Though my posts have been lacking lately, I can assure you it isn’t because I haven’t been writing at all; I’ve been finishing several chapters of my dissertation so that I can graduate (in addition to working again at the Sam Davis Home!). To give you all something fun to read, I’m posting some of my research about sideshows and “freaks” that I have come across. Hope you enjoy!
The exhibitions of people who are different have been called many things: Raree Shows, Halls of Human Curiosities, Sideshows, Pitshows, Odditoriums, Congress of Oddities, Collections of Human Wonders, Museum of Nature’s Mistakes, and Freakshows. One of the first examples of a traveling exhibit of a person appeared in 1738, in a colonial American newspaper; the paper ran an advertisement for an exhibit of a person who “was taken in a wood at Guinea, tis a female about four feet high, in every part like a woman excepting her head which nearly resembles the ape.” Throughout the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, freakshows or sideshows were among the most popular attractions for the middle class public.
During the nineteenth century, the superstitious ideas of anomalies in human nature as bad omens, witchcraft, or punishment for evil deeds were beginning to fade, and people became curious about, rather than afraid of, people who were different. From 1840 until 1940 freak shows were at their height; 1840 is the year usually attributed to the beginning of the freak show era, because that is the year that P.T. Barnum began the aforementioned American Museum in New York City which was one of the first dime museums in America. The museum contained many exhibits and gaffes, but it also housed many people who were considered to be rarities worthy of exhibition. These people included: General Tom Thumb, a person with dwarfism, “the Aztec Twins,” albinos, the “what is it,” who was also a person with microcephaly, and many other “living curiosities.”
In 1865 a fire destroyed P.T. Barnum’s original American Museum. The Barnum American Museum fire was reported in the New York Times, and the article listed many of the items of interest that had been lost in the fire, though none of the people who were exhibited had been killed. After the fire claimed the museum, an article published in 1865 claimed that Barnum was constructing a new museum to replace the old. The author claimed that, “the fact is, that the loss of the museum was a national calamity.” However, the museum yet again burned to the ground in 1868 and was not again rebuilt. Instead, Barnum took his show on the road and became one of the most famous traveling circuses.
For over 100 years, entrepreneurs organized exhibitions of people with physical, mental, and behavioral disabilities or impairments were organized to amuse the public and generate a profit. Many times they advertised exhibitions as educational and scientific activities, but the exhibits were a profitable business for those in charge. Barnum’s “museum” and others like it became a sub-category of museums, known as dime museums. Many times they housed gaffes or fake objects and people, and as in the case of Barnum’s museum, following its downfall it was transformed into a circus or carnival sideshow exhibit. While people likely did not conflate museums with sideshows, the sideshows were generally billed as educational events and opportunities, and the sideshow did grow out of the dime museum tradition.
Once the sideshow or freakshow became an entity of its own, organizers named the people who were integral to these attractions were named curiosities, rarities, oddities, wonders, mistakes, prodigies, special people, and even monsters. The bally shouters and fair organizers categorized performers into different races and natural mistakes, such as giants, people without arms or legs, obese, conjoined twins, “wild” men hailed to have been from foreign and unexplored lands, little people, albinos, and more. People with physical disabilities or anomalies are generally called “born different” peoples, unlike those who are “made freaks” by swallowing swords or nailing objects into their heads.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth boasted “Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena” with both born and created anomalies, as shown in Figure 4. Shown in the image are: a strong man, a bearded lady, a pin-head, two small men, a dog faced girl, two unidentified ladies, a man with a parasitic twin, a sword swallower, conjoined twins, and a giant. Today’s freak shows consist mainly of people who are “made freaks” who do dangerous tricks or have a rare talents, though there are some instances of “born differents” still today.
In the next post, I will present definitions of “freak” according to academics. What do you think constitutes freakishness?
 Robert Bogden. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 25.
 Ibid., 27.
 Phineas T. Barnum, An Illustrated Catalogue And Guide Book To Barnum’s American Museum (New York : Wynkoop, Hallenbeck & Thomas, circa 1860).
 From the New York Public Library online archives, accessed 1/17/2013 < http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1659268>
 “DISASTROUS FIRE.: Total Destruction of Barnum’s American Museum.” in New York Times (1857-1922); Jul 14, 1865; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2009).
 “Barnum’s New Museum Project.: MUSEUM WILL CONTAIN..” in New York Times (1857-1922); Jul 18, 1865; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2009) pg. 5.
 “BURNING OF BARNUM’S MUSEUM: LIST OF LOSSES AND INSURANCES” in New York Times (1857-1922); Mar 4, 1868; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2009) pg. 8.
 Edwin L. Godkin, “A Word About Museums,” The Nation, (July 27, 1865): 113-114.
3 replies to “Sideshows and Freakshows: A Short History”