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The Dark History Of The Circus 'Freak' Show

George Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, standing on a chair between two guards. 1860.

The phenomenon of sideshow "freaks" drew huge crowds in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the likes of Queen Victoria.

The beginnings of organized "freak" shows and human oddity exhibitions date back to the reign of Elizabeth I in the 16th century, but these sideshows truly took off in the Victorian era.

As a burgeoning public interest in medicine and science brought audiences out to see the weird — and sometimes grotesque — displays of our varied anatomies and biological curiosities, the phenomenon of sideshow "freaks" would sweep the United States and England.

But as science matured and the unknown better known, "freak" shows would disappear into a dark fold of history.

P.T. Barnum's Sideshow "Freaks"

In the United States, famed circus proprietor P.T. Barnum added so-called "freaks" or biological anomalies to his traveling show in 1835.

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.

Krao Farini was a hairy and flexible woman found in the Laotian jungle in 1885 who was then put on display by P.T. Barnum as a "missing link."

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.

By 1887, the show was called Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show On Earth. They gave fame to people like Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins, General Tom Thumb, a distant relative of Barnum's who stood at just three feet when fully grown, Annie Jones the Bearded Lady, William Henry Johnson or Zip the Pinhead, and many others.

The Showmen And Their "Freaks"

Experienced showmen like Barnum knew that to draw in crowds the story behind the attraction was more important than the attraction or sideshow "freak" itself.

"You could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show; it was the tale that you told," wrote English showman Tom Norman.

Some famous sideshow performers like dwarf General Tom Thumb distanced themselves eventually from their performances. For others, like Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, their deformities made life pretty unenjoyable even if they did get a fair share of the profits they helped to bring in for Barnum.

Coney Island "freak" show albino photographed with fat lady and a Flea Circus poster in the background. Date unspecified.

Managers, Barnum included, likely exploited their performers, though some showmen like Tom Norman wholeheartedly denied this.

"The big majority of showmen are in the habit of treating their novelties as human beings...not like beasts." Tom Norman

Indeed, members of traveling sideshows often said they regarded their fellow performers and employers as a family. Accounts vary, but most seemed to make a fair salary probably more than they'd make working in the regular world. As early as 1851, trading cards of popular "freaks" circulated throughout England and the United States, with all profits going right to performers themselves.

The End Of The Sideshow "Freak"

By the 1940s, however, the display of sideshow "freaks" became a thing of the past.

Various factors including perceived exploitation — even though Barnum did tend to have a reputation for paying his performers well — and the advent and popularity of television played a role in the sideshow's virtual disappearance by the following decade.

The performers of yesteryear do still attract attention both for their courageous spirits or heartbreaking stories.

Grady Stiles Jr. a.k.a. "Lobster Boy" came from a long line of family members who suffered from the same birth defect that lent him his stage name. As an adult, he was an alcoholic and would eventually murder his daughter's fiancee. 1948

Frank Lentini was born with a parasitic twin, ultimately leaving him with a third leg. When his family moved to the United States from Italy, Lentini entered showbiz as "The Great Lentini," joining the Ringling Brothers Circus. 1914

Martin Laurello, the "Human Owl," could turn his neck a full 180 degrees. He appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island. 1938

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome allowed Felix Wehrle to stretch his skin to great length and take on the name "Elastic Man." 1902

Pasqual Pinon toured the United States as the "Two-Headed Mexican," decorating the tumor growing out of his head with a wax face. 1917

Dubbed the "Four-Legged Girl From Texas," Myrtle Corbin was born with a severe congenital deformity that caused her to have two separate pelvises and a smaller set of legs. 1882

Known as “The Ohio Big Foot Girl,” Fannie Mills suffered from Milroy disease, which caused her legs and feet to become gigantic. 1890

Born in Thailand in 1811, Chang and Eng Bunker toured as a curiosity act for three years before settling down in North Carolina. They married a pair of sisters and fathered 21 children. 1865