Sideshow Freakshow Oddities

When I was freshly married, my hubby and I went to the country fair. During the day we took the kids, but at night my mom came to the rescue and it was grownup time. We went to the Midway and to tell you how long ago this was, laser shows were still a thing. The Midway is very exciting with all the lights, barkers and rides; it would be easy to give them all your money. However, being who we

 Four legged Lady, Myrtle Corbin

Four legged Lady, Myrtle Corbin

were, we held onto much of our cash until we came to the Sideshow. We plunked down our money and went inside, curiosity driving us forward, fear holding us back a little. I mean who know what was in there, most likely it was a scam, a hoax and much like the 2 bucks we paid to see the WORLD’S LARGEST PIG. It was just a pig.

 Living Skeleton, Isac Sprague

Living Skeleton, Isaac Sprague

In we went.  Behind the  heavy, black velvet sideshow curtains, it was a dimly lit and as we filed in, staying behind the red velvet ropes,we saw some odd things. Most in jars. Could be real could maybe not be real. Whatever they were freaky. The one live attraction I remember was the Spider lady.  I knew it had to be fake. It was girl’s head inside of a really lifelike spider body. Huge it was. But how? The girl was talking to us and moving around. Not sure because we could see under and through the legs of the spiders body and saw the other side of the tent.

Now there we could have left and I would still be wondering to the day but the master of ceremonies came out and proceeded to tell us how it was done. Something about stairs and mirrors which I did not see till he pointed them both out. The magic was gone.  As so often happens though, there was more magic involved than we thought.  After the show we left like all the others but then happened to see the master of ceremonies outside having a cigarette. We went and talked to him. Turns out that he had gotten clean and sober and he would not let himself lie anymore. The topper was that this was his last season doing this. Him and his freaks (I am sure there were others. I just don’t remember, there is a vague impression of a guy with snakelike skin) had been working towards retirement. They owned a big ranch and there several acts had already retired. He, the master of ceremonies/owner needed to make sure there was enough money in the savings for them all to live comfortable and have medical bills paid. Too many of the performers had illnesses that required medical attention.  He felt he would be able to retire them all after that year.

Lionel the Lionfaced Man, Cristian Ramos

Lionel the Lionfaced Man,
Cristian Ramos

What an eye opener for me. I went in there thinking to see oddities and such. Perhaps out of morbid curiosity.  When I think of it I am not one to even think of another’s disability but the barker so made me want to go in.  I came out of there with a whole new respect. Not only for the showmanship but the people, the “family” that was part of it.  It wasn’t always like that for the performers.

The Half Lady, Mademoiselle Gabrielle

The Half Lady, Mademoiselle Gabrielle

Back in the good old days, they truly were thought of as freaks.  There was a time when pregnant women were kept from such oddities, or being scared, as they thought that the baby would turn out to be a freak itself.  It was called maternal impression and was the medical term for birth defects. John Merrick one of the most famous of all sideshow freaks, was called the Elephant Man and it was thought that his mother had been frightened by an elephant and ergo, elephant man was born.

The Elephant Man’s story was one that became famous for outing the cruelty of sideshow’s boss (es). He was treated poorly by most; one even stole all his savings.  That is how he ended up at the London Hospital. He was abandoned in Brussels and Dr. Treves’s card was on him. He lived out his life in the London museum. Of course, it was not during his time that sideshow freaks became known as just disabilities. That didn’t happen for almost a hundred years after his death.  During

his time, disabled people were usually y put in asylums, abandoned at birth, or just lived on the fringes on society. Or they became a part of the sideshow as a curiosity.

The displaying of “freaks” has a long history.  In 1630, Lazarus Colloredo, and his conjoined twin

Lazarus und Joannes Baptista Colloredo Bartholin

Lazarus und Joannes Baptista Colloredo Bartholin

brother, Joannes Baptista, (attached at Lazarus’ sternum) tour Europe. Peter the Great (1704–

1718) collected human oddities. Joseph Merrick was displayed in 1884 in London. While all those were long time ago, and we would like to think we are more compassionate towards people with “oddities” and disabilities, it is not so.  From 2000-2010, Ken Harck’s Brothers Grim Sideshow featured such acts as a bearded lady (Melinda Maxi) and the Mexican Werewolf Boy (Jesus “Chuy” Aceves).  Today, 2016, we have such shows as America’s (or whatever country) Got Talent. There we see the “self-made” freaks. Those people who swallow things or shove things into their bodies, perhaps the guy who jumps on tacks.
In today’s world, it is not considered good taste to display a person with disabilities whatever they may be. In fact, in the 1800’s a person with no arms or legs was called a Torso and was a big draw to the sideshow. Now we admire their strength in overcoming the obstacles. Times have changed, but the freak show lives on, but it remains a subculture where the participants are willing.

 

 

circus-freak-show

 

 

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freak_show#Historical_timeline
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Merrick
http://mentalfloss.com/article/50078/true-stories-behind-11-famous-sideshow-performers
http://skepdic.com/maternal.html
http://www.sideshowworld.com/10-SP1/2014/Ken-H/Bros-Grim.html
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/26/welcome-to-gibtown-the-last-freakshow-town-in-america
http://www.saint-petersburg.com/museums/kunstkammer-museum-antropology-ethnography/