Have you ever been to a freak show? You’ve probably seen contemporary acts on TV: sword swallowers, fire eaters, contortionists and the like. Those are all unique and incredible talents, for sure, but when I think of “freak show” my mind conjures images of 19th and 20th century human oddity sideshows that were often seen at circuses and carnivals. Coney Island’s longstanding sideshow is a perfect example (it’s still there, and even trains new sideshow acts). I’m not in the business of being sophomoric about others’ physical disabilities, but the continued profitability of sideshows and the pervasiveness of acts and oddities broadcast on television says something about our innate sense of curiosity for the different and weird. In fact, many of the most famous freak show acts throughout history have been commemorated in designs; nine of which I share with you now.
This was the moniker given to Grady Stiles, a freak show actor who had ectrodactylyl, a condition that fuses fingers and toes together in a manner that resembles claws. Stiles led a rough life, battled alcoholism, murdered his daughter’s fiance before his own wife hired another sideshow performer to kill him out of fear he would hurt their family. The Black Scorpion is a contemporary performer who also goes by the name Lobster Boy, and has worked to renew the image of sideshows in a positive light.
Stephan Bibrowski was known as Lionel the Lion-Faced Man due to his condition, hypertrichosis, which causes hair to grow all over the body.
Joseph Merrick performed as the Elephant Man, having suffered a mysterious disease that caused abnormal formations under his skin. This isn’t an accurate depiction of Merrick, but it is a good example of the type of human curiosity people would pay good money to see.
This poster design humorously depicts another side of freak shows: the fake show. P.T. Barnum, in addition to many others, was known to fake attractions.
The Hilton Sisters were conjoined twins that hit the sideshow circuit in the early 1920s. Daisy and Violet led remarkable lives for 60 years, entertaining crowds, surviving legal battles with their managers and retiring in a mansion.
William Henry Johnson was a freak show performer known as both Zip the What Is It and Zip the Pinhead. His head had an odd shape, giving way to the monikers, and he was paraded as the missing link since he took to the stage shortly after Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of the Species.”
Charles Stratton, a distant relative of P.T. Barnum’s, stood at 2 feet, 8.5 inches tall on his 18th birthday. His short stature lead to his childhood recruitment by Barnum, and he was a popular act performing under the name General Tom Thumb.
After all, what good is a freak show without a bearded lady? Want more freak show talent? Check out the 1932 film “Freaks” directed by Tom Browning. Some of the performers listed here are featured in the film.