10 Bizarre Circus Sideshows


For centuries, disabilities and medical conditions have been exploited for monetary gain in the circus sideshow industry. sarahphotogirl/WireImage
For centuries, disabilities and medical conditions have been exploited for monetary gain in the circus sideshow industry. sarahphotogirl/WireImage

In the past — we're talking the Middle Ages here — disabilities or physical manifestations of medical conditions did not elicit the kind of awe and interest that later inspired sideshows. For a lot of history, people with atypical presentations were seen as harbingers of evil spirits or bad omens [source: Grande]. We mention this not to pat ourselves on the back for how far we've come when it comes to medical diagnosis and treatment, but to point out that for a long time, we traded one kind of "othering" for another.

Circus sideshows also allowed us to separate the "freaks" — and we'll not be using that term, although it has been reclaimed by some disability activists — from the "normal" people. But this time it was supposedly under the guise of interest, and not necessarily derision or fear. (A premise that could be much argued.) In any case, we'll take a look at some of the strangest sideshows that have cropped up through history — some of which are still popular in the (much more empowering) sideshows that exist today.

But let's start with a sideshow that illustrated that it didn't take much besides a medical condition to present people for gawking.

10

Giant Tumors

Tumors are no joking matter, but in 1831, Chinese laborer Hoo Loo became a public experiment when tickets were sold to view the surgical removal of his abdominal tumor. Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Tumors are no joking matter, but in 1831, Chinese laborer Hoo Loo became a public experiment when tickets were sold to view the surgical removal of his abdominal tumor. Universal History Archive/Getty Images

So this just scrapes in under the umbrella of sideshow — as we'll see, Hoo Loo's story doesn't involve the circus or "show," per se. But it does speak to the bizarre obsession in the 19th century to treat people with anatomical or medical conditions as public performers, subject to gawking. And aclth.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/cancer/facts/cancer.htm]tumors counted.

Hoo Loo, a Chinese laborer, had come to London in 1831 in the hopes that surgeons could relieve him of the 58-pound (26.3 ton) tumor that covered his lower abdomen to his knees [source: Wishart]. "Hospital tickets" were sold to watch the surgery in Guy's Hospital, and 680 men (no ladies allowed for such a show) watched the operation performed — sans anesthesia, of course. Such a thing wasn't used in medicine for another decade or two. He died on the operating table.

Author Laura Grande argues that Hoo Loo's story is an example of how the sideshow aesthetic made its way into the general populace — using "freakery" to both facilitate conversation about disability while also maintaining it as an abhorrence [source: Grande].

9

The Flatulist Act

Le Petomane's body was so bizarre that his family requested doctors to study it after he died. YouTube
Le Petomane's body was so bizarre that his family requested doctors to study it after he died. YouTube

Flatulence is normal part of life — unless you can do it at will. This next sideshow performer figured out how to cash in on his ability. Le Petomane (real name: Joseph Pujol) was a French sideshow performer who made his name in the late 19th century. His act was flatulence, and his skill was unsurpassable. And like a few other acts we've seen, Le Petomane's brilliance was at least partly attributable to an interesting anatomical feature: He could take up great masses of water or air into his rectum, and then spout them out with great control.

If that doesn't sound great, you clearly aren't a 9-year-old, nor have you taken care to think the possibilities through. Because Le Petomane could blow out candles, jet water great distances and even play wind instruments (yeah, yeah — we all get it) with his flatus. He was wildly popular in France, where he eventually started performing at the famous Moulin Rouge. Although we're all probably wondering what exactly how he could do this, Pujol's family denied a medical school request to examine his rectum after his death in 1945.

8

Two-headed Folk

Pasquale Pinon's masked tumor became an oddity when a promoter gave him the chance of a lifetime. Freaks: Collectie Akimitsu Naruyama: de exploitatie van menselikje fysieke fenomenen in circusses en reizende gezelschappen
Pasquale Pinon's masked tumor became an oddity when a promoter gave him the chance of a lifetime. Freaks: Collectie Akimitsu Naruyama: de exploitatie van menselikje fysieke fenomenen in circusses en reizende gezelschappen

If you think there's just one fake sideshow on the list, I have some magic beans to sell you. Sideshows have historically been rife with hoaxes, and in some ways they're even more fun than the "real" acts — there's something of a relief in seeing the audience exploited as opposed to the performers. Pasquale Pinon — also known as "The Two-Headed Mexican" — is a kind of in-between sideshow performer. Although (spoiler!) he didn't really have two heads, he did have a medical condition that gave him his start.

Pinon was actually a rail worker in Texas with a large tumor growing from his head. A promoter saw him one day and like any reasonable person, thought, "Ah, I should absolutely pretend that's a second head and put him in a travelling show." They put a wax mask on the tumor so it resembled a (frankly super-fake-looking) face, and basically had Pinon sit quietly as strangers gawked [source: Pednaud].

