The greatest show on earth? The myths of the Victorian freak show
In many ways, the freak show was an explicitly Victorian institution, which thrived from the 1840s until 1914. Writing for BBC History Revealed, historian John Woolf dispels the myths of the Victorian freak show, where dwarves, bearded ladies and others found fame – if not acceptance – in front of rapt crowds
On 23 March 1844, a six-year-old dwarf marched into Buckingham Palace. His name was Charles Stratton, AKA General Tom Thumb, and he was 25in tall. He was dressed in a court suit, and a cocked hat framed his blond hair and rosy cheeks. Towering above him, at 6ft 2in, was the ‘greatest showman’, PT Barnum.
The pair had an audience with Queen Victoria and her retinue of royal guests who were spellbound as Tom performed skits, tricks and impersonations for more than an hour. Victoria was in hysterics when Tom withdraw a small ceremonial sword and started battling with her spaniel. Later that day, the Queen wrote in her diary that Tom was “the greatest curiosity, I, or indeed anybody ever saw”. Without realising it, Victoria had given the freak show her royal seal of approval. An entertainment revolution was about to occur.
In many ways, the freak show was an explicitly Victorian institution. Defined as a commercial form of entertainment that peddled physiological difference for amusement and profit, the freak show thrived from the 1840s until 1914. At a time when the Victorians were obsessed. with taxonomy and classification, so-called freaks disrupted these boundaries. ‘Hermaphrodites’ were both male and female. Conjoined twins (then better known as Siamese twins) blurred the boundaries of the individual. Yet the Victorians were enamoured with the ‘freak’: a term which became synonymous with physical difference in the late 1840s.
Freak shows were embedded within the broader entertainment industry, which developed concurrently with modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation. The burgeoning middle classes, the introduction of the Saturday half-holiday and the spread of commercial leisure all spurred the growth of a freak industry that thrived on both sides of the Atlantic.
New railways, steamships and the proliferation of cheap print made the freak show international. Acts from across the world, and increasingly from colonised areas, traversed the Atlantic, bringing the unusual to audiences who were shocked, entertained, titillated and filled with wonder.
The freak show was never a marginal affair, but a central part of Victorian society connected with broader discourses concerning race, gender, sex, class, science, medicine and disability
The freak show was the archetypal expression of popular culture, enjoyed by everyone from Queen Victoria to the common man, woman and child. Some shows had private rooms ‘for ladies only’; others were designed for the whole family. Some priced the entrance fee on a sliding scale: “reduced prices are in order that the working classes may enjoy the treat”, claimed one piece of publicity. The freak show was billed as entertaining and educational, offering the opportunity to learn about the mysteries of the body and the ‘realities’ of people from foreign lands. No surprise, then, that men of medicine and science, along with ethnologists and anthropologists, flocked to the shows: a potpourri of the peculiar served up as respectable, theatrical, titillating and spectacular.
Crucially, the freak show was never a marginal affair, but a central part of Victorian society connected with broader discourses concerning race, gender, sex, class, science, medicine and disability.
The ancient roots of the freak show
Freak show history transcends the Victorian age. Cave drawings from the Stone Age document ‘monstrous’ births. Ancient Egyptians turned dwarfs into both gods and jesters. Aristotle, Cicero, Pliny and Augustine all pondered bodily difference. Representations of the anomalous body proliferated in early modern print culture. By the 17th century, ‘monster shows’ could be seen in fairs, marketplaces, coffeehouses and taverns across Europe, while dwarfs were also kept as ‘pets’ inside royal courts.
Indeed, the Victorian freak show was rooted in the palaces of Europe. Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria, kept a collection of human curiosities, the most famous being Jeffrey Hudson. He was only seven years old and 18in tall when he was presented to the Queen— served in a cold baked pie during a royal banquet in 1626.
Jeffrey became a valued companion and entertainer who, during the British Civil Wars, allegedly fought for the Royalists while mounted on horseback.
