American Horror Story: Freak Show premiered in October, and television fans have been buzzing about this season’s controversial themes. The show brings to life the sideshow circuit back in early 1900s America – and in many cases, the show uses people who actually have similar conditions to the sideshow characters, whenever possible. For instance, Legless Suzi is played by Rose Siggins who has no legs in real life. The Illustrated Seal is portrayed by Mat Fraser who was born with Phocomelia syndrome which causes the upper limbs to be shortened. Ben Woolf, who plays Meep, was born with Pituitary Dwarfism. And of course, who could forget about Elsa’s assistant, Mr. Petite, played by Jyoti Amge, who just so happens to be the smallest person in the world.
Of course, not all of the characters are portrayed by people with actual conditions, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t inspired by real people who once lived and worked the sideshow circuit in the early 20th century. In fact, Pepper (who is played by a fully able-bodied actress) successfully passes for one of the most beloved sideshow performers of all time.
Who are these side-show “freaks” and what was their life like back in those days? Keep reading to find out!
13. Martin Laurello – The Human Owl/Bobby the Boy with the Revolving Head
Martin Laurello was an otherwise ordinary looking man with the extraordinary ability to turn his head completely around. It’s unknown how he could do this, though it’s believed it was likely linked to a genetic trait. Of course, most of us would end up seriously injured, or worse, if we tried this.
It’s said, though, that Laurello couldn’t breathe while his head was in that position, but he could still take a drink. And this skill allowed him to perform in circuses around Europe and the United States in the 1920s, including stints with Barnum & Bailey, Ringling Bros, and Ripley’s Odditorium (famous for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not). Martin could have gone even farther, but it’s said he had a terrible attitude – and that he was a Nazi sympathizer. He retired, and little is known about what happened to him, though it’s believed he died sometime in the 1950s.
12. Schlitzie – The “Pinhead”
If you’ve watched American Horror Story, you’re probably familiar with the character of Pepper. Pepper is based on a real person, and that person is Schlitzie. Schlitzie’s true identity may never truly be known, but it’s believed he was born Simon Metz. He was born with with microcephalus which caused his head to be abnormally small and pointed, giving way to the term “pinhead” back in the day.
It’s a condition that caused Schlitzie to have the mental capacity of a four year old. His parents remain a mystery as they sold him to a showman for a display since “pinheads” were common in the sideshow circuit at that time. But don’t fret; while he may have had rather humble, perhaps even tragic, beginnings, he actually went on to become one of the most beloved performers of the circus circuit.
He was taken in by a chimpanzee trainer who became his guardian, but when he passed, the trainer’s daughter left him at the Los Angeles County Hospital. Schlitzie may have stayed there had it not been for a sword swallower who recognized him, and subsequently requested to be his guardian. Schlitzie missed performing, however, and once released he went back into the circuit and was cared for by other performers for his entire life. He died at the age of 71 in 1971, and up until his death, he could be found feeding the ducks and performing for people on the street.
11. Daisy and Violet Hilton – Conjoined Twins
While it’s true that many sideshow performers chose to perform for their own reasons, not all of them went into the circuit willingly. Such was the case of Daisy and Violet Hilton. Daisy and Violet were conjoined twins, though unlike some, they had separate organs and limbs and were actually only connected by some flesh, bone and muscle.
Their mother was poor and unmarried, and couldn’t afford to raise them, so she sold them to her boss, Mary Hilton. Mary was controlling and abusive to the girls, and she trained them to perform and dance. Seeking her fortune from the conjoined twins, Hilton took them on tours around the country that started when they were just three years old. They were dressed up like dolls and brought in record crowds all over the world just to watch them perform. Mary Hilton ended up getting rich off the girls, and they never saw a penny. When Mary died, guardianship fell to her daughter – who was even more abusive to the girls than her mother.
Eventually, the truth came out that they were little more than slaves, and they were awarded a large sum of money for their troubles. More importantly, they were freed after having spent 21 terrible years as virtual slaves.
Given money and their freedom, things should have gotten better for the sisters. Sadly though, they lived a life of excess and were plagued by legal issues, clashes with the media and various other problems. Their careers nose dived, and they ended up in poverty. They were found dead in their home in 1969 after they failed to report to work at the grocery store at which they were employed, bringing a sad life to a sad end.
