In Eudora Welty’s short story “Petrified Man,” one of the main characters and her friend go to a freak show, where they marvel at conjoined fetuses and pygmies and the titular “petrified man.” Freak shows generally do not appeal to the modern sensibility and are now widely regarded as cruel and offensive, but for several centuries they were a popular form of entertainment.
Historians date the first freak shows, or sideshows, to 16th-century England. People with severe deformities or abnormalities were considered bad omens or indications of evil spirits, but eventually they came to be merely entertainment. Until the 19th century, such shows, which began traveling from village to village, were not particularly lucrative, but stories of conjoined twins such as Lazarus and Joannes Collardo intrigued Europeans.
In early 19th-century America, P.T. Barnum began making money with his showmanship and capitalization on the desire for diversion, creating hoaxes such as the “Feejee mermaid” and claiming an 80-year-old slave woman he’d purchased was actually 160 years old. He purchased the American Museum in New York and opened “a rotating roster of freaks: albinos, midgets, giants, exotic animals.” Never one to rest on his laurels, he began searching even more assiduously for strange and “exotic” people to exhibit. A distant cousin, Charles Stratton, was appealing to him because he stopped growing at six months; Barnum deemed him “the smallest person who ever walked alone” and then called General Tom Thumb. By 1846, Barnum was an extremely wealthy man and renamed his institution “Barnum’s Museum.”
Barnum’s other “finds” included “Zip,” a “different race of human found during a gorilla trekking expedition near the Gambia River in western Africa,” who was actually William Henry Johnson, a black man born to newly freed slaves and whose head was shaped oddly. Barnum deemed him the “missing link” and he became a star. Chang and Eng, popular “Siamese twins,” joined Barnum in 1850, and George Contenteus, the first tattooed side act, did so in the 1870s.
Besides these examples of Barnum’s, there were numerous others whose names have been preserved. Among the exhibited individuals, Annie Jones was the famous “bearded lady,” Jack Earle was a giant, Myrtle Corbin was the “Four-Legged Girl from Texas,” and Fedor Jeftichew was “Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.” Clyde Ingalls, manager of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sideshow once said, “Aside from such unusual attractions as the famous three-legged man, and the Siamese twin combinations, freaks are what you make them. Take any peculiar-looking person, whose familiarity to those around him makes for acceptance, play up that peculiarity and add a good spiel and you have a great attraction.”
The freak show largely died out by the 1950s. Zachary Crockett explains, “For one, curiosity and mystery were quelled by advances in medicine: so-called “freaks” were now diagnosed with real, scientifically-explained diagnoses. The shows lost their luster as physical and medical conditions were no longer touted as miraculous and the fanciful stories told by showmen were increasingly discredited by hard science. As spectators became more aware of the grave nature of the performers’ conditions, wonder was replaced by pity. Movies and television, both of which rose to prominence in the early 20th century, offered other forms of entertainment and quenched society’s demand for oddities… But the true death chime of the freakshow was the rise of disability rights. Simply put, taking utter delight in others’ physical misfortune was finally frowned upon.” Katie Stringer adds, “By labeling a person a freak, the sideshow removed the humanity of the performer because he or she might not have the same physical characteristics of the 'normal' person, and authorized the paying customer to approach the person as an object of curiosity and entertainment. To reconcile the exploitation of people who were different as curiosities worthy of admission price, society had only to take away their humanity.”