When we think of circuses and carnivals we picture manic clowns, bustling crowds, animal acts, overpriced rides and unfair games of supposed chance and skill. However, these loud and colourful family-friendly events once had a much darker, seedier side. One of the biggest attractions at these places (as well as in bars, taverns, theatres, etc.) was the freak show.
Records dating back to at least the mid-16th century in England tell stories about people suffering from deformities, medical conditions and genetic anomalies being used as objects of entertainment, curiosity and interest, and the pastime became particularly popular in America and Great Britain during the 19th century thanks to the promoting skills of circus legend P.T. Barnum.
These attractions were a hugely successful commercial enterprise and the promise of dog-faced boys, tiny people and other bizarrely featured ‘freaks’ brought the crowds flocking in. Some of these freaks wowed visitors with surprising acts of magic, agility and other talents, but many of them simply sat in their exhibitions to be started at and examined by onlookers.
Although the appeal of freak shows had waned by the 20th century as public attitude towards physical disabilities and deformities became more sympathetic, modern variations of the shows still live on. However, performers in these attractions display triumph over their physical deformities and have become world renowned entertainers for their acts.
It’s an image far removed from the pity and curiosity which had to be endured by some of these most famous sideshow freaks from years ago. Take a look below for our list of 10 circus freaks from history that will astound you.
1. Ella Harper – Camel Girl
Nicknamed the Camel Girl because of the bizarre way her legs bent backwards, Ella Harper suffered from a congenital deformity called genu recurvatum which caused hyperextension of her knee joints. The extremity of Harper’s condition was exceedingly rare as the way her knees were bent caused her to walk on all fours.
Thought to have been born in Hendersonville, Tennessee between 1870 and 1873 (like many people from this era, surviving, accurate records of Harper’s life are scarce), Harper became the star of W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus by 1886 and her name and likeness were prominently promoted in local newspapers whenever the circus changed locations.
Harper was earning a very respectable $200 a week for her act and she was quoted as saying that she aimed to quit show business and go to school. There are no further mentions of the Camel Girl act after 1886, so it seems like Harper may have go on to lead a more normal life after she left the travelling circus.
2. Stephan Bibrowski – Lionel the Lion-Faced Man
Many sideshow freaks were given made-up backstories or were said to have over-the-top personalities which exaggerated the deformities or medical conditions they suffered from. It was a fairly common tactic of promoters to compare their sideshow freaks to animals, especially if they had rare conditions like hypertrichosis which caused abnormal hair growth on the body. Polish-born Stephan Bibrowski became a very popular sideshow attraction travelling around Europe and later at Coney Island, New York because the abnormally long hair covering his body gave him the appearance of a lion.
Stephan was born in 1890 with one-inch long hair all over his body (apart from his palms and soles of his feet) and was shunned by his mother as an abomination. He was sold to Mr. Sedlmayer, a German impresario, when he was four and was displayed as a sideshow exhibition around Europe. However, Sedlmayer was kind to Stephan and the showman ensured that the boy received a proper education. Stephen grew up to be a gentle, intelligent man despite his beastly appearance.
In 1901, he moved to America and began working at the world-famous Barnum and Bailey Circus before returning to Germany 5 years later. Stephan continued travelling and performing around the world until he retired from the sideshow lifestyle in the late 1920s. He died from a heart attack aged 41 in 1932.
3. Wang – The Human Unicorn
Cutaneous horns are a very rare skin condition which can give people the appearance that they have horns growing out of their body. Typically thought to be a type of skin tumour, these conical growths don’t usually grow much more than a few inches, but there have been extremely rare cases of the horns becoming more than one foot in length. One of the most famous and mysterious cases of a ‘horned human’ came from China in the 1930s.
A travelling Russian banker snapped a photograph of a Chinese farmer in Manchukuo who appeared to have a horn growing out of the back of his head which exceeded 13 inches in length. The banker submitted the photograph to Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley naming the farmer only as Wang. Ripley offered a cash reward to Wang or to anyone else who could bring the farmer to his famed Odditorium museum in Baltimore, America. However, Wang was never tracked down or heard from again and the original photograph (which Ripley made a waxwork figure from for his exhibition) is the only known record of the man.