10. Prince Randian – The Human Caterpillar
Prince Randian, like many of these performers, had a rather humble beginning. He was born in 1871 to Indian slave parents in British Guiana. He was born without arms or legs, but remarkably, he became self-sufficient. He came to the United States in the 1880s and performed at museums and other shows, eventually going on to perform for P.T. Barnum, showcasing his ability to shave, paint, roll cigarettes, and even strike a match and light it – all without arms or legs.
His most common nickname was The Human Caterpillar because he’d often move around by writhing on the floor like a worm. He performed in carnivals and sideshows for 45 years. Randian married and eventually had five children, retiring from the sideshow circuit in 1934. A massive heart attack took his life at the age of 63.
9. Le Petomane – The Fartiste
Not all sideshow performers were there because of unique physical features. A few became famous for their talents – some more unusual than others. Joseph Pujol, known as Le Petomane, became one of the best-known and highest paid performers in France during his time. And what was his amazing ability?
Well, he was what was called a flatulence artist. People in the late 1800s enjoyed fart jokes as much as the rest of us, it seems, and he made a name for himself by being able to control his emissions. Not only could he pull in air and control it, he could also do the same with water. He controlled his farts, and could produce different notes and sounds. He’d start out his show with “fart impressions” showcasing humor that would still make many of us laugh to this day. One such impression he called the “new bride,” where he simply let out a tiny fart. He’d follow it up with a bellowing, loud, obnoxious one and explain that it was the same bride a week into marriage.
He could also blow out candles with nothing but his toots, and the finale of his show consisted of him inserting a tube into his behind, attaching an ocarina to the end of it, and playing popular songs, even inviting the audience to sing along.
Le Petomane passed away at the age of 88, but because his family declined to have any sort of studying done on him and his famous bottom, his ability will forever remain a mystery.
8. Juan Baptista dos Santos – The Man with Two Swords
Juan Baptista dos Santos was considered a rather attractive child. He was fit, handsome and normal but for the fact that he had two sets of genitals and an extra limb. The third leg dangling from his pubic area was actually two limbs fused together and the limb was freely movable.
As far as the two penises go, he would urinate from both at the same time, and they apparently came in pretty handy with the ladies. He was described as having a voracious sexual appetite, and it’s said that once he finished with one of his penises, he’d just switch over to the other and continue whatever he was doing.
7. The Ovitz Family – A Family of Little People
The Ovitz family were a family of little people who made a living by touring Central Europe and performing in a traveling music troupe. The continued touring even as Hitler was taking over Europe by concealing their Jewish identities. Eventually though, they were captured and like many other Jews, were loaded up and sent off to Auschwitz where they caught the attention of Dr. Josef Mengele, otherwise known as the Angel of Death for his cruel and horrendous experimentation.
Once he noticed the family, he was ecstatic. The family was segregated and subjected to horrid experimentation that included injecting foreign material into their uteruses, extracting fluid from their spines, pulling out their teeth and blinding several of the family members with harsh chemicals. They endured seven months of torture before Auschwitz was liberated and they were rescued by Soviet troops.
After their release, the family went back to performing in Eastern and Central Europe.
6. Minnie Woolsey – Koo-Koo The Bird Girl
Minnie Woolsey is yet another performer that fans of American Horror Story will likely recognize. The character of Meep very well may have been based upon the real-life Minnie Woolsey who went by the nickname Koo-Koo.
Woolsey was born in 1880, and it’s believed she had Virchow-Seckel syndrome which is characterized by a small head, a beak-like nose, and a receding jaw. In this instance, it also left Minnie nearly blind so she had to wear thick glasses. She spent most of her early years in an asylum until she was rescued and joined the sideshow circuit. Initially shy, she eventually grew to love the attention and would dance and shake around on stage. She ended up in the 1932 movie Freaks as Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, wherein she was dressed in feathers with chicken-like feet. She danced around on a table, and from then on, became famous.
No one knows what happened to Minnie. Some say she lived a long life and performed well into her 80s while others say she was hit by a car and killed before that.
