Sunday, April 7, 2013

Old West "Freak Shows" and "Side Shows"

P.T. and Harriet Challett Barnum were married in 1829 and had four daughters. 

Today we'll take a look at Old West "Freak Shows" and "Side Shows," which were very popular in both Europe and North America in the 1800s. Technically, Freak Shows were a part of the Side Show, which was a show that took place outside of the main tents, which were generally reserved for high wire performances and animal acts. Disclaimer: Just to be clear, Freak Show is not a term that makes me comfortable, even though it is still used to this day. However, it was the term used in the Old West, so I will use the term in this post. 

Freak Shows and Side Shows were a regular part of traveling circuses in the 1800s, and according to Varhola's Everyday Life During the Civil War, circuses were very popular and considered a part of everyday life in American in the 1800s, even if they did only come to town once a year, they were a welcome form of entertainment. 

Circuses, side shows and freak shows have a long history in Europe and an early history in America, as well. In fact, the real performers, the ones who had genuine deformities, often toured worldwide, moving often between Europe and North America, and were considered "featured" performers in Old West freak shows. 

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.

Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891) was perhaps the most well known circus owner and promoter in history beginning with P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome, and as you can guess, the main form of entertainment at his circuses was the many displays of odd, strange creatures and people who in the 1800s were referred to as "freaks." Of course, not all of P.T. Barnum's displays were people who were differently-abled. In 1835 he launched his career by purchasing a black woman named Joice Heth and promoting her as the 161-year-old nurse of former U.S. President George Washington.

P.T. Barnum purchased Jumbo, a male African Bush Elephant in 1881 from the London Zoo for $10,000. Jumbo weighed 13,000 pounds, and was said to be 13 feet 1 inch tall by P.T. Barnum, though the London Zoo claimed he was 11 feet tall. Jumbo's situation could be considered the first circus elephant controversy. When he was sold, thousands of school children wrote to Queen Victoria to object to his sale and transport to the United States.

From 1841 to 1868, P.T. Barnum ran the American Museum in New York City, home to "thousands of curiosities, freaks, and wild animals" according to promotional materials. Then, in 1875, he was convinced to lend his name, reputation, and money, to an already existing traveling circus, which was the beginning of "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome." The main attraction and primary money-maker in this traveling circus was the "Freak Show."

The Traveling Circus, Side Shows, and Freak Show Displays 

In the 1800s, although mining boom towns often attracted famous entertainers as there was plenty of money available. Traveling circuses were constructed so the displays could be easily taken down and reconstructed, and just as easily packed for movement from town to town, so circuses, side shows, and freak shows were just as common in the small mountain towns as they were in the larger cities. They were also extremely popular. 

As Todd Robbins, Sideshow Historian explains in Wild West Tech: Freak Shows, "Life in the West was a hard life. It was basically 364 days of getting up early, working hard, going to bed, getting up and doing the exact same thing. And then one day of the year that was so exciting was when the circus would come to town, and this day often would include going to see the 'side show'." The History Channel's Wild West Tech calls Freak Shows "The original reality shows." 

The displays in these shows were often a mix of exploitation of people with disabilities and scams. It was often difficult to determine the fake from the real in the Old West Freak Show, but few people challenged the show. They were there for the entertainment. 

Many circus and sideshow historians point out that the life in the side show was not as horrible for these people as some might think. They had employment. They were accepted as equals and viewed as "normal" by their peers, which is something they would not be able to experience outside of the circus. (There is no question in my mind that they were exploited, but this is a personal opinion.) 

The Talker, Spieler, or Blower

Each of these performers, freaks, displays, or animals, had a coworker who stood outside and called out to the customers to draw them into the show. This person was called the talker, spieler, or blower. P.T. Barnum got his start promoting his own shows. He was "the talker." A good talker was vital to a successful show. 

