5 Famous Sideshow Entertainers

Schlitzie Surtees
Like Schlitzie, this sideshow performer has microcephaly, which causes an abnormally small head circumference. FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Schlitzie (sometimes credited as Schlitze) Surtees is best known as one of the actors in the 1932 Tod Browning film "Freaks." He played one of the "pinhead" characters — a term we would not use in modern vernacular. Schlitzie was born with microcephalus, a condition that causes an unusually small head circumference [source: Minnesota Dept. of Health]. Performers with the condition were often billed (inaccurately, of course) as the last of the Aztec or Mayan races or even as members of a race apart from man.

Schlitzie performed as a woman: Since developmental disabilities made him incontinent, a dress proved easier for diapering. Schlitzie performed with loads of circuses and even appeared in a film by Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. He was adopted by a chimp trainer in the '30s, but the trainer's daughter later committed Schlitzie to a mental hospital.

But the story doesn't end badly. Schlitzie was eventually found by a fellow circus performer, and he happily performed and lived on his own until his death at age 71 in Los Angeles [source: Pednaud].