25 Photos Of “Freak Shows” That Are Thankfully A Thing Of The Past

Published August 28, 2017
Updated June 11, 2021

From "The Elephant Man" to "Lobster Boy," these stories are far more tragic than anyone realized at the time.

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25 Photos Of “Freak Shows” That Are Thankfully A Thing Of The Past
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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 "freaks."

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 conditions.

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.

Next, dig deeper into the lives of six of the most well-known and read the story of Grady "Lobster Boy" Stiles. Then, learn how a pair of conjoined twins survived one of the world's most difficult surgeries.

Joel Stice
Joel Stice holds a Bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with more than 10 years of experience in writing and editing, during which time his work has appeared on Heavy, Uproxx, and Buzzworthy.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Stice, Joel. "25 Photos Of “Freak Shows” That Are Thankfully A Thing Of The Past." AllThatsInteresting.com, August 28, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/vintage-sideshow-performers. Accessed May 25, 2024.