Circus Freaks and Human Oddities

In light of Halloween earlier this week and the serendipitous timing of the film "The Greatest Showman" coming out in December, I wanted to use this post to talk about "circus freaks" and "freakshows." Freak shows have been around since before the 17th century, but started springing up in America in 1829. Hitting their stride in the 1840s, these shows became a sought-out phenomenon and helped the circus world attain notoriety. In the Victorian age of scientific and medical advancements, the public was curious about the unexplained, which paved the way for freak shows to thrive.


A gentleman by the name of Phineas Taylor Barnum saw an opportunity and capitalized on it as he brought freak shows to America's limelight. P.T. Barnum was born on July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut. He became a small-business owner in his early twenties, then moved to New York City in 1834 when lotteries, his main source of income, were banned in Connecticut. His career as a showman began when bought an elderly slave named Joice Heth for $1,000. He advertised her as the 161-year-old nursemaid to General George Washington, and would charge people to come and listen to Heth sing and tell stories of her early rearing of him. People were curious about the possibility of someone living this long, and Barnum made a handsome profit on Heth, of upwards of $1,000 per week. However after Heth’s death, doctors determined she was no older than 80 years old. Strangely, this fraud bothered neither Barnum nor the people who came to see her, making it clear to Barnum that he had found a valuable market of apathy. People wanted to believe, and didn't seem to care if what they were seeing was the truth or not.

The Feejee Mermaid

The Feejee Mermaid

Barnum’s career as an entertainer in this bizzare little niche flourished to such a degree, that he felt confident enough to start a performing troupe that he called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific Musical Theatre”. To house his odd musical act, he went on to purchase the “Scudder’s American Museum” which he renamed “Barnum’s American Museum” and used to display his discovered oddities, hoaxes, and human curiosities. Perhaps the most famous of all his oddities was the existence of the “Feejee Mermaid,” which was made up from the head and torso of a young monkey sewn to the back half of a fish. He justified his hoaxes by saying they were “advertisements to draw attention… to the Museum. I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and them pleasing them.” And interestingly enough, the public let this slide.


Barnum’s next star of the show was Charles Sherwood Stratton, a 4 year old boy who was only 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds. To put this into perspective, the average 4-year-old generally clocks in at about 40 inches tall and 40 pounds in weight. Though this is for a current, nutritionally healthy child, even back in the early 1830s a normal child at this age would have been taller and heavier than Charles was. Barnum trained Stratton to sing, dance , mime, and impersonate famous people, and put him in his exhibit as 11-year-old General Tom Thumb. To aid the appearance of being a general, Thumb learned to drink wine at age five and took up cigar smoking at age 7. The act was received as an incredible success and Tom Thumb became immensely famous. Barnum took Tom Thumb on tour around America followed by a European tour, raking in both recognition and money.

I want to back up for a brief moment. Before starting Circadium, I was under the impression that freak shows were able-bodied-people’s exploitation of disabled or disfigured individuals as a source of profit. When looking superficially at P.T. Barnum’s career with the knowledge of how much money he made off of his frauds within his museum, and his enumerable exaggeration towards the people he was using in his exhibits, it’s hard to see anything other than what seems like Barnum's greed and manipulation skills. In our "History of Circus" class that we are taking this semester, we touched upon freak shows only briefly, which was part of the reason I decided to delve a little deeper this week. This extra research gave me a whole new understanding of freak shows and how they could actually be viewed as beneficial opportunities for many of the people hired as an exhibit. I want to note - there are likely many instances of misuse or fraud in the freak show community and I am not negating any of that. I'm just trying to highlight some of the other views, especially of the public at the time.


At first, I was shocked that Barnum would take a four year old and train him to sing and dance like a pet monkey. Though this partnership might have started off strangely, the relationship between Barnum and Tom Thumb was incredible as the boy aged. At barely six years old, Tom Thumb had toured America and Europe, performed before Queen Victoria, and was a favorite of the Prince of Wales. Thanks to Barnum’s help, Tom Thumb became a wealthy young man, with enough money to have taylors in New York City custom design his suits. When Barnum declared bankruptcy, Tom Thumb went on tour with him again to help him get back on his feet. And when Tom Thumb died in 1883, ten thousand people attended his funeral. To me, this sounds like a much closer friendship than the negative perception of freak show lets on. This was the side of freakshows I hadn’t seen, as a side where these performers gained respect, a following, and were well paid for their performances.

