We thought we'd take you around the historic side shows of the world and introduce you to the tropes of this classic form of entertainment.

The Freak Show

Side Show World/John Robinson

Freak shows were historically side-parts to circuses or other traveling showcases of "wonder" and entertainment. They first cropped up in the 17th century in the royal courts of Europe. And for the next 300 years they were a popular form of entertainment all around the world. 

Featuring an ever-changing line-up of strange objects, human mutations and un-average skills, the Freak Shows provided bitter homes and caring circus families for its cast of characters—and became a haven (and easy money) for those with real physical anomalies and those willing to fake them.

General Mite

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At the peak of his career, General Mite (nee Francis Flynn) was 27 inches tall and weighed only 12 pounds. He surfed the freak show scenes of his native North America before heading to England with P.T. Barnum and then Australia. He only lived to 25 years of age, having spent 21 of them ensconced in freak shows.

Those affected by the varying degrees of dwarfism over the past centuries often found sanctuary within the confines of the circus.

The Bearded Lady

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Lady Myers was the Bearded Lady at the Dreamland Circus Side Show in Coney Island, New York. 

Half of the bearded women in Freak Shows were actually men, but the other half were indeed women suffering from a hormonal imbalance or the rarer genetic disorder hypertrichosis.


The Monkey Girl

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Puerto Rican Priscilla Bejano was handed over the to circus by her concerned parents when it was clear she was suffering from hypertrichosis, which resulted in full body hair and an extra row of teeth.

Percilla was a popular act throughout the World War II era and later married a fellow freak show artist. The two of them eventually retired to quiet reclusive lives. She lived until 2001. (FYI: These are two images of her in the same picture, not two different Monkey Girls).

The Large Legged Lady

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This unknown lady probably suffered from lymphedema of the legs, possibly from Milroy's disease.

The Fat Lady

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The Fat Lady was one of the staples of the classic Freak Show.

Baby Thelma weighed 619 pounds when she was 18. She later upped that to 655 pounds.

The Fat Man & Little Woman

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And often pairings of the overly obese or midgets together as mixed couples or family units, like this fat man and little woman from a 1910 side show postcard. 

The Conjoined Twins

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Conjoined twins like Violet and Daisy Hilton were able to escape horrible family lives by turning to show business.

The Hilton twins were vaudeville celebrities, performing on the same bills as the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope in the 1920s. 

The Two Headed Boy

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Conjoined pairings like the living two-headed boy Tocci lived their short lives out on the stage.

The Double Bodied Boy

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Likewise Peroomal Sami who had a partial twin growing out of his chest (similar to Lazarus Coone of the very first freak show acts in the 17th century).

The Egyptian Giant

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Sufferers from gigantism were also welcome in the freak show. Like Hassan Ali, the Egyptian Giant.

The Alligator Boy

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And rare medical conditions like misplaced organs and skin ailments resulted in a variety of acts, often with reptilian overtones.

John Williams, the Alligator Boy had a heart, liver, and lungs located four inches lower in his body and a skin condition that let him have scales. He claimed he shed every three months as he toured on the freak show circuit of the 1930s.


The Leaping Torso

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Amputees with acrobatic skills could also find a second life.

Edward S. Willis found fame in a side show near Chicago after his legs were amputated, presumably during his military service.



The Largest Man On Artificial Legs

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It was also the first place people often saw people with medical disabilities attempting to move on with their lives. And in this, there is an after school special quality to the media of the freak show that should not be overlooked. Many looked up at the stage and saw some part of themselves, not just something to laugh or jeer at.

The Dancing Ladies

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Everyone in the show was a consummate performer. But not everyone in the freak show had a medical condition, some were simply performers who preferred the freak show way of life. They enjoyed the nomadic and open-minded atmosphere of the freak show and circus life.

Mixed into the freak show were exotic dancing girls (like this 1893 Worlds Fair belly dancer), knife throwers, and others with unique skill sets they were willing to ply in exchange for a life in the circus.


The Cross-Dresser

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It was a particularly welcome atmosphere for gender experimentation. Men dressing as women and women as men were common in show business. 

The Poodle Game

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Like vaudeville, trained animals also found a way to be part of the show. Like Iola and her trained poodles.

The Snake Charmer

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But reptiles often held the most charm for audiences.

And even the oldest of freak shows typically featured  a snake-charmer prominently—like this brave Victorian lady.

The Sword Swallower

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Fire dancers, knife throwers, and sword swallowers like Professor U. Milse were also common sights in carnival freak shows.

The Tattooed Lady

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And if you had no medical ailments or dancing and sword swallowing skills, you could always tattoo your way in – like Irma Senta who had a tattoo of the side show on her back to show off at the side show.

The FeeJee Mermaid

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PT Barnum's faux Fiji mermaid was the star object on the freak circus scene of the early 20th century.

Other freakshows had copies of the mermaid, other taxidermy creatures, or mummified people; but the Feejee mermaid was the original Freakshow hoax put on display alongside living oddities.

Freak Shows Today

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Freak shows are still a popular sub-culture today.

Ripley's Believe It Or Not hosts one that is still awesomely out of this world.