They say people come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it be tall or short, thick or thin, hairy or fire-proof, everybody is different. The thing is, some people get the really short end of the stick. Which makes it that much harder to accept them as ‘normal’. At least, that was the case a century ago when Freak Shows existed. During this time, if you had a deformity of any sort, you were pretty much banished to one career field. Which was that of an entertainer. At least back then you could make a profit out of your appearance, whereas now-a-days you could get a hefty fine or go to prison for revealing something deemed “inappropriate”.
Still, for a lot of entertainers, this wasn’t the life they wanted. Some wanted to go to school. Some wanted their deformity removed even if it killed them. And some weren’t coherent enough to even know what was going on. In the end, becoming a part of the Freak Show didn’t really seem like a choice. It was just… there. A last resort. Which was both a good and bad thing. Depending on how you look at it. Speaking of looking, here are 15 such “freaks” that actually were part of these shows.
15. Koo Koo The Bird Girl
Minnie Woolsey was born in Georgia in the late 1800s. Her early life is poorly documented, so it’s difficult to say whether she was abandoned by her family or sent away. All that’s known is that she was discovered in a mental asylum and was “rescued” by a sideshow entertainer’s company and worked for them for many years. Minnie had Virchow-Seckel syndrome, which is basically a bone malformation. It made her head small, and her face and nose narrow and ‘beaky’, like a bird. She also was unable to grow hair on her head, was completely toothless, and almost blind. It’s unknown when she died or how, but four years before she disappeared from history she was hit by a car and badly injured.
14. The Camel Girl
In 19th century Tennessee came Ella Harper. She was born with both knees facing backwards, but at the time, there was no name for such a medical deformity. Now, it’s known as Congenital Genu Recurvatum, which is just a fancy way of saying ‘backwards knees’. It is also said that she had a twin brother who died very young, but it isn’t known whether he had the same deformity or not; seeing as this is extremely rare, it’s unlikely he suffered from the same condition. Ella worked on many shows, getting a generous profit for her attendance every time, but ultimately wanted to go to school. Sadly she never did, but (ironically) later married a school teacher. She died of colon cancer presumably in her late forties.
13. The Human Pincushion
Mirin Dajo became famous in the early 1900s. Some say his act defies the laws of medicine. Since he could withstand virtually any stab wound without flinching. People would come from near and far to watch the man stand for hours, repeatedly getting stabbed by fencing swords or pointed needles that completely went through one side of his body and out the other. They say he contributes his ability to his studies in India. Where he learned to discipline himself mentally to ignore trauma. He’s even had doctors X-ray him to disprove all those that called him a liar, and lo and behold, he was telling the truth. However, no matter how much practise Mirin gained, his death was ultimately caused by his trade. After swallowing a long needle at the ripe age of 35, he had an aortic rupture and died.
12. The Headless Chicken
Mike, the chicken, wasn’t born headless. He did have a head at one point, but lost it in 1945. Farmer Lloyd Olsen was sent by his wife to pick one of their chickens to cook for dinner. When he swung the axe down on Mike’s head, he missed the jugular vein and brain stem. Because of this, Mike was able to show signs that he was still fully functional. He could walk around, peck and crow (which sounded more or less like a gurgle). Seeing Mike stirred something in Lloyd, so he decided to do his best to keep him alive. He fed him milk and grain with an eye dropper and watched over him closely. Mike survived for 18 months, then finally succumbed to death. Whether or not they ate poor Mike afterward is anyone’s guess.
11. The Minnesota Wooly Girl
Born as Alice Doherty in 1887, in Minneapolis, The Wooly Girl is the only known person in the entire world and history to be born with Hypertrichosis Lanuginosa. This disease caused Alice to grow silky blonde hair on random parts of her body, although most was on her face). She was put into shows at an early age and people would come see her and stare in awe at her adorable kitten-like appearance and playful behaviour. Or at least that’s how she’s been described. Clearly a blessing and a curse, her entire family was able to live generously due to her popularity and demand, but Alice slowly lost interest in the industry and retired at an early age with enough money to last until her death at the age of 46.
10. The Elephant Man
Joseph Merrick was born in London, 1862. Even today, he is still considered to have been one of the most famous side show entertainers in history. Joseph was born with multiple genetic defects which caused growths, tumors, and protrusions to cover his skin and bones. Interestingly enough, his deformities didn’t become obvious until he reached the age of 5. His mother blamed it on her fear of elephants, which she discovered during her pregnancy with Joseph and why she dubbed him the nickname “Elephant Man”. Unfortunately, Joseph didn’t make much money as an entertainer and was even once robbed by his manager. He died in his sleep due to asphyxiation.
9. Lionel The Lion-Faced Man
Stephan Bibrowski was born in Poland, 1891. It was unknown at the time why he grew hair all over his body, but his mother blamed it on an event that occurred during her pregnancy with Stephan, where she witnessed her husband face off with a lion. The more realistic story: Stephan was born with Hypertrichosis, which causes hair to grow all over the body. The interesting thing about Stephan’s case is that the pattern of his hair growth truly did resemble a lion, where others had no distinct look. Sadly, Stephan’s mother gave him away to a German entertainer because she thought he was a monster. However, Stephan grew up to be a very kind, educated man and could speak five languages. Stephan died of a heart attack at the age of 41.
