The idea of a spectacle that exploits people with severe physical deformities and
abnormalities, better known as a "freak show," has existed for centuries. However, these
shows only really started to take off as the traveling shows that most of us now recognize
in the 1800s, when they traveled to towns with lurid banners advertising examples of
nature gone wrong.
After paying their money, spectators would be taken inside dimly-lit tents to gawk in
horror and amusement at people suffering from all sorts of rare abnormalities. Conjoined
twins and those with deformed limbs or no limbs at all were put on display and labeled as
By the time these people came to be freak show performers, most of them had already had
terribly difficult lives as they suffered rejection from family members and peers. In many
cases, they were sent to the freak shows as children by their parents to earn the family
extra money and because public schools wouldn't have them.
For others, the freak show was the only employment option available and became a home
where they could find some kind of acceptance among others suffering from similar
Moreover, freak shows were big business, especially during their heyday in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries when the likes of P.T. Barnum promoted these spectacles. Barnum,
who was actually known to pay a fair wage, would comb the globe looking for new people to
join his growing show.
But it wasn't long before the trend stopped growing. By the 1940s, the appeal of the freak
show had begun to decline with the medicalization of human abnormalities pulling the
curtain back on some of the mystery that lent the show its appeal.
Today, while you can still find the occasional freak show, the performers are generally
ones who with extreme body modifications (such as tattoos and piercings) or those that can
execute astonishing physical performances like fire-eating and sword-swallowing — all of
which represents a welcome departure from the insensitive days of yore.
Known to many as "The Bearded Woman," Annie Jones toured with P.T. Barnum, becoming
the country's top "bearded lady" and acting as a spokesperson for Barnum's "Congress of
Freaks." Date unspecified
Born in Thailand in 1811, Chang and Eng Bunker toured as a curiosity act for three
years before settling down in North Carolina.
They married a pair of sisters and fathered 21 children.
Known as “The Ohio Big Foot Girl,” Fannie Mills suffered from Milroy disease, which
caused her legs and feet to become gigantic. 1890
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome allowed Felix Wehrle to stretch his skin to great length and
take on the name "Elastic Man." 1902
Russian performer Fedor Jeftichew went by the name "Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy" and
became a star performer in P.T. Barnum's sideshow.
Years later, he was an influence on the physical characteristics of Chewbacca in Star
Billed as the "Living Human Skeleton," Isaac Sprague began irreversibly losing weight
at age 12 for reasons that remain unclear.
The weight loss continued throughout adulthood until his untimely death. 1866
Grady Stiles Jr. a.k.a. "Lobster Boy" came from a long line of family members who
suffered from the same birth defect that lent him his stage name.
As an adult, he was an alcoholic and would eventually murder his daughter's fiancee. 1948
Better known as the "elephant man," Joseph Merrick lived a tragic life.
Rejected by his parents, he was left to join a touring freak show act. 1889
Madam Gustika, who was billed as being from the "Duckbill tribe," is seen here
smoking a pipe through the large plates in her lip. 1930
Mirin Dajo became famous for astounding the medical community by piercing his body
with all kinds of objects seemingly without injury.
However, this would ultimately prove to be his downfall when he died from swallowing a
needle. Circa 1940s
Born with a very rare orthopedic condition that caused her knees to bend backward,
Ella Harper a.k.a. "Camel Girl," received a $200 per week salary as the star of a touring
freak show act.Date unspecified.
Dubbed the "Four-Legged Girl From Texas," Myrtle Corbin was born with a severe
congenital deformity that caused her to have two separate pelvises and a smaller set of
Martin Laurello, the "Human Owl," could turn his neck a full 180 degrees. He appeared
in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island. 1938
Daisy and Violet Hilton were fused at the hip and put into a circus freak show at the
age of three. Circa 1927
George and Willie Muse were black albino identical twin brothers who had the
misfortune of being born in the Jim Crow American South.
They were kidnapped, told to grow out their hair and forced into the circus freak show
life as "Men From Mars." 1920s
Frank Lentini was born with a parasitic twin, ultimately leaving him with a third leg.
When his family moved to the United States from Italy, Lentini entered showbiz as "The
Great Lentini," joining the Ringling Brothers Circus. 1914
The Jaramillo sisters, Natalia and Aurora, were from Albuquerque, New Mexico. It
remains unclear how exactly they first got into show business. 1908
Born without the lower half of his torso, Johnny Eck is seen here with Angelo
Rossitto in the film Freaks.
He would also make several appearances as a bird creature in Tarzan movies. 1932
Minnie Woolsey, known as "Koo-Koo the Bird Girl," suffered from Seckel syndrome,
giving her both physical and mental disabilities.
She lacked both teeth and hair and worked at a Coney Island sideshow until her death.
Born into slavery, conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy would later be sold to
the circus and travel the world for 30 years as a singing novelty act. 1871
Pasqual Pinon toured the United States as the "Two-Headed Mexican," decorating the
tumor growing out of his head with a wax face. 1917
Charles Sherwood Stratton was paid $3 a week as a member of Barnum's touring act
under the name Tom Thumb.
He would eventually marry in 1863 (pictured), before dying at the age of 45 two decades
Born with the rare Hypertrichosis or "werewolf syndrome," Alice Doherty was put in a
freak show by her mother at just two years old under the stage name "Wooly Girl." 1902
Due to acromegalic gigantism, Jack Earle grew to 7'7" tall.
He traveled with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 14 years before becoming a
Members of The Ringling Brothers' "Congress of Freaks" lineup for a group portrait.