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10 Medical Conditions Once Found in Sideshows


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Dwarfism
General Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia Warren are pictured here in 1863. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
General Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia Warren are pictured here in 1863. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Throughout history dwarves were kept in bondage and often treated as pets in royal courts [source: Adelson]. But the treatment of dwarves in sideshows pointed to another kind of troubling trend that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Dwarfism was medicalized and showcased as a kind of unfortunate disability [source: Adelson]. This coincided with the freak shows and sideshows that were becoming increasingly popular. And make no bones about it — dwarves were wildly popular acts. General Tom Thumb (whose real name was Charles Stratton) and his wife Lavinia Warren were so feted in mid-19th century America that breathless coverage followed their wedding, and they received an audience with Abraham Lincoln at the White House [source: Pednaud].

But keep in mind that part of the appeal of dwarf acts was often how "regular" they appeared: Tom Thumb and Warren, for example, toured with an infant posing as their child, even though it was simply a different baby in every city. It wasn't much of an act, but it was a way of displaying dwarfism as spectacle.