8. The Human Skeleton
Born in Massachusetts 1841, Isaac Sprague was once a normal boy. At the age of 12, things started to change. Suddenly, Isaac was losing weight and very quickly. His fat and muscle had completely deteriorated into almost nothing. It forced him out of labour work and into a sideshow career. Doctors couldn’t explain why he was losing so much mass but deemed his condition ‘extreme progressive muscular atrophy’. By the age of 44, Isaac had had 3 sons, stood five foot six inches and weighed a whopping 43 pounds! Throughout his career, he didn’t seem to make much money, but that could be due to his gambling problems that people rumoured. He died in his late forties from asphyxiation.
7. The Incombustible Man
In the 19th century spawned Russian sideshow artist Chamouni. Little is known about his early life, but he became a big a hit at circuses as an adult. Chamouni had one exhibition where he would climb into an oven as hot as 250 to 350 degrees fahrenheit holding a raw leg of mutton as proof of his “ability”. He would sit in there for sometimes up to thirty minutes, waiting for the mutton to completely cook before exiting. Many people have doubts about his abilities, since it’s rumoured he’d been caught cheating on a different act which involved swallowing boiling water. However all talk came to an end after Chamouni’s last performance. Something must have gone horribly wrong because he left the oven in a pile of ash.
6. The Two-Faced Man
The story of Edward Mordrake is a sad one. He was born in the 19th century and no doctor could explain why he had a second face on the back of his head. It couldn’t speak or see, but it would apparently make the same expressions as Edward did on his more ‘prominent’ face; as if they were synced somehow. He went to multiple doctors, begging for someone to operate and remove his second face, but no one would even dare attempt it. He claimed that the second face was hateful and whispered devilish things to him at night. At the young age of 23, Edward committed suicide. As his last wish, he left behind instructions that the second face be destroyed upon his burial.
5. The Wonderful Invalid
Leonard Trask was born in Maine, 1805. His deformity first appeared in his late twenties after being thrown off of a horse after it was startled by a pig. He continued to work on his farm, even with his chin slowly bowing closer and closer to his chest until it was eventually touching it. Every action after that was miserable pain for Leonard. No longer able to work on his farm, he went into sideshow entertainment and quickly gained fame. Despite his discomfort, Leonard was able to father 7 children and died at the ripe age of 56. His condition was never diagnosed by the more than twenty doctors that had seen him, but it’s now known that he had Ankylosing Spondylitis, which affects only 0.2% of the world’s population.
4. Zazel The Human Cannonball
Rosa Richter was born in England, 1877. She’s described as not only acrobatic, but beautiful and with a great physique. She found the circus in her teens and became one of the first ‘cannon ball-ists’ in existence. People would sit in awe as she was shot seventy feet into the air and land safely in a net. The act itself is very dangerous since trajectory was always a question, but Rosa was always interested in being the highest shooter of them all. Everything went fine for a couple of years. Then during one of Rosa’s shows, her shot was off mark and she broke her back. Luckily she survived, but it was enough to make her retire completely.
3. The Polar Bear Princess
Ursula Blütchen was born in Poland, 1927. Her name in Latin literally translates to “bear” which is why she claimed to have such a strong connection with the beasts she worked with. Over the course of Ursula’s career, she’d trained fourteen polar bears and four kodiaks. She’d travelled with multiple circus companies, such as Ringling Brothers, Circus Berolina, Orfei’s Golden Circus, and many more. Despite being attacked by her bears twice, she continued to treat her animals with the utmost care and kindness. As she and the bears got older, she realized her performance was too taxing and did one final show before retiring. Ursula died in her home at the late age of 83.
2. The Human Unicorn
Well, not really a unicorn, but close enough. Wang was discovered in the 1930s by a Russian banker. The site must have been incredible as the banker found Wang had a fourteen-inch horn protruding out the back of his head. Very little is known about him because shortly after he was discovered, Wang simply disappeared. The banker got Wang’s consent to take pictures of him and eventually sent them to Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. After Robert had seen the photos and was impressed, he offered a huge cash award to Wang if he’d appear in one of his Auditoriums, but it seems this was never meant to be due to Wang’s disappearance. To this day, no one has seen Wang since.
1. Madam Gustika
Madam Gustika was from the Duckbill Tribe (or so she says). She had her lips stretched with disks over the course of many years to give her, her famed duck-like appearance. Although this is a traditional practice in many tribes, she turned it into a paying gig. Her first debut was in New York in the 1930s where all she did was smoke a pipe. Somehow, this was enough to make her a household name. Little is said as to what happened to her career after her years of work, one can only presume she made a lot of money and retired at an early age. Or maybe her lip stretching caused some kind of infectious death sentence. It’s unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out.