5. Ella Harper – The Camel Girl
Ella Harper had a rare and unusual condition where her knees bent backward. This caused her to prefer to walk on all fours instead of on her feet, which earned her the nickname “The Camel Girl.” She was touted as one of the most wonderful freaks of nature to ever exist. She was noted as saying that she intended to stop performing and get an education, which as far as anyone can tell, she did. There’s no mention of her after 1886, when she mentioned her desire to go to school, and the only records anyone has ever found show an Ella Harper who got married in 1905 and died in 1921, but it’s not certain it’s the same Ella Harper, otherwise known as The Camel Girl, or not.
4. Fanny Mills – The Ohio Bigfoot Lady
Fanny Mills was a tiny woman, weighing in at just 115 pounds. But she had an unusual condition that caused her feet to require a size 30 shoe. Fanny had Milroy’s Disease which causes swelling and fluid buildup in the lower extremities, making her have the larger than normal feet which became her claim to fame. Because of her condition, she couldn’t walk without help, and she brought along a friend to attend to her needs as she exhibited herself at dime museums in the 1880s.
Promoters of her events often offered a five thousand dollar reward for any man willing to marry the Ohio Bigfoot Lady, causing men to show up and pay admission to meet her. But the joke was on them – Fanny was already married to a man who wasn’t paid to do so. But the money brought in by the promotion allowed her to earn a small fortune before her health went downhill, forcing her to retire.
3. Myrtle Corbin – The Four-Legged Woman
The cruel irony about Myrtle Corbin being the four-legged woman is that of all four of her legs, she only had one good foot, thus she had trouble walking. The two extra limbs that could be seen sticking out from the bottom of her dresses didn’t actually belong to her – they belonged to her dipygus twin sister. Her twin’s body was only developed from the waist down and only had three toes on each foot. Myrtle could control the limbs of her sister, but not walk with them. She was a popular attraction for P.T. Barnum and Ringling Bros where she’d dress up the extra limbs in shoes and socks matching her own. She made a very handsome $450 a week.
Myrtle married a doctor and had five children. And this is where things get a little stranger – Myrtle’s twin not only had two legs, but she also had a fully formed vagina that menstruated. Because of this, it’s rumored that some of her children may have been born from the second vagina. While it’s never been confirmed, it is said to be medically possible.
2. Pauline Musters – The Little Princess
Pauline Musters was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest mature woman ever recorded. She stood only 1 foot, 11 inches tall. In fact, when she was born, she was already half of her full-grown height. When she was nine, she weighed only three pounds, and as an adult, she never weighed more than nine pounds. People marveled at her tiny proportions when she was a baby, but she took to performing as she grew older. She became an acrobat and dancer as well, taking on many stage names over the course of her career. Perhaps her most well known name though, was Princess Pauline, notable for the exquisite evening gowns she would wear on stage. The gowns themselves were magnificent in and of themselves, which only enhanced the popularity of her show.
Unfortunately, Pauline contracted pneumonia and meningitis, dying fairly young in 1895.
1. Grady Stiles Jr. – The Lobster Boy
Evan Peters plays Jimmy Darling in American Horror Story: Freak Show; a man with lobster claws for hands. The condition is known as ectrodactyly, but is often called “Lobster Claw” syndrome due to the unusual shape of the hands where the middle finger is missing and the hand is cleft. This syndrome is often genetic, and the Stiles family is one such family known to pass down the condition. Grady Stiles Sr. was already a sideshow attraction when his son, Grady Stiles Jr. was born. He brought the boy along and added him to the show at an early age.
Young Grady’s condition was more severe, however. Not only were his hands affected, but his feet were as well. He couldn’t walk, so he used his hands and arms to get around, causing him to develop incredible upper body strength. He married twice and several of his children who were afflicted with the same condition toured with him.
However, Grady was also an alcoholic and was prone to beating his wife and kids. When one of his daughters wanted to marry a man he didn’t approve of, Grady killed the man. He got out of prison time because he claimed the prisons couldn’t accommodate his disability. Getting away with murder only made him more violent, and his wife and stepson paid another sideshow performer $1500 cash to put three bullets in his head in 1993.
One of his daughters, Cathy Stiles, has taken up acting and was seen in Carnivale and Big Fish. She also has a daughter with the condition.