The Rise and Fall of “Freak Shows” in the United States

P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb- ca. 1850.
P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb; ca. 1850.

Physically unusual humans, such as those who were extremely short or tall, those with both male and female secondary sexual characteristics or those suffering from extraordinary conditions and diseases, were among the oddities that made “Freak Shows” a major attraction for more than a century. During the late 19th and the early 20th century, those exhibitions of biological rarities, known as “Freak Shows,” were irresistible to the middle-class people who flocked to examine the human curiosities themselves. However, the display of non-normative human bodies and their treatment as objects of interest have their modern roots in 16th-century English fairs.

In post-war America, the mystery and appeal of the shows started to dwindle after the medicalization of human abnormalities with social reformers declaring that “Freak Shows” had no place in a civilized society.

A century after this popular pastime’s heyday in the United States, people still visit Coney Island, America’s legendary playground by the sea. This spit of land in Brooklyn, New York, is where “Freak Shows” reached the height of their popularity. Hosting as many as eight different sites, today only two still exist in the area aiming to recapture this weird phenomenon’s glorious past.

The German performer Matthias Buchinger (1674-1740) who was born without arms or lower legs and was 29 inches tall.
The German performer Matthias Buchinger (1674 – 1740) who was born without arms or lower legs and was 29 inches tall.
One of the most famous managers of the “Freak Show” industry in America was P.T. Barnum. In 1841, P.T. Barnum, who was also the father of modern-day advertising, bought the Scudder’s American Museum. During the 1840s, the museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York City, United States, transformed into Barnum’s American Museum, attracting about 400,000 visitors a year.
The Lecture Room of Barnum's American Museum, 1853.
The Lecture Room of Barnum’s American Museum, 1853.

One of Barnum’s most famous “exhibits” was Joice Heth, the African-American slave who was falsely introduced to the crowd as the 161-year-old nursing mammy of George Washington. Other performers included the dwarf Charles Sherwood Stratton, known by his stage name “General Tom Thumb,” the “Fiji Mermaid,” a version of a so-called half mammal and half fish, “William Henry Johnson,” a performer famous for his tapered head, the Canadian giantess Anna Haining Bates, the “Tattooed Man,” Captain George Costentenus, and the Thai-American “Siamese Twins,” Chang and Eng Bunker.

By 1860, the museum introduced other human curiosities, including the “Aztec Children,” “The Highland Fat Boys,” a family which included a black mother with two albino children, and Josephine Clofullia, known as “The Swiss-born Bearded Lady.” P.T. Barnum retired the year 1865 after his museum burnt to the ground.

Although Barnum was heavily criticized by some scholars who accused him of exploiting misfortuned people, there were others who shared sympathetic views, claiming that the businessman was paying his performers handsome sums of money while improving their quality of life.

Freak shows were the main attraction of most dime museums during the period of 1870 to 1900. With no seats in the curio halls and with a lecturer directing visitors from platform to platform and describing the exhibits for a cheap admission, New York finally developed more dime museums than any other place in the world.

Years later, the competition from carnivals, circuses, street fairs, amusement parks, world’s fairs, and finally television programs which also exhibited “freaks,” led to a significant decline in the once-popular dime museums’ following.

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