10 Medical Conditions Once Found in Sideshows

Sideshows may have mislabeled their performers as “freaks,” but the entertainers had medical conditions that were truly fascinating and anomalous.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USF34-045516-D]

None of us should look to historical sideshows for intellectual enlightenment. Sure, there are modern sideshows that present performers who are clearly empowered and awesome. But the sideshows of yore, with their labeling of people as "freaks" or disabilities as "oddities"? Nope. Spectators paid to gawk at people who were morbidly obese, had tattoos or were born with extra limbs. Yet despite this blatant exploitation, many performers were able to amass wealth and fame through sideshow acts. We can just agree that sideshows were at best a way for marginalized people to make a living exhibiting themselves and at worst a means for exhibition owners to take advantage of workers.

That being said, there's no denying that some of the people in old-timey sideshows had rare and fascinating medical conditions that can draw our attention. We'll take a look at the performers and their conditions, some of which might seem out of place labeled as an "oddity" in our current culture.


10: Proteus Syndrome

Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” poses for a photo.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Although Joseph Merrick's career in sideshows was rather short-lived, he became well-known by posterity for his affliction (he was known as the "Elephant Man") and the sweet nature that allowed him to befriend Queen Victoria. He only lived until 27 and spent years in the hospital due to his condition [source: Pednaud].

What that was is still a matter of some debate. Many claimed that Merrick must have had Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (NF1), where non-cancerous growths can take over parts of the skeletal or muscular system. But scientists are now leaning toward identifying the "Elephant Man" condition as Proteus Syndrome. In fact, an ethnographic study was conducted in 2011 to research why the media claimed NF1 was the cause of Merrick's physical differences [source: Legendre].


Proteus Syndrome is rarer than NF1, but it does have some of the same characteristics. It causes overgrowth of many parts of the body, including bones, tissues, skin and organs [source: Genetics Home Reference]. It also creates other health problems, including deep vein thrombosis.

9: Microcephaly

A circus barker promotes a sideshow performer with microcephaly.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the most enduring narratives of sideshow culture, for good or ill, is the 1932 Tod Browning movie "Freaks." Featuring real performers from popular circus acts or sideshows, the film introduced several characters with abnormally small heads. And let's just get it out of the way right now: The "pinhead" description used in the movie is not acceptable nomenclature these days.

The condition is called microcephaly, which occurs when the head is smaller than would be expected in normal development. It's important to note that primary microcephaly might result in intellectual disabilities or developmental issues, but it can also be a symptom (secondary microcephaly) of another condition like Down syndrome [source: Mayo Clinic].


Primary microcephaly is rare: It's estimated to occur in one in 40,000 live births [source: Minnesota Dept. of Health]. And while it's true that microcephaly could lead to cognitive impairment, it doesn't preclude normal or high-functioning development. Children born with microcephaly have a huge range of long-term outcomes and overall function.

8: Ectrodactyly

Black Scorpion is a modern-day sideshow performer with ectrodactyly.
© 2012 Codytandme/“Black Scorpion and Li'l BS”/CC BY-SA 3.0

Grady Stiles Jr. is largely forgotten now but was quite infamous in his prime as a sideshow character who proved to be a generally dismal person offstage. He appeared in shows as the "Lobster Boy" because of the rare limb malformation that caused his hands and feet to have a claw-like appearance. But he also made the papers for drunkenly abusing his family and killing his daughter's fiance — he got off because his defense argued the prison system couldn't accommodate his disability. He was eventually shot by a hit man his own wife hired [source: Pednaud].

Of course, it was Stiles' condition that first garnered him attention. Born with ectrodactyly — like many of his ancestors — Stiles' hands and feet had a middle cleft and toes or fingers on each side of the cleft. Stiles had a fairly severe case, as many people born with the rare congenital condition only see it in either hands or feet. Only 1 in 90,000 live births are estimated to have both sets of limbs affected [source: Jindal et al].