The talker was generally a man dressed in a suit or sometimes a tuxedo. He would entice the customers walking past the display with claims that were often exaggerated for the purpose of filling the seats inside. This was called "the tip," which referred to the crowd that gathered to see what was happening, or what this person, the talker, was shouting about. The next step was called "turning the tip," or convincing the crowd to pay to enter the display area, which was most likely the most challenging part of the job. Circuses always used artwork to help turn the tip, art that the talker could point to with his cane. This artwork was often garish and shocking, but effective.

Customers were rarely allowed to examine the person or animal on display. They were required to remain seated and asked not to discuss what they had seen after leaving the display so they wouldn't "spoil the show" for other customers. 

The Three Types of Freak Shows

According to Wild West Tech, there are three basic types of Freak shows. First, there are the "Working Acts," such as sword swallowers and fire eaters. Second, there are the "Born Freaks," such as Siamese twins, and finally, there are the "Made Freaks" such as Tattooed Ladies who covered their bodies in intricate tattoos (and would most likely be considered normal in contemporary society.) 

Working Acts: Sword Swallowers and Fire Eaters

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.

Born Freaks: Siamese Twins and Bearded Ladies

Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker

Siamese Twins were common in circuses. Some were fake, and some were real. The world famous Chang and Eng Bunker twins were real, though the name Bunker was given to them when they started touring. Born in Thailand in 1811 they were joined at the sternum in such a way that they could have been separated through surgery using modern medicine. Instead, they remained together, touring the world from 1829 until 1839, though they preferred touring in the American Old West. 

They married separate women and fathered 21 children between them in a bed built for four, which seemed to fascinate the people who came to see them. They were, however, determined to live normal lives. They became U.S. citizens, and apparently they did not like the West as much as the East because they eventually purchased a 110 acre plantation in North Carolina, bought slaves, and their sons served in the American Civil War. They died in 1811. 

Werewolves and Dog Faces

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.

Julia Pastrana in 1900. 

There were many circus performers with Hypertrichosis taters in Old West side shows, including Julia Pastrana. Julia Pastrana was born in Mexico in 1834. She lived until 1860. Her condition was called hypertrichosis terminalis. Her face and body was covered with straight black hair. She also had a second condition called Gingival hyperplasia, which thickened her lips and gums. She was examined by Charles Darwin who said, "Julia Pastrana, a Spanish dancer, was a remarkably fine woman, but she had a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead...she had in both the upper and lower jaw an irregular double set of teeth, one row being placed within the other... From the redundancy of the teeth her mouth projected, and her face had a gorilla-like appearance."

According to Wild West Tech, women with different abilities or physical conditions were far more appealing to the side show customers than men. Pastrana was a very popular performer in the Old West and worldwide. She was promoted as a hybrid between an ape and human and sometimes called "Bear Woman." She was often examined by doctors and scientists who tried to prove some form of trickery and failed.

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.

Lent seemed obsessed with his wife's conditions. He had his wife and son mummified and displayed them in a glass cabinet. He traveled the world in search of another woman with similar features, renamed her Zenora Pastrana, and became exceptionally wealthy from her tour, but he was eventually committed to a Russian mental institution where he died. 

Made Freaks: Wax Figures, Tattooed Ladies, and Decapitated Heads

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.

This handbill, printed and distributed in advance of the arrival of the circus was also used by the talker to attract a crowd then "turn the tip" and draw the crowd in to see the display. 

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.


Maggid said...

I hope you are a teacher - your work is splendid.
I'm old enough to remember the smaller traveling circus having "side shows" that creeped me out -

Thank You!
Happy A to Z!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you. I am honored by your comment. I did teach at the university level for seven years.

This is actually one of my favorite blogs (I have nine) and I think it's because I already know so much about the subject matter. I came from a large family and my parents drove us into the Colorado Rocky Mountains every weekend and for two weeks each year on my father's vacation so we could hike, camp, and explore old mining towns, pan for gold, search for ghost towns--I love the history of the Old West. It happened surprisingly fast on the grand scale of things, but so much happened! Lol!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...