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."
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.
THE AMERICAN MUSEUM
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.
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. 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 and lips, and had a little beating in the breast. This little brother voids no excrements but by the mouth, nose, and ears, and is nourished by that which the greater takes: he has distinct animal and vital parts from the greater, since he sleeps, sweats, and moves when the other wakes, rests and sweats not. Both received their names at the font; the greater that of Lazarus, and the other that of Johannes Baptista. The natural bowels, as the liver, spleen, &c. are the same in both. Johannes Baptista hath his eyes for the most
part shut: his breath small, so that holding a feather at his mouth it scarcely moves, but holding the hand there we find a small and warm breath. His mouth is usually open, and wet with spittle; his head is bigger than that of Lazarus, but deformed; his hair hanging down while his face is in an upright posture. Both have beards; that of Baptista is neglected, but that of Lazarus very neat. Lazarus is of a just stature, a decent body, courteous deportment, and gallantly attired: he covers the body of his brother with his cloak, nor would you think a monster lay within at your first discourse with him. He seemed always of a constant mind, unless that now and then he was solicitous as to his end, for he feared the death of his brother, presaging that when it came to pass, he should also expire with the stench and putrefaction of his body; and therefore he took greater care of his brother than himself.”
Well then! That sounds like a fucking insane thing to see!!
The walking manifestation of one of the seven deadly sins prowled the cobbled streets of 18th-century Paris, seeking only to indulge his endless hunger. Earlier in life, his dietary needs started out robustly, but were otherwise innocuous. However, things would soon take a sinister turn so far as this overzealous diner was concerned. According to contemporary accounts and existent medical records, his quenchless appetite continued growing to the point that his legendarily gluttonous gorging caused this ravenous Frenchman to ingest live animals and maraud morgues for sustenance. He was once even suspected of kidnapping and devouring a toddler.
The crack team at Ripleys.com was able to speak with a doctor who specializes in science-based nutrition in search of a possible diagnosis, but first, let’s chew the fat on the life of this legendary cannibal and his strange circumstances of existence. Be warned, this is not for the weak of heart—but if you think you can stomach it, then strap in!
PARIS, CIRCA 1788
With a large, lip-less mouth stretched wide beyond human regularity and filled with stained teeth, he ate corks, stones, entire baskets of apples—one at a time in quick succession—and live animals (his favorite was snake) for the morbid amusement of repulsed onlookers that were challenged to satiate his seemingly interminable appetite.
Like most modern competitive binge-eaters, Tarrare was diminutive in stature, weighing no more than one hundred pounds—prior to eating, at least. Despite all of his daily intake, he never seemed to keep any of the weight on. When empty, his stomach was loosely distended to the point that he could wrap it around his waist as if it were a belt made of his own, still-attached flesh. When full, it was inflated like a balloon—not unlike a pregnant woman in her final trimester. His hair was fair and soft, while his cheeks, when not engaged at capacity—allegedly able to hold so much as a dozen eggs—were wrinkled and hung slack to create premature jowls.
Prior to life as a successful street performer, the individual is known only by his stage name, Tarrare, lived in destitution as part of a traveling caravan of criminal misfits. Born in the rural countryside surrounding the epicenter of the booming silk-weaving trade in Lyon, France in approximately 1772, his rapacious appetite was readily apparent from an early age. As the legend goes, a young Tarrare was capable of eating his own bodyweight in cow meat within a 24-hour period. Sadly, this boundless craving forced him out of his family’s home as a teenager, as they could no longer afford to feed him.
After several years of touring the country as a vagabond begging for food, for a time Tarrare became the opener for a snake-oil peddling mountebank before taking off to Paris to perform as a solo act. With success came risk. Tarrare once collapsed mid-performance with what was later discovered to be an intestinal obstruction, requiring his audience to carry him to the nearby Hôtel-Dieu hospital. After being treated with laxatives, a grateful Tarrare offered to demonstrate his talents by eating the surgeon’s pocket watch. The surgeon agreed, but only under the condition that he be allowed to cut Tarrare open to retrieve it. Wisely, Tarrare declined.
