From the Medieval times up until the early 19th century, Kings and their royal courts enjoyed being entertained. Court jesters, performance troupes, and ‘freaks’ were quite popular and regular entertainment for the royals. High society lived for being horrified, turned on by erotica, or enduring bouts of hysterical fits of laughter.
Individuals and exotic animals with physical deformities were seen in European royal courts up until the nineteenth century. Sometimes they were accompanied by showmen. Most of their backstories were completely fabricated to make them all the more alluring and mysterious to their audiences. Showmen forced them to either stand to be stared at, poked, and prodded or put on some sort of demeaning performance.
Traveling freak shows or oddity museums were also popular entertainment in the 19th century. P.T. Barnum was the most famous showman, equally remembered for his menagerie of performers and his grandiose publicity campaigns centered around hoaxes. His most famous hoax was the mermaid. He made a pretty penny off selling people tickets to view the remains of a mermaid….
P.T. Barnum’s most famous performer would have to be the one who also made him the most money. General Tom Thumb was a dwarf who stood 25 inches tall and weighed a little over 9 pounds.
Others with physical deformities that ended up in freak shows were not as lucky in regards to the treatment they received from their employers. Many had their entire life savings stolen from them leaving them destitute and depending on the generosity of churches and poor houses. The fourth season of the television series American Horror Story actually centered around freak shows and included characters that were based on real life performers. The bearded woman, the siamese twins, and others were inspired by people that were forced to make a living using their physical deformities to entertain audiences around the world. Let’s take a closer look at 15 of the Creepiest Circus Acts in History…
15. Grady Stiles, Lobster Boy
Grady Stiles, otherwise known as “Lobster Boy”, was a freak show performer. He was born with ectrodactyly, a condition which fused his fingers and toes together so they appeared like large claws. He couldn’t walk so he learned to crawl using his elbows.
As a child Grady performed in side shows with his father who also had ectrodactyly. Grady married twice and had four children. Two of the four inherited ectrodactyly. Grady took his family to perform on the road. They called themselves “The Lobster Family”. Unfortunately, all was not well in the Stiles household. Grady was a belligerent, alcoholic who physically and verbally abused his family.
After killing his daughter’s fiance in a fit of alcohol-induced rage, Grady was sentenced to 15 years probation. He didn’t get a prison sentence because there were no prisons able to take care of his special needs. Grady quit alcohol for a short time. He soon picked it up again. His family was fed up. His wife and her son from a previous marriage arranged to have Grady killed.
In 1992, they hired another side show performer, Chris Wyant, to kill Grady. Grady was murdered and his wife and son were charged and sent to prison for second degree murder. A Lobster Man character, based on Grady, has appeared in several television shows and films including American Horror Story.
14. Lady Myrtle Corbin, Four-Legged Girl
Lady Myrtle Corbin was born with two pelvises and two sets of external and internal genitalia. It was a rare condition known as dipygus. She had eight brothers and sisters who were normal. At the age of thirteen years old she started doing side show performances and earning a good income. She was able to retire at the age of 18.
Myrtle married and fell pregnant a year later. Unfortunately, the pregnancy was in her left uterus and was going to end up killing her if the pregnancy wasn’t terminated. After the abortion she made a complete recovery. She ended up having 5 more children without any complications. It is thought that her subsequent pregnancies were in her right uterus. Myrtle died in 1928 after living a relatively normal, happy life.
13. Cristian Ramos, Lionel the Lion
Hypertrichosis is a condition that causes excess hair growth. Its effects can be mild or in the case of Cristian Ramos, quite severe. Cristian was born in Poland in he 1890s. He had long, thick hair covering his entire body. His mother was horrified by the sight of her child and believed he was some sort of monster caused by her witnessing his father’s death when she was pregnant. Cristian was sold at the young age of four to a man who toured around Europe with him. Cristian performed on the side show circuit under the name “Lionel the Lion”.
12. Isaac Sprague, the Living Skeleton
Isaac Sprague was born in 1841, in Massachusetts. He was a normal, healthy child up until age 12. After age 12 he started losing an extreme amount of weight. His appetite was normal and he was hungry but the weight kept coming off.
