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10 Medical Conditions Once Found in Sideshows


6
Mental Disability
Often, sideshows paraded mental disabilities as acts. Here, director Tod Browning poses with the cast of his circus film, "Freaks." Hulton Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Often, sideshows paraded mental disabilities as acts. Here, director Tod Browning poses with the cast of his circus film, "Freaks." Hulton Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

It's extremely distressing for many modern cultures to imagine that people with mental or cognitive disabilities could be paraded to audiences as "freaks." And while lots of sideshow acts were performed by intellectually capable folks who enjoyed their work, the sad truth is that showmen looking for an easy buck often masked mental disablity as an "act."

Essentially, people with mental disabilities were often taken advantage of. As we discussed, microcephaly was one medical condition that showed up in sideshows. And while some people with microcephaly have normal cognitive function, history shows that cases of the condition combined with mental disabilities proved a lucrative trade for those running sideshows. Billed as "Wild Australian Children" or some of the last tribes of the Aztec culture, they were presented as human curiosities from primitive cultures [source: Bogdan]. Even dwarfism, when accompanied by mental disabilities, led Hiram and Barney Davis to be presented as "Wild Men of Borneo" in the 19th century, capitalizing on their so-called "monkey"-like tendencies to climb and swing on objects with agility [source: Bogdan].