…with “freaks” in quotations because as we know today, these performers were some of the most fascinating and extraordinary people to walk the Earth, certainly not the “freaks” they were billed to be. But of course back in the mid 19th to mid 20th century, when circus and carnival freak shows were popular, the term “freak” seemed very fitting, especially with the elaborate and exaggerated stories each exhibition was promoted with. However today we know better, that many of these performers were normal functioning everyday people, many of them educated, intelligent, and social, and many of them leading very normal lives with spouses and families of their own.
The so-called “freak show” rose in popularity alongside the growing American circus. For an extra fee, people had access to gawk and point at the freaks of the exhibit, who were generally people with genetic deformities, people with tattoos or piercings, or simply people with an incredible talent such as fire-eating or sword-swallowing. Many of these “freaks” were marketed with fictitious and embellished stories to attract more patrons, stories that were more often flat out lies. For example, 80 year old Joice Heath who toured with the Barnum circus in 1835, was promoted as a 161 year old nurse who had taken care of George Washington. Or Fedor Jeftichew, more commonly known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, was said to be a wild savage who was raised by wolves and eventually captured in a cave by a hunter. In reality, Fedor suffered from a condition known as hypertrichosis, causing excessive hair growth on the body, a condition he had inherited from his father who also suffered from the same disorder and toured in French circuses with his son until his death.
Most of these performers were happy to corroborate any fabricated marketing schemes. For them this was a paying job, a way for them to make a living. Although Fedor was a very smart boy who spoke 3 languages, when Barnum tapped on his cage he happily complied by barking and yelping like a dog. Most performers had contracts with good money, so anything they could do to get more people to stare at them, meant even more money in their pocket.
Completely fake freaks, also known as “gaffed freaks,” also became very popular during the height of the circus era. Obviously there’s only a limited number of people on the planet with such rare genetic deformities, so circus men had to get creative by making their own freaks instead. For example, the four-legged lady could be two ladies, one hidden from view. Or the half-ape half-human creature was in fact just an actual ape that was dressed in human clothing and accessories. Or women labeled as wild escapees from Turkish harems were in fact just regular local girls who agreed to wear an outfit and have their hair teased out with beer in return for money.
Circus leaders needed to find ways to advertise their freaks to get people to come to the shows, and here fallacy became prominent as well. In one of the best cases of circus public relations, P.T. Barnum placed a skeptic in the audience of Madam Clofullia, his famous bearded lady, that accused the performer of being a guy and taking his charges all the way to court. Three doctors eventually confirmed she is a woman, along with her father and husband, causing the court to dismiss all charges. But of course the news created such a stir that it attracted viewers to see Clofullia in record numbers. And although these were the days before Photoshop, circus leaders still found ways to create misleading photographs as well. Freaks claimed to be giants were simply tall guys photographed next to miniature chairs. The same was done vice versa, with dwarfs photographed next to oversized chairs.
The decline of the freak show came with advances in science, for what were previously perceived as mysterious deformities now had scientific explanations. Whereas before these so-called “freaks” instilled fear or disgust in the viewers, thanks to science they became the subjects of sympathy. By the 1940s freak shows began to be considered cruel, described as “pornography of the disabled,” and many states began passing laws banning these types of shows. Although we’re glad to see this exploitation of the sick come to an end, we’d like to honor some of our favorite “freak” performers of the past, who’ve taught us to work with what life hands you, appreciate all you can, and never let anything stand in your way.
