Freak Shows


by Professor Vanessa Toulmin


The exhibition of freaks, monstrosities or marvels of nature were essential components of travelling exhibitions in Europe and America 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, Alice 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 example 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 with 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 Press, 1988


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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