Humans have always been fascinated by the different, the unknown, and the extraordinary. Even today, we can’t tear our eyes away from magicians, acrobats, and other performers who do the incredible. It’s no surprise then that before medicine could give us an explanation, crowds flocked to see human biological rarities.
At the time, these people were inappropriately labeled “freaks,” and performing was often their only way of making a livelihood. Over time, the fanfare went away, and we learned from our mistakes, but that doesn’t make the “freakshows” of the past any more acceptable. Take a step back in time to the 1800s and meet the people behind the human rarity that was captivating audiences.
Elastic Man isn’t a made-up superhero, it was Felix Wehrle. He was a sideshow performer in the early 1900s who could stretch his skin excessively thanks to a unique condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. The disorder effects connective tissues in the body and can leave you with stretchy skin and loose joints.
Wehrle used his unique skin to perform with P.T. Barnum and he could also bend his fingers all the way back to his wrist.
The Living Skeleton
Born in Massachusetts, Isaac Sprague lived a completely normal life until he was 12, when he suddenly began to rapidly lose weight. At the time, doctors had no explanation for it but we now know he suffered from “extreme progressive muscular atrophy.” He was unable to work any other jobs so he was forced to join a sideshow.
It wasn’t until Sprague was in his 40s when his measurements were finally taken. A doctor found him to be 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing only 43 pounds.
The Siamese Twins
Chang and Eng Bunker were Siamese-American conjoined twins who actually popularized the term “Siamese twins.” Unlike many other performers who had their often derogatory names assigned to them, Chang and Eng coined the expression themselves.
The twins toured successfully for decades and even became self-managed at one point, a rarity at a time where owners like P.T. Barnum and the Ringling Brothers rules the circuit. They retired with fame and fortune and actually went on to marry a pair of sisters, own land, and father 21 children.
The Camel Girl
Ella Harper was born in Tennessee in 1870 with the unique trait of being able to bend her knees forward. The ability allowed her to walk on all fours while facing forward. Today, doctors know this condition as “genu recurvatum” and there are few known cases of it.
Harper used her unique skills as a young girl and quickly became the star act for the W.H. Harris Nickel Plate Circus. She was a huge hit with audiences but left it all when she was 16 to go to school.
The Ohio Big Foot Girl
Born in England, Fannie Mills suffered from Milroy Disease, which causes certain body parts to swell to an abnormal size. She was touted around side shows for having “the biggest feet on earth.” Most of the time, Mills was unable to comfortably stand up and would be exhibited while sitting down.
Most of the advertisements for her exhibitions offered her up as an eligible bachelorette if only a man would look past her size thirty feet.
The 161-Year-Old Woman
Joice Heth was P.T. Barnum’s first sideshow performer. She was a slave that Barnum bought from a man in Kentucky who claimed she was George Washington’s nurse. Heth was blind, toothless, half her body was paralyzed, and she had long curled fingernails which led many to believe she was 161 years old.
Barnum overworked Heth and showcased her for hours and day, six days a week. Even when she died, he exploited her further and sold tickets to her autopsy.
The Elephant Man
Joseph “John” Merrick is one of the most famous “freak show” performers in history and even had a play written about his life in 1979. His skin and bones were covered with numerous tumors and growths but the cause of Merricks physical deformities are still unconfirmed.
The name “The Elephant Man” was actually coined by his own family. His deformities didn’t begin until he was around five years old, and his family believed his mother must have been “frightened by an elephant” when she was pregnant.
The Lion-Faced Man
Stephan Bibrowski was born in 1891 i what is now Poland. Not unlike Merrick’s family, Bibrowski’s stage name of the “Lion-Faced Man” came from his mother’s belief she was attacked by a lion while pregnant.
Since his mother thought he was a monster, Bibrowski was sold to a German performer and from there, he toured around the world. The genetic disorder responsible for the hair growth on his face is called “hypertrichosis” of “werewolf syndrome.”
General Tom Thumb
George Sherwood Stratton, better known by his stage name of General Tom Thumb, was one of the most popular little people in the circus circuit. Stratton was picked up by P.T. Barnum, who was actually a distant relative, and toured around America.
Stratton was five years old when he began performing and he would often dress as characters like Napoleon Bonaparte and Cupid. His performances were so revered that he actually appeared twice in Queen Victoria’s court.
