P.T. Barnum, Circuses and Freak Shows
Both tent and traveling circuses were at their peak from the 1830s to the 1880s and they always had a Freak Show included as part of the Side Show entertainment. In fact, the words Circus and Freak Show were synonymous, as can be seen in the story of the world famous P.T. Barnum.
Freak shows were more than displays of people with different abilities or physical conditions. They also displayed people with strange or unique talents, such as sword swallowers, fire eaters, and magicians.
According to Wild West Tech there was a side show that literally recreated the act of electrocution. A woman appeared to be strapped to a chair and electrocuted, then when she was almost limp from pain a light bulb was stuck in her mouth and it would light up. This was, of course, a trick. The light bulb was operated by a battery.
There is a medical condition called Hypertrichosis taters, which is basically excessive hair growth on all parts of the body. There are two types of this condition, one involves excessive hair growth all over the body and another with excessive hair growth only on certain parts of the body. The condition can be congenital or develop later in life. Performers with this condition were sometimes promoted as part werewolf, dog faces, or bearded ladies, though there were many fake bearded ladies who toured the Old West side show route.
Pastrana was originally purchased by a man named Theodore Lent from a woman who may have been her own mother. Lent taught her to read and write in three languages, dance, and play music. Lent and Pastrana married. She gave birth to a son with all of the same conditions Pastrana suffered from. The child died three days later and Pastrana died two days after her child due to postpartum complications.
Tattooed ladies and wax figures were also very common displays. Wax figures were cheap--they were a one-time purchase of a wax display of a well-known freak who had long since passed away or a criminal recently captured and hung.
Sometimes the made freak display was extremely shocking, such as that of the well-known criminal Joaquin Murieta. According to author and historian John Boessenecker, Murieta was a notorious and extremely violent criminal in California who, among other atrocities, murdered two dozen Chinese miners in the spring of 1853. The California Assembly charged Captain Harry Love and the California Rangers with capturing Murieta. Love tracked Murieta down and killed him, but they were far from any town where the bounty could be collected.
Rather than spending days with his decaying body to transport him to town, the men who killed him removed his head, then the hand of Three-Fingered-Jack, Murieta's partner. The head and hand were then placed in a large jar and preserved with alcohol, a common preservative used for scientific specimens.
Murieta's head and Three-Fingered-Jack's hand were displayed in many side shows in the Old West. Displaying the head of a notorious criminal is an old tradition according to John Taylor, author of Shocked and Amazed!, who is quoted in Wild West Tech. It was also a traditional way for the man who captured the criminal to make extra cash in addition to the bounty--in this case, Captain Harry Love.
Handbills were printed to tell the story of Murieta and his capture, then distributed in advance of the arrival of the circus. Captain Love started a new and more lucrative career traveling the circus route, charging customers a dollar per person to view one of the most shocking, gruesome, but surprisingly popular additions to the circus Freak Show.
- "Freak Shows." History. The University of Sheffield. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
- "Freak Shows." Wild West Tech. The History Channel. Season 3, Episode 2. Originally aired September 20, 2005.
- McCutcheon, Marc. Everyday Life in the 1800s: A Guide for Students & Historians. Writers Digest Books. Cincinnati: 2001.
- Varhola, Michael J. Everyday Life During the Civil War:A Guide for Students & Historians. Writers Digest Books. Cincinnati: 1999.