The golden age of American and European freak shows -- traveling exhibitions and carnival attractions, often of disabled or disfigured entertainers -- spanned about a century, from roughly 1840 to 1940 [source: Disability Social History Project]. Wildly popular during the apex of the Victorian era, the human curiosities and oddities behind sideshow curtains consistently attracted crowds at traveling circuses, fairgrounds and P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York. Indeed, Barnum, who would eventually go on to host to first Miss America-style beauty pageant in 1854, made his mark as the founder of the freak show [source: Thomson]. He and his British counterpart Tom Norman, who discovered the Elephant Man, charged customers to view bearded ladies, conjoined twins, little people and other social outcasts.
Contemporary disability studies explain the appeal of freak shows as a way of indulging in cultural and social violations, such paying to leer at a morbidly obese person, and reinforcing social norms by showcasing the abnormal [source: Craton]. At the same time, a number of freak show stars wielded their disabilities to earn a healthy income and garner publicity and fame, which some scholars interpret as success stories for the time [source: Thomson]. For female freaks in particular, their presence on stage marked a distinct breach of Victorian mores. In an era when women were expected to stay close to the hearth and home, the following 10 females who took to the stage to sell their "born" deformities (i.e. surplus limbs) and "made" physical embellishments (i.e. tattoos) were particularly compelling -- and taboo.
Billed in 1835 as the "The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World," Joice Heth endured poking, prodding and general gawking, as onlookers puzzled over her withered appearance and gnarled, clawlike fingers. Could she really be 161 years old, as the music hall and hotel advertisements for her traveling attraction proclaimed [source: Lost Museum]? Had the withered African American woman really cared for George Washington in his infancy? Certainly not, but P.T. Barnum didn't mind. As long as Heth's looks piqued curiosity regarding her true age and identity, America's original huckster profited.
Barnum purchased his first "freak," former plantation slave Heth, from Kentucky showman R.W. Lindsay, and trotted her around the Northeast for seven months as her health declined [source: Reiss]. For the price of one quarter, visitors could see Heth up close, her wrinkled skin and undisturbed demeanor provoking some to assume that she was merely a well-disguised automaton [source: Curry]. Indeed, the toothless and crippled elderly woman was alive, but not for long [source: Thomson]. After she died in February 1836, Barnum continued to cash in on the Heth hoax. He charged 50 cents for admission to the medical autopsy of her corpse, and the doctors reported to the 1,500 attendees that, indeed, Heth was far from 161 years old; she likely passed in her 70s.
Sideshows often employed the technique of visual contrast to emphasize freakery. For instance, a showman might parade a little person next to a giant to exaggerate their relative height aberrations [source: Rosenbaum]. And just as extremely tall and extremely short people were regular fixtures in freak shows, emaciated and obese figures also were popular draws. For that reason, fat women would stand on stage next to average-sized bystanders or "human skeleton" attractions.
Ellla Milbauer, billed as "586 Pounds of Feminine Charm," was a popular sideshow star who toured with the Ringling Circus [source: BoingBoing]. She began working the circus gig in 1956, after the sideshow heyday had passed. Taking over for the circus' former fat lady, Alice from Dallas, Milbauer only toured for five years, likely because sideshows were waning in popularity and many freaks had lost jobs by that point [source: Sunday Magazine]. Yet Milbauer's legacy lives on through a portrait of hers that's featured in Drew Friedman's 2011 book "Sideshow Freaks." Being immortalized in a freak show history is a noteworthy accomplishment for Milbauer, since fat ladies were typically devalued performers, earning less than other entertainers [source: Thomson].
The Seven Sutherland Sisters raked in more cash as entrepreneurs than circus attractions, but the initial notoriety they gained on tour paved their way toward momentary wealth. Adopted daughters of Fletcher Sutherland, Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Mary and Dora Sutherland trained as a Barnum and Bailey Circus musical act with a show-stopping twist. After charming audiences with their vocal chords, the sisters would take down their hairdos toward the end of their performance, and their winding brunette tresses would tumble to the floor. Altogether, the Sutherland sisters had nearly 37 feet of hair [source: Sammarco and Rounds].
Their father realized that songs would only take his girls so far, and he capitalized on their long locks by concocting a Seven Sutherland Sisters' Hair Grower. With their circus act providing the free publicity, the tonic sold quickly, earning them $90,000 in its first year on the market [source: Sherrow]. In fact, hair tonic sales allowed the Sutherland Sisters and their legendary manes to retire from the circus. They squandered their fortune, however, and their empire eventually crumbled at the turn of the century, when bobs and other short hairstyles came into vogue [source: Sammarco and Rounds].