The Feejee Mermaid
The Feejee Mermaid is less of a human oddity and more of a complete scam. The “mermaid” was simply a piece of rogue taxidermy. It was the head and body of a monkey sewn onto the body of a fish and covered in papier-mâché. P.T. Barnum cooked up the idea in 1842 and presented it as the “missing link” between humans and fish.
The Feejee Mermaid was a huge attraction to the sideshows and it was often what brought audiences in.
The Three-Legged Man
Born in Sicily in 1881, Francesco Lentini was unique in that he had an almost entirely complete third leg. He also had a very small fourth attached to the extra leg’s knee. There was supposedly even a second working set of reproductive organs.
The condition was a result of a conjoined twin that did not fully form in the womb. Even in the 1800s, it was clear that removing the extra parts would be too dangerous for Lentini, so doctors chose to leave the leg.
The Four-Legged Woman
Unlike Lentini, Myrtle Corbin’s extra legs weren’t due to an unformed conjoined twin but rather thanks to a different condition. Corbin had two of everything from the navel down, including two pelvises and two legs.
Corbin was forced to perform at a young age by her father and was sold to P.T. Barnum when she was 13. She was paid $250 a week by Barnum from 1886-1909, but eventually left to marry and start a family.
The Human Torso
Prince Randian was the only known name of the man on the left, who was born with tetra-amelia syndrome. The disorder causes a person to be born without any limbs but to be fully functioning otherwise. A lot is unknown about Prince Randian’s life other than the fictionalized biography given to him by P.T. Barnum.
Prince Randian amazed people by doing tasks that you might think would be hard without limbs, like rolling a cigarette or shaving his face.
Schlitzie The Pinhead
Schlitze Surtess is one of history’s most famous “pinheads” because he was around long enough to star in the 1932 film Freaks. He was born with a condition called microcephaly which leaves the skull and brain drastically undersized in comparison to the body. The condition also leaves you with a severe intellectual disability and he could often only speak a few words at a line.
Schlitzie toured with many different “freakshows” and carnivals and by all standards lived a very successful life.
Also known as Madam Yucca, Katie Bambach was born in Italy in 1884 to a family and strong men and women. She quickly began to take part in the family business and entered herself in strength competitions to gain more fame.
Bambach rose to fame after beating a famous bodybuilder Eugen Sandow in competition. Often, her act would include challenging men in the audience to tests of strength, or lifting her husband about her head.
The Tattooed Lady
Seeing a woman covered in tattoos nowadays is no big deal, but back in the 1880s when Nora Hildebrandt was on display, it was completely shocking. She was one of the first tattooed women to perform in the U.S. and often made up a story about being forcibly tattooed by her father or while in captivity by Native Americans.
In reality, she married a tattoo artist named Martin Hildebrandt and willingly allowed him to tattoo her entire body.
There was nothing biologically abnormal about Jenny Lind except she had an incredible voice. Lind was a Swedish opera singer who somehow became the face of P.T. Barnum’s sideshow performance. Barnum was trying to make his “freak show” more respectable and figured having an opera singer would help.
Lind would perform for sold out crowds with P.T. Barnum then the audience would go on to look at the other “freak show” attractions. She essentially served as Barnum’s true main attraction.
The Armless Wonder And The Legless Wonder
Charles B. Tripp, The Armless Wonder, and Eli Bowen, The Legless Wonder, are shown here. The two were both “freak show” performers who found success working together. Their biggest act was when Bowen would steer a bicycle pedaled by Tripp.
On their own, Tripp would often show off his flexibility by doing tasks normally done with arms, but with his legs. Bowen would instead show off his extreme strength with his arms and upper body.
The Bearded Lady
Josephine Boisdechêne was one of the original “Bearded Ladies” that drew crowds at every side show. She was born in Switzerland in 1831 and began growing a beard when she was only two years old. By age 8, she had a 2-inch long beard.
It was Boisdechêne’s parents who originally began showcasing her until she moved to America and became employed with P.T. Barnum. There, she assumed a more lady-like character and would play up her femininity for the audience.
The Albino Family
Rudolph Lucasie, his wife Anita, and their son were touted as the Eliophoeus family. P.T. Barnum began to display the family in 1860 and claimed they had African origins but were freaks for not having dark skin. In reality, the family was indeed from Madagascar but had albinism.
