For hundreds of years, before the masses had TV, before they had radio, people looked for entertainment in all forms, and sideshows were one of the main ways to spend some free time. For very little money, the average man or woman could enter a tent and see things that were both amazing and terrifying. From jugglers to bearded women to people born with deformities, the worlds of beauty, artistry, and oddity came together and filled people with wonder.
While sideshows – or freak shows as they were commonly called – can be traced back to the sixteenth century, the most famous sideshow manager took the show out of the tent and placed it right in the middle of New York City. Well before P.T. Barnum started the Barnum & Bailey Circus, he opened Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway. For years, Barnum’s museum, which focused on jugglers, animals, and people born with deformities (or knew how to use makeup and trickery to fake it) drew in huge crowds.
Many of these people suffered such shocking deformities that any hope for a normal life in a time when people like them were locked away were able to find work in the sideshows across the world, and while we will always debate whether it was right or wrong to put these people on display for the entertainment of others, one thing is undeniable – the sideshows, as they are most often thought of, died out decades ago, but they left behind an amazing look at the world that existed for so long. Here, for your entertainment, but also in hopes that you may learn to look beyond the outside and see the inner person, are fifteen chilling vintage images of freak shows.
15. Schlitzie The Pinhead
Arguably the first or second most famous member of a sideshow, Schlitzie the Pinhead was born with microcephaly, a neuro-developmental disorder that left him with a severe intellectual disability, as well as an unusually shaped skull and short stature – Schlitzie was about four feet tall.
Schlitzie spent his life in sideshows, working under a slew of different performer names, including “The Last of the Aztecs,” “What Is It?” and “The Monkey Girl.” In almost every sideshow, Schlitzie was dressed in a muumuu and described as a woman.
Schlitzie appeared in a number of films, including the 1928 circus drama, The Sideshow and Tod Browning’s classic horror film Freaks. After Schlitzie’s legal guardian George Surtees passed away, Schlitzie was committed to the Los Angeles county hospital for three years. When he was found by sword swallower Bill “Frenchy” Unks, Schlitzie was released from the hospital and returned to performing in sideshows and by all accounts, Schlitzie was happy to be back with his friends.
14. Isaac W. Sprague, The “Living Human Skeleton”
Isaac W. Sprague was born happy and healthy on May 21, 1841, in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. When he was twelve, Isaac went swimming and, shortly after, began to feel ill and soon after he began to lose massive amounts of weight. It appeared to doctors that Isaac was suffering from extreme progressive muscular atrophy, and there was little that could be done to help him.
Because of his ailment, Isaac found that he couldn’t hold down a job, and after the death of his parents he was unable to support himself. In 1865, Isaac was offered a job at a local sideshow where he gained the name “The Human Skeleton.” A year later, Isaac would join P.T. Barnum’s American Museum for $80 a week (which would be $1273 today).
Making a solid living by working for Barnum, Isaac married Tamar Moore and together they had three healthy children. Sadly, Isaac died in 1887 at just forty-six-years-old. At the time of his death, Isaac was 5 feet and 6 inches tall and weighed just 43 pounds.
13. Fannie Mills, The “Ohio Bigfoot Girl”
Fannie Mills was one of three girls born to the Mills family. The Mills immigrated from England to Sandusky, Ohio shortly after Fannie was born in 1860. When she was a child, Fannie began to show signs of an ailment known as Milroy Disease, which Wikipedia tells me is caused by congenital abnormalities in the lymphatic system which leads to fluid accumulation and hypertrophy of soft tissues, most commonly in the legs.
Fannie started her sideshow career by working at Dime Museums in 1885 and quickly gained the nickname “Ohio Bigfoot Lady.” Promoters advertised Fannie in an unusual way, offering five thousand dollars to any man willing to marry her. Adding to the oddity of the promotion, Fannie was already married to William Brown, the brother of her closest friend.
At the height of her time in the sideshows, Fannie was making $150 a week ($4063 today). In 1887, Fannie became pregnant but sadly the child was stillborn. Fannie’s health deteriorated shortly after the loss of her child. She was just 39 when she died in 1899.
12. Grady Stiles Jr., The “Lobster Boy”
Grady Stiles Jr.’s life is like something straight out of a movie. Born in 1937, Grady was the latest of the Stiles family to be born with ectrodactyly, also called “split hand.” Grady’s father, Grady Stiles Sr., was making a living as a sideshow performer when Jr. was born, and in time, the son joined his father at work.
Grady married twice and had four children, two of whom were also born with ectrodactyly. While I would love to tell you things were awesome for Grady and his family, I can’t. Grady was an alcoholic who regularly abused his family – he would use his cleft hands like vices and was, according to those who knew him, shockingly strong.
In 1978, Grady shot and killed his oldest daughter’s fiancé the night before the wedding. The court, feeling that there was no prison designed to handle someone with Grady’s deformity, sentenced the man to fifteen years probation. For a time, Grady quit drinking and even remarried his first wife, Mary Teresa, but as you can guess, the bottle called him back and his abusive ways followed close behind.
