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When did circuses start using freak shows?


The Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida has a collection of advertisements from P.T. Barnum's sideshow, featuring the tiny General Tom Thumb, original Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker and 'fat lady' Alice from Dallas.
The Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida has a collection of advertisements from P.T. Barnum's sideshow, featuring the tiny General Tom Thumb, original Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker and 'fat lady' Alice from Dallas.
Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images

Think of it as the reality TV of the 19th century. Conjoined twins, hairy babies, tattooed women, werewolf boys, elastic-skinned men, bearded ladies, two-headed snakes and skeletal men -- all in plain sight, as long as you were willing to pay an entrance fee.

Freak shows were a lucrative draw for circuses traveling around the United States during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Putting curiosities on display -- usually in a tent or other structure that would keep people from getting a free look at them -- provided a glimpse of the unusual, and spectators were willing to pay top dollar for a glimpse of unusual-looking people or unusually skilled performers, such as a fire-eater or sword-swallower.

In addition, the collection of oddities served as a publicity machine. Excitement would build as word spread from town to town, and more and more people would clamor to see a three-legged man or other attractions. It was perhaps just as exciting -- if not more so -- than the actual circus itself.

One of the first instances of a freak show occurred in England in the mid-17th century, and centered around Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, conjoined twins who were born in 1617. Lazarus was said to be a handsome fellow who happened to have a parasitic twin growing out of his torso. The twin, who breathed on his own, did not eat, open his eyes or speak. The pair made a living by putting their medical oddity on display [source: Royal College of Physicians].

By the mid-19th century, the circus freak show was about to come into its own. English businessman Tom Norman gave it an entrepreneurial spin when he gathered a troupe of people with physical abnormalities and became a freak show showman known as the "Silver King" for his ability to draw in customers. His show included Miss Norma, a woman born without arms or legs, as well as the "World's Ugliest Woman" [source: The University of Sheffield].

Norman's American counterpart, P.T. Barnum, developed a similar idea by first setting up a museum stocked with oddities and by 1871 had become the mastermind behind a freak show that traveled with his circus, "P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome" [source: Jando].

Within a few years of P.T. Barnum's freak show addition, the concept became commonplace. It was typical to see physical oddities advertised as part of a traveling circus, an idea that remained popular until around World War II, when the prevailing sentiment shifted.

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