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George Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, standing on a chair between two guards. 1860. London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images
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Tattooed Lady Betty Broadbent prepares for an appearance at the fair in Flushing, Queens, New York. 1939.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Portrait of American Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker sitting on two wooden chairs. 1865.Blank Archives/Getty Images
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English freak and sideshow performer Horace Ridler in 1946. Extensively tattooed, he exhibited himself as "The Great Omi" or "The Zebra Man." Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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An undentified sideshow performer brings in the crowd to Coney Island's Dreamland Trained Wild Animal Arena for a show in New York, New York. Early 1910s. PhotoQuest/Getty Images
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Daisy and Violet Hilton, a pair of British Siamese Twins who toured the US sideshow in the 1930's, celebrating their 17th birthday. Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images
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Jojo the "Lion Man," a popular sideshow attraction. Circa 1910. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Duke, the jungle tiger trained by George Carresello a famous animal trainer, playing the saxophone. 1925. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Dwarves and the tall man on stage at a sideshow. Date unspecified. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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At a Coney Island "freak" show an albino is photographed with the Fat Lady. A Flea Circus poster is in the background. Date unspecified.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A foot of the elephant on the head of a trainer. Circa 1938. Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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The Two-Headed Nightingale: Millie and Christine McKay were Siamese twins born into slavery in America's South. They were sold to be displayed as a "freak" show and toured the Northern USA and Europe as a singing duet. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images
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French contortionist. 1865. adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images
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Colonel Routh Goshen, known as the Arabian Giant, poses in a photo studio for a publicity shot. Circa 1865. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
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Canadian circus performer Anna Haining Swan Bates poses next to her father Alexander Swan (seated) and her mother Ann Haining Swan, a woman of average height. 1870s. Blank Archives/Getty Images
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German circus performer hung to 656 feet by the hair. 1960.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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Members of Bertram Mills' "freak" show are examined by doctors. On the examination table is the "Giraffe Necked Woman." 1935. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A Burmese family, two of whose members have faces covered in hair, are just one of the attractions advertised by American showman and circus owner P.T. Barnum. 1890.Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Contortionist at a "freak" show. 1925. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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American silent film actor and sideshow performer Jack Earle shares sweeping duties with two members of the Doll family while on tour with the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus. Circa 1938. Underwood Archives/Getty Images
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A traveling circus sideshow attracts customers to see "JoAnn the Doublesex Wonder" during a stop in the small town of Abingdon, Virginia. 1967. Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images
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The well-known circus sideshow performer Josephine-Joseph, whose half male, half female body earned them a role in the film Freaks. 1932.Fox Photos/Getty Images
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Joseph Merrick, England's famous Elephant Man. Circa 1880s. PA Images via Getty Images
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Julius Graubert (Right), the pinhead. Cornell Capa/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Stephan Bibrowski, better known as Lionel the "Lion-faced Man." 1914. adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images
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Madame Devere from Brooksville, Kentucky had a beard that was 15 inches long. Chicago, Illinois. 1890.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A man electrocuting his wife for a fairground sideshow. Boston, Lincolnshire. 1957. Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
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"Bear Man" the bearded dwarf walking on all fours at the Greenbrier Valley Fair. 1938.Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Ruth Berry, born around 1910, was a prominent attraction from 1930-1965. She was born with phocomelia in all four limbs and her fingers were fused, giving her the appearance of having flippers. She was known professionally as "Mignon" which means "cute" in French. Circa 1930s.reddit
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13-year-old Mildred Buder, a pupil in the De Muth Dancing School, practicing her acrobatics and her piano lesson at the same time. 1938. Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive
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Circus performer Millie Kayes swallowing the head of a 12-foot python in the bar of the Peggy Bradford hotel. 1952.Fox Photos/Getty Images