11. Myrtle Corbin, The “Four-Legged Girl From Texas”
Born in Lincoln County, Tennessee in 1868, the physicians who examined Josephine Myrtle Corbin shortly after her birth couldn’t help but notice that her parents, William H. and Nancy Corbin, were very similar in appearance, though the Corbins denied that they were related by blood.
Despite being born with two separate pelvises and legs side by side – as well as two sets of working genitals, Myrtle was a healthy, and strong, child. At thirteen, she joined the sideshow circuit before signing on with P.T. Barnum, making $450 a week ($12,191 today). At nineteen she married James Clinton Bicknell. Together, they would have four daughters and a son.
Myrtle passed away in 1928, just six days before her sixtieth birthday. Fearing that grave robbers would take her body, Myrtle’s casket was covered with concrete, and her family kept watch over it until it dried.
10. Prince Randian, The Snake Man
Prince Randian – whose real name remains unknown to this day – was born in Demerara, British Guyana with no arms or legs. Randian was highly intelligent and spoke Hindi, English, French, and German when he was brought to the United States by P.T. Barnum.
Randian was one of the biggest draws in Barnum’s sideshows – people loved to watch the limbless man roll and light cigarettes with his mouth. He performed for 45 years, during which time he married and had four children. He also appeared in Tod Browning’s Freaks where he is seen lighting a cigarette with a match.
Prince Randian and his wife, known as Princess Sarah, lived in Paterson, New Jersey Randian worked at various sideshows. On December 19, 1934, shortly after finishing a show at Sam Wagner’s 14th Street Museum in New York, Prince Randian suffered a heart attack and passed away.
9. Julia Pastrana, The Apewoman
Born with a genetic condition known as hypertrichosis terminalis, Julia Pastrana’s entire body was covered in black hair. Her ears and nose were also abnormally large and her teeth were oddly shaped due to gingival hyperplasia, a condition that thickened her lips and gums.
Pastrana grew up in the home of Pedro Sanchez, a man who served as governor of Sinaloa, Mexico for a year. Later in her life, Sanchez sold Pastrana to Francisco Sepúlveda, a customs official in Mazatlán. Sepúlveda brought Pastrana to the United States where Pastrana entered the sideshow circuit and was sometimes advertised as the child of a human and an ape. In other cases, Pastrana was publicized as the “Bear Woman.” In truth, and in her act, Pastrana was a highly intelligent woman who had a wonderful singing voice. Pastrana’s act became famous for her interactions with the audience, who found her delightful and hilarious.
In 1855, Pastrana married Theodore Lent. In 1860, while performing in Russia, Pastrana gave birth to a son who shared her genetic condition. Unfortunately, the baby lived for just three days. Pastrana passed away five days later.
8. Minnie Woolsey, aka Koo-Koo The Bird Girl
Almost nothing is known about Minnie Woolsey’s childhood. We know that she was born in 1880 in Rabun County, Georgia and spent most of her younger years in a mental asylum. Minnie was born with Virchow-Seckel syndrome, a rare congenital skeletal disorder that caused her to be very short in stature, as well as have a small head with a narrow bird-like face, a beak-like nose and receding jaw, large ears and large eyes. Adding to her issues, Woolsey was bald, toothless, and very short-sighted (some claimed that she was completely blind).
Woosley entered the sideshow circuit after she was “discovered” by a circus showman who took her from the asylum. At first, she was known as “Minnie Ha-Ha” but later she was given the name Koo-Koo the Bird Girl after she appeared in Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Minnie continued to work in sideshows into the early 1960s when she was hit by a car. Shortly after the accident, Minnie disappeared. In 1964 she was presumed dead but in truth, no one knows what happened to her.
7. Chang and Eng Bunker, The Siamese Twins
If you’ve ever wondered where the term “Siamese twins” comes from, wonder no more – the phrase was created as a nickname for Chang and Eng Bunker, conjoined twins who were born in Siam (better known as Thailand today).
Born in 1811, Chang and Eng, who were joined at the sternum, were discovered by a Scottish merchant named Robert Hunter who saw the monetary potential in the boys. Chang and Eng’s parents signed a contract with Hunter that allowed him to bring the boys around the world in a curiosity tour. When Chang and Eng saw how much more money they could make if they didn’t have to pay Hunter, they ended their deal with him and went into business for themselves.
In 1839, Chang and Eng settled down in Wilkesboro, North Carolina (birthplace of Zach Galifianakis), where they bought some slaves, started a plantation, adopted the surname Bunker, married and had 21 children between them.
6. Ella Harper, The Camel Girl
Born with congenital genu recurvatum, a condition that allowed her to bend her knees backward, Ella Harper became known as the Camel Girl when she joined W. H. Harris’ Nickel Plate Circus in 1882 when she was just twelve.