His parents supported him until they both died. He was left unemployed due to his condition that made him very fatigued. He had no choice but to join P.T. Barnum’s side show. He toured the country and worked in Barnum’s museum. It was during this time he was married and had 3 perfectly healthy, strong boys.
11. Schlitzie the Pinhead
Much of Schlitzie’s life remains a mystery. There’s debate if he was born in the U.S. or Mexico and what his legal name was. Schlitzie was born with microcephaly. Microcephaly causes a smaller than average brain and skull to develop. Schlitzie had the mentality of a three year old. He was also referred to as male and female and given androgynous character roles when he performed on side shows.
Schlitzie was passed around from circus to carnival to showmen. He was adopted by a showman who treated him very well, however, the showman died leaving Schlitzie in the care of his daughter. Schlitzie’s daughter decided that he was too much of a burden and had him committed to an institution.
In a strange coincidence, a man who recognized Schlitzie happened to be working as an aide at the hospital where Schlitzie was confined. This man, Frenchy Unks, was once a sword swallower for the same carnival as Schlitizie! He was able to obtain guardianship of Schlitzie and get him back into performing. Schlitzie entertained a few more years before retiring. He died at age 70 in Los Angeles, California.
10. Frank Cannonball Richards
Frank “Cannonball” Richards was known for his extraordinary stomach. Yes, stomach. Frank figured out early on that his stomach was something special. He could endure hits to the stomach and not feel any pain.
Frank started off in Vaudeville and became an overnight sensation. Hundreds gathered to see him take blows to the stomach by two-by-fours. This progressed to him allowing people in the audience to stand and jump on his stomach. At the height of his popularity he allowed heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, to punch him in the stomach. Jack was amazed that his blows did nothing to Frank. The same blows he inflicted on his competitors in the ring that would knock them to the ground.
The stunt Frank is most remembered for and the one that earned him the nickname “Cannonball” was having a cannonball launched at his stomach. He had a cannonball fired at his stomach from a distance of about four feet. There were no tricks or gimmicks. He performed this stunt twice a day. It was very painful so he couldn’t do more than two shows a day. Still, any normal man shot by a cannonball would have been seriously injured if not killed on the spot.
Stock footage of Frank being shot by a cannonball embedded itself in pop culture. Various shows such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons, have referenced Frank’s astounding cannonball footage. Frank died at the age of 84 after a long and lucrative career entertaining millions with his ironclad gut.
9. Fanny Mills, Bigfoot
Fanny Mills suffered from Milroy disease. It was an extremely rare disease that caused a buildup of fluids in her lower extremities. Neither of her parents nor her siblings suffered from Milroy disease. Fanny’s feet grew to an enormous size–17 inches in length. She wore a custom made size 30 shoe.
Fanny moved from England to the U.S. to star in side shows and appear at human oddity museums. She was making a very good living, earning upwards of $150 a week! Fanny was married and they had one child who died shortly after birth. Fanny’s health started to deteriorate rapidly. She retired in 1892 and died shortly after returning to her home in Ohio. Fanny was only 39 years old but the fluid buildup had caused severe circulation problems. Her petite 115 pound body couldn’t keep going any longer.
8. Francesco Lentini, The King
Francesco Lentini was born with three legs, four feet, and sixteen toes. He also had two sets of male genitalia. All three of his legs were different lengths which made walking difficult but not impossible. He was known to kick footballs with his third leg.
Unlike many people born with extra body parts, Francesco was able to move his leg. On the leg was a clubbed foot and an extra foot emerging from the knee area. His condition was what is known as having a parasitic twin. He went on to perform for over thirty years in the side show circuit. He earned a very respectable reputation as a gentleman. He was called the nickname “The King”.
7. Prince Randian
Prince Randian, also known as “The Snake Man” and “The Human Torso”, was born without any limbs; a condition called tetra-amelia syndrome. P.T. Barnum brought Prince over from British Guiana when Prince was only 18 years old. Prince went on to perform for over 45 years as a popular attraction on Coney Island.
