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 was treated poorly by Norman and simply exploited. There are others who claim that Norman treated Merrick extremely well and that Merrick was never healthier or happier than with Norman. The Elephant Man was managed by Tom for only a few months and after the London shop was closed by the police, Joseph Merrick was taken back by the consortium of Leicester businessmen and placed in the hands of Sam Roper, a travelling showman.

Tom Norman’s career continued after the Elephant Man and over the next ten year he became involved with managing a troupe of midgets, exhibiting the famous Man in a Trance show at Nottingham Goose Fair, Mary Anne Bevan the World’s Ugliest Woman, John Chambers the Armless Carpenter and Leonine the Lion Faced Lady. In January 1893, the following advertisement appeared in The Era newspaper and seems to imply that Tom was thinking of leaving England for the Worlds’ Fair which was being held in Chicago. The advertisement appeared for the following weeks and although no details are available as to their final outcome they do give us a glimpse into the type of shows Tom Norman was exhibiting at the time.

“Wanted, to Sell, 10ft Living Carriage, Light, One-horse Load, already Fitted for Road, £25, worth £35; also Novelty Booth, good as new, Size, 9ft by18ft, with Novelty and Four New Brass Lamps, with Filler and Oil Drum, by Mellor and Sons, £4; also Piano Organ, nearly New, scarcely soiled, TenTunes, by Capra, suit Waxworks or any Shop Exhibition, £7, worth £18; also Two Fat Paintings, Best on the Road, by Leach, Size 9ft by 10ft, ditto One, same size of Skeleton Girl, all good as new; also Two others of Fats, size 6ft by Thornhill, with large Case to carry the lot, £5, cost £20; also 9ft Square Booth for Performing Fleas, with Two Grand Oil Paintings for same, price £1; also Aerial Suspension for Child 15s; also the Largest Silver Albert in England, made expressly for me, £3, cost £6. The whole of the above to be sold together or separate. Can be seen any time. Reason, I am leaving for Chicago. Apply any Morning before 12.0 to TOM NORMAN, Silver King, Pearce's Temperance Hotel, Elephant and Castle, SE”.

In 1896 Tom met and married Amy Rayner at the Royal Agricultural Hall and their marriage lasted until his death in 1930. At that time Tom was travelling his famous Midget show and the Ghost show he had bought from John Parker. Their first son Tom was born in 1899 and was soon followed by Hilda, Ralph, Jimmy, Nelly, Arthur, Amy, Jack, Daisy and George.

Soon after the birth of his first son, Tom became an auctioneer and the first show he sold belonged to Fred and George Ginnett. His career as an auctioneer prospered and some of the most famous shows he sold included Lord George Sanger and Frank Bostock's.

He advertised in both The Era and The Showman newspapers as the recognised Showman’s Auctioneer and Valuer throughout 1901 and early clients in 1902 included W. T. Kirkland who had concessions at Southport, Morecambe and New Brighton. He instituted the annual Showman and Travellers’ Auction Sales in London, Manchester and Liverpool from 1903 onwards and negotiated sales for showman such as Walter Payne, Edwin Lawrence and many others. His most famous sale to date place in 1905 when he organised the disposal of Lord George Sanger’s Zoo at Margate. This was followed by what Tom Norman described as the crowning point in my life as regards the auctioneering business, when he was called upon by Sanger to auction the whole of his travelling circus effects. The following tribute published in 1901 demonstrates the esteem in which he was held by the fairground fraternity:

'Mr Norman believes in catering for modern tastes - brilliancy; brightness, cleanliness and order are Tom’s strong points'

Tom Norman continued to travel with his shows and maintained his penny gaff shops in London while basing the auctioneering side of the business at his family home the Manor House Dallington. Although Tom did not reveal in his autobiography the reasons for changing his name, he obviously maintained links with his place of birth in order to base this part of his business activities there.

In the period leading up the First World War, Tom was now the father of ten children, nine surviving and his sons Tom, Ralph, Jimmy, Arthur and George had inherited their father’s showmanship. Ralph Van became known as Hal Denver and travelled throughout Europe and America as a wild west performer, George and Arthur found fame as clowns in many of the world’s greatest circuses and Tom and Jim Norman remained on the fairground.

By 1915 the family were firmly based in Croydon and Tom was starting to dispose of some of his business concerns when his eldest son Tom Jnr enlisted. The shops for sale included Tom Norman's New Exhibition with waxworks and novelty museum and the Croydon Central Auction Rooms. Tom slowly retired from the fairground business and although he maintained his auctioneering concerns, he mainly concentrated on buying and selling caravans and dealing in horses for circuses and pantomimes. After the end of the first World War, Tom became restless again and appeared at the Olympia Circus in 1919 with Phoebe the Strange Girl and exhibited at Birmingham and Dreamland, Margate in 1921. Tom also returned to the venue where he had first started, The Royal Agricultural Hall and worked there throughout the 1920s although he was living in semi-retirement at the family base in Beddington Lane, Croydon.

Tom Norman left behind a comfortable professional birthright to become one of the leading travelling showmen of his day. The benevolence he showed to his fellow showmen, his association with the newly formed Van Dwelling’s Association and his role in the United Kingdom Temperance Association demonstrate the injustice done to his reputation by inaccurate accounts of The Elephant Man. He died in Croydon on 24 August 1930, while according to his son George Van Norman, making plans to travel to a large auction show around the country.

The following tribute was published in the World’s Fair.

'There are very few showmen who have not met the famous showman’s auctioneer, “The Silver King”, He has been a conspicuous and charismatic figure in our business for the past half a century and has conducted more showman’ sales than any other auctioneer in the country... During his fifty years with us, he has endeared himself to all section from the humblest to the highest. He was a charming personality with a commanding appearance that left a lifetime impression upon anyone that he met. All his life he has been a showman and as such he died.'

So that's England's great showman, the man who really helped bring freak shows to prominence ther. But as i mentioned earlier, the U.S. had one as well. He was brought up earlier and I'm sure you all know who it is.. Good old Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Now, now i'm sure most of you know at least a little about him, or have at some point as a kid been to a circus with his name somewhere in the title. Some of you younger listeners may have missed out on the joys of the circus. Were gonna take a loom at his life and how he rose to prominence.


Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, the son of innkeeper, tailor, and store-keeper Philo Barnum (1778–1826) and his second wife Irene Taylor. His maternal grandfather Phineas Taylor was a Whig, legislator, landowner, justice of the peace, and lottery schemer who had a great influence on him.Barnum was 15 years old when his father died, and the support of his mother and his five sisters and brothers fell largely upon his shoulders. After holding a variety of jobs, he became publisher of a Danbury, Connecticut, weekly newspaper, Herald of Freedom. Arrested three times for libel, he enjoyed his first taste of notoriety.

In 1829, at age 19, Barnum married a 21-year-old Bethel woman, Charity Hallett, who was to bear him four daughters. In 1834 he moved to New York City, where he found his vocation as a showman. He began his career as a showman in 1835 when he was 25 with the purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman named Joice Heth, whom an acquaintance was trumpeting around Philadelphia as George Washington's former nurse and 161 years old. Slavery was already outlawed in New York, but he exploited a loophole which allowed him to lease her for a year for $1,000, borrowing $500 to complete the sale. Heth died in February 1836, at no more than 80 years old. Barnum had worked her for 10 to 12 hours a day, and he hosted a live autopsy of her body in a New York saloon where spectators paid 50 cents to see the dead woman cut up, as he revealed that she was likely half her purported age.

It was very common for Barnum's acts to be schemes and not altogether true. Barnum was fully aware of the improper ethics behind his business as he said,

"I don't believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them."

During the 1840s Barnum began his museum, which had a constantly rotating acts schedule, which included The Fat Lady, midgets, giants, and other people deemed to be freaks. The museum drew in about 400,000 visitors a year.


During the 1840s Barnum began his museum, which had a constantly rotating acts schedule, which included The Fat Lady, midgets, giants, and other people deemed to be freaks. The museum drew in about 400,000 visitors a year.[14]

P.T. Barnum's American Museum was one of the most popular museums in New York City to exhibit freaks. In 1841 Barnum purchased The American Museum, which made freaks the major attraction, following mainstream America in the mid-19th century. Barnum was known to advertise aggressively and make up outlandish stories about his exhibits. The façade of the museum was decorated with bright banners showcasing his attractions and included a band that performed outside. Barnum's American Museum also offered multiple attractions that not only entertained but tried to educate and uplift its working-class visitors. Barnum offered one ticket that guaranteed admission to his lectures, theatrical performances, an animal menagerie, and a glimpse at curiosities both living and dead.

One of Barnum's exhibits centered around Charles Sherwood Stratton, the dwarf billed as "General Tom Thumb" who was then 4 years of age but was stated to be 11. Charles had stopped growing after the first 6 months of his life, at which point he was 25 inches (64 cm) tall and weighed 15 pounds (6.8 kg). With heavy coaching and natural talent, the boy was taught to imitate people from Hercules to Napoleon. By 5, he was drinking wine, and by 7 smoking cigars for the public's amusement. During 1844–45, Barnum toured with Tom Thumb in Europe and met Queen Victoria, who was amused and saddened by the little man, and the event was a publicity coup. Barnum paid Stratton handsomely - about $150.00 a week. When Stratton retired, he lived in the most esteemed neighborhood of New York, he owned a yacht, and dressed in the nicest clothing he could buy.

In 1860, The American Museum had listed and archived thirteen human curiosities in the museum, including an albino family, The Living Aztecs, three dwarfs, a black mother with two albino children, The Swiss Bearded Lady, The Highland Fat Boys, and What Is It? (Henry Johnson, a mentally disabled black man). Barnum introduced the "man-monkey" William Henry Johnson, a microcephalic black dwarf who spoke a mysterious language created by Barnum and was known as Zip the Pinhead . In 1862, he discovered the giantess Anna Swan and Commodore Nutt, a new Tom Thumb, with whom Barnum visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. During the Civil War, Barnum's museum drew large audiences seeking diversion from the conflict.

Barnum's most popular and highest grossing act was the Tattooed Man, George Contentenus. He claimed to be a Greek-Albanian prince raised in a Turkish harem. He had 338 tattoos covering his body. Each one was ornate and told a story. His story was that he was on a military expedition but was captured by native people, who gave him the choice of either being chopped up into little pieces or receive full body tattoos. This process supposedly took three months and Contentenus was the only hostage who survived. He produced a 23-page book, which detailed every aspect of his experience and drew a large crowd. When Contentenus partnered with Barnum, he began to earn more than $1,000 a week($31,000 in 2020). His wealth became so staggering that the New York Times wrote, "He wears very handsome diamond rings and other jewelry, valued altogether at about $3,000 [roughly $93,000 in 2020 dollars] and usually goes armed to protect himself from persons who might attempt to rob him." Though Contentenus was very fortunate, other freaks were not. Upon his death in 1891, he donated about half of his life earnings to other freaks who Barnum retired in 1865 when his museum burnt to the ground. Though Barnum was and still is criticized for exploitation, he paid the performers fairly handsome sums of money. Some of the acts made the equivalent of what some sports stars make today. Between 1842, when he took over the American Museum, and 1868, when he gave it up after fires twice had all but destroyed it, Barnum’s gaudy showmanship enticed 82 million visitors—among them Henry and William James, Charles Dickens, and Edward VII, then prince of Wales—into his halls and to his other enterprises.

Barnum did not enter the circus business until he was 60 years old. He established "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome" in Delavan, Wisconsin, in 1870 with William Cameron Coup; it was a traveling circus, menagerie, and museum of "freaks". It went through various names: "P. T. Barnum's Travelling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show on Earth", and "P. T. Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United" after an 1881 merger with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, soon shortened to "Barnum & Bailey's". This entertainment phenomenon was the first circus to display three rings.[25] The show's first primary attraction was Jumbo, an African elephant that Barnum purchased in 1882 from the London Zoo. The Barnum and Bailey Circus still contained acts similar to his Traveling Menagerie, including acrobats, freak shows, and General Tom Thumb. Barnum persisted in growing the circus in spite of more fires, train disasters, and other setbacks, and he was aided by circus professionals who ran the daily operations. He and Bailey split up in 1885, but they came back together in 1888 with the "Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth", later "Barnum & Bailey Circus" which toured the world.

Barnum was one of the first circus owners to move his circus by train, on the suggestion of Bailey and other business partners, and probably the first to own his own train. Given the lack of paved highways in America at that time, this turned out to be a shrewd decision that vastly expanded Barnum's geographical reach. In this new industry, Barnum leaned more on the advice of his partners, most of whom were young enough to be his sons.

Barnum became known as the "Shakespeare of Advertising" due to his innovative and impressive ideas.

Barnum went on to write his autobiography and do something interesting, more interested in publicity than profits, he made his biography public domain. This meant that anyone who wanted to publish his biography could do so without having to secure rights for it. In his 81st year, Barnum fell gravely ill. At his request, a New York newspaper published his obituary in advance so that he might enjoy it. Two weeks later, after inquiring about the box office receipts of the circus, Barnum died in his Connecticut mansion. The Times of London echoed the world press in its final tribute: “He created the métier of showman on a grandiose scale.…He early realized that essential feature of a modern democracy, its readiness to be led to what will amuse and instruct it.…His name is a proverb already, and a proverb it will continue

Those are the stories, for the most part of two of the major players in the freakshow game. There were more, and maybe we will revisit the rest of the stories and the other folks involved at a later date but for now we are going to move on to what you all want…some of the coolest freaks there were!!!


We mentioned this fellow a bit earlier and it was time to bring him back. Born in 1617 in Genoa, Italy, Colloredo would exhibit himself all across Europe during his lifetime. Colloredo is among the earliest—and most extraordinary—recorded cases of parasitic twins. We found this description of Lazarus by Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholinus, as detailed in the 19th-century book, Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum:

“I saw, saith Bartholinus, Lazarus Colloredo, the Genoese, first at Copenhagen, after at Basil, when he was twenty-eight years of age, but in both places with amazement. This Lazarus had a little brother growing out at his breast, who was in that posture born with him. If I mistake not, the bone, called xyphoideus, in both of them grew together; his left foot along hung downwards; he had two arms but only three fingers upon each hand: some appearance there was of the secret parts: he moved his hands ears