It was during the wars that he killed a member of the Queen’s court in a duel (the gentleman, one Charles Crofts, had mercilessly mocked Jeffrey until the latter could take no more), resulting in his banishment. Jeffrey was subsequently captured by Barbary pirates and enslaved for 25 years. He died an outcast at an unknown location in around 1682. Jeffrey was certainly not a ‘freak’ in a ‘freak show’, but his presence at court was a forerunner, and he was exhibited in plays and paraded to royal guests.
Early freak shows carried a stigma for being licentious and rowdy
And while his later life was marked by tragedy, in his early years Jeffrey was saved from hardship. He was a valued member of the court. He received a salary, good clothes and an education, and he escaped the transitory and dangerous world of the travelling fairs — the other place from which the Victorian freak show emerged.
The itinerant fairs had been around since the Middle Ages, traipsing the country selling goods and bringing entertainment. Bartholomew Fair was the most notorious, described by William Wordsworth as a ‘Parliament of Monsters’. In the fairs you could see hermaphrodites, dwarfs, giants, ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’, who were often introduced by raucous showmen in muddy fields. With the decline of ostentatious courts in the 18th century, those with what were deemed unusual bodies headed to the fairs, but these sites were seen as licentious, rowdy and subversive so early freak shows carried a stigma.
PT Barnum: who was the architect of the 'Greatest Show on Earth'?Barnum’s foray into freakery began in 1835 when he exhibited a senile and paralysed slave named Joice Heth. She was billed as the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington, although she was probably only 80. Barnum dragged her across the northeast of America before she died in 1836 and he subsequently arranged her public dissection. He then peddled claims that Joice was in fact alive and that he’d extracted her teeth and starved her to make her appear older. Some of this was hullabaloo but his stories propelled the freak show into the penny press devoured by the working classes.
Barnum then won over the middle classes with his American Museum in New York. From 1841, he transformed the museum into a respectable, family-friendly palace of wonders that centralised the freak show within the entertainment industry. From the 1870s, Barnum popularised the circus sideshow, which featured so-called ‘born freaks’, such as dwarfs, giants, skeleton men, and overweight ladies; what we might call ‘exotic freaks’, such as ‘cannibals’, ‘Zulus’ and ‘savages’, and the ‘self-made freaks’, like tattooed men and those performing novelty acts. It was yet another stage on which the freak show thrived, and another legacy that cemented Barnum’s reputation as one of the great freak showmen.
Things started to change in the early 1800s. In 1829, 18-year-old conjoined twins Chang and Eng held one of the first freak shows in Britain: they were exhibited in a commercial, permanent venue; they had a manager who introduced the act; there were visual and textual accounts of the show; and there was a performance. The Siamese Twins, as they were known, performed acrobatics and somersaults to an audience who paid half a crown for the pleasure. They could ask questions, touch the connecting ligament and purchase an exhibition pamphlet which told the twins’ fabulous story. The show was endorsed by members of the Royal College of Surgeons who were given a private performance and were drawn to the mysteries of the twins’ physiology, while the average punter was enticed by the exotic spectacle. In seven months, 100,000 people came to see The Siamese Twins in London.
For 25 cents, punters could experience a dizzying array of wonders
The freak show was beginning to make its mark on the cultural map of Britain. And there were broader developments that were helping: the authorities were coming down hard on the licentious travelling fairs, pushing freak performers into urban centres to display themselves in permanent venues. In 1841, Barnum purchased the American Museum: an entertainment venue in the heart of New York, which prided itself on being respectable and accessible, especially to the middle classes. For a mere 25 cents, punters from all walks of life could experience a dizzying array of wonders with the freak show forming a central part of the offering. From here, the freak show went international with the help of Stratton – Tom Thumb.
Talk of the town
Barnum discovered the four-year-old Stratton in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1842. Stratton had that winning combination of talent, charm and beauty. His proportional yet miniature body made him ‘cute’ to many Victorians, his stage name Tom Thumb connected him to the world of fairy tales, while his singing and impersonations were amusing and mesmerising in equal measure. He was such a hit in the US that Barnum arranged for his exhibition in Europe, and it was not long before Stratton marched into Buckingham Palace in 1844 to win the heart of Queen Victoria.