But back to the main story. Barnum's success was so great that after his three years abroad with Thumb, Barnum went on a bit of a buying spree, purchasing other museums to expand his misfit empire. By the end of 1846, Barnum's museum was drawing an average of 400,000 visitors a year.


Barnum’s next venture established him as a reputable showman. While touring Europe with Tom Thumb, Barnum heard about a woman named Jenny Lind, whose crystal-clear soprano voice gave her the nickname of the "Swedish Nightingale." Without even hearing her sing, Barnum approached Lind with the offer to sing in America for $1,000 a night for 150 nights total for her debut. Getting her to America would be an all expenses paid venture. Though this was a risk for Lind, as she was at the height of her career in Europe, this was an even more incredible risk on Barnum's end and his financial offer was unprecedented. Yet Barnum was confident that Lind’s reputation for morality and philanthropy could be used in his publicity.

Barnum’s confidence paid off, and Lind was an immediate success in the United States, with close to 40,000 people greeting her at the docks when she sailed into port from Europe, and another 20,000 at her hotel. Lind quickly realized how much money she would make Barnum, and insisted upon a new contract with a higher salary. Barnum agreed and signed a new contract, giving Lind the original fee plus the remainder of each concert’s profits after Barnum’s $5,500 management fee was paid. Although both made a handsome profit off the performances, Lind ended the tour early after becoming uncomfortable with Barnum’s aggressive and relentless marketing tactics. They parted amicably in 1851 after 93 concerts in America, that totaled astonishing earnings of $350,000 for Lind and $500,000 for Barnum .

Barnum’s freak shows in the museum and touring around the world continued, and other freakshows and sideshows began popping up as well, such as Tom Norman's penny gaff shop, Dime Museums, and in circuses. Performers came and went in various troupes, not tied down to one specifically. Here are some other famous circus attractions, some of whom performed with P.T. Barnum.

Werewolf Syndrome & Bearded Women


Pinhead Performers


Conjoined Performers / Extra Appendages


Other Visual Deformities

The changing views of disabilities at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century turned the public's opinion off from freak shows, and they began to decline rapidly. I feel like since then, the “freakshow” side of circus has always shone a negative light on circus as the outcasts or people who wouldn’t have been socially accepted otherwise. I believe with society’s current focus on political correctness, we look back at freakshows as nothing more than terrible exploitation and mockery. But I’ve come to discover that while there will be outliers in situations, many circus freaks were treated well and gained success, fame, and respect in their odd careers. There are many different accounts of what truly went on behind these shows, and had I more time I could delve deeper into the minutia of the abuse and misuse or fame and fortune of circus freaks in the 19th century. Though I don't doubt many performers did not achieve fame or fortune in freak shows, I used to believe these performances and the people who ran them were cruel and exploited people with disabilities, I've come to believe that the story isn't as black and white. Many performers were treated well, gained respect and admiration in their community and beyond, and had a valuable career they otherwise wouldn't have been able to have due to their disability.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that there is a new film coming out December 20th of this year, titled “The Greatest Showman”. Before my deeper exploration into the history of circus freaks, I felt extremely frustrated at the way the trailer of this film was portraying this story. In the trailer, P.T. Barnum is positioned as a benevolent circus ringmaster who created a show to highlight unique performers, and his circus of misfits danced, loved, and had normal kinds of drama. But this isn’t truly how his story started. It started with the purchase of a slave, consistent deception to the public about who many of these people actually were, and making a business out of fake miracles. But these exhibits definitely didn’t involve any circus, at least not for Barnum, until 1870 when he was 60 years old.

I started out this blog post with the intention of discussing how I felt in regards to this film. Though I believe it’s still not a perfect representation of the life of P.T. Barnum and freak shows, it is definitely closer than I originally thought.Though not 100% true to the whole story, the positive spin this film gives freak shows may help to assuage that correlation of "abusive ringmaster," "freak," and "outsider" with circus. But what are your thoughts? Below is the trailer for your viewing pleasure, so please leave me a comment with how you feel after seeing this clip.

Well, thats all I have this week. For now, this is one "freak" that has to get back to work preparing her own unique story.

Sincerely, Circus Girl