In 1886, at age sixteen and making $200 a week ($5,418 today), Ella announced her retirement from the sideshow business, choosing to leave the traveling circus life so she could get a proper education.
In 1905, Ella married Robert L. Savely and a year later they had a child, Mabel, who sadly died a few months later. In 1919, Ella and Robert adopted a baby girl named Jewel Savely. Once again they suffered another tragedy when Jewel passed at just three months old.
5. Mirin Dajo, The Invulnerable Man
Born in Rotterdam, Netherland in 1912, Arnold Gerrit Henskes came to the realization that he was invulnerable when he was 33. Henskes, who would take on the name Mirin Dajo, left his job at a design firm and started to hang out at bars claiming that all his life he had weird dreams and unexplainable paranormal experiences while letting people pierce his flesh with sharp objects and swallowing razor blades.
Henskes believed that God gave him his amazing ability so that he could go around the world and preach to them the importance of abandoning materialism and accepting that there is a higher power. He took his stage name from the Esperanto word for “wonder” – at the time, Esperanto was a newly created language that was meant to replace all other languages (it never took off).
In 1948, Henskes swallowed a steel needle during a show. As part of the performance, the needle would be surgically removed and after the surgery, Henskes would walk across Zurich, Switzerland the next day. All of this went as planned, but ten days later, Henskes laid down and entered what his assistant Jan Dirk de Groot called a trance-like state. Three days later, Henskes was dead.
4. Martin Joe Laurello, The Owl Man
Martin Joe Laurello was born with a slightly bent spine, which may have helped him with his ability to turn his head 180 degrees. Or maybe it didn’t. No one knows for sure.
What is known is that as a child growing up in Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Laurello spent three years practicing rotating his head. Why he wanted to do this we have no idea. Maybe he saw an owl and thought it would be cool to be one himself.
Whatever the reason, Laurello learned how to dislocate his vertebrae and turn his head all the way around. This ability brought him to the United States in 1921 where he worked for P.T. Barnum and Robert Ripley. He also liked to train dogs and cats to do acrobatic tricks.
3. The Fiji Mermaid
In 1822, sea captain Samuel Barrett Edes purchased the corpse of a mermaid from Japanese sailors for six thousand dollars. Edes displayed his purchase, named the Fiji Mermaid, in London where it was a huge hit.
In 1842, after Ede’s death, his son sold the Fiji Mermaid to Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum. Kimball brought his new item to P.T. Barnum who agreed to display it at his museum in New York if a had a naturalist could examine it and decide if it was real or not. The naturalist couldn’t prove that the Fiji Mermaid was a fake, but his refusal to believe in mythical creatures made it impossible for him to sign off on it. This was good enough for Barnum, who had become convinced that the mermaid would be a huge draw.
Barnum built up excitement for the Fiji Mermaid by sending fake letters to newspapers and initially only allowing a small group of people to see it. Barnum finally opened the Fiji Mermaid display to the masses, but shut it down just five days later, after which the only way to see the creature was to buy a pamphlet.
2. Johnny Eck, the Half-Boy
Johnny Eck was born with a truncated torso due to sacral agenesis, leaving him with underdeveloped legs and feet that Eck would come to hide under specially made clothes.
At a year old, Eck had learned to use his arms to walk, getting a head start on his fraternal twin who had no ailments. By four, Eck was an excellent reader and well on his way to the profession his mother had chosen for him – a member of the clergy. A young Eck would give sermons to those who would listen, gaining the skills needed to become a performer.
Along with his speaking gigs, Eck became interested in painting and woodworking – he and his brother would spend their free time building and painting miniature circuses.
In 1923, twelve-year-old Eck shocked everyone when, during a magic show he jumped onto the stage when the magician asked for a volunteer. After the show, the stage magician convinced Eck to join the traveling show, and the career of the Half-Boy began.
For 20 years, Eck appeared in various sideshows as well as a number of movies, including Freaks and Tarzan the Ape Man. He retired from the sideshows in the 1950s and returned home. Eck passed away in 1991.
1. Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man
Joseph Merrick is likely the greatest known sideshow performer. Born in August of 1862, he appeared to be a normal, healthy child. Depending on the book you read, Merrick first started to show signs of his ailment when he was either 21 months old, or five years old. In any case, as he grew, it became clear that Merrick’s body was changing and his family quickly saw the changes as being connected to something that happened to Joseph’s mother when she was pregnant with him.
According to the Merrick family, Mary was knocked down by an elephant at a fairground while she was pregnant, and this being 1862, people were dumb enough to believe in maternal impression – the concept that the emotional experiences of a pregnant woman could have physical effects on the unborn child.
In 1884, Merrick began his career in sideshows, though it did not last long. By 1886, Merrick, who was suffering from bronchitis, was admitted to the London Hospital where he would stay until his death in 1890 at the young age of 27.
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