by Professor Vanessa Toulmin
The exhibition of freaks,
monstrosities or marvels of nature were essential components of
travelling exhibitions in Europe and
throughout the Victorian period. What was saleable as far as the
freak was concerned was, of course, physical difference, in a form
that was both marketable and palatable. The showman was an
essential component and it was the relationship between the
presenter and the exhibit that produced the freak show. The
exhibit of course, could not be seen before a show and therefore
needed the showman to market their particular attractions to the
curiosity seeking public. An essential part of the telling of the
tale consisted of wonderfully and medically impossible reasons to
explain to the audience the history of the person they were going
to see. The most popular attractions were oddities with
extraordinary talents, who could do supposedly normal things
despite their disabilities. A famous example of this type of act
and sort were Siamese twins, so called because of Chang and Eng,
the original twins were born in Siam in 1811 and brought to
America in 1829. Midgets were frequently advertised as being much
older than they actually were. Hirsute or bearded attractions
would range from Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy and the famous fake show
Hairy Mary from Borneo, which was in reality a monkey.
Hirsute faced ladies were a common
feature in the nineteenth century and famous names included
Leonine the Lion Faced Lady,
Bounds the Bear Lady and Annie Jones who appeared with Barnum and
Bailey's Circus. Other nineteenth century exhibits included
Patrick O’Brien the Irish Giant, a regular act at St Bartholomew's
Fair and Sam Taylor the Ilkeston Giant. Examples of physical
extremities included The Fat Boy of Peckham and Sacco-Homann the
famous fasting man and such was the popularity of fat women shows
that five alone could be found at Hull Fair, the largest
travelling fair in the United Kingdom in the 1890s.
The presentation of human oddities in
the Victorian era changed dramatically with P.T. Barnum and his
famous attraction Tom Thumb. When Barnum arrived in England in
1844 the British showmen were amazed that Barnum was hoping to
attract so much money for simply exhibiting a dwarf. However,
Barnum created a novelty act that would become one of the greatest
attractions of the Victorian Era. Charles Stratton - or Tom Thumb
- was eleven years old when first exhibited by Barnum in 1843.
Barnum changed his nationality from American to English, he
changed his age from four to eleven years old, and his name from
Charles Stratton to General Tom Thumb. When he left the States for
his European tour he became an instant attraction and was
presented to Queen Victoria on three separate occasions.
Dwarf and midget exhibitors such as
Major Mite, Harold Pyott (the English Tom Thumb) and Anita the
Living Doll, followed in the
of Charles Stratton and became highly successful sideshow
novelties. The effect of Barnum on the English showmen and the
public was immense and freak exhibits were found in a range of
exhibitions including shop fronts, penny gaffs, music halls and
travelling fairs. Side show or freak show performers appeared at a
variety of venues depending on the time of the year and their
prominence as an attraction.
Tom Norman, 'The Silver King', was the
English counterpart of Barnum. He exhibited his performers in shop
fronts, on his travelling fair or acted as an agent for the acts
and booked them in venues such as the Panopticon in Glasgow and
Nottingham. Norman started his career as a sideshow exhibitor in
the 1870s when he managed Eliza Jenkins the Skeleton Woman, the
Balloon Headed Baby and a whole range of freak show attractions.
However, as he stated in his autobiography "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."
By 1883 Norman came into contact with
Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man, perhaps one of the most famous
exhibits of the time. Tom Norman’s career continued after the
Elephant Man and over the next ten year he became involved
managing Mary Anne Bevan the World’s Ugliest Woman, John Chambers
the Armless Carpenter and Leonine the Lion Faced Lady.
Freaks shows were also essential
components of circus shows in America such as the Ringling
Brothers Barnum and Bailey’s sideshow. These stars were
immortalised in Todd Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, which featured
Daisy and Violet Hilton, Johnny Eck, Prince Randian the Living
Torso and Harry Earle the midget who falls in love with Cleopatra
the trapeze artist. Living novelty acts continued on carnivals and
midways in America and on the travelling fairs in the United
Kingdom for most of the twentieth century. Tommy Twinkle Toes
Jacobsen the armless wonder was a headline attraction on variety
hall and travelling shows and Hal Denver the son of Tom Norman
appeared with his knife throwing act on the Ed Sullivan Show in
America. However, for the British side show performers their
heyday was the Victorian period when the performers were household
names and patronised by the general public and royality alike.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin of the National
Fairground Archive is currently researching a book on the history
of the British Freak Show from 1850 - 1950. For further
information relating to the American freak show tradition please
see the following sources.
Bogdon, Robert, Freak Show: Presenting
Human Oddities for Fun and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago
Drimmer, Frederick, Very Special
People. New York: Amjon Publishing, 1973.
Fiedler, Leslie, Freaks: Myths and
Images of the Secret Self. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978
Fitzsimons, Raymond, Barnum in London.
London: Geoffrey Bles Ltd, 1969.
Jay, Ricky, Jay's Journal of
Anomalies. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001
Norman, Tom, The Penny Showman:
Memoirs of Tom Norman "Silver King". Privately published, 1985.
Saxon, A. H. P. T. Barnum: The Legend
and the Man. New York and London: New York University Press. 1989.
Thomson, Rosemary Garland, (ed)
Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York
and London: New York University Press, 1996.
This article reprinted with the
permission of Professor Vanessa Toulmin National Fairground Archive
University of Sheffield
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