4. Josephine Clofullia – The Bearded Woman of Geneva
The bearded lady has long been a staple of freak show exhibitions. Although plenty of these acts attracted their fair share of fame, ridicule and disbelief over the years, few lived a life as interesting and colourful as Josephine Clofullia. Born in a small Swiss village in 1831, Josephine was covered in fine fur at birth and she was already showing traces of beard growth by the age of two.
Local doctors advised Josephine’s parents to take her to Geneva for treatment but the general prognosis was that the condition was permanent and shaving off the hair would make it grow back thicker. Josephine was sent away to boarding school but the confident, unique young girl quickly learned how to draw a crowd with the help of her six inch bushy beard. With her father in tow acting as her agent, Josephine toured around Europe from the age of 14 and found considerable fame when she fashioned her beard like that of Napoleon III and received diamonds from the French leader.
She fell in love with a talented young French painter and the two wed and had a healthy, similarly hairy young boy in 1851. The family moved to New York so that Josephine could work in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and it wasn’t long before Josephine was the subject of a media frenzy when allegations that she was actually a man surface (despite having given birth to a son). It was rumoured that Barnum himself had instigated the trial for commercial gain which, if true, certainly worked as Josephine (along with her hirsute young son) entertained more than 3 million people while working for him.
5. Martin Laurello – The Human Owl
Unlike most ‘freaks’, Martin Laurello could pass for a fairly normal, nondescript person. However, although he looked normal, Laurello was able to completely rotate his head 180 degrees. Born Martin Emmerling in Germany in 1886, Martin performed around Europe before arriving in America in 1921. He quickly became a sensation stateside and worked at notable exhibitions like Bailey Circus, Hubert’s Museum, Barnum & Bailey and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditoriums.
Posters for his act declared that he could “Walk forward and look backward” but there was more to Martin’s act as he was also an accomplished animal trainer who taught cats and dogs to perform acrobatic tricks. Although he drew in massive crowds, Martin was apparently a contentious individual and an apparent Nazi sympathiser. Little is known about his later life, but it is thought that Martin burned many bridges in the sideshow industry and his last recorded performance was in 1945 with Ripley.
6. Mary Ann Bevan – The Ugliest Woman
Very few nicknames in the sideshow business were complementary, but none were as downright insulting as Mary Ann Bevan’s. Promoted as ‘The Ugliest Woman’, Mary Ann actually lived a fairly normal, married life until she began to develop abnormal facial growth and started suffering from severe headaches and failing eyesight in her mid-30s. Mary Ann was suffering from acromegaly, an adult-onset disorder which causes the pituitary gland to produce excess growth hormones, and her facial features became increasingly distorted and enlarged.
Mary Ann was left a widow in 1914 and no longer had the money to support her four children. She entered an “ugliest woman” competition in desperation and after winning a cash prize she turned to the sideshow freak lifestyle. Bevan worked at the Coney Island Dreamland show and Ringling Brother’s Circus from 1920 until her death in 1933.
7. Mademoiselle Gabrielle – The Half-Woman
Freaks with missing limbs were a fairly common sight at many sideshows, and many of the afflicted could wow an audience just by performing simple, routine activities that most people would assume they were incapable of doing by themselves, like eating or shaving. Such was the case with Mademoiselle Gabrielle, a woman who was fiercely independent despite being born with no legs. Born in Switzerland in 1884, Gabrielle was performing at the Paris Universal Exposition by the age of 16.
Gabrielle was often remarked to be the perfect example of a half-woman as she possessed a well-proportioned figure and her trunk finished neatly at her waist. She proved to be so popular that she moved on to America and started worked for the big leagues at the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Strikingly beautiful and always performing with grace and demure, Gabrielle was nothing like the general public’s perception of a freak at all.
