Carnival Oddities and Illusions Provide Lessons for Skeptics
Like Robert Ripley, many people have always been attracted to the odd and the curious. Growing up in a small town, you may have visited the travel carnivals with the sole purpose of seeing a visiting solo act-like an armless wonder, gorilla girl, human blockhead, a three legged cow, or a bullwhip actor performing in a wild west show. You may have paid admission to countless magic acts, hypnotist, and sideshows with sword swallowers, fire eaters, and snake charmers, not to mention animal and juggling acts when you bought your ticket to attend every carnival or circus that came around. There are even reality shows like Venice Beach Freak Shows and the TV series American Horror Story: Freak Show.
PT Barnum and Sideshows
Street performers harken back to the earliest form of what developed into the great English fairs of the early Renaissance. There, most of the “human curiosities” that later became fixtures of nineteenth-century American “freak shows” were exhibited.
In late 1841, an itinerant showman named P. T. Barnum became proprietor of the American Museum in New York City, an entertainment enterprise that had featured contortionists, a banjoist, a lady magician, a lecturer on animal magnetism, a Tattooed Man, and similar acts.
Barnum had earlier toured with Joice Heth, supposedly the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington but actually an octogenarian fraud.
Now he exhibited the “Feejee Mermaid,” billed as “the greatest Curiosity in the World” although it was only a monkey’s body grafted onto a fish.
Accusations of trickery only brought Barnum increased notoriety, and he soon schemed to have his bearded lady accused of being a man!
A publicized medical examination helped boost cash receipts.
When one visitor asked whether an exhibit was real or a humbug, Barnum replied, “That’s just the question: persons who pay their money at the door have a right to form their own opinions after they have got up stairs”.
Barnum exhibited increasingly diverse oddities-such as albinos, giants, dwarfs, and “The Highland Fat Boys”-along with ballets, dramas, magic shows, and “scientific demonstrations.” By the 1870s dime museums (Barnum’s was twenty-five cents) began to proliferate, and “the human oddity was the king of museum entertainment”. It was traveling museums, linked to circuses as concessions, that presaged the later “sideshow”-so named due to being separate from the main attraction.
Actually there could be several sideshows, located in tents (or later trailers) on the midway, which is where the rides, shows, games, and refreshments are located. A carnival is essentially only a midway.
A major type of sideshow, often popularly called a “freak show,” since human oddities were usually among the exhibits, was known to insider “carnys” as a “ten-in-one.” As its name indicated, it consisted of a number of acts, often arrayed along a platform, with the crowd moving from one to the other in sequence.
Since such shows were typically continuous, if a spectator entered the tent during, say, the sword swallower’s performance, he or she would be led by the “lecturer” through the remaining nine (approximately) acts or features such as a magician, fat lady, giant, etc.-and when the sword swallower was on again, that was the signal to exit the show.
At the end of each act or exhibit spectators might be offered a pitched item such as a “true life” booklet or photograph.
Frequently giants sold huge finger rings and midgets offered miniature bibles.
You could by an autographed photo from “El Hoppo the Living Frog Boy” and an envelope of tricks from a magician.
Meanwhile, outside, a “talker” was periodically drumming up a new crowd (or “tip”) of potential customers, usually with the assistance of one or more of the acts to provide a taste of what was inside. This external pitch was held on a “bally” platform, the name deriving from ballyhoo (meaning sensationalized promotion).
The oddities and exotic acts that were featured in the ten-in-one were quite varied. In his book Monster Midway, William Lindsay Gresham discussed the traditional carny classification of human oddities, observing that “In addition to a born, bona fide freak, the same show will sometimes feature ‘made’ freaks all scrambled together.”
For the following discussion, I have subdivided the first category and added other non-oddity divisions in an attempt to provide a more complete classification of sideshow acts and exhibits.
You may think of “born” human oddities as of essentially two types. First is the more-or-less obvious anomaly. Examples include midgets like Barnum’s “Tom Thumb” and Lavinia Warren, who married in a highly promoted ceremony.
At the other end of that spectrum was Jack Earle, whose extreme height brought him notice from a Ringling Brothers circus sideshow manager in the mid 1920’s.
“How would you like to be a giant?” the showman is said to have asked, indicating the important distinction between merely being noticeable and being a sideshow star. Earle soon became “The Texas Giant”.
Another example of the true type of oddity is represented by conjoined twins, the result of incomplete separation of a single, fertilized egg. The most celebrated pair were Chang and Eng (1811-1874) who came from Siam and thus prompted the term, “Siamese twins.” They eventually married, living in three-day shifts in their respective houses and fathering twenty-one children.
Sometimes the division of the single, fertilized egg that produces identical twins is even less complete than it was with Chang and Eng.
The result can be any of various anatomical oddities such as “The Two-Headed Boy”-actually the Tocci brothers born in 1877, who were two individuals above the sixth rib but who shared a single body below.
In some cases the incomplete division results in a normal size body with a smaller, parasitic one-in whole or part-connected to it. Such was the case with “The Four-Legged Girl from Texas,” Myrtle Corbin, “The Man with Two Bodies” Jean Libbera, born in 1884, and “The Girl with Four Legs and Three Arms” Betty Lou Williams.
Other genuine oddities include hirsute people like Bearded Ladies and “Lionel the Lion-Faced Man” whose face was entirely covered with long hair, as well as various Alligator Boys and Girls afflicted with the skin condition ichthyosis.
Still others, like “Leona the Leopard Girl,” were dark-skinned people with vitiligo, a lack of pigmentation that could appear as a pattern of white splotches over the body.
Yet another example of the genuine anomaly would be the Frog Boy, although any of various deformities could qualify one for the sobriquet. Here was “El Hoppo”. Although the sideshow banner depicted a youth with a frog’s hindquarters, in actuality “Hoppy” was a grey-bearded man in a wheelchair, having spindly limbs and a distended stomach. To look more froglike, he wore green leotards.
Among others, there was Otis Jordan, an African-American who had the body of a four-year-old but a normal head with “a noble, scholarly face”. Beginning in 1963 he performed as “Otis the Frog Boy,” part of his routine being to roll, light, and smoke a cigarette using only his lips. When his act was shut down in 1984 after a woman complained about the exhibition of disabled people, Otis moved to Coney Island where he continued with the more politically correct billing, “The Human Cigarette Factory”.
As with human “frogs” other examples of genuine anomalies that were imaginatively interpreted were those represented by “The Caterpillar Man” (also known as “Prince Randian, the Hindu Living Torso”); “The Mule-Faced Woman” Grace McDaniels who had facial tumors; various persons having vestigial feet and hands attached to the torso, such as “Sealo the Seal Boy” and “Dickie the Penguin Boy” who, his banner proclaimed, “Looks and Walks Like a Penguin”; and many others.
A second subclass of the “born” oddity is what is known in carny parlance as the “anatomical wonder,” that is, “a sideshow performer, usually perceived as a human oddity, but more a working act”. A good example would be James Morris, who performed with Barnum and Bailey for many years. He could stretch the skin of his cