat women, etc. The most popular attractions were oddities with extraordinary talents, who could do supposedly normal things despite their disabilities.

Bearded ladies were a common feature in the nineteenth century and famous names included Leonine the Lion Faced Lady, Alice Bounds the Bear Lady and Annie Jones who appeared with Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. Other bearded attractions would range from Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy and the famous fake show Hairy Mary from Borneo, which was in reality a monkey.

Other nineteenth century exhibits included Patrick O’Brien the Irish Giant, a regular act at St Bartholomew’s Fair and Sam Taylor the Ilkeston Giant. Examples of physical extremities included The Fat Boy of Peckham and Sacco-Homann the famous fasting man and such was the popularity of fat women shows that five alone could be found at Hull Fair, the largest travelling fair in the United Kingdom in the 1890s.

Another popular performer in the early 1900s was Nikolai Kobelkoff, the Human Trunk. Kobelkoff was born in Russia in 1853 without arms and legs. He started to appear in the shows in the 1870s and married Anna Wilfert in 1876, fathering 11 children.

But perhaps the most famous and sought after sideshow attraction were the Siamese, or conjoined, twins. Violet and Daisy Hilton were twins conjoined at the buttocks and were born to a Brighton (England) barmaid in 1908. The bones of their lower spine were joined and they shared a common blood and nervous system. They were sold to Mary Hilton by their mother when they were two weeks old to be trained for life as a sideshow novelty – effectively sold into slavery.

The girls were taken to America and from early in their careers were headlining Vaudeville productions. Their performance would consist of music (they played their own instruments) and dancing. At the peak of their career they were said to be earning 5,000 dollars a week. The twins sued their former guardian in 1931 for their money and freedom.

The presentation of human oddities changed dramatically with P.T. Barnum and his famous attraction, Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton). He created a novelty act featuring Thumb and turned the little man into one of the greatest attractions of the Victorian era. When Barnum arrived in England in 1844 the British showmen were amazed that he was hoping to attract so much money for simply exhibiting a dwarf.

On arrival Barnum changed Statton’s nationality from American to English and bestowed upon him the rank of “Major”. He became an instant attraction and was presented to Queen Victoria on three separate occasions.

Dwarf and midget exhibitors such as Major Mite, Harold Pyott (the English Tom Thumb) and Anita the Living Doll, followed in the example of Charles Stratton and became highly successful sideshow novelties. In England freak exhibits were found in a range of venues including shop fronts, penny gaffs, music halls and travelling fairs.

The effect of Barnum on the English showmen and the public was immense and many of the subsequent tricks like midget weddings, births and comic tricks can be traced directly back to him. The rise of the Lilliputian villages or towns, for example, presented by John Lester and Fred Roper in the 1920s and 1930s were a continuation of Barnum’s Lilliputian Congress of Nations.

Showman Tom Norman, ‘The Silver King’ (named by Barnum on account of the jewelry he wore), saw himself as a bit of an English Barnum. He exhibited his performers in shop fronts, on his travelling fair or acted as an agent for the acts and booked them in venues such as the Panopticon in Glasgow and Nottingham.

Norman started his career as a sideshow exhibitor in the 1870s when he managed Eliza Jenkins the Skeleton Woman, the Balloon Headed Baby and a whole range of freak show attractions. However, as he stated in his autobiography

“you could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show; it was the tale that you told.”

By 1883 Norman had come into contact with Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man, perhaps one of the most famous exhibits of the time. Tom Norman’s career continued after the Elephant Man and over the next ten year he became involved with managing Mary Anne Bevan the World’s Ugliest Woman, John Chambers the Armless Carpenter and Leonine the Lion Faced Lady.

There is little appreciation in today’s society of the lengths to which many freak show performers went in developing an act that would increase their earning capacity. They developed extraordinary talents to overcome physical disabilities and used these talents to make a success of themselves in a world that was mostly hostile towards them.

Freak show performers in the 1890s could command up to £20 a week (the equivalent of £1,300 today) and these huge sums led some without genuine disabilities to get in on the act. There were many instances of people purposely make themselves grossly overweight or extremely thin to try to climb on the bandwagon.

Fat women were in plentiful supply and “Living Skeletons” could be found in various guises at fairs across Europe and America. And then there were the “India Rubber Men”, performers who seemed to have an extra layer of skin and were believed to have been “trained” by their parents for a career on the tober. As soon as the skin was strong enough, it was softened with oils and stretched for hours on end until, over time, it hung in flexible bunches.

Living novelty acts continued on carnivals and midways in America and on the travelling fairs in the United Kingdom for most of the 20th century, only really disappearing in the 1970s. It took that long before a structure was in place to act as a genuine safety net for families who had to cope with disability. Many families affected in this way struggled to make ends meet and took the best road out they could.

This feature was originally written with the help of Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive. It first appeared on the now defunct in 2002.