25 “Freak Shows” Performers from the Past

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.

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2 thoughts on “25 “Freak Shows” Performers from the Past”

  1. When I was in elementary school, I met a girl of about 11 years of age and her family. The daughter, an only child of an older couple, had what appeared to be this same disorder (microcephaly?) She was nonverbal with significant cognitive delays. I remember taking her to the beach with my siblings and cousins. Her very pleasant parents must have been so glad for the brief respite. (These were the days before respite care was available.) Unfortunately she was difficult to manage, and I was so frightened she would get hurt. Years later I became a speech-language pathologist, and often wished I could have been more comfortable with her. I only encountered one other child with a similar disorder. She also was a handful regarding behavior much like a 2 year old would be.