Freak Shows

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Freak Shows

By the mid-twentieth century the display for profit and entertainment of people known in the United States as "freaks" had for the most part become an anachronism. Parading disabled people before a staring public for amusement has, along with public executions, become socially unacceptable. But as our lingering collective memory of P. T. Barnum suggests, from about 1830 to 1940 in the United States, as well as in Europe, people with congenital disabilities or other physical traits that could be turned into curiosities were displayed on stages, in dime museums, in circuses, and at fairs as a part of a growing culture of popular performance that was driven by the increased commercialism, leisure, and urbanization of modernity. Whereas the term "freak" now connotes a negative departure from the norm, in the nineteenth century "freak" meant a whimsical fancy. This shift in meaning suggests the long history of exhibiting people whose bodies are presented as extraordinary and the enduring interest that they inspire in the popular imagination.

Extraordinary bodies have obsessed humankind since antiquity. The nineteenth century "freak" was known as a "monster" in ancient times and considered to be a prodigy. The birth of such an individual, as with natural events such as comets and earthquakes, was thought to portend grave or disastrous events. Stone-age cave drawings record monstrous births, while prehistoric grave sites evince elaborate ritual sacrifices of such bodies.

As the narrative of the natural world shifted from one of divine determination to secular explanations, early science viewed exceptional bodies as indices to the order of things or proof of God's abundance, but also as sources upon which to hone medical expertise. Early scientists and philosophers kept cabinets of curiosities full of items like shark's teeth, shrunken heads, and bottled fetuses that they regarded with a mixture of awe and curiosity. At the same time, these extraordinary bodies were commercialized at public fairs, like London's famous Bartholomew Fair, and on streets by monster mongers who charged for viewings and sold pamphlets called monster ballads, which offered morals drawn from the wondrous bodies. Congenitally disabled newborns, called monstrous births, continued to be interpreted as exegeses of the divine and natural orders by figures as respected as Cotton Mather and John Winthrop well into the seventeenth century. Disabled people were often celebrities or kept at court as "Fools" or in the role of pets, as were many dwarfs. For example, a powdered and wigged Matthew Buchinger, who was virtually armless and legless, dazzled eighteenth century Europe with his conjuring, musical performances, calligraphic skills, and marksmanship with the pistol. These monsters filled their viewers with awe and curiosity; they were seen as "marvels" and "wonders," not as what the twentieth century observer would interpret as abnormal or inappropriate to stare at.

By the 1840s, P. T. Barnum—nineteenth-century America's Walt Disney—institutionalized the once itinerant practice of showing monsters in halls and on streets when he opened in New York his American Museum, which aspired to middle-class status with temperance tracts, appeals to education, entrepreneurship, and other gestures toward bourgeois respectability. An entertainment industry in freaks and other curiosities flourished in dime museums and later as circus sideshows throughout Victorian America. The secularizing, mobile, rapidly changing social order dominated increasingly by market economics, individualism, and a developing mass culture generated this boom in staring at "curiosities," which was part of a larger culture of display manifest in museums, circuses, grand expositions, photographs, parades, theater, department store displays, and what Thorstein Veblen called "conspicuous consumption."

These shows gathered an astonishing array of wonders, from Wild Men of Borneo to Fat Ladies, Living Skeletons, Fiji Princes, Albinos, Bearded Women, Siamese Twins, Tattooed Circassians, Armless and Legless Wonders, Chinese Giants, Cannibals, Midget Triplets, Hermaphrodites, Spotted Boys, and much more. Augmenting these marvels were ancillary performers like ventriloquists, performing geese, mesmerists, beauty contestants, contortionists, sharpshooters, trained goats, frog eaters, sword-swallowers, and tumbling monkeys. From Queen Victoria and Henry James to families and the humblest immigrants, Americans gathered together in this most democratizing institution to gaze raptly at freaks of display. Freaks were the highest paid performers in the industry; many such as Tom Thumb were celebrities, who made their handlers rich. But freaks were more than simply disabled people; they were figures created by the shows' sensationalized and exaggerated conventions of display. Elaborate costuming, exotic sets, bizarre "true-life" pamphlets, the hyperbolic rant of the pitchmen, photographs for audiences to collect, and scientific testimonials all surrounded these bodies to produce freaks and marvels from people who had unusual bodies that could be appropriated for the shows.

Into the nineteenth century, scientists and doctors participated in the show culture by examining the performers for scientific study and by verifying the freaks' authenticity, lending prestige to the exhibitions. Alongside its involvement with the entertainment industry, however, science institutionalized its preoccupation with monsters by 1832 with the development of teratology, the scientific study of monsters. Teratology endeavored to harness the ancient power of prodigies by creating pigs with cleft palates and elaborate taxonomies of physical deviation. As science and medicine began to separate from the shows and become more elite, such developments as statistics, the idea of the average man, the pathologizing of disabilities, and the eventual belief that extraordinary bodies should be standardized for the good of both the individual and society helped turn the wondrous freak into the medical problem.

A complex, interrelated combination of historical and social factors ended the immense popularity and proliferation of the freak show by the mid-twentieth century. The medicalization of disability, the rise of the bourgeoisie, the sentimentalizing of disabled people as pathetic rather than wondrous, and the sinking of freak shows to lowbrow culture, among other developments, snuffed out the form of the freak show that Barnum so masterfully exploited. Its allure lingers nevertheless in such transmuted forms as talk shows, bodybuilding, and wrestling matches, science fiction narratives like Star Trek, or even performers such as Michael Jackson.

—Rosemarie Garland Thomson

Further Reading:

Altick, Richard D. The Shows of London. Cambridge, Belknap Press, 1978.

Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Daston, Lorraine, and Kathryn Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150-1750. New York, Zone Books, 1998.

Dennett, Andrea Stulman. Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America. New York, New York University Press, 1997.

Fiedler, Leslie. Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Jay, Ricky. Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. New York, Villard Books, 1986.

Mannix, Daniel P. Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others. San Francisco, Re/Search Publications, 1990.

Mitchell, Michael. Monsters of the Gilded Age: The Photographs of Charles Eisenmann. Toronto, Gage Publishing Limited, 1979.

Pare, Ambroise. On Monsters and Marvels. Trans. Janis L. Pallister. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Literature and Culture. New York, Columbia University Press, 1997.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland, editor. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York, New York University Press, 1996.