by Ruben De Somer

 1. Intro


Ghent is the capital of East-Flanders and can be found in Belgium. Each year a 10 day festival takes place called the “Gentse feesten”. As many years before it took place again in July 2005. However there was a difference this year, a unusually high amount of sideshow performers. The latter is not as strange as it seems because each year there’s also, during the Gentse feesten, a street theatre festival.


However before starting to uncover the “freaks” or should we say the exhibited people, I thought it would be interesting to give a short overview of who those people on display are or should we say were.


1. The ethnographic cabinet: exotic man and his so-called culture[1] ( e.g. Chinese, Africans, Indians, etc.. )


2. People with a disease or genetic deviation: Siamese twins, giants, dwarf, hairy-people, etc... 


3. People who adapt themselves so that they can be exhibited: tattooed men and women, contortionists, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, etc.. 


4. The wax statue museum and oddity cabinets: 


1. Anatomical models


2. (In) Famous people: killers, murders, royalty eg. “Prince Imperial”  


3. Deformed children floating in jars, most of the time this where children which had a genetic defect and had died subsequently.


4. Mummies, petrified corpses, skeletons of dead (in)famous people


After this short exposé we will now try to compare the “human oddities” from the past with those from the present.


2. Levende mensen:

     (English tranlation - Live people)


First of all there were the big budget shows like “Puppetry of the Penis” and the “New Jim Rose Freakshow”[2].  Concerning puppetry of the penis we can be brief. The act mainly consists of “how flexibel the art of genital origami is” or what can you do with your member other than sex or urinating, a lot so it seems.


The New Jim Rose freakshow is in essence nothing more than a test of human endurance. The majority of the acts seem to concentrate on what one can do with his body. Most of the acts belonged to the realm of fakirs and contortionists. The new cast consisted of the dazzling appearance of Miss Amber Pie[3], allegedly a pornstar, she even wore some of the classic porn “props”, a school girls outfit and high heels. There was Rupert, one of the youngest ones around, Big Mak, who got his name from a big hamburger chain and the fact that he was very fat (until now he hasn’t been sued, though he signs his stage name as Big Mak. The older generation was also present, there was Jim Rose, less hair then when I remember him ten years ago, Bébé the enchanting circus queen and Mr Lifto.


From Jim Rose we move on to the French Madame Rose[4], who showed the best of herself as a well trained carnival artist. However her most distinguishing feature was her beard. Yes she was a bearded lady, a new Clementine Delait. She brought a show were “Fantasy, Magic and Mystery” were the main attractions. She cut a woman in two and managed to smash glasses unexplainably.


A second attraction that was on display in Ghent was the man who could breath underwater. Chani Minne is Amsterdam variete artist who masters the art of breathing underwater. Five years ago he also performed at the Gentse feesten with “Circus Wonder”. However this time around he needs a tub of water and his eyes. Chani blows “vents of air” through his eyes and thus creates bizarre bubbles of air. During my years of collection and research I haven’t come across any “airblowing eyes artists”. However there are many artists where living underwater plays an important role.[5]


And finally no fair is complete without “the man with 6 senses”. Clear-feeling Rob, and his assistant Emiel could see without seeing. He describes himself as clear-feeling. His assistant Emiel provided him with objects donated by the public. The latter had to give them to Rob who had to describe them. As such he managed to read “namecards” blindfolded and he could even feel the serial number on a banknote. According to his assistant there is no fraud involved. The newspaper article also refers that Rob is completely dressed in white, which gives him a high “messiah” element.


And finally there’s the body art of the Italian troupe “Girovago e Rondella”. Beside their “handpuppetry”, they also perform as a family circus. In one of the acts the father turns his own body into a doll. He had painted a mouth and two eyes on his body. The eyes were his breasts and the mouth could be found on his belly. By using his muscles he could animate his “eyes”. The lower abdominal muscles moved the mouth while the eyes were moved by the breast muscles.




In conclusion I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the scheme we gave in the beginning. What’s left of the “panoptikum” of freaks in the 21st century. Let’s start with those attractions that seem to have disappeared. The ethnographic cabinet seems to have gone, at least at the festival in Ghent.[6] The wax statues and oddity cabinets have also disappeared into the mists of oblivion. What about the others?


The others are alive and kicking. However the new freaks of nature are mostly made freaks. We’ve got most of Jim Rose’s troupe, “Girovago”, the clear-feeling Rob, Chani the bubble blowing man, “puppetry of the penis”. The exception to the rule is of course “Big Mak” the fatboy contortionist and Mme Rose, the bearded lady. 


Chani reminds me of the “Les Dexters”, an early 20th century paranormal outfit. According to their pitchcard, they mastered “Prestidigation, Spiritisme simulé, Mnémotechnie, calcul mental rapide, transmissionde pensée et peinture “éclair”. (English tranlation - Simulated spiritism, Mnemotechny, fast mental calculation, transmissionde thought and painting "flash)  Nothing new here. The bearded Lady was a combination of a magician’s show and her « beard ». Most of the bearded ladies of the 19th and 20th century just displayed themselves to the public, while running a food stand or did nothing at all.




 “Het Laatste Nieuws, 22/07/05”

  (English tranlation - The Last News)

[1] The reason why we are writing “so-called” is because in some cases completely fraudulent life histories where created, eg. “Die geschichte der Azteken-Liliputer” (English tranlation - "the history of the Aztec Liliputer") a German booklet from around 1860 (the booklet is non-dated but an English written edition exists and is dated to 1860.  The same goes for a brochure of the Obi-Ji-Wah Indians. 

[3] In a way she was a connection with the strippers from the girly shows.  For more info on strippers we refer to “Eye Candy” in Shocked and Amazed vol 5, p. 39-46, 1998.

[4] No family J

[5] Zo traden bijvoorbeeld in 1896 de Wassermenschen op in Wurzburg, die aten, schreven, musiceerden onder water. (pamflet verzameling auteur) (English tranlation - Thus acted for example in 1896, the Wassermenschen in Wurzburg, which ate, wrote, made music under water (leaflet collection author)

[6] One of the current hits on television is “Allez, Allez,  Zimbabwe”. In which a group of black Zimbabweans plays a role in a documentary soap in which they learn to become good cyclist under guidance of a retired cyclist.


1 by Jan Ruymen

2 “Girovago e Rondella” the father turning his body into a doll


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