10 Medical Conditions Once Found in Sideshows

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.

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/


Is the 'Lovely Assistant' the Real Magician?

Is the 'Lovely Assistant' the Real Magician?

HowStuffWorks looks at the history of magician's assistants, what they do and why the assistant is usually a woman.

More to Explore