It was during the French War of the First Coalition when respected military surgeon Dr. Pierre-François Percy first made the acquaintance of the inexplicable Tarrare, now a soldier for the French Revolutionary Army. Barely twenty years old, this peculiar patient proved to be quite extraordinary. Unable to subsist off of military rations alone, Tarrare began doing odd jobs around the base for other soldiers in exchange for their rations and, when that proved to be insufficient, foraged for food scraps in dunghills. Despite all of his scrounging, Tarrare succumbed to exhaustion and was admitted to a military hospital under the care of Dr. Percy.
There, even being granted quadruple rations failed to satiate his hunger. Tarrare began to eat out of the garbage, steal the food of other patients, and even chow down on the hospital’s bandage supply. Psychological testing found Tarrare to be apathetic, but otherwise sane.
Percy’s report described Tarrare as having bloodshot eyes and constantly being overheated and sweating, with a body odor so rancid that he could be smelled from twenty feet away—and that’s by 18th-century French military surgeon standards. Woof. The smell only got worse after eating. Percy described it as being so bad he literally had visible stink lines.
After eating, Tarrare would succumb to the itis and pass out. Percy observed this after preparing a meal made for fifteen to test Tarrare’s limits, which he predictably porked down. Percy continued this experiment by feeding Tarrare live animals: a cat—which he drank the blood of and after consuming, like an owl, he only regurgitated its fur—lizards, snakes, puppies, and an entire eel.
Months of experimentation passed before the military discovered a way to put Tarrare’s unique ability to use: Tarrare was commissioned as a spy for the French Army of the Rhine. His first mission was to secretly courier a document across enemy lines in a place that it could not easily be detected if caught: his digestive tract. After being paid with a wheelbarrow full of thirty pounds of raw bull viscera—which he ate immediately upon presentation directly in front of what we can only imagine to be the incredibly revolted generals and other commanding officers—Tarrare swallowed a wooden box containing a document that could pass through his system completely in-tact and be delivered to a high-ranking prisoner of war in Prussia.
As one might expect, an individual who smells like a foot and compulsively eats from the garbage would likely attract attention—not exactly the ideal, hallmark makings of a spy.
Compound this with the fact that Tarrare did not speak any German and he was quickly caught, beaten, imprisoned, and forced to undergo the psychological torment of a mock execution before being returned to France.
Again under the care of Dr. Percy, the trauma Tarrare endured left him incapable of continuing his military service and desperate to find a cure for his condition. Laudanum opiates, wine vinegar, tobacco pills, and a diet of soft-boiled eggs were all employed, but Tarrare was still forced to walk the streets fighting stray dogs for discarded slaughterhouse cuisine, drink the blood of patients who were being treated with bloodletting, and was even caught consuming cadavers from the hospital morgue multiple times. Eventually, a toddler went missing from the hospital and Tarrare, the suspected culprit, was chased from the premises before disappearing into the city.
Dr. Percy is contacted by a physician of Versailles hospital at the behest of a patient on their deathbed. Sure enough, it was Tarrare, now brought to death’s door by what he professed to be a golden fork he had swallowed two years previously and was now lodged inside of him. It had been four years since Percy had last seen Tarrare, who hoped he could save his life by removing the fork. Unfortunately for Tarrare, it was not a fork that was killing him, but end-stage tuberculosis. Within a month, he passed.
A curious colleague intended to inspect Tarrare’s corpse. However, fellow surgeons refused to partake and it quickly became a race against the clock as the body began to rot rapidly. Findings from the autopsy revealed that Tarrare possessed a shockingly-wide esophagus which allowed spectators to look directly from his open mouth into his stomach, which was unfathomably large and lined with ulcers. His body was full of pus, his liver and gallbladder abnormally large, and the fork was never recovered.
So, what was the cause of Tarrare’s insatiable hunger? In short, we don’t know for sure. When contemporary medical procedures of the time included drinking raw mercury to clear out head demons (probably), should it come as a surprise that Tarrare received no suitable diagnosis or treatment in his own lifetime?
However, some interesting theories have been suggested over the years. Ripleys.com was able to speak to Dr. Don Moore, a chiropractor certified in science-based nutrition and owner and operator of Synergy Pro Wellness, to get his take on things.
Now, granted, there is a possibility that Dr. Percy’s personal documentation in the years following Tarrare’s death were exaggerated or falsified, but they were considered credible enough at the time of their publication to be featured in reputable medical texts such as The Study of Medicine, Popular Physiology, and London Medical and Physical Journal. Plus, Dr. Percy is considered the father of military surgeons, was Chief Surgeon to the French Army, a university professor, inventor of important battlefield medical implements, and is considered an all-around highly reputable guy. So, given we accept the above tale as an accurate representation of Tarrare’s symptoms, what does Dr. Moore have to say about it?
“It can be broken down by category: He didn’t suffer from psychosis, so he was completely aware and cognitive. But that doesn’t rule out hyperactivity of hormones and dysfunction of components of the brain. His sensor that would let him know he was full was damaged. If he underwent a brain study, he would have probably been identified as having had an enlarged hypothalamus.”
The hypothalamus regulates the body’s temperature and is responsible for causing the sensation of hunger. Given Tarrare was constantly overheated and in dire search of food, it’s a perfect fit. Dr. Moore also suspects a possible case of pica, which causes the eating of non-edible objects.
As for why Tarrare never weighed more than one hundred pounds, Dr. Moore adroitly theorizes, based on his habitually eating raw meat: “He most likely had a parasite as well. The fact that he was of normal size means something else is being nourished, and the fact that he was constantly hungry leans towards him feeding a secondary organism. A parasite like a hookworm or roundworm, perhaps.”
This next one...i had to put in for obvious reasons! As far as freak shows go, Fanny Mills was one of the most unusual performers to ever step foot inside the sideshow tent. Known as the “Ohio BigFoot Girl,” Fanny seemed normal in every respect…except for her massive feet. Fanny was born in Sussex, England in 1860, and then immigrated with her family to Sandusky, Ohio. The condition that brought her notoriety was Milroy Disease, a rare disorder that causes lymphedema, in which the lower legs and feet swell with lymph fluid. Neither of Fanny’s sisters were born with the disease.
Fanny was a petite woman who only weighed 115 pounds. Her feet, however, were 19 inches long and 7 inches wide. She wore a size 30 shoe made of three goatskins.
Fanny started touring the country in 1885 as “that girl from Ohio” with the “biggest feet on Earth.” She traveled with a nurse named Mary Brown, who helped her get around. Her promoters advertised her to unwed men as “a boon for poor bachelors,” offering $5,000 and a well-stocked farm to any respectable man who would marry her.
“Don’t permit two big feet to stand between you and wedlock tinged with fortune,” the ad read.
Fanny eventually married William Brown, Mary’s brother, in 1886.
She retired from show business in 1891 because of an illness, and died later that year
GRADY STILES JR.
This guy is another famous guy. But you may not know his whole, incredibly crazy story! He’s the mutha fuckin lobster boy!!! The Stiles family was suffering from a peculiar physical condition known as Ectrodactyly, which is a rare congenital deformity that makes the hand look like lobster claws as the middle fingers are either missing or seemingly fused to the thumb or pinky finger.
The family has been afflicted for over a century with ectrodactyly, a condition commonly known as the Lobster claw. It is an uncommon inherent distortion of the hand where the center digit is missing and the hand is parted where the metacarpal of the finger ought to be.
This split regularly gives the hands the presence of lobster hooks in spite of the fact that cases run in seriousness. Frequently this condition happens in both the hands and the feet and, while it is an acquired condition, it can skirt an age. While the term ectrodactyly sounds medicinally clean when contrasted with ‘Lobster Claw Syndrome’.
While many have viewed Ectrodactyly as a handicap, for the Stiles family it came with an opportunity. The physical condition stayed within the family and any newcomer to the family came out with unusual hands and feet.
But one member from the family, Grady stiles Jr., would give the Stiles’ family a different reputation when he became a serial abuser and murderer.
The home of Gardy Stiles, or popularly known as the lobster boy was an unpleasant place to be. During the carnival season in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, Grady was one of the many sideshow performers who people came to gawk at some time in wonder and sometimes out of rudeness.
Grady never concerned himself too much with the opinions of onlookers, he was only there to put on a show, his audience was impressed or not. Grady was born with a severe deformity that gave him the name, The Lobster Boy.
GRADY STILES JR. A.K.A THE LOBSTER BOY (CREDIT: YOUTUBE)
Lobster Boy was born in Pittsburgh in 1937, at that point his father was already part of the “freak show” circuit, adding his kids with the peculiar physical condition to the act.
Because of the deformity Grady couldn’t walk and was confined to a wheelchair, his legs were almost flipper-like and unable to bear weight this resulted in him using his upper body to maneuver around usually in a wheelchair.
All of the locomotion provided by his arms turned Grady into a rather strong man despite his downfalls but he didn’t only utilize his to make his life easier for himself but also to make other’s life harder.
For most of his life, Gary primarily used a wheelchair — but also learned to use his power to use his upper body to pull himself across the floor with impressive strength.
As Grady grew up he would become immensely strong, something which will cost his family later in life.
At age 19 Mary ran off to join the carnival, escaping her old life, oddly enough she felt she belonged best there. Despite the fact that she was surrounded by people with shocking abilities and deformities but for her this was normal.
Mary Theresa wasn’t there for the same reasons the performers were but the carnival always needed staff to keep the shows running. It was here that she met Grady Stiles.
Mary Theresa didn’t see the monster in Grady as others had, she quickly fell in love with Grady and the two were married within no time. Together they had two children and, like his father before him, introduced the children with ectrodactyly to the family business.
Grady added his children into his sideshow with him traveling as an act known as the Lobster Family, of the many issues that were in the family, money wasn’t one of them. The family would make $50,000-$80,000 per season and Grady was considered the major star of the show.
There were no gimmicks with the lobster family no tricks or illusions, What the crowd saw is what the crowd got.
Once the winter set in the show’s closed down and many of their performers including the Stiles family resided in Florida until the new season came around.
Despite the pleasant weather and more free time, Grady still didn’t hesitate to inflict physical and emotional pain on his family.
If Many only would have known when she was younger what she knew after marrying Grady perhaps it would have made a difference.
Mary recollected that Grady was the best anybody could be, a genuinely honorable man however as soon he poured the liquor in his body, something in his brain changed and he would abandon a nobleman to a harsh spouse and father. He turned into a much more alarming man, a genuine beast, more noteworthy than the one others considered him to be. He was a real nightmare come to life.
Marry was impacted in ways that she would never forget. She remembered that her husband was a great guy when he woke up in the morning by 8:00 am and started drinking by 10 and would be miserable for the rest of the day.
In 1973, Grady-Mary’s marriage hit its first end when Mary decided that she couldn’t take the abuse any longer after Grday launched himself at her, took her to the floor, ripped her pantyhose, reached his clawed hand and ripped out the intrauterine device, a device used to prevent pregnancy, and used her hands to choke her – something they were seemingly designed to do well.
Mary was so disgusted, horrified, and emotionally wounded that she wisely left him.
The worst was yet to come after Mary was gone, Grady started drinking even more and when her teenage daughter, Donna fell in love with a young man that he didn’t approve of, he didn’t take the decision very well.
Donna and Jack Lane were in loved and wanted to marry but Grady forbade the marriage threatening to kill Jack numerous times. Donna was unhappy with her drunk and abusive father and wanted an escape.
Donna told Grady that if he didn’t approve the underage marriage, she would live with Jack anyway. This further enraged Grady who prided himself in the way he dominated his family and controlled them.
Grady was home when Jack came home to see him on the night before Jack and Donna were to be married, thinking that maybe Grady has changed his mind and is now happy with our marriage.
Instead of agreeing, Stiles picked up his shotgun and murdered his daughter’s fiance in cold blood. HE sat there while his daughter came and said ‘I told you I would kill him.’
Grady went to trial where the defense attempted to get the jury to pity Grady and his condition. The defense played heavily into the fact that Grady had an unfortunate life driven to drinking and violence by the incessant struggles he faced.
Grady even managed to shed some tears in the courtroom, his daughter Donna took the stand and told him that “she would see him at his grave.”
The jury took three hours in deciding that Grady was guilty of third-degree-murder, Grady received a sentence of 15 years but not in prison but 15 years of probation.
The state believed that their prison system even in their handicap accessible facilities weren’t equipped to handle the specific need for Grady Stiles: no prison could deal with his handicap and to restrict him to jail would be merciless and irregular discipline. He additionally, at this point, had procured liver cirrhosis from drinking and had emphysema from long stretches of cigarette smoking.
So Grady got to serve his sentence from home where he continued to drink heavily and beat his children.
For reasons that no one — either in the Stiles family or outside of it — has been able to understand, his first wife agreed to remarry him in 1989.
Mary who left Grady earlier came back in his life again in 1989 and surprisingly enough forgave the monster for all his wrongdoings.
As earlier Grady was decent for a while but after some time the monster in him came back to haunt the lives of Mary and her children. The violence surged back to the surface as did copious amounts of sexual assault.
A couple of years after she remarried Stiles, she paid her 17-year-old neighbor, Chris Wyant, $1,500 to murder him. Mary Teresa’s child from another marriage, Glenn, helped her imagine the thought and complete the arrangement.
One night, Wyant took a .32 Colt Automatic he had a companion buy for him. He went into Stiles’ trailer, Grady was watching television in his underwear, Wyant put 2 round in the back of his head at the point-clear range, killing him instantly.
Freedom But with A Cost
Police arrested Mary, her son Harry and the killer Wyant. The jury convicted Wyant of second-degree murder and sentenced him to 27 years in prison.
Not one of them denied that they had intended to kill Grady Stiles. During the trial, his wife spoke at length of his abusive history. “My husband was going to kill my family,” she told the court, “I believe that from the bottom of my heart.”
Unfortunately for Mary’s child Glenn, self-defense isn’t applicable when hiring a hitman and Glenn was convicted of first-degree murder and was given life-sentence without the possibility of parole for 25 years.
At least one of their children, Cathy, testified against him as well.
Mary was also charged with first-degree murder and her conviction was reduced to manslaughter and she was sentenced to 12 years behind bars.
She unsuccessfully appealed her conviction and began to serve her sentence in February of 1997. She had tried to get Glenn to take a plea bargain but he refused. The court sentenced him to life in prison.
Just as a significant portion of his living family was being tried for his murder, Grady Stiles’ body was put to rest. Or unrest, as it were: Lobster Boy was so disliked, not just in his family but within the community, that the funeral home could not find anyone willing to be pallbearers.
That's a story that most people don't know about the Lobster Boy!!
Most sources indicate that Ella Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee around 1870 – although there are some conflicting reports. It has also been revealed that Ella had a twin brother, who died quite early. What is not argued, however, is the fact that Ella was born with an unusual orthopedic condition resulting in knees that bent backwards. The nature of this unusual affliction is exceedingly rare and relatively unknown, however most modern medical types would classify her condition and a very advanced form of congenital genu recurvatum – also known as ‘back knee deformity’. Her unusually bent knees, coupled with her preference of walking on all fours resulted in her moniker of ‘The Camel Girl’.
In 1886, Ella was the star of W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus, often appearing accompanied by a camel when presented to audiences and she was a feature in the newspapers of every town the circus visited. Those newspapers touted Ella as ‘the most wonderful freak of nature since the creation of the world’ and that her ‘counterpart never did exist’.
The back of Ella’s 1886 pitch card is far more modest in its information:
I am called the camel girl because my knees turn backward. I can walk best on my hands and feet as you see me in the picture. I have traveled considerably in the show business for the past four years and now, this is 1886 and I intend to quit the show business and go to school and fit myself for another occupation.
It appears that Ella did indeed move on to other ventures, and her $200 a week salary likely opened many doors for her. For quite some time no further information was available on Ella following 1886, but recently a genealogist managed to not only trace Ella’s family tree, but also provide some information regarding her life after sideshow.
On 28 June 1905 Ella Harper married a man named Robert L. Savely. Savely was a school teacher and later a bookkeeper for a photo supplies company. A 1910 Census shows Ella and her husband living in Nashville, Tennessee with Ella’s mother and it also revealed that Ella and her husband had adopted a 3 month old child, but that the child passed away only 18 days later.
We also now know that Ella died of colon cancer on 19 December 1921 in Nashville, Tennessee and that she was buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville. A simple gravestone marks her plot, but she is surrounded by family.
LEONARD TRASK THE WONDERFUL INVALID
Some human marvels are made, not born. Often their manufacture is accidental and painful, such is the case of Leonard Trask. Born on June 30, 1805 in Hartford, Maine Trask suffered a major neck injury in his 20’s when he was thrown from his horse. The story was that a pig ran under the hooves of his horse and, after being thrown from the back of his steed, Trask spent several days crawling back home. Despite the serious injury, Trask continued to work as a farm hand until his spine began to bow.
Soon, Trask’s chin was pressed into his chest permanently, and subsequent injuries only exasperated his misery. In 1840 he took a nasty fall and in 1853 he was thrown from his wagon and broke 4 ribs and his collarbone. On May 24, 1858 Trask was involved in a high-speed coach accident, in which he and several passengers where thrown to the ground. In the accident, Trask struck his head and opened ‘a gash in his head five inches long’. The injury was severe, and he was not expected to survive, but he did and was even more disabled and miserable as a result of the injury.
Through much of his adult life, his wife took care of him, and despite his physical limitations he fathered seven children with her. Unable to work, Trask was eventually able to spin his status as a medical curiosity into small career as a human oddity attraction to the general public. As “The Wonderful Invalid”, Trask was able to capture a small measure of fame. His 1860 self-published story A Brief Historical Sketch of the Life and Sufferings of Leonard Trask, the Wonderful Invalid, which included accounts of his activities like ‘Mr. Trask at the Circus’ and ‘Mr.Trask Going to Drink’ that were both amusing and sad.
At the time of his death on April 13, 1861 Trask’s condition was still not officially diagnosed despite seeing more than 22 doctors during his lifetime. Today Trask would be diagnosed with Ankylosing spondylitis, a condition that affect less than 0.2% of the general population
JOSEPHINE MYRTLE COARBIN
For all intents and purposes, Josephine Myrtle Corbin was a normal girl. Her birth was not marked by anything out of the ordinary, and her mother claimed to have had a typical labor and delivery, apart from the baby being momentarily in the breech position.
The doctors who examined the baby after birth reported her to be strong and healthy, adding that she was growing at a good rate. A year later she was found to be nursing “healthily” and “thriving well.”
Overall, Myrtle Corbin was a perfectly healthy, active, and thriving baby girl. All in spite of having four legs.
Perfectly Ordinary (Almost)
After being born with four legs, two normal sized ones on either side of a pair of diminutive ones, the doctor who delivered Myrtle Corbin felt it necessary to point out the factors they felt could have resulted in her deformity. First, the baby’s parents, the doctors said, were about 10 years apart in age. William H. Corbin was 25, and his wife Nancy was 34.
Second, the doctors noted that the couple bore a striking resemblance to each other. Both of them were redheads, with blue eyes and very fair complexions. They actually looked so similar that the doctors felt it necessary to explicitly point out that the two were not “blood kin” in their medical reports.
Despite the two factors the doctors listed, it seemed that the young girl was simply an oddity – her parents had had seven other children, all of whom were perfectly ordinary.
Later, it would be determined that she was born with dipygus and her condition was likely the result of her body’s axis splitting as it developed. As a result, she was born with two pelvises side by side.
With each pelvis, she had two sets of legs, one normal sized, and one small. The two small legs were side by side, flanked on either side by two normal legs, though one with a clubbed foot.
According to medical journals written by the physicians that studied Myrtle Corbin throughout her life, she was able to move her smaller inner legs, though they weren’t strong enough for her to be able to walk on. Which, of course, didn’t really matter, as they were not long enough to touch the ground.
In 1881 at age 13, Myrtle Corbin joined the sideshow circuit under the moniker “The Four-Legged Girl From Texas.” After showing her to curious neighbors and charging them a dime each, her father realized her potential for publicity and for cash. He had promotional pamphlets made up and began placing ads in newspapers for people to come see her.
The promotional pamphlets described her as a girl with “as gentle of disposition as the summer sunshine and as happy as the day is long.” And, indeed, that appeared to be true.
Throughout her time as a sideshow attraction, she became wildly popular. Eventually, rather than bringing the curious onlookers to her she began traveling. By visiting small towns and cities and performing for the public, she ended up earning up to $450 a week.
For four years, she continued to work for Barnum and even inspired several other showmen to produce fake four-legged humans for their own shows when they couldn’t get her.
At 18 years old, Myrtle Corbin retired from the sideshow business. She’d met a doctor named Clinton Bicknell and fallen in love. At 19, the two were married.
About a year later in the spring of 1887, Myrtle Corbin discovered she was pregnant. She’d gone to a doctor in Blountsville, Ala., complaining of pain in her left side, fever, headache, and a decreased appetite. Despite her unique anatomy (she had two sets of internal and external reproductive anatomies), doctors did not believe there was a reason she couldn’t carry to term.
Though she became gravely ill during the first three months of her pregnancy, resulting in her doctor performing an abortion, she ended up giving birth to four more healthy children in her life.
After performing in the sideshow and giving birth to her children, Myrtle Corbin’s life was rather normal. Though her case continued to pop up in medical journals around the country, she maintained a quiet existence in her Texas home with her husband and children.
Eventually in 1928, she died as the result of a streptococcal skin infection. Though antibiotics make the condition easily treatable today, in the 1920s there was no such treatment available.
Stanislaus Berent was an American freak who performed at many freak shows, including the World Circus Sideshow in 1941 under the stage name of Sealo the Seal Boy (often stylized to just Sealo). He was known for his seal-like arms, which were caused by a congenital medical condition known as phocomelia. In 2001, Mat Fraser's play inspired by Sealo called Sealboy: Freak debuted. Berent was born November 24, 1901 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was brought up as a Polish Catholic and suffered from an extremely rare congenital disorder known as phocomelia, which caused his "seal arms". He had no arms; his hands grew from his shoulders. Sealo started off his career as a newspaper seller, then was discovered by freak scouters.He was a regular feature at Coney Island's freak show from circa 1920 to 1970 and was exaggerated as a human with a seal body on some promotional sideshow posters. Despite his genetic disability, Sealo was still able to carry out feats like sawing a crate in half and shaving with a straight razor on his own, as well as moulding animal figurines out of clay. His partner on-stage was Toby, a chimpanzee. Sealo had trouble getting up and down the performance stage due to his weak legs. He would spend the time in which he was not performing on stage selling pitch cards. After performing, he preferred resting at hotels to sleeping at the fairground. He performed at the World Circus Sideshow in 1941. He also toured around the world and performed at many other freak shows.
Sealo's freak show career lasted for thirty-five years; he retired in 1976 and moved to Showmen's Retirement Village in Gibsonton, Florida. He returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh afterwards when his health started to decline. He spent his final days at a Catholic hospital and died in 1980.
GEORGE AND WILLIE MUSE
The Muse brothers had an incredible career. The story of the two black albino brothers from Roanoke, Virginia is unique even in the bizarre world of freaks and sideshows. They were initially exploited and then later hailed for their unintentional role in civil rights.
Born in the 1890’s the pair were scouted by sideshow agents and kidnapped in 1899 by bounty hunters working in the employ of an unknown sideshow promoter. Black albinos, being extremely rare, would have been an extremely lucrative attraction. They were falsely told that their mother was dead, and that they would never be returning home.
The brothers began to tour. To accentuate their already unusual appearance, their handler had the brothers grow out their hair into long white dreadlocks. In 1922 showman Al G. Barnes began showcasing the brothers in his circus as White Ecuadorian cannibals Eko and Iko. When that gimmick failed to attract crowds the brothers were rechristened the ‘Sheep-Headed Men’ and later, in 1923, the ‘Ambassadors from Mars’.
As the ‘Men from Mars’ the two traveled extensively with the Barnes circus. Unfortunately, while they were being fed, housed and trained in playing the mandolin, they were not being paid.
In the mid 1920’s the Muse brothers toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1927, while visiting their hometown, their mother finally tracked them down. She fought to free her sons, some 20 years after their disappearance. She threatened to sue and the Muse brothers were freed.
The brothers filed a lawsuit for the wages they earned but were never paid. They initially demanded a lump-sum payment of 100,000. However, as time passed the Muse brothers missed the crowds, the attention and the opportunities sideshow provided. Their lawyer got them a smaller lump-sum payment and a substantial contract with a flat monthly wage. The pair returned to show business in 1928.
During their first season back they played Madison Square Garden and drew over 10,000 spectators during each of their performances. They made spectacular money as their new contract allowed them to sell their own merchandise and keep all the profits for themselves. In the 1930’s they toured Europe, Asia and Australia. They performed for royals and dignitaries including the Queen of England. In 1937 they returned to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for several years and finally ended their career in 1961 with the Clyde Beatty Circus.
The brothers returned to their hometown and lived together in a house they originally purchased for their mother. Neither brother married, though they were well known for their many extravagant courtships.
George Muse died in 1971 and many expected Willie to quickly follow his brother. Those people were wrong as Willie continued to play his mandolin and enjoy the company friends and family until his death on Good Friday of 2001.
He was 108 years old.
These are just a few of the many many many circus freaks throughout history. We purposefully did not cover guys like The Elephant Man and other more popular ones as we wanted to bring you some interesting ones you may not know about, except maybe the lobster boy but that shit is crazy! There are some more interesting stories and Coney Island deserves its own discussion...can you say….BONUS episode!!!