At the time, albinism was unheard of but we now know its origins. Albinism in sub-Saharan Africa is actually quite common but sadly, those with albinism still suffer persecution today.
The Ubangi Savages
The tradition of stretching a woman’s lower lip and inserting a disc has been common in many African tribes throughout history. The practice is used to showcase beauty, but of course, when American sideshows saw it they completely degraded the tradition.
P.T. Barnum and the Ringling Brothers were both guilty of taking these African women, turning their lip stretches into a “deformity” and marketing them as “savages.” Even the name Ubangi was chosen by random from a map.
The Chinese Giant
At his peak, Chang Yu Sing measured 7 feet 9 inches and was making $600 a week. He was born in China in 1845 and quickly attracted attention, even from the Chinese Emperor. Sing traveled to England in 1864 where he was picked up by traveling sideshows.
Sing’s most popular act was to perform alongside his friend, a little person named Chung. When Sing joined P.T. Barnum’s show, he led the line of performers into the big top.
Zip The What Is It?
In probably the most blatant racially insensitive display in a sideshow, William Henry Johnson was featured simply as “What Is It?” for more than 40 years. Johnson was an African American man who doctors believed likely suffered from microcephaly, which is a condition that leaves you with a smaller head and statue.
Johnson was sold to P.T. Barnum by his family and forced to wear a gorilla suit, stand in a cage, and shriek like an animal.
The Two-Headed Nightingale
Millie and Christine McCoy, also known as the Nightingale Twins of the Carolina Twins, were conjoined sisters born in 1851. The girls were passed around from sideshow to sideshow as children until their manager, Joseph Smith, taught them a stable “routine.” The girls would sing, dance, and claimed to be “one person.”
Their act was so popular that they performed for Queen Victoria and were kidnapped not once, but twice, from their manager in order to perform elsewhere.
The Wild Men Of Borneo
Hiram and Barney Davis were two little people who also had mental disabilities yet incredible strength. The brother were born two years apart in 1825 and 1827. A sideshow act bought the two bothers in 1852 and renamed them “Waino” which means good, and “Plutano” which means bad.
The two were later sold to Barnum where they were forced to put on an act as being natives of Borneo. They would act wild, disheveled, and speak in a completely made up language.
The Infant Esau
Annie Jones, also known as The Bearded Girl, was one of many bearded women that were a fixture in “freak shows.” She was one of the youngest performers with P.T. Barnum’s show and started touring when she was only nine months old.
Over time she gained so much fame that she was actually able to advocate for other performers. She was one of the first to advocate for discouraging the term “freak” and she used the Barnum circus as a platform to do it.
The Arabian Giant
Just as the smallest and thinest people became attractions, so did the biggest. Routh Goshen had lived a normal life until 1869 when it’s said P.T. Barnum saw hi walking down the street in New York and signed him to a contract. The two crafted a story that said Goushen was born in Ireland to giants.
Goushen was so large that when he died in 1889, his body had to be removed through an enlarged window and the casked had to be kept on the porch.
The Warren Sisters
Lavinia and Minnie Warren were two little people who worked closely with General Tom Thumb and P.T. Barnum on the sideshow routes. The two performers actually led very average lives before Barnum. Lavinia was a well-respected school teacher and Minnie was a singer.
After joining forces with Barnum, the two became extremely popular performers and even had a highly-publicized meeting with Abraham Lincoln. The photo shown here is Lavinia’s real-life marriage to General Tom Thumb.
The World’s Tallest Man
Jack Earle was drawing attention even as a child. He had grown over six feet tall before the age of 10 and by the age of 13 was over seven feet tall. He actually began working in Hollywood in films like Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk. Unfortunately, he fell off some scaffolding while filming and was left with major injuries and temporary blindness.
As a result, Earle turned to performing for the Ringling Brother and P.T. Barnum “freak show” as a way to make money.
Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy
Just like Bibrowski, Feodor Jeftichew suffered from hypertrichosis which caused excessive hair growth all over his body. Jeftichew was born in Russia in 1868 and began touring with local sideshows alongside his father, who suffered from the same condition.
In 1884, the pair traveled to America when Jeftichew was given the persona of a dog, and was told to bark, growl, and act like a rabid dog. It didn’t take long for him to become one of Barnum’s top performers.