Barnum ensured everyone knew about the Queen’s endorsement, utilising the developments in advertising and technology to spread the word. Photographs of Tom Thumb appeared, pamphlets were produced, newspapers ran their columns. His portrait was produced in pictorial papers, and songs were sung in his praise. The press referred to him as ‘The Pet of the Palace’, while other dwarfs flocked to the capital to ride the wave of Tom Thumb’s success.
The press declared a new ‘age of the monsters’ and a ‘Deformito-Mania’: an obsession with deformity backed with royal approval. In the process, Barnum and Stratton had created a revolution: the freak show had morphed from a marginal affair associated with lowly travelling fairs, into a respectable form of theatre endorsed by the great and good.
Not so prudish?
Throughout the rest of her reign, Victoria met and patronised freak performers, including Anna Haining Swan and Martin van Buren Bates, two ‘giants’ married in the royal parish of St Martins-in-the-Fields in 1871, and the conjoined twins, Millie and Christine, who were born into slavery.
The Queen’s subjects continued to love freak shows which, by the later part of the century, were occurring at all manner of entertainment sites – from zoos to aquariums, amusement parks to carnivals, museums to music halls. In 1862, the eccentric naturalist Francis Buckland and the civil servant Arthur Munby headed to a London exhibition billing ‘The Embalmed Female Nondescript and Child’. Inside the venue was the corpse of Mexican-born Julia Pastrana whom both men had seen in 1857, when she had sung and danced as ‘The Baboon Lady’.
Tom Thumb emerged as one of the first international celebrities
In the preceding years, Julia – who was born with the genetic condition hypertrichosis terminalis, which meant her face and body were covered with an abundance of hair – had married her showman and given birth to a child born with the same congenital condition. Julia and her newborn son both died soon after the birth; her widower had his dearly deceased embalmed and displayed across Europe.
Buckland responded with a sense of wonder. He was influenced by natural theology, which asserted the centrality of God in nature: Julia was wonderful because she was a case of God’s handiwork. Munby was both titillated and disgusted. He pondered Darwinian thinking, which had disrupted man’s place in nature following Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 – and entertained the possibility that Julia could be the product of an unholy union between ape and man.
What led to the decline of the freak show?There were numerous forces which contributed to the decline of the freak show. In the late 19th century, as science and medicine professionalised, freak performers increasingly went from the stages to the laboratories and asylums. Advances in science pathologised difference, subsequently rendering freaks as aberrations rather than wonders. The advent of social Darwinism turned freak performers into a national threat and the rise of eugenics signalled a corresponding fear that the unfit would hold back the evolutionary advance. In the aftermath of World War I – after which disabilities were a lot more prevalent – it no longer seemed appealing to gawp at those with deformities.
The Entertainment Tax of 1916, which was designed to raise money for the war effort, further harmed the freak show business. Added to this was competition from movies, radio, vaudeville shows and national sports. By the 1940s, the freak show was a shell of its former self, although freak performers often moved onto television screens (Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks being a classic example), while morphing into other forms of popular culture still with us today. Reality television often relies on the same dynamics – titillation, voyeurism and spectacle.
Responses to the freak show were always rooted in the context of contemporary thought, yet Julia’s story also highlights the question of exploitation. She was clearly mistreated, as were many others, but there were also examples of empowerment. Many freak performers faced lives of destitution, dependency or incarceration because of their bodies but, in the freak show, many became celebrated performers and active economic agents.
Chang and Eng went on to become US citizens, husbands, fathers and slave-owning farmers. Stratton emerged as one of the world’s first international celebrities: a rich gentleman, a loving husband and a renowned actor who met US presidents and European monarchs
The freak show transformed marginalised individuals into extraordinary figures who lived both triumphant and tragic lives. Its legacy is complex, but its significance should not be ignored. The Victorian freak show was a central part of Victorian society, and remains an important part of disability history.
John Woolf is a historian and expert in 19th-century freak shows
This content first appeared in the November 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed