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Season 4

Ep. 14

Circus freaks/side shows

"When you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front row seat."

-- George Carlin

The “freak show,” or “sideshow,” rose to prominence in 16th century England. For centuries, cultures around the world had interpreted severe physical deformities as bad omens or evidence that evil spirits were present; by the late 1500s, these stigmas had translated into public curiosity.

Businessmen scouted people with abnormalities, swooped them up, and shuttled them throughout Europe, charging small fees for viewings. One of the earliest recorded “freaks” of this era was Lazarus Colloredo, an “otherwise strapping” Italian whose brother, Joannes, protruded, upside down, from his chest. The conjoined twins “both fascinated and horrified the general public,” and the duo even made an appearance before King Charles I in the early 1640s. Castigated from society, people like Lazarus capitalized on their unique conditions to make a little cash -- even if it meant being made into a public spectacle. Whether it was a person with dwarfism acting as a jester or clown for an individual monarch, or a person with a unique physical impairment displaying her body for the eyes of a curious and gawking public, freaking—exploiting the perceived peculiarities of your own body for an audience—was a means of support for some disabled people who might otherwise have died or struggled to survive. But until the 19th century, freak shows catered to relatively small crowds and didn’t yield particularly healthy profits for showmen or performers. It was in the mid nineteenth and early 20th centuries that freak shows had become a viable commercial enterprise in England and the U.S. alike.

America and England both had men who would come into prominence by employing (or exploiting depending on whom you talk too)these types of folks for profit purposes. In England it was a man named Tom Norman.


Tom Norman was born on 7 May 1860 in Dallington, Sussex and was the eldest of 17 children. His real name was Noakes and his father Thomas was a butcher who resided at the Manor House in Dallington. According to his autobiography he left home at the age of fourteen to seek fame and fortune on the road and before long he had found employment as a butcher’s assistant in London. Tom first became involved in showbusiness a year later when he went into partnership with a showman who had a penny gaff shop in Islington, exhibiting Mlle Electra(not a typo). However, as is often the case with Tom Norman, the facts are difficult to piece together from the legend and the first record we have for a showman called Norman from this time can be traced to the Agricultural Hall in Islington, the venue for The World’s Fair. Some of the showmen on view that day included the famous Tommy Dodd and his wife, "The smallest people in the world;" and a giant boy aged seventeen. Other showmen presenting attractions were Williams's Ghost Show; Chittock and Testo's dog and monkey circus and Mander’s Huge Collection of Wild Beasts. However, both The Era newspaper report and the handbill for the event note the presence of Norman's performing fishes, which reputedly could not only talk but also play the pianoforte; and Norman’s French Artillery Giant Horse. In his autobiography which was incomplete before his death in 1930, Norman states that he was fifteen when he first appeared at the World’s Fair. Therefore, the Norman mentioned could either have been a showman whose name Tom Noakes went on to use, or he was actually 13 years old when he first left home.

By the 1870s the young aspiring showman had been involved in a number of careers including exhibiting Eliza Jenkins, the Skeleton Woman, a popular novelty show at the time, the Balloon Headed Baby and a whole range of freak show attractions as he stated in his autobiography:

“But you could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show, it was the tale that you told.”

Perhaps one of the more gruesome shows he was involved with, was 'the woman who bit live rat heads off. '

In his autobiography Tom Norman describes the act a the most gruesome he had ever seen:

“Dick Bakers wife, who used to be with me and gave I think now, the most repulsive performance, that I have ever had or seen, during the whole of my long career. it consisted of Mrs Baker, putting her naked hand into a cage, fetch out a live rat and proceed to bite its head off.”

The effect on the audience was such wrote Tom that:

“More than once, have I seen a member of either sex of the audience, fall forward in a faint during this extraordinary performance.”

Tom Norman’s ability to tell the tale was the scene of one of his greatest compliments when in 1882 he was performing at the Royal Agricultural Hall. Unaware that the great showman P. T. Barnum(well get to him don't worry) was in the audience, Tom informed the crowd that none other than the greatest showman on earth had booked the show for its entire run. Upon meeting Tom Norman, Barnum pointed to the large silver Albert chain which he wore and said 'Silver King eh'. Despite being found out, Tom Norman took this as a compliment and from then on he became known as The Silver King.

Throughout the 1880s his fame as a showman grew and by 1883 he had thirteen penny gaff shops throughout London including locations such as Whitechapel, Hammersmith, Croydon and Edgeware Road. He still continued to travel with his shows and Norman’s Grand Panorama was a highlight of the Christmas Fair for the 1883/84 season in Islington. It was at this time that Norman came into contact with Joseph Merrick through a showman called George Hitchcock who proposed that Norman took over the London management of the Elephant Man. This episode in Norman’s life is shrouded in controversy as Sir Frederick Treeves, the surgeon who reputedly rescued Joseph Merrick or John as he calls him, blackened the character of Norman in his autobiography published in 1923. There are differing accounts of the way Merrick was treated by Norman. Treeves maintains that he wa