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.

Annie Jones
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 unspecified
Charles Eisenmann/Wikimedia Commons

Bunker Bros
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.

1865
Wikimedia Commons

Fannie Mills
Known as “The Ohio Big Foot Girl,” Fannie Mills suffered from Milroy disease, which caused her legs and feet to become gigantic.

1890
Charles Eisenmann/Syracuse University Library

Elastic Man
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome allowed Felix Wehrle to stretch his skin to great length and take on the name "Elastic Man."

1902
Charles Eisenmann/Syracuse University Library

Elephant Man
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.

1889
Wikimedia Commons

Lobster Boy
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

Living Skeleton
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. 1866
Wikimedia Commons

Fedor Jeftichew
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.

1888
Fred Park Swasey/Wikimedia Commons

Frank Lentini
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.

1914
Ronald G. Becker/Syracuse University Library

Muse
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."

1920s
Marvin/Flickr

Hilton Sisters
Daisy and Violet Hilton were fused at the hip and put into a circus freak show at the age of three.

Circa 1927
Wikimedia Commons

Owlboy
Martin Laurello, the "Human Owl," could turn his neck a full 180 degrees. He appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island.

1938
Alkajuggler/YouTube

Myrtle Corbin
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.

1882
Charles Eisenmann/Wikimedia Commons

Ella Harper
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 unspecified
Wikimedia Commons

Mirin Dajo
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 1940s
Phil Coppens/Wikimedia Commons

Duckbill
Madam Gustika, who was billed as being from the "Duckbill tribe," is seen here smoking a pipe through the large plates in her lip.

1930
Wikimedia Commons

Jarmillo Sisters
The Jaramillo sisters, Natalia and Aurora, were from Albuquerque, New Mexico. It remains unclear how exactly they first got into show business.

1908
Charles Eisenmann/Syracuse University Library

Johnny Eck
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.

1932
Wikimedia Commons

Koo Koo
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 unspecified
Wikimedia Commons

Mccoy Twins
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.

1871
Wikimedia Commons

Pasqual Pinon
Pasqual Pinon toured the United States as the "Two-Headed Mexican," decorating the tumor growing out of his head with a wax face.

1917
Wikimedia Commons

Tom Thumb
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

Wooly Girl
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."

1902
Wikimedia Commons

Jack
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.

1930
The British Library

Ringling Freaks
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.

Joel Stice
Joel Stice is a writer who enjoys digging into all things pop culture, history, science, and anything weird.