From "The Elephant Man" to "Lobster Boy," these stories are far more tragic than anyone realized at the time.
Known to many as "The Bearded Woman," Annie Jones toured with P.T. Barnum, becoming the country's top "bearded lady" and acting as a spokesperson for Barnum's "Congress of Freaks."
Date unspecifiedCharles Eisenmann/Wikimedia Commons
Born in Thailand in 1811, Chang and Eng Bunker toured as a curiosity act for three years before settling down in North Carolina.
They married a pair of sisters and fathered 21 children.
Known as “The Ohio Big Foot Girl,” Fannie Mills suffered from Milroy disease, which caused her legs and feet to become gigantic.
Charles Eisenmann/Syracuse University Library
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome allowed Felix Wehrle to stretch his skin to great length and take on the name "Elastic Man."
1902Charles Eisenmann/Syracuse University Library
Better known as the "elephant man," Joseph Merrick lived a tragic life.
Rejected by his parents, he was left to join a touring freak show act.
Grady Stiles Jr. a.k.a. "Lobster Boy" came from a long line of family members who suffered from the same birth defect that lent him his stage name.
As an adult, he was an alcoholic and would eventually murder his daughter's fiancee.
1948 Paul Balanchuk/Flickr
Billed as the "Living Human Skeleton," Isaac Sprague began irreversibly losing weight at age 12 for reasons that remain unclear.
The weight loss continued throughout adulthood until his untimely death.
Russian performer Fedor Jeftichew went by the name "Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy" and became a star performer in P.T. Barnum's sideshow.
Years later, he was an influence on the physical characteristics of Chewbacca in Star Wars.
1888Fred Park Swasey/Wikimedia Commons
Frank Lentini was born with a parasitic twin, ultimately leaving him with a third leg.
When his family moved to the United States from Italy, Lentini entered showbiz as "The Great Lentini," joining the Ringling Brothers Circus.
1914Ronald G. Becker/Syracuse University Library
George and Willie Muse were black albino identical twin brothers who had the misfortune of being born in the Jim Crow American South.
They were kidnapped, told to grow out their hair and forced into the circus freak show life as "Men From Mars."
Daisy and Violet Hilton were fused at the hip and put into a circus freak show at the age of three.
Circa 1927Wikimedia Commons
Martin Laurello, the "Human Owl," could turn his neck a full 180 degrees. He appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island.
Dubbed the "Four-Legged Girl From Texas," Myrtle Corbin was born with a severe congenital deformity that caused her to have two separate pelvises and a smaller set of legs.
1882Charles Eisenmann/Wikimedia Commons
Born with a very rare orthopedic condition that caused her knees to bend backward, Ella Harper a.k.a. "Camel Girl," received a $200 per week salary as the star of a touring freak show act.
Date unspecifiedWikimedia Commons
Mirin Dajo became famous for astounding the medical community by piercing his body with all kinds of objects seemingly without injury.
However, this would ultimately prove to be his downfall when he died from swallowing a needle.
Circa 1940sPhil Coppens/Wikimedia Commons
Madam Gustika, who was billed as being from the "Duckbill tribe," is seen here smoking a pipe through the large plates in her lip.
The Jaramillo sisters, Natalia and Aurora, were from Albuquerque, New Mexico. It remains unclear how exactly they first got into show business.
1908Charles Eisenmann/Syracuse University Library
Born without the lower half of his torso, Johnny Eck is seen here with Angelo Rossitto in the film Freaks.
He would also make several appearances as a bird creature in Tarzan movies.
Minnie Woolsey, known as "Koo-Koo the Bird Girl," suffered from Seckel syndrome, giving her both physical and mental disabilities.
She lacked both teeth and hair and worked at a Coney Island sideshow until her death.
Date unspecifiedWikimedia Commons
Born into slavery, conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy would later be sold to the circus and travel the world for 30 years as a singing novelty act.
Pasqual Pinon toured the United States as the "Two-Headed Mexican," decorating the tumor growing out of his head with a wax face.
Charles Sherwood Stratton was paid $3 a week as a member of Barnum's touring act under the name Tom Thumb.
He would eventually marry in 1863 (pictured), before dying at the age of 45 two decades later.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
Born with the rare Hypertrichosis or "werewolf syndrome," Alice Doherty was put in a freak show by her mother at just two years old under the stage name "Wooly Girl."
Due to acromegalic gigantism, Jack Earle grew to 7'7" tall.
He traveled with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 14 years before becoming a salesman.
1930The British Library
Members of The Ringling Brothers' "Congress of Freaks" lineup for a group portrait. 1924. Edward J. Kelty/Wikimedia Commons
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.