7: Conjoined Twins

Conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton pose on a couch in the early- to mid-20th century.
Visual Studies Workshop/Archive Photos/Getty Images

One of the first reported cases of conjoined siblings was way back in 1100. Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst were quite wealthy and lived an impressive 34 years, considering their condition and medical care at the time [source: University of Maryland Medical Center]. But most of us are more familiar with conjoined twins who became sideshow spectacles, and a few of these cases are downright heartbreaking. Daisy and Violet Hilton, for instance, were continuously exploited as sideshow subjects [source: Pednaud]. But the physical development of conjoined twins still proves fascinating.

In identical twins, a single egg divides after fertilization. While most eggs that divide would go on to fully form two separate embryos, in conjoined twins the egg doesn't entirely split, and parts of both embryos — skin, organs and the like — are fused together. The condition only occurs in 1 of 200,000 live births; only 5-25 percent survive [source: University of Maryland Medical Center]. Not every conjoined pair is conjoined the same way. Thoracopagus twins share an upper torso and heart, and omphalopagus twins share a breastbone and waist and usually have a few shared organs. Conjoined twins that share a head (craniophagus twins) are the least common, at only 2 percent of conjoined pairs [source: University of Maryland Medical Center].


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

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].


5: Gigantism

Gigantism sometimes causes people to grow to extreme heights.
© Historical/CORBIS

What would a sideshow be without a real human giant to crane your neck up to in awe? And while some people get attention from simply being naturally tall or short, there are actually medical conditions that can cause above-average heights. Gigantism can be a symptom of other conditions, but by and large it's caused by adenoma. That's a tumor of the pituitary gland that causes an excessive amount of growth hormone, which leads to gigantism [source: UCLA]. Obviously, gigantism causes an increase in height, but there are also less noticeable symptoms. Muscles and organs can be larger than normal, and males may have unusually deep voices.

Edouard Beaupre was a Quebecois performer who toured with several circuses. He was 7 feet (213 centimeters) tall at the age of 17 and 8 feet, 3 inches (251 centimeters) tall by the time of his unfortunate early death at 23 [source: Pednaud]. Indeed, an autopsy showed that Beaupre had a tumor on his pituitary gland that contributed to his height.


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

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].


3: Lymphedema

Fanny Mills had Milroy disease, which caused lymphedema in her lower body.
Public Domain

Nothing leaves a fouler taste in a lady's mouth than a tongue-in-cheek romantic challenge. You know, the kind of thing teen movies are built on where someone is basically given a trial to fake a relationship with some "undesirable" partner. This act also took place in the sideshow world, and it was pretty horrible. Take Fanny Mills, also known as "the Ohio Bigfoot Lady", who travelled around towns showcasing her abnormally large lower legs and feet. Any man who wanted to marry her, posters promised, would get $5,000 for his trouble [source: Pednaud]. Pretty terrible, right? Well, at least we know now that Fanny actually was married to a close friend's brother. Joke's on everyone else.

Mills had Milroy disease, which affects the lymphatic system. Mills' condition caused her to develop lymphedema, where lymph fluids accumulate in the body and cause swelling at birth or infancy [source: Genetics Home Reference]. The disease can also lead to cellulitis, a skin infection that exacerbates swelling. The effect can be profound, as it was in Mills' case: Her feet were supposedly 19 inches (48 centimeters) long and 10 inches (25 centimeters) across [source: Hartzman].


2: Hypertrichosis

Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy poses for a photograph circa 1900.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So first of all, werewolves aren't real. Let's get that out there before we get too ahead of ourselves. People often refer to hypertrichosis as the "werewolf syndrome" because it causes excessive and abnormal hair growth, and we're not just talking luxurious locks down your back. Hypertrichosis can cause hair growth pretty much any and everywhere. As it turns out, hypertrichosis might actually be a genetic condition where extra DNA causes a hair-growth gene (possibly SOX3, for those playing gene bingo at home) to go nuts [source: Live Science].

Of course, hypertrichosis was also the reason that famous performers like Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy were presented to the public as half-beast [source: Pednaud]. At times Jo-Jo acted the part and humored audience members by growling at them. More recently, Percilla Lauther was a famous sideshow performer who lived with hypertrichosis that manifested on her face and body. She happily worked with her husband (another sideshow performer) until late in life and died in 2001.


1: Dwarfism

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.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Medical Conditions Once Found in Sideshows

It's hard not to read about some of the sideshow performers on our list and resent anyone who tried to take advantage of them. But let's remember that there are contemporary sideshows that work to present a wide range of disabilities and empowerment to the public. Check out some of the cooler acts here.