Now do keep in mind that while Pinon's two-heads were fake, there really is a medical condition called craniopagus parasiticus, where a person is born with a parasitic twin head [source: Lofty].

7

Dwarfism as Show

Dwarf performers range in ages, but P. T. Barnum convinced performer Tom Thumb to lie about his age to seem more intriguing. Mark Dadswell/Getty Images
Dwarf performers range in ages, but P. T. Barnum convinced performer Tom Thumb to lie about his age to seem more intriguing. Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

This one goes on the list not because it's bizarre in and of itself. We're putting it up for scrutiny because conditions like dwarfism were presented as sideshow. This is one of the most offensive stories about the circus and its history. Simply put, it should be seen as patently bizarre that medical conditions were ever considered entertainment.

And let's not pretend that a showman like P.T. Barnum was ever satisfied with simply presenting his performers as is. Take Tom Thumb (real name: Charles Stratton), the dwarf who became a wildly popular performer in the mid-19th century. Was it good enough for the 2-foot-tall (60.96 cm) Thumb to merely exist as a performer? Of course not. Although Tom was only 5 years old when he started performing, Barnum told him to tell the audience he was 11 — more shocking, you see.

But medical conditions were only interesting sideshows if they were shocking, of course. So let's take a look at one show that might have a modern audience ready to call an ambulance, and not buy a ticket.

6

The Fiji Mermaid

The Fiji Mermaid was a far cry from the beautiful, fantastical mermaids we imagine today. P.T. Barnums/Wiki Commons
The Fiji Mermaid was a far cry from the beautiful, fantastical mermaids we imagine today. P.T. Barnums/Wiki Commons

But enough of our pseudo-sideshows; let's get to the real thing! And by the real thing, we actually mean the totally fake thing that was discovered to be an utter hoax. A selection of bizarre sideshows wouldn't be complete without a few made-up "wonders," and one of the most well-known swindles was the Fiji (sometimes called Feejee) mermaid.

It all started with a Dr. J. Griffin who came to New York in 1842, supposedly in possession of a mermaid caught off the coast of the Fiji Islands. The press got wind of the mermaid, and Dr. Griffin whetted their appetites with a peek. However, P.T. Barnum explained to the newspapers in town that the doc wouldn't give him permission to display the creature — but maybe they'd like the woodcut of the beautiful mermaid that he now couldn't use on his own publicity? They sure would, and soon the public — enticed by the image printed in all the papers — demanded an in-person look at the creature.

Guess what? It was a big hit, despite the fact that Barnum had set up the whole thing. Griffin was a guy name Levi Lyman, the backstory was fake and the mermaid was (most likely) a monkey head stitched to a fish's body [source: Hoaxes.org].

5

World's Ugliest Acts

Would you rather be known as "World's Ugliest Woman" or the "Mule-Faced Woman"? This was a choice Grace Daniels had to make. A. R. Coster/Stringer
Would you rather be known as "World's Ugliest Woman" or the "Mule-Faced Woman"? This was a choice Grace Daniels had to make. A. R. Coster/Stringer

This "bizarre" sideshow makes it on the list not because the performer herself was bizarre, but because — like our piece on dwarfism — it points out how totally strange it is that sideshows could feature such an attraction. That "attraction" was Mary Ann Bevan, which the Coney Island Dreamland Circus, and later Ringling Bros. gleefully touted in the 1920s as the "World's Ugliest Woman." Never mind that Bevan suffered from acromegaly, a pituitary disorder that causes bone and facial disfigurement [source: Danzig]. Also never mind that Bevan could not possibly be the World's Ugliest Woman, because if you read YouTube comments you'll learn that many make that claim about a whole host of people and consensus is unheard of.

The claim of "World's Ugliest (sometimes "Homeliest") Woman" was, it turns out, contested even back in the day. Grace McDaniels (who probably had a condition called Sturge-Weber Syndrome, which caused a facial birthmark and tumors) also was endowed with the term around the same time period. While Bevan was forced to perform in sideshows to support her four children after widowhood and accepted the title, McDaniels was apparently so ashamed of the nasty moniker that she talked the promoters into calling her the Mule-Faced Woman instead [source: Pednaud]. (Which seems a rather hollow victory.)

4

Drunken Acrobatics

Being inebriated on the edge of a building probably isn't the best of ideas, but Ben Dova made it look easy and fun. ullstein bild/Getty Images
Being inebriated on the edge of a building probably isn't the best of ideas, but Ben Dova made it look easy and fun. ullstein bild/Getty Images

If you were to tell me that acting like a drunk fool was a lucrative sideshow act, you better believe that I could've made a mint in college. I rue the days I spent letting my performances go to waste on spectators who didn't pay me a dime. Of course, my routine wasn't quite as practiced as the ones sideshows made famous. One famous performer named Ben Dova (not his real name, extremely unsurprisingly) made being drunk look like a lot of fun, and scared the audience half to death with his acrobatic stunts that looked all the more terrifying if you were under the impression he was intoxicated.

