The Sad Stories Of The Ringling Brothers’ “Freak Show” Acts

Published May 19, 2016
Updated June 11, 2021

From "The Four-Legged Girl" to "The Dog-Faced Boy," here are some of the strangest behind-the-scenes "freak show" tales.

Freak Show

Ringling Bros. “Congress of Freaks” circa 1924.

On May 19, 1884, the Ringling Bros.’ Circus officially opened for business, capitalizing on the extreme and bizarre to earn a profit. It worked: For many years, the most popular component of the circus was the “Freak Show.”

Though often thought of as exploitative, degrading, and cruel, most reports paint a picture of headlining “freaks” being both accepted and well-paid by the circus staff. In many cases, the performers not only out-earned everyone in the audience but also their own promoters. Any mistreatment generally came from the public who did not look at the performers as people.

Sideshow acts were not always born different; sometimes they were “manufactured” to bring in money from the crowds.

Clyde Ingalls, manager of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sideshow in the 1930s once said, “Aside from such unusual attractions as the famous three-legged man, and the Siamese twin combinations, freaks are what you make them. Take any peculiar-looking person, whose familiarity to those around him makes for acceptance, play up that peculiarity and add a good spiel and you have a great attraction.”

As medicine began to explain the unexplainable, circus freak shows fell out of fashion. But while they thrived, countless legendary performers moved through their ranks. Here are some of their stories:

Famous Freak Show Acts: Annie Jones (“The Bearded Lady”)

Annie Jones

Annie Jones, the world-famous bearded lady of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

One of history’s most recognized freak show performers, Annie Jones’ career as a sideshow attraction began when she was featured at P.T. Barnum‘s American Museum at age one. After a short (but very successful) stint at the museum, Barnum offered Jones’ parents a three-year contract for the girl at $150 week.

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 found quickly in upstate New York where the phrenologist claimed Jones to be his child.

When the matter went to court, 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.

Jones — whose genetic condition that caused excessive amounts of hair remains unknown to this day — would become as well known for her musical skills as her bearded face.

Outside the circus, Jones was married twice — the second time widowed — 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.

Erin Kelly
An All That’s Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she’s designed several published book covers in her career as a graphic artist.