Picture this: depression-era dustbowl USA. Swirls of sand swim in the air as utter silence engulfs the bleak landscape. Boredom is the name of the game here, and the residents don’t have much to look forward to…until, a travelling circus comes to town, bringing with it tons of horrifying sideshow attractions to gawk at for everyone’s sick entertainment.
It’s hard to truly imagine this nowadays, but freak shows and circuses were the only sources of entertainment for thousands of people for years, even before the Great Depression hit. And it provided the only source of income for people born with abnormalities.
As humiliating and non-politically correct the proceedings were, their existence attracted a huge following, and provide an endless source of fascination to this day.
So step right up and take a closer look at history’s most gut-wrenching, eyebrow-raising freak show attractions.
1. General Tom Thumb
P.T. Barnum was one of the first true moguls and flashy showmen in American history. While his circus and cadre of sideshow attractions included plenty of fake “freaks” for people to come and stare at in horror, he also specialized in exploiting real humans. In fact, he wasn’t above manipulating his own distant cousin, Charles Stratton, whom he found out had a rare disease that affected his growth.
Charles had barely grown from the time he was a toddler, and Barnum explained to the boy’s father that the young man could help earn a living for his family by joining the circus. Because Charles could not otherwise find easy employment due to his size, he was eager to jump at the opportunity.
Barnum taught him to dance, sing, dress up, and impersonate famous people.
The act toured in the late 1700s when Barnum and Stratton’s father – both obviously shameless and exploitative businessmen- went into business together as circus pioneers. Young Charles Stratton performed under the stage name General Tom Thumb and wowed audiences in the United States with his complex routines and hilarious antics.
He toured with Barnum’s circus for three years, encountering mobs of fans wherever he went. Such was the power of his celebrity that more than 10,000 people attended his funeral when he passed away. He was a truly beloved figure, who somehow managed to make the best out of terribly exploitive circumstances.
2. The Jones Twins
Striking a less triumphant note in the history of freak show attractions is the tragic story of the Jones Twins. A set of Siamese twins who famously toured the United States during the late 1800s, they died under mysterious circumstances at only fifteen months old.
But not before having served as a sideshow attraction for more than half their lives. It’s hard to think of babies “working” under such cruel and inhumane conditions, but such was the fate of the Joneses, who were mercilessly exploited by adults for financial gain. The gasps of horror the twins often elicited were probably the last sounds they ever heard.
3. The Elephant Man
The remarkable Joseph Merrick, commonly referred to as the Elephant Man, led a truly amazing life. Perpetually marked by the stigma of being born with a terribly disfiguring condition, this did not prevent him from also becoming one of the most erudite and sensitive men of the 19th century.
The famous sideshow performer was more or less forced into his fate as a ghastly mainstay in popular entertainment. A victim of a congenital disorder that caused abnormal growths to emerge from all over his body, he was disfigured beyond words – thus, the moniker of “Elephant Man.” Merrick, having run away from home early in life, only saw an opportunity to earn a meagre living through the freak show circuit.
People would pay to come and scream at his visage in horror, which of course had an unimaginable effect on his psyche. By many accounts, Merrick was a deeply intelligent man, but his emotional state was of course completely debilitated, as a result of his difficult life. Numerous tests by doctors during the time left them stumped as to the exact nature of his disease, and Merrick consistently struggled for any semblance of normalcy.
He eventually passed away one quiet evening at the age of 27. Although the cause of death is unknown, it is commonly thought that he died trying to sleep on his back like “normal” people, since he typically had to sleep sitting up due to the size of his head.
4. Annie Jones “The Bearded Lady”
Another one of P.T. Barnum’s discoveries, Annie Jones remains one of the most recognized freak show performers in history. After a short albeit wildly successful stint at Barnum’s museum, he offered Jones’ parents a lucrative three-year contract for the girl at $150 week. Jones — whose genetic condition caused excessive amounts of hair on her face, the reasons for which remain unknown to this day — would also become well known for her musical skills, in addition to her bearded visage.
Interestingly, while under the care of Barnum’s appointed nanny, Jones was kidnapped` by a New York phrenologist who attempted to exhibit Jones in his own sideshow. She was soon found in upstate New York where the phrenologist claimed Jones to be his child. The matter went to court, and Jones ran into the arms of her parents. The judge called the case closed, and Jones’ mom remained close to her daughter for the rest of her career.
Outside the circus and all the crazy shenanigans with which she was involved, Jones managed to lead her own life, and was in fact married twice before becoming ill during a visit to her mother’s home in Brooklyn. There, she passed away from tuberculosis, in 1902, at the age of 37.
5. Jack Earle, “The World’s Tallest Man”
Standing six feet tall before the age of 10 — and growing to over seven feet tall by the age of 13 — Jack Earle was born a bonafide giant. There are conflicting reports as to his true height, but numbers range from 7’7” to 8’6”.
Earle had been a Hollywood actor before a fall from scaffolding led to major injuries and temporary blindness, causing his retirement from the movie industry. Soon after his accident, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ freak show came through town with Jim Tarver as their travelling giant.
Earle was considerably taller than Tarver, and the management at Ringling Brothers saw an opportunity, offering Earle a one-year contract with the circus. Earle said he never wanted to be in a freak show, but since he needed to make a living, he felt he had little choice. He would spend the next 14 years on the road with the sideshow.
The gentle giant began his career alongside 2’2” tall Major Mite. After retiring, Earle — who suffered from acromegalic gigantism — went on to become a travelling salesman for the Roma Wine Company. He died of kidney failure in 1952 at the age of 46.
6. Myrtle Corbin “The Four-Legged Girl from Texas”
Myrtle Corbin entered the freak show circuit at the age of 13 and was billed as the “Four-Legged Girl from Texas.” Born with two separate pelvises situated side by side, Corbin’s four individual legs made her a very popular attraction. While she possessed the ability to move her two inner legs, they were too weak to sustain her weight or be used for walking. Corbin’s fame in the circus directly led to several phony four-legged acts popping up in other freak shows worldwide as the public’s thirst for such imagery fed the craze.
After her successful circus career, Corbin went on to lead a rather sedate life. She married James Clinton Bicknell at the age of 19 and went on to birth four daughters and a son. Corbin died six days short of her 60th birthday, in 1928.
A Strange Business
Thankfully, sideshow attractions are a thing of the past. While they definitely provided a source of entertainment, they were also a pretty ghoulish and dehumanizing endeavour.
That being said, the insane celebration of deformities has continued to feed imaginations, and horror writers are now solely taxed with coming up with scary enough stories to provide nightmares for hungry audiences who love the macabre.