And mostly, they were pretty harmless stuff: He'd climb up a swaying street lamp to light his cigarette and kind of tumble around with a bumbling affect while in the ring. But the sideshow inebriation act was kicked up a notch — or perhaps we should say "kicked up 56 stories" — when Dova did his act in 1933 from the top of New York City's Chanin Building, where his performance (without a net or safety device, mind you) was recorded on newsreel [source: YouTube]. Some argue it's actually a feat of camera work because the "top" of the building dropped only to a ledge a few feet below, but I don't think I personally care [source: Russell]. It's terrifying.

3

The Oklahoma Outlaw Mannequin Mummy

Elmer McCurdy was a well-known outlaw, but his accidental mummification increased his popularity after his death. Kool Cats Photography/Flickr
Elmer McCurdy was a well-known outlaw, but his accidental mummification increased his popularity after his death. Kool Cats Photography/Flickr

Before his death, Elmer McCurdy was the stuff that spaghetti westerns were made of. After it, he became the kind of character that Alfred Hitchcock — or David Lynch — might dream up. A small-time crook in the early 20th century, McCurdy was shot by authorities after a train robbery in 1911. The Oklahoma funeral home that ended up with the body had the bright idea of embalming him for display. They embalmed him with such gusto, however, that he became mummified.

Five years later, a sideshow promoter saw McCurdy in the funeral home display and — pretending to be a relative — took the body for his own exhibition where McCurdy became the "Oklahoma Outlaw" [source: Pednaud]. For the next 60 years, McCurdy's body was passed from show to show. (Which begs the questions: Was there such a strong demand for lots of dead outlaw exhibitions?) Eventually, he was sold to a wax museum as a mannequin — but when a clumsily broken arm on the mannequin revealed a bone, police were called to investigate. A ticket from a crime museum (one of McCurdy's many post-mortem homes) was stuck in his mouth, and his identity was sussed out. McCurdy was finally buried in 1977.

2

Human Blockhead Acts

The risk of sneezing is one of the biggest threats to human blockheads. David Buchan/Getty Images
The risk of sneezing is one of the biggest threats to human blockheads. David Buchan/Getty Images

Perhaps you've become inured to the "human blockhead" routine, simply because it's pretty popular in sideshow culture and has been for a long time — but it can be argued the blockhead deserves a place on the list exactly for that reason. An act where one determines the exact location a sharp object can enter the nasal cavity, and then physically jams said sharp object into the location with force and precision is totally bizarre.

The blockhead routine works by taking advantage of our basic anatomy. The nasal cavity has space in which a nail, a drill, a spike or some other horrifying object can glide in without damage or pain. (Well, with plenty of practice. Try it at home and you'll encounter plenty of damage and pain.)

But perhaps the most bizarre part of the human blockhead routine is that one of the biggest risks is sneezing. Sneeze while inserting a nail into your skull, and you're at risk of serious injury. And unfortunately, you're also tempting a sneeze by tickling that nasal cavity. So in what is one of the weirdest sideshows ever, you get one of the most bizarre dangers: Controlling that sneeze reflex could be life or death.

1

Regurgitation Acts

In the 1920s, Hadji Ali was at one time the most well-known regurgitator in the world.  National Photo Company Collection
In the 1920s, Hadji Ali was at one time the most well-known regurgitator in the world.  National Photo Company Collection

We've seen some pretty bizarre acts, from drunk acrobats to flatulists. But I say with utter confidence that the most bizarre — and perhaps most delightful — act is our No. 1. Let's get to the real head-scratchers that make us wonder "how do they do it?" Or maybe more to the point, "who wants to see them do that?" Not sure what I mean? Well, let's just say that one of our top sideshow act went by the name "The Great Regurgiator." Step right up, I guess — but maybe not too close.

Yup, vomiting — and its more benign cousin "water spouts" — were a sideshow act that records show existed even in the 17th century [source: Pednaud]. Basically, performers could either take some sort of substance to make them copiously expel or they trained themselves to harness stomach and throat muscles to their command. Either way, you had a rather messy show.

Hadji Ali was the most well-known regurgitator in the 1920s, and could hit a target 6 feet away [source: Pednaud]. Ali would also combine his act with fire-breathing, where he would ignite kerosene into a fire, and then expel of water he had swallowed to put out the flames.

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Author's Note:

It's hard to deny the fact that the strange talents of people feel a little more fun to celebrate than the (often times painful or life-threatening) medical conditions. While it's terrific that sideshows these days feature performers who are empowered and responsible for their act, I can't help but think that I would pay a lot of money to see Le Petomane perform today.

Related Articles

Sources

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