Way back in the day, before the whole Internet thing came along, there used to be such things as traveling circuses and carnivals. Yes, these things still exist today, but they’re simply not what they used to be. Back then, these things were a really huge deal. People in towns, and even in large cities, would get super excited when the carnival came to town, and one of the reasons was because of the freak shows that came along with them.
That’s right, I said freak shows. People would come from miles away to check out people with physical deformities. They would pay money, go in a tent, and gaze upon the wreck that was someone else’s life. And while it might sound like I’m being overly dramatic, hey, I am old enough to have seen the Lobster Boy when I was a kid (except he wasn’t a boy at that point; he was well into his 50’s) and let me tell you, it was something I will never forget.
These days, if someone has something wrong with them physically, we tend to look the other way and ignore him or her, but back then, it was a whole different scene. What we might ignore now, back then, we could point at and laugh at, as long as we had paid the fee to get in. And yes, people of the time referred to that period as “the good ol’ days.”
Here are the 15 Most Infamous Circus Freaks of All Time:
15. Myrtle Corbin: The Four-Legged Girl
Myrtle, who was from Texas originally, was born with two extra legs — hence her circus nickname “The Four-Legged Girl.” Actually, she was born with two separate pelvises side by side, and each of these pelvises sprouted a pair of legs. More specifically, while her outer legs were fully grown, her two inner ones ended up being much shorter. And not very surprisingly, ever since she started being featured as a freak show performer at the age of 13, she was extremely popular. In fact, she was such a successful attraction that a lot of side shows added fake four-legged girls to their lineup just to try and draw in crowds as Myrtle had. Despite this success, however, she retired from featuring in circuses at the relatively young age of 18. She then ended up getting married and giving birth to four daughters and a son, living out what seems to have been a normal life despite her extra pair of lower limbs.
14. Fanny Mills: The Ohio Bigfoot Lady
There are some guys that are seriously into feet, but I doubt it if even guys with such a fetish will be turned on by Fanny Mills. She was actually born with an extremity-swelling disease called Lymphedema, which in Fanny’s case, caused her legs, and especially her feet, to swell. In fact, her feet ended up growing so big that she needed to wear a size 30 shoe. (Okay, so where did she get a size 30 shoe? It might have been easier to just modify a canoe or something.) In any case, Fanny’s story is a pretty good illustration of what this whole freak show scene was all about — this one chick had these really huge disgusting feet, and people lined up to pay money to check them out.
13. The Elastic Man: Felix Wehrle
Felix was known as The Elastic Man because he could “stretch his skin out and could also bend his fingers backwards and forwards.” Actually, Felix could stretch out the skin on any part of his body. This was because Wehrle suffered from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a condition that turns the skin extraordinarily flexible. On the positive side, it was this strange condition that allowed him to perform at many Barnum & Bailey shows. In fact, the “talent” could come in handy in some ways today, like maybe freaking people out when hanging out at bars, or when in line at the grocery store. But there is no doubt that being in a freak show was probably the best way for this guy to make money. That seems to be the ultimate question, really: Were circuses at the time exploitative for making money off of people like Felix, or were they actually helpful for providing a darn good job for someone who probably wouldn’t have been able to find work anyplace else?
12. Robert Huddleston: The Pony Boy
Next up, we have Robert Huddleston, also known as The Pony Boy. In truth, the circuses could’ve also dubbed him The Guy Who Could Not Stand Up, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as cool-sounding. He had something called “back knee deformity,” so he basically had to cruise around everywhere on all fours. Believe it or not, “Huddleston spent his early adulthood employed as a logging teamster where he hauled trees and lumber some fifteen miles a day while affixed to a wagon. He protected his hands from rocks and brush debris by lashing small wooden blocks to his hands with leather, and as a result of this heavy labour, Huddleston’s arm and shoulder strength practically became legendary among his peers.” Needless to say, he later became a freak show performer — but a very distinguished one nonetheless.