He would usually wrap himself in a wool sack to appear like a caterpillar. His act consisted of wiggling and rolling around stage, and lighting cigarettes with his mouth. He died at the age of 63 from a sudden heart attack. He left behind his wife, Princess Sarah, and four children.
6. The Wild Men of Borneo
The Wild Men of Borneo weren’t quite from Borneo. They were from Knox County, Ohio. Hiram and Barney Davis went by their stage names Waino and Plutanor. They were only 40 inches tall but they could perform feats of strength that 300 pound strongmen would have difficulty performing.
For the first years of their side show careers they did modestly well traveling around and performing for various showmen’s but it wasn’t until they crossed paths with the famous P.T. Barnum that their careers really took off. Barnum was known for his over-the-top promotions that drew in massive crowds. The little strong men were given mysterious back stories–they were from the island of Borneo.–and the crowds loved it. Over a 25 year period they earned over $200,000, which was an enormous sum back then. They retired in old age and died in the early 1900s.
5. Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo
Lazarus and Joannes were conjoined twins from Genoa, Italy. They are some of the earliest conjoined twins ever recorded. Lazarus was pretty much the only one capable of doing anything. He was intelligent and handsome. Joannes just consisted of an upper body and a leg. He always kept his eyes closed and his mouth wide open. He was known to drool excessively and moan. He didn’t speak or communicate anything. It is believed that he was a parasitic twin.
When Lazarus and Joannes weren’t performing Lazarus kept a blanket over Joannes as not to scare people or draw attention to himself. How and when Lazarus and Joannes died is unknown but when one died the other would have died shortly thereafter as they shared vital organs.
4. Saartjie Baartman, Hottentot Venus
Saartjie Baartman was a member of the khoikhoi tribe of Africa. She was given the name Hottentot Venus because “Hottentot” is what Europeans called members of the khoikhoi tribe and Venus after the Roman goddess of love.
She was exhibited around Europe and poked and prodded by curious medical doctors and scientists. While traveling in Europe she was baptized and given the name Sara. Sadly, Sara lived in poverty and died in her 20s from an unknown illness. She led a very short, tragic life. Her remains were dissected and displayed at a museum in Paris until 2002. In 2002, on South Africa’s Woman’s Day, her remains were sent back to Africa for a proper burial.
3. Camel Girl Ella Harper
In 1870, Ella Harper was born in Tennessee. She had a very rare condition which caused her knees to bend backwards. Her preference for getting around was walking on all fours. She entered show business and did considerably well. She was paid $200 a week to perform for hundreds of curiosity-seekers that came to see this half-girl, half-camel.
She married and did have two children but tragically both died before they reached six months of age. Ella is thought to have died in the 1920s from colon cancer but no definitive record exists. This information was only procured from census reports and speculation.
2. Mirin Dajo, Human Pin Cushion
Arnold Henskes started life off as a normal man, holding down a regular 9-to-5 job. He worked at a design firm. It wasn’t until his mid-30s that he realized his extraordinary abilities that would confound the medical community.
He could pierce his body with swords and other objects without injury. He could swallow razor blades and shards of glass also without injury. His body was indestructible. Arnold started going by the stage name Mirin Dajo and performing incredible feats. Stabbing himself with swords, allowing others to stab him with sharp objects, and eating things that would typically kill a man if they attempted to eat it.
Arnold lied down one day and never got up. An aortic rupture was the official cause of death. Arnold was only 36 years old. Some of his claims such as being shot in the head twice can’t be proven but others such as swallowing a steel needle are well documented.
1. Lucia Zarate, The Porcelain Doll
Lucia was born with an extremely rare form of dwarfism. Lucia reached her full height by the time she reached one. She was only 20 inches tall. Aside from being very tiny she was in excellent health. Her parents and siblings were of normal size. Lucia went and joined the circus to travel and perform in side shows. Sadly, only one year into performing, she died of hypothermia after her circus train became stranded in the frigid mountains of Nevada. It is believed that Lucia was around age 13 when she sadly passed away. With dental records it is known for certain that she was over age 6 but impossible to tell if she was exactly 13 years old when she died.