Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

10 Medical Conditions Once Found in Sideshows


4
Limblessness
Eli Bowen was a sideshow performer also known as "The Legless Acrobat" in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Swords Bros, York, PA/antiquephotographics/Public Domain
Eli Bowen was a sideshow performer also known as "The Legless Acrobat" in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Swords Bros, York, PA/antiquephotographics/Public Domain

So it's a little bit of a catch-all, but early sideshows would be a lonely place if limbless individuals weren't involved in performances. Often touted for their amazing adaptability, men and women without arms or legs were usually displayed doing somewhat run-of-the-mill tasks, made seemingly extraordinary by their condition. Charles Tripp, for instance, made his name touring with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses as the "Armless Wonder." He got his first gig by simply showing P.T. Barnum some mundane daily tasks (combing his hair, dressing) he accomplished using only his feet [source: Pednaud].

While most of the limbless performers were born that way, Kittie Smith lost her arms in a horrific trauma at the age of 9 in 1891. After beating her severely one night, Smith's alcoholic father burnt her arms so badly on the stove that they had to be amputated inches from the shoulder. After receiving serious care and rehabilitation, Smith learned how to write and draw with her feet and joined sideshows to inspire others with disabilities. She was also the first woman to cast a ballot in Chicago after women's suffrage was passed. Naturally, she did so using her feet [source: Pednaud].