11. Chang and Eng: Siamese Twins
Speaking of distinguished performers, these two are, without a doubt, the most famous Siamese twins of all time. Born in 1811 in Thailand, they were spotted by a British merchant who brought them to America to be in freak shows. After making a ton of money on the circuit, they retired, bought land in North Carolina, and were, in fact, wealthy enough to take in some slaves. They even got married, and lived “in separate homes, with the brothers alternating half weeks in each.” Eventually, they had children, 21 between the two of them. And just as many Siamese twins do, Chang and Eng died just hours apart of each other, two-and-a-half hours apart to be exact. So you know, if you have to be born as one among Siamese twins, (and if you are one already, I apologize) you can always look to Chang and Eng as role models — those two really had it going on.
10. Ella Harper: The Camel Girl
Hey look, everyone — a Camel Girl! (Sorry, just trying to get into the whole freak show mood.) Ella had some issues with her back knees, which allowed her to bend them in such a way that she… well… looked like a camel. It appears that back in the 1880s, she was raking it in at the freak shows to the tune of around $200 a week — a ton of money in those days! That’s why it was a bit surprising that at her performances, passed around was a card that said, “I am called the camel girl because my knees turn backward. I can walk best on my hands and feet as you see me in the picture. I have traveled considerably in the show business for the past four years, and now, this is 1886, and I intend to quit the show business and go to school and fit myself for another occupation.” And the last line wasn’t just an empty threat to keep the crowds coming in either; Ella really did end up quitting show business and in fact settled down in marriage.
9. Stephan Bibrowski: The Lion-Faced Man
All right, so if this guy was born today, he would probably be thought of as the biggest hipster of all time. Bibrowski suffered from something they called Werewolf Syndrome but was scientifically identified as “hypertrichosis.” He was discovered in Europe when he was just 4 years old, and he ended up touring mostly that part of the world, although he did have a few stints in America, where he toured with Barnum and Bailey. Aside from having unusual looks, Stephan was also extremely intelligent and could speak 5 languages. Actually, the word was that he truly enjoyed his deformity and all of the opportunities that it brought to his life. And if we really think about it, that was a pretty smart and positive outlook for him to have!
8. Isaac Sprague: The Living Skeleton
So I probably don’t have to explain a whole lot about why this guy is in this particular article. Dude is skinny! He was apparently completely normal until he turned 12 years old, when all of a sudden, it became impossible for him to keep any weight on his body. Isaac was then taken to numerous doctors, which actually continued even when he was already a freak show performer. But still, he never managed to keep on any weight. As a result, when he died at around 46 years old, he weighed only 43 pounds. So the next time you complain about how much you need to lose weight, just imagine the whole scene that Isaac Sprague, The Living Skeleton, had to deal with. I don’t know about you, but this whole thing makes me want to go to McDonalds and supersize something right now.
7. Eli Bowen: The Legless Wonder
You know what’s kind of important? Legs. I mean seriously, legs are the things that you need to walk and perform other actions of that nature. But to Eli Bowen, not having legs just meant he picked up some pretty good coin in the freak shows. He actually had something called phocomelia disease, which is a genetic condition that results in “seal-like” limbs. But that’s really just a nice way to say that he had feet, but no legs (which is slightly worse than having legs and no feet, although not by a whole lot). However, despite his deformity, Bowen was known for being a great acrobat and was also extremely strong. Those skills are probably part of why he ended up making a good deal of money in the freak shows. Beyond the circus scene, Eli ended up getting married and having 4 normal children, who gave him great pride. He lived to be close to 80 years old.