1. Joseph Merrick – The Elephant Man
Contrary to his show name, Merrick did not suffer from elephantiasis, which is a tropical disease caused by worms. Instead Merrick suffered from an extremely rare condition known as Proteus syndrome, which caused abnormal bone growth, tumor growth, and skin overgrowth across his body. After the death of his mother at the age of 12, and subsequent disownment by his father, Merrick tried to find work as a young teen in London, eventually signing on to be exhibited by showman Sam Torr. Following a robbery at show in Europe, a broke Merrick returned to London where he resided at London Hospital befriended by a doctor Frederick Treves. For four years Treves monitored and studied Merrick, while also establishing a friendly relationship and slowly introducing him to modern society. On one occasion Merrick even got a visit by the Princess of Wales, who gave him a signed photograph and a Christmas card every year. Merrick, who enjoyed writing poetry in his free time, pleasantly surprised most of his visitors with his intellect and charm. He developed a new found confidence in the years at the hospital, a confidence that unfortunately came too late. At the young age of 27, Merrick died of asphyxiation from a dislocated neck, due to the fact that he attempted to sleep lying down, in an effort to be like normal people. Throughout his entire life Merrick had been required to sleep sitting upright, due to the extreme size and weight of his head.
2. Schlitzie – The Pinhead
Believed to be born Simon Metz, Schlitzie suffered from microcephaly, a neurodevelopment disorder that left him with an unusually small brain and skull, causing short stature (Schlitzie was 4 feet tall), myopia, and severe mental retardation (Schlitzie was said to have the intelligence of a 3 year old). Disorder aside, Schlitzie was said to be a very kind, affectionate, and sociable person who loved to sing and dance and be the center of attention. He was often dressed in female clothing to present an androgynous appearance that added to his mystique, although some say the clothing choice was for easy care giving as Schlitzie suffered from incontinence as well. Schlitzie was successful as a sideshow performer throughout circuses in the 1920s, often promoted as the “Pinhead,” “Missing Link,” or the “Last of the Aztecs.” But Schlitzie is most well-known for his role in Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 film Freaks.
3. Josephene Myrtle Corbin – The Four-Legged Woman
Myrtle was born as a dipygus, a severe congenital deformity in which the body’s vertical axis splits during development, creating two pelvises side by side, and thus two sets of legs. The deformity occurs as the result of incomplete twin development as an embryo. All in all, Myrtle had 4 legs, two large outer legs and two smaller inner legs, with one large and one small leg attached to each pelvis. Billed as the “Four-Legged Girl from Texas,” Myrtle eventually married a doctor at the age of 19 and gave birth to a total of 5 children, 4 girls and 1 boy. Seeing as Myrtle had two complete functional reproductive systems, some children were born from one and some from the other. She lived a long life as a mother until about the age of 60.
4. Lionel – The Lion-Faced Man
Similar to Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, Stephan Bibrowski was born with hypertrichosis, causing a thick coat of fur to grow all over his body, including his face. Born just outside Warsaw and abandoned by his mother at a young age, Bibrowski was taken in by a German showman named Meyer, who gave him his show name Lionel, the Lion-Faced Man. The story was said to be that after witnessing her husband be mauled to death by a lion, a pregnant Mrs. Bibrowski had her visions “imprinted” on her unborn baby, who came out with feline eyes and the thick coat of a lion. Bibrowski eventually moved to the U.S. where he toured with Barnum & Bailey, taking over for the then retired Jo-Jo. In his act Bibrowski performed several gymnastic tricks, but it was his soft-spoken well-mannered behavior that really surprised viewers, as a sharp contrast to his animal-like appearance. Bibrowski was said to be a perfect gentleman, well-dressed, and even extremely intelligent, speaking a total of 5 languages. After several years Bibrowski abandoned the circus and moved back to Germany, where he died of a heart attack at the age of 41.
5. Prince Randian – The Living Torso
Born in British Guyana around 1871, little is known about Prince Randian’s origins, including even his real name, his discovery, or his introduction into the circus circuit. It is believed that he was brought to the states by P.T. Barnum in the early 1900s. Randian possessed no arms or legs, but impressed audiences by his extreme adaptability. Using only his shoulders and hips, he was able to get around fairly well by wiggling like a snake. Randian was also able to roll and light a cigarette, paint, and write all using only his mouth. He even shaved himself by creating a wooden block that could secure a razor (Randian was said to be a skilled carpenter as well). A devout Hindu, Randian was also said to be very intelligent, speaking a total of 4 languages, and eventually marrying and fathering 4 children, dying at the age of 62 due to a heart attack.