In the 19th and 20th centuries, sideshow “freaks” attracted large crowds, including royalty like Queen Victoria.
The first organized “freak” shows and human abnormality exhibits date back to Elizabeth I of England’s reign in the 16th century, but the Victorian era is when these sideshows really took off. The phenomenon of sideshow “freaks” would spread throughout the United States and England as a developing public interest in health and science attracted crowds to view the bizarre — and even grotesque — demonstrations of our various anatomies and biological curiosity.
Anyone with a marketable disability, deformity, or otherwise oddity was added to his menagerie. Fairgrounds provided the most popular venues for sideshows and animals of extreme size or a human-like talent became the main draws.
Barnum opened a human curiosities exhibit in 1841 at the American Museum in Manhattan. After a fire destroyed it, he founded P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Circus and in 1881, James Bailey and James Hutchinson assumed partial ownership.
However, “freak” shows would vanish into a shadowy corner of history as science advanced and the unknown became better understood.
“Freaks” from P.T. Barnum’s sideshow
Famous American circus owner P.T. Barnum expanded his traveling show in 1835 by including alleged “freaks” or biological oddities.
The performance was known as Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show On Earth by 1887. They made famous figures including William Henry Johnson, well known as Zip the Pinhead, Annie Jones the Bearded Lady, General Tom Thumb, the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who stood about three feet tall when fully grown, General Tom Thumb, a distant relative of Barnum’s, and many others.
The Freaks and Those Who Showcased them
Experienced showmen like Barnum understood that the narrative surrounding an attraction or sideshow “freak” was more vital to draw audiences than the attraction or “freak” itself.
“In those days, you could exhibit anything. Yes, you could present anything as a whale, including a bloater, an elephant, a flea, and an anchor. It was the story you told, not the performance, “Tom Norman, an English performer, wrote.
Some well-known sideshow entertainers, such as the dwarf General Tom Thumb, later separated themselves from their performances. Others, like Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, had deformities that made life quite miserable for them even though they received a fair amount of the money they helped Barnum make.
Barnum included, managers undoubtedly took advantage of their performers, despite the vehement denials of some performers like Tom Norman.
The vast majority of performers treat their novelty acts more like people than like animals.—
In fact, performers in traveling sideshows frequently claimed to view their bosses and other performers as family. Although accounts differ, most seemed to earn a good wage—probably more than they would if they were employed in the regular world. Trading cards of well-known “freaks” were in circulation in England and the United States as early as 1851, with all proceeds going directly to the performers.
The Sideshow “Freak” Has Come To An End.
However, the exhibition of sideshow “freaks” was abandoned by the 1940s. The sideshow had virtually disappeared by the following decade due to a number of circumstances, including perceived exploitation (despite the fact that Barnum had a reputation for paying his performers well) and the rise of television.
Both their brave spirits and their painful tales continue to draw attention to the performers of the past.