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Freakish Victorian Freak Shows

By Edited Mar 24, 2016 3 5

Since the Middle Ages, travelling side shows would journey the length and breadth of England, carting around a strange assortment of unfortunate people, who were known to all and sundry, as freaks.  Regarded as curiosities to be gawped and gazed at, this meandering menagerie included: fat people, dwarfs, conjoined twins and those with various genetic anomalies or strange bodies.

Extraordinary

Tom Norman

During the Victorian era these travelling, extraordinary exhibitions, became hugely popular right across Britain and America and often featured a showman, who would present the various  human oddities with fanfare and manufacture tall tales to explain why the person, was the way they were. Famous members of freak show troupes, of the Victorian period included: dwarfs and midget's, like the English, Tom Thumb and Anita, the Living Doll. Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man was another famous member, as was Mary Anne Bevan, the World’s Ugliest Woman, who probably had a metabolic problem.

 

Fabricated Freaks

Julia Pastrana,

Sometimes the 'freaks' would be fabricated, with ladies dressed in saucy Victorian lingerie, claiming to have been members of Turkish Harems, or white people, made up to look like other exotic races.  Freak shows often would claim to have found the Missing Link, or members of the lost Aztecs. Others like the withered and toothless, African American woman, Joice Heth, were touted to be 161 years old, by premier showman P.T. Barnum, although an autopsy after her death said somewhere in her 70s was more likely. Julia Pastrana who was dubbed the Baboon Lady, also probably had a rare genetic disorder, which resulted in the growth of a luxuriant beard and hirsute forehead. She would prance about the stage in feminine costumes, dancing and singing to the crowds. Sadly she died while giving birth to a child, with the same genetic disorder as herself.

 Exceptional People

Exceptional people who fall outside of society’s norms, have always incited curiosity and wonderment; perhaps a process which simply comes back to a group defining, what is average and typical and what is other. Groups also have long used Otherness, as a way of subordinating and excluding those who challenge what is conventional, customary and common place. Today at least we are beginning to appreciate diversity and realise that a person who was considered a freak or curiosity, often simply won an unfortunate genetic lottery.

Today we are horrified by the way people with disabilities, deformities and difference were treated as merchandise and used to make a buck. However it must be remembered, that in the Victorian era and earlier, many of these people had no other means of supporting themselves and in fact some, like Chang Eng Bunker the original ‘Siamese’ twins, managed to become fairly wealthy.

 

The Bunkers in their later years

Rick James - Super Freak

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Comments

Aug 30, 2012 9:32pm
vicdillinger
How the blazes I missed this article when it was fiorst published I'll never know. Christ, I gotta pay more attention. Anyway, wonderful stuff, keep it up. A thumb.
Aug 30, 2012 11:17pm
Aurelia
Thanks very much for your encouragement. You may notice that I tend to like the offbeat.
Aug 31, 2012 1:25pm
vicdillinger
Just FYI -- Julia Pastrana's husband was a real TURD of a human. He bought her with the intention of exploiting her. He was abusive and treated her like an animal (as did most of her contemporaries). She had the dubious distinction of being billed as "The World's Ugliest Woman", an appellation that no doubt caused her great pain. When she died, her husband married another woman with a similar condition, and went on with the show (only after having Julia's skin and the body of their dead child preserved and used as side-show attractions).

John (or Joseph) Merrick (the Elephant Man) was aware of his differences (before his condition grew so morbid, he was a door-to-door salesman of women's furnishings -- gloves, handkerchiefs, etc.). Just FYI -- Julia Pastrana's husband was a real TURD of a human. He bought her with the intention of exploiting her. He was abusive and treated her like an animal (as did most of her contemporaries). She had the dubious distinction of being billed as "The World's Ugliest Woman", an appellation that no doubt caused her great pain. When she died, he married another woman with a similar condition

John (or Joseph) Merrick (the Elephant Man) was aware of his plight and station in life (believe it or not before his condition grew so morbid, he was a door-to-door salesman of women 19s furnishings -- gloves, handkerchiefs, etc.). He was painfully aware of his plight and station in life.

So, too, was Julia. She was a sad case.

So, too, was Julia. She was a sad case.
Aug 31, 2012 3:48pm
Aurelia
Sorry I didn't mean to sound glib. I know the stories of these people and I hate the way they were maligned and exploited. We humans need to be aware that we may treat others badly, who through no fault of their own are different. People may walk on the other side of the street from someone with a facial disfigurement and witch burning by the church went on for 300 years based on wiping out others, who were different, be they eccentric old ladies or someone who interpreted their religion in a slightly different way. In some countries today, young children who have disabilities are targeted as being demons or witches and are often killed. Humanity has to understand itself and improve. Thank you for your heartfelt response.
Sep 1, 2012 3:53pm
vicdillinger
Don't apologize, I wasn't chastising you, nor did I think you were being glib. These people ARE fascinating.
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