Myrtle Corbin was born in Tennessee in 1868 with four legs. Technically, the extra pair of legs belonging to Corbin's dipygus twin that failed to fully develop. Between Corbin's own legs dangled two small, unusable ones attached to its own pelvis. The girl's family quickly realized Myrtle's money-making potential and got her into the sideshow circuit at age 13.
Exhibited by P.T. Barnum, Coney Island, Ringling Bros. Circus and other attractions, Corbin and her extra set of limbs amazed audiences. To counterbalance her "monstrous" form, her promotional "pitch book" (a kind of personalized freak show program featuring an entertainer's photos and backstory) emphasized Corbin's demeanor, describing her as "gentle of disposition as the summer sunshine and happy as the day is long" [source: Bogdan]. Clearly, the marketing angle worked, and Corbin earned about $450 per week at her peak [source: Hartzman].
Corbin's popularity coincided with the rise of teratology, or the study of physical abnormalities (caustically referred to as "monstrosities"), making her famous in the medical world as well. Articles detailing Corbin's physical condition and her first experience with childbirth in 1889 were published in medical journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, the British Medical Journal (now BMJ) and the American Journal of Obstetrics, which described her as belonging to "a class of monsters by fusion" [source: Bogdan].
Austrian-born Josephine Joseph is a famous example of a sideshow staple: gaffed presentation [source: Springhall]. P.T. Barnum had few qualms about "gaffing," or faking, a freak in order to sell tickets. Did he, for instance, truly believe that Joice Heth had survived to be 161 years old? Doubtful.
A common category of the gaffed presentation at circuses and freak shows included the half-man, half-woman attractions. These men and women would exhibit themselves as intersex people (the preferred term for hermaphrodites), possessing the biological characteristics of both males and females. Josephine Joseph is one of the best-known "double-bodied" personalities, appearing in Tod Browning's 1932 film "Freaks." The right side of Josephine Joseph's body represented masculinity, cropping the hair short and wearing a strongman's leopard leotard. The left side embodied the feminine, sporting long hair, makeup and women's clothing and hosiery. Although little is known about Josephine Joseph's life outside of his or her career climax in the early 1930s, the sideshow freak was probably a male impersonator [source: Nickell].
The Hilton Sisters were among the only sideshow stars to break out of the circus tent and make it to mainstream Hollywood. Indeed, the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet were among the highest earners on the vaudeville circuit at the height of their career in the 1930s, bringing in as much as $5,000 per week [source: Thomson]. In 1932, they joined Tod Browning's cast of social misfits in "Freaks," and in 1950, the Hilton sisters starred in the B-movie "Chained for Life" about their "loves and lives" as conjoined twins.
Perhaps it isn't astounding that the Hiltons achieved brief stardom, since they were brought up to become entertainers. Raised by the midwife who delivered them, Daisy and Violet were taught singing, dancing and musical instruments, and by age 3, they performed at circuses, carnivals and fairs [source: Hartzman]. Their adoptive mother, whom they called "Auntie," kept all of their earning to herself, however, and it wasn't until they were 23 years old that the twins pursued legal action to hold on to their income. They enjoyed minor fame, but also weathered strained romantic relationships, which were all ultimately thwarted by their conjoined condition. In fact, both Daisy and Violet were married briefly; Violet got hitched as a publicity stunt in 1936, and Daisy's new husband walked out after only 10 days in 1941 [source: Thomson].
Once their star faded out completely in the 1960s, the Hiltons worked at a grocery store in Charlotte, N.C. One twin worked the register while the other would bag groceries [source: Hornberger]. A few years later, Daisy and Violet died in 1969.
Accounts of Mary Ann Bevan often emphasize that the "World's Homeliest Woman" wasn't born unattractive. In a prime example of how sideshows showcased what are now understood as medical conditions, Bevan's odd face resulted from an adult-onset metabolic disorder called acromegaly, also known as gigantism [source: Danzig]. The condition causes the pituitary gland to secrete excessive growth hormone, stimulating bone development; in Bevan's case, her facial bones enlarged, distorting her features.
In 1903, Bevan, then working as a nurse, married a farmer, and the couple had four children together. Bevan might not have ended up in the Coney Island Dreamland Circus Side Show and the Ringling Bros. Circus if her husband hadn't died unexpectedly, making her the sole breadwinner. Left a widow with four children in 1914, Beven entered and won a "Homeliest Woman" competition to earn extra household money [source: Hartzman]. To continue supporting her family, she parlayed her pageant title into sideshow work, and exhibited her deformed face on stage in front of cringing crowds until she died in 1933 [source: Danzig].