This elegant image helped Gabrielle get a spot on the coveted vaudeville circuit, and she was one of the very few freaks to have performed in this much more ‘upscale’ form of entertainment. Gabrielle made a fairly substantial income from her sideshow days and lived a normal life, marrying three times. It is unknown when she retired but she was still managing to draw in the crowds well into her 40s and it is suspected that she moved back home to Switzerland when she eventually left the sideshow business.
8. Myrtle Corbin – The Four Legged Girl From Texas
From missing limbs to multiple limbs, Myrtle Corbin was born in Tennessee in 1868 with two extra legs. An otherwise healthy baby, Myrtle suffered from dipygus; a congenital deformity which had caused her to absorb the legs of her twin which had failed to develop in the womb. Myrtle essentially had two complete bodies from the waist down as the two small pelvises had been fused together (the smaller pair of legs sat inside the larger legs on the outside).
The two smaller legs were stunted in growth but Myrtle was still able to move them. She started performing on the sideshow circuit from the age of 13 and, unsurprisingly, became a star attraction. Performing for the likes of P.T. Barnum, Coney Island Circus and the Ringling Bros, Myrtle was described as being a “gentle woman” with a happy disposition and she earned up to $450 a week at the peak of her popularity.
Unlike other freaks who were largely ignored by the medical community, Myrtle had many scientific articles and journals written about her from the day she was born. She married a doctor at the age of 19 and had five healthy children. When Myrtle eventually bowed out of the sideshow limelight, other circuses and exhibitions allegedly brought in other phoney four-legged women to try and dupe their audiences with.
9. Juan Baptista dos Santos – The Man With Two Penises
Unlike other people on this list, Juan Baptista dos Santos repeatedly turned down offers to appear in sideshows and circuses. This presumably angered impresarios and entrepreneurs the world over because the promise of a man who had two functioning penises as well as a third leg would have no doubt caused ticket sales to go through the roof. Born in Portugal in 1843, Juan was only willing to show off his additional extremities to those in the medical profession.
His two penises sat side by side next to each other (he also had three scrota) and his extra leg dangled between his legs, attached to his lower spine. The extra leg was actually two legs fused together and had eight toes and two heels. Although it could not be moved independently, doctors feared that amputating the extra appendage would be dangerous so Juan usually strapped it to his thigh and he was able to walk, run and even ride horses unencumbered.
When he was an adult, the sexually adventurous Juan was said to have taken full advantage of his two penises and a popular quote attributed to him is that he could finish with one and then continue with the other. Juan famously had a love affair with the popular French sideshow entertainer Blanche Dumas who also had three legs and an extra set of genitalia.
10. Joseph Merrick – The Elephant Man
Few life stories are as tragic as that of Joseph Merrick. Born to a working class family in England in 1862, Joseph began suffering from abnormal growths during the first few years of his life. Thought by modern medical experts to have had Neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome, Joseph’s skin was thick and tough like animal hide (hence his eventual nickname ‘The Elephant Man’) and he had large tumours all over his body as well as abnormal bone development.
A fall at the age of 10 broke his hip and caused Joseph to have permanent lameness and, when his mother remarried the same year, he suffered from regular beatings from his cruel, unaccepting stepfather. Joseph’s deformities made it difficult to find permanent employment in manual labour positions at workhouses and factories and, despite having an operation to remove a large tumorous mass from his face in 1880, he still found it very difficult to speak clearly.
Merrick turned to the travelling sideshow life in 1884 but he eventually settled in London where he lived at the back of a ‘human curiosity’ shop where he could be viewed by paying customers. Joseph found salvation in the surgeon Frederick Treves who was eventually able to offer Joseph permanent accommodation at the London Hospital. Treves discovered that Joseph , despite constant claims to the contrary, was not mentally impaired at all and he spent his later years writing correspondence to well-wishers, engaging in hobbies and even leaving the hospital on day trips.
However, Joseph’s condition worsened during this time and his head grew more enlarged. He died in his bed in 1890, aged 27, from a dislocated neck. Treves observed that Joseph always slept upright with his head resting on his knees, but his death may have been caused by him trying to sleep laying down so he could be more “like normal people”.