Freak shows are exhibitions of people who have a wide range of biological rarities, shown to the public as a form of entertainment. Although in today’s culture such shows are deemed as exploitative and demeaning, freak shows have been enjoyed by thousands of people across the world for centuries.
Freak shows became extremely popular in England in the 16th century. People with physical deformities were no longer deemed as evil spirits, but rather public curiosities. Crowds of people gathered to witness such exhibitions, and stared in horror at the ‘freaks of nature’ they saw before them.
One such example is that of Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, a pair of conjoined brothers who were born in Italy in 1617. Whilst Lazarus was able to function normally, his brother was attached to his chest, with only his torso and left leg protruding. Now known as a parasitic twin, Joannes was unable to speak, and his eyes remained shut throughout his life. To earn a living, Lazarus went on tour with his twin, travelling to Germany, Denmark, Turkey and England, where he appeared at the court of Charles I in 1640.
Besides occurring in high class settings such as the courts, freak shows were also common in fairgrounds and taverns. This allowed for the lower classes of society to participate in what was quickly becoming one of the country’s most favourite pass times. In many of the taverns, the ‘freaks’ often performed tricks or dances, and worked under the advice and supervision of their sideshow managers.
The Rise of The Freak Show
It was the turn of the 19th century which saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of freak shows, predominantly in England and America. There was a huge public demand for commercially run enterprises, as opposed to individually managed ‘freaks’. People were willing to pay large sums of money to witness rare deformities that would shock them into repulsion.
Sideshows, more commonly known as freak shows often contained various acts in one night. Ten in One shows were commonly used, displaying ten ‘freaks’ on a platform for the audience to see as they slowly pass by. As an intermission from the unsettling deformities, many acts contained magicians, and people with talents such as fire eating or sword swallowing to lighten up the evening.
In England, a man named Thomas Noakes, later known as Tom Norman, witnessed an exhibition of Mlle Electra, the ‘electric lady’. On seeing how popular the event was with his local community, Norman quickly began his own business as a showman of oddities. His business thrived for several years, and he became one of the most famous showmen of his time. Throughout the years, he provided acts such as:
Eliza Jenkins, aka The Skeleton Woman, a Balloon-Headed Baby, a woman who bit heads off live rats, several giants, dwarves and an alleged family of midgets. He toured the country with his acts, and owned a total of 13 shops across London and Nottingham, which meant that he was constantly on the search for more people with physical oddities.
In 1884, a young man named Joseph Merrick from Leicester was sent to London and into Norman’s care. Known as the ‘Elephant Man’, Merrick had severe physical deformities, so shocking that Norman was reluctant to show him. Despite his apparent hesitancy, Norman displayed Merrick at his shop at 123 Whitechapel Road, where the show was a success until it was shut down by the police just weeks after opening.
John Merrick and Tom Norman parted ways after the police intervention, and Merrick went on to live out the rest of his days at the London Hospital. Frederick Treves, a British surgeon who first witnessed Merrick at Norman’s shop, claimed Norman to be an infamous drunk whom exploited Merrick. Norman counteracted the claims, stating that he had provided Merrick (and many others) with a steady income and personal independence. He also claimed that now Merrick was living at the hospital, he was on a permanent display, with no free will to choose otherwise.
The Fall of the Freak Show
By the end of the 19th century, the general public were beginning to find freak shows distasteful, and many members of the audience complained about the cruel nature which surrounded them. As scientific advancements were being made, the public began to understand the mystery behind physical deformities, and looked on them with pity and sympathy, as opposed to shock and horror.
Laws began to be passed in many countries, stating that the exhibition of deformed human beings was forbidden due to its cruel and exploitative nature. Despite this, such freak shows are still popular events in many countries around the world.
1630s – Lazarus Colloredo, and his conjoined twin brother, John Baptista, who was attached at Lazarus’ sternum, tour Europe.
1704–1718 – Peter the Great collected human oddities at the Kunstkammer in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia.