6. Mirin Dajo: The Invulnerable Man
Hey kids, have you ever wanted to stick a sword through your chest? Yeah, me neither. But Mirin Dajo did. He started doing this in his 30s as he was hanging out in bars in Amsterdam. Actually, he made quite an amount by swallowing glass and razor blades and letting people pierce his body with objects. Soon, Mirin started a career in freak shows where he pierced himself with swords and other objects. According to an interview, “He also declared his invulnerability having been tested with burning irons, boiling water and having been shot through the head from half a yard distance on two occasions.” Okay, so obviously, this guy was some sort of master magician, or he was a total tough guy. In any case, it should go without saying: kids, don’t try this at home. Any of it.
5. Willie and George Muse: The Men From Mars
Only back in the days of freak shows could two black albino brothers be called The Men From Mars. They were originally from Virginia and were actually kidnapped as boys by bounty hunters working for the circus. There, they performed for food and housing but were not paid. Eventually, however, they were found by their mother, who sued the circus that had taken them in. Nevertheless, the brothers ended up going back to side show work, as they had become so good at it and were making such good money. They also lived pretty full lives — one brother died in 1971 at 78 years old, while the other lived another 30 years and died at the ripe old age of 108. Now isn’t that the happiest ending to a tale of kidnapping and slavery you’ve ever heard?
4. Betty Lou Williams: Parasitic Twin
Hmm, what haven’t we covered yet? There has to be something. Oh yeah, how about a parasitic twin? Betty Lou Williams was born in Georgia in 1932. But there’s something else to the story: she was also “born attached at the side to a parasitic sibling that consisted of two legs, one tiny arm-like appendage, and a more developed arm with three fingers. Despite the fact that the head of her twin was embedded deep within her abdomen.” So what’s such a girl to do? Well, join the circus, of course! Betty Lou ended up making a whopping one-thousand dollars a week in the freak show, which enabled her to buy a 260-acre farm for her parents, as well as send all her brothers and sisters to college. Sadly, however, she suffocated during an asthma attack when she was just 23.
3. Edouard Beaupre: Giant
Before Andre the Giant, there was Edouard Beaupre, who not only performed in freak shows, but wrestled as well. According to TheHumanMarvels.com, “Edouard was robust and possessed incredible strength. Rather than simply exhibit himself as a giant freak of nature, the giant Edouard Beaupré instead promoted himself as a strongman without equal. Ironically, the signature stunt of the former horseman was to lift a horse onto his shoulders – a stunt that stunned spectators and fellow strongmen.” Unfortunately, he died of a pulmonary hemorrhage when he was only 23 years old, but by that time, he was well over 8 feet tall. If you need to have any sense of how big that is, Andre the Giant was touted as being 7’4” tall.
2. Susi: The Elephant Girl
So I don’t know about you, but I don’t know a whole lot of women that would want to be known as The Elephant Girl. But this was the unfortunate fate of Susi, who had a condition called ichthyosis. It certainly didn’t give her a good time. “In early childhood, Susi’s ichthyosis manifested aggressively, and her skin quickly thickened, turned grey, and cracked to visually elephantine properties.” And while she obviously did not enjoy that a whole lot, it was Susi’s condition that allowed her to join some freak shows in the 1920s, despite the fact that she was actually very shy and did not like to exhibit herself a whole lot. All that being said, she was very successful at what she did and made a lot of money during her career. She even ended up working for The Ringling Brothers, which at the time was the height of the profession.
1. Grady Stiles: The Lobster Boy
Okay, so as I mentioned earlier, I actually saw the Lobster Boy. I was a kid, and it was in the 80s. I could’ve written a whole book about this experience as it was so weird, but today, what I remember the most from meeting Grady Stiles was that while I thought the experience was going to be super funny, instead, it ended up being really kind of sad. He suffered from ectrodactyly, which basically meant that his hands and feet were both shaped like claws. In fact, he was already part of the 6th generation in his family who was born like that. (Maybe his family should’ve just stopped having kids?) Tragically, in an alcohol-fueled rage, Grady ended up killing his daughter’s boyfriend and was put on 15 years probation instead of being sent to prison only because no facility could handle his disability. Later though, he was murdered by a killer hired by a member of his family, and the Lobster Boy was no more.