In 2006, a British doctor who noticed Bevan's face on a Hallmark card that mocked her acromegaly-marred visage became outraged and protested the indignity to the greeting card company. As a result, Hallmark quit marketing the "World's Homeliest Woman" for profit.
Twins Millie-Christine McKoy, conjoined at the lower spine, were born into slavery in 1852. Disabled children in slavery conditions were considered worthless burdens, since plantation owners didn't care to feed an extra mouth that couldn't contribute to toiling in the fields [source: Disability Social History Project]. But the rarity of Millie and Christina's conjoined state made them more valuable as a potential sideshow attraction, and as a result, the twins were bought and sold three or more times before they were 6 years old [source: National Institutes of Health]. Eventually, salesman Joseph Pearson Smith bought Millie-Christine and her family, and his wife taught the twins reading, writing, singing and dancing.
Touring for nearly 30 years, Millie-Christine's primary performance talent was singing. Nicknamed "The Two-Headed Nightingale," the twins hop-skipped around the United States and Europe, performing at P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York and even before Queen Victoria. Patrons could pick up a copy of their autobiography, "Biography, Medical Description and Songs of Miss Millie/Christine, the Two-Headed Nightingale" for a quarter at their shows [source: Bogdan].
In 1882, Millie-Christine earned a joint income of $25,000 while touring on the Great Inter-Ocean Railroad Show, paving the way for retirement later that decade [source: Martell]. Black women, or any women at all for that matter, bringing in so much money was a rarity in post-Civil War America, which is one reason they're considered one of the greatest successes in sideshow history. Millie-Christine died in 1912 after Millie, the slightly smaller twin, contracted tuberculosis.
In his 1868 publication "The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication," Charles Darwin described Julia Pastrana, the Baboon Lady, as "a remarkably fine woman, but she had a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead" [source: Bondeson]. Born in a Mexican orphanage around 1834, Pastrana had a rare genetic disorder called congenital generalized hypertrichosis terminalis with gingival hypertrophy, which resulted in excessive hair growth, enlarged gums and a noticeably protruding jaw [source: LiveScience]. At the time, of course, scientists and naturalists like Darwin didn't understand what caused Pastrana's apelike visage, making her not only a sideshow sensation but also a medical curiosity.
Pastrana toured around the United States, Europe and Russia, hailed as a "nondescript," or a cross between human and animal or male and female. In appearances in concert halls and exhibitions, Pastrana played up her confounding gender identity, outfitting her hirsute figure in frilly dresses, hair accessories and glittering baubles, sometimes clutching flowers to further contrast the masculine and feminine. She also entertained audiences by belting out English and Spanish arias and dancing in a variety of forms, particularly the highland fling [source: Bondeson].
Anecdotal accounts from the few who knew Pastrana well indicated that the leering attention she received was a source of loneliness rather than camaraderie. Though she was one of the best-known entertainers during her short lifetime, Pastrana was continually subject to oral and medical examinations and constant questioning about whether she was, in fact, a woman. In 1860, Pastrana died from giving birth to her showman's child; the baby boy, born with Pastrana's genetic disorder and suffering from newborn asphyxia, barely survived two days. Afterward, the mother and son's bodies were embalmed and sent out on the road for exhibition yet again [source: Sweet].
When Lavinia Warren tied the knot to General Tom Thumb in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln hosted the diminutive newlyweds for a wedding reception at the White House. The New York Times gushed over the 32-inch-tall "Queen of Beauty" and her nuptial finery in a novella-length article [source: The New York Times]. The joyous -- and heavily publicized -- event marked the climax of the sideshow age, and the closest Victorian America would come to embracing a so-called freak as one of their own. The couple had broken out of the circus tent and attained genuine celebrity status.
P.T. Barnum began exhibiting Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb, in England in 1843 when the little person was only 11 years old. Twenty years later, he was one of the most famous freaks in the world, and his wedding to Lavinia Warren was largely a publicity stunt orchestrated by Barnum. Meanwhile, Lavinia Warren had begun traveling in 1858 with a maritime dime museum owned by her uncle, and in 1862 she joined Barnum's brigade at the American Museum in New York [source: Bogdan]. Soon after, Stratton spotted Warren and became romantically interested in her, much to Barnum's delight. Once the couple announced their engagement, American Museum crowds swelled to catch a glimpse of the petite bride-to-be [source: Bogdan]. After Stratton died in 1883, Warren remarried to another little person performer, Count Primo Magri, but the fanfare for freak shows and their stars had since faded.
The circus can provide great fun and entertainment, but occasionally serious tragedies occur under the big top. Learn about the 10 worst circus disasters at HowStuffWorks.
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