1738 – The exhibition of a creature who “was taken in a wook at Guinea; ’tis a female about four feet high in every part like a woman excepting her head which nearly resembles the ape.”
1810–1815 – Sarah Baartman (aka “Hottentot Venus”) exhibited in England and France.
1815 – Sara Baartman dies of illness, possibly smallpox, syphilis, or tuberculosis. After finding herself unable to return to Africa, she fell into depression and a life of prostitution and alcoholism.
1837 – Waring, Raymond and Co. becomes the first circus to also advertise as a menagerie and museum of freaks.
1841 – P. T. Barnum becomes the proprietor of the American Museum in New York City, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street. He purchases and exhibits his first attraction: Joice Heth, the supposedly 161-year-old nurse of George Washington. The museum brings the “freak show” to prominence in the American popular amusement industry.
1880 – Coney Island starts its own freak show. As of 2013, the act is still ongoing.
1884 – Joseph Merrick, exhibited as “The Elephant Man” by Tom Norman in London’s East End.
1903 – Letter of complaint published by then New York World signed by representatives of the Barnum and Bailey Sideshow, addressed to James A. Bailey. It protested the use of the word “Freak” used in the advertisements of the slide-show hall.
1908 – “Circus and Museum Freaks, Curiosities of Pathology,” the first scientific publication to condemn freak shows, appears in the journal, Scientific American.
1931 – September 18. Michigan bans the exhibition of “deformed human beings” in the act: 750.347 Deformed human beings exhibition. Michigan is only one of a small handful of states that have outright banned freak shows, most states in the US still permit them.
1932 – Tod Browning’s film ‘Freaks’ tells the story of a travelling Freak show. The use of real freaks in the film provoked public outcries, and the film was relegated to obscurity until its re-release at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Two stars of the film were Daisy and Violet Hilton conjoined sisters who had been raised being exhibited in Freak Shows.
1960 – Albert-Alberta Karas (two siblings, each half man, half woman) exhibits with Bobby Reynolds on sideshow tour.
1984 – Otis Jordan, the “Frog Man,” is prohibited from exhibiting himself at the New York State Fair as a part of Sutton’s Slide-show when a concerned citizen protested that Jordan was being exploited. Jordan resents the concern.
1991 – Jim Rose Circus plays the Lollapalooza Festival, starting a new wave of performers and resurgence of interest in the genre.
1992 – Grady Stiles (the lobster boy) is shot in his home in Gibsonton, Florida.
1996 – Chicago shock-jock Mancow Muller presented Mancow’s Freak Show at the United Center in the Summer of 1996, to crowd of 30,000. The show included Kathy Stiles and her brother Grady III as the Lobster Twins.
2000–2010- Ken Harck’s Brothers Grim Sideshow debuted at the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee, WI. The Milwaukee run included a fat lady and bearded lady Melinda Maxi, as well as self made freaks The Enigma and Katzen.
2005 – “999 Eyes Freak show” founded, touting itself as the “last genuine travelling freak-show in the United States.” 999 Eyes portrays freaks in a very positive light, insisting that “what is different is beautiful.”
2007- Wayne Schoenfeld bring together several sideshow performers to “The L.A. Circus Congress of Freaks and Exotics,” to photograph sideshows folks for “Cirque Du Soleil – Circus of the Past.” In attendance were: Bill Quinn, the half man; Percilla, the fat lady; Mighty Mike Murga the Mighty Dwarf; Dieguito El Negrito, a wild man; fire-eaters; sword swallowers, and more.
Modern Freak Shows
Whilst in western countries, freak shows of their original nature are banned, many claim that they do continue, just in a different form. The modern freak-show is argued to be readily available on television, in the form of a documentary series such as BodyShock and Extraordinary People. Arguments exist both for and against such programmes.
Those in favour of them claim that the documentaries raise public awareness of certain health conditions, and give those affected a change to gain support and any possible medical assistance. Those against the programmes declare that they are no better than the old freak shows, where disabled and deformed people are taken advantage of and exploited for the enjoyment of others.