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Krao Farini was a hairy, flexibly-jointed woman found in the Laotian jungle in 1885 and put on display by P.T. Barnum as a "Missing Link." 1889.Julius Gertinger/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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Dutch midget Johanna Pauline Musters, a.k.a. "Princess Pauline," "Lady Dot" or the "Midget Mite," standing on the hand of her manager Verschueren. Circa 1890. She weighed eight and a half pounds and measured 17 inches in height. Sean Sexton/Getty Images
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"Sealo the Sealman," a retired sideshow performer, enjoying a donut for breakfast. 1960. Keystone/Getty Images
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Silas Whaley, the man without a stomach, pulling his stomach in so far it seems like he doesn't have one as he awes onlookers in carnival sideshow at the Greenbrier Valley Fair. 1938.Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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A circus strongwoman balances a piano and pianist on her chest. Circa 1920.FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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African American sideshow circus entertainer Sylvia Portis, known as Sylvia the Elephant Girl, smiling and displaying her feet, which are deformed and show signs of the disease elephantiasis. 1944. JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images
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Cabinet photograph of a young man with his entire chest and arms tattooed, New York, New York. Circa 1890. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
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Director Tod Browning poses with cast members from his film Freaks. 1932. Acme photograph
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People standing in line to see a "freak" show in Coney Island. Date unspecified.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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German clowns. Circa 1899. Georg August Busse/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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A circus woman performs a sword swallowing trick. Date unspecified.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Elderly American musician "Professor" W.H. McMillan, a one-man band, sits with his bow and fiddle at the ready next to his drum and cymbal kit in front of a circus tent in Oakwood, Texas. 1910s. Vintage Images/Getty Images
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Portrait of Zip the "freak" standing on the beach at Coney Island. 1925. Bettmann/Getty Images
44 Vintage Photos Of Sideshow “Freaks” That Will Leave You Unsettled
The beginnings of organized "freak" shows and human oddity exhibitions date back to the reign of England's Elizabeth I in the 16th century, but these sideshows truly took off in the Victorian era. As a burgeoning public interest in medicine and science brought audiences out to see the weird — and sometimes grotesque — displays of our varied anatomies and biological curiosities, the phenomenon of sideshow "freaks" would sweep the United States and England.
But as science matured and the unknown better known, "freak" shows would disappear into a dark fold of history.
P.T. Barnum's Sideshow "Freaks"
In the United States, famed circus proprietor P.T. Barnum added so-called "freaks" or biological anomalies to his traveling show in 1835.
Anyone with a marketable disability, deformity, or otherwise oddity was added to his menagerie. Fairgrounds provided the most popular venues for sideshows and animals of extreme size or a human-like talent became the main draws.
Julius Gertinger/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty ImagesKrao Farini was a hairy and flexible woman found in the Laotian jungle in 1885 and then put on display by P.T. Barnum as a "missing link." 1889.
Barnum opened a human curiosities exhibit in 1841 at the American Museum in Manhattan. After a fire destroyed it, he founded P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Circus and in 1881, James Bailey and James Hutchinson assumed partial ownership.
Experienced showmen like Barnum knew that to draw in crowds the story behind the attraction was more important than the attraction or sideshow "freak" itself.
"You could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show; it was the tale that you told," wrote English showman Tom Norman.
Some famous sideshow performers like dwarf General Tom Thumb distanced themselves eventually from their performances. For others, like Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, their deformities made life pretty unenjoyable even if they did get a fair share of the profits they helped to bring in for Barnum.
Bettmann/Getty ImagesConey Island "freak" show albino photographed with fat lady and a Flea Circus poster in the background. Date unspecified.
Managers, Barnum included, likely exploited their performers, though some showmen like Tom Norman wholeheartedly denied this.
"The big majority of showmen are in the habit of treating their novelties as human beings...not like beasts."
Indeed, members of traveling sideshows often said they regarded their fellow performers and employers as a family. Accounts vary, but most seemed to make a fair salary probably more than they'd make working in the regular world. As early as 1851, trading cards of popular "freaks" circulated throughout England and the United States, with all profits going right to performers themselves.
The End Of The Sideshow "Freak"
By the 1940s, however, the display of sideshow "freaks" became a thing of the past. A variety of factors including perceived exploitation — even though Barnum did tend to have a reputation for paying his performers well — as well as the advent and popularity of television played a role in the sideshow's virtual disappearance by the following decade.
The performers of yesteryear do still attract attention both for their courageous spirits or heartbreaking stories.
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.