Related Articles

  • Adelson, Betty M. "Dwarfs: The Changing Lives of Archetypal 'Curiosities' — and Echoes of the Past." Disability Studies Quarterly. Summer 2005. (April 24, 2015) http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/576/753
  • Bogdan, Robert. "Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit." University of Chicago Press. 2014. https://books.google.com/books?id=1ZXeBQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Freak+Show++PRESENTING+HUMAN+ODDITIES+FOR+AMUSEMENT+AND+PROFIT&hl=en&sa=X&ei=6TY4Vdu-IJPXoASHyYDgBA&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Freak%20Show%20%20PRESENTING%20HUMAN%20ODDITIES%20FOR%20AMUSEMENT%20AND%20PROFIT&f=false
  • Genetics Home Reference. "Milroy Disease." U.S. National Library of Medicine. April 2013. (April 24, 2015) http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/milroy-disease
  • Genetics Home Reference. "Proteus Syndrome." U.S. National Library of Medicine. June 2012. (April 24, 2015) http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/proteus-syndrome
  • Hartzman, Marc. "American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History's Most Wondrous and Curiously Strange Performers." Penguin Group. 2005. (Sept. 29, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=_ruXJxuyNfgC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • Inglis-Arkell, Esther. "Did Joseph Merrick, known as "elephant man," have Proteus Syndrome?" io9.com. December 18, 2012. (April 24, 2015) http://io9.com/5969314/did-joseph-merrick-known-as-elephant-man-have-proteus-syndrome
  • Legendre, Claire-Marie et al. "Neurofibromatosis Type 1 and the "Elephant Man's" Disease: The Confusion Persists: An Ethnographic Study." PLOS ONE. Feb. 9, 2011. (April 24, 2015) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3036577/
  • LiveScience. "'Werewolf' Gene May Explain Excess Hair Disorder." June 3, 2011. (April 24, 2015) http://www.livescience.com/14430-werewolf-disorder-gene-discovered-excess-hair.html
  • National Public Radio. "Side Show." (April 24, 2015) http://www.npr.org/programs/disability/ba_shows.dir/work.dir/highlights/sideshow.html
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "Charles Tripp — The Armless Wonder." The human Marvels. 2014. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/charles-tripp-the-armless-wonder/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "Edouard Beaupre — The Willow Bunch Giant." (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/the-willow-bunch-giant-circus-freak/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "Fanny Mills — The Ohio Bigfoot Lady." (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/fanny-mills-%E2%80%93-the-ohio-bigfoot-lady/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "Fedor Jefticheive — Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy." The Human Marvels. 2014. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/fedor-jefticheive-jo-jo-the-dog-faced-boy/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "General Tom Thumb — The Most Famous Midget." The Human Marvels. 2014. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/general-tom-thumb-the-most-famous-midget/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "Grady Stiles Jr. — The Murderous Lobster Man." 2014. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/grady-stiles-jr-the-murderous-lobster-man/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "Joseph Merrick — The Elephant Man." The Human Marvels. 2014. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/joseph-merrick-the-elephant-man/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "Kittie Smith — the Armless Dynamo." The Human Marvels. 2014. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/kittie-smith-the-armless-dynamo/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "Percilla — The Monkey Girl." The Human Marvels. (Sept. 30, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/percilla-the-monkey-girl/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "The Hilton Sisters — Chained for Life." The Human Marvels. 2014. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/the-hilton-sisters-chained-for-life/
  • Pednaud, J. Tithonus. "Werewolf Syndrome — Hypertrichosis." The Human Marvels. 2014. (Sept. 29, 2015) http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/the-werewolf-syndrome-hypertrichosis/
  • UCLA Pituitary Tumor Program. "Gigantism." (April 24, 2015) http://pituitary.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=83
  • Zhu, Hongwen et al. "X-Linked Congenital Hypertrichosis Syndrome is Associated with Interchromosomal Insertions Mediated by a Human-Specific Palindrome near SOX3." The American Journal of Human Genetics. June 10, 2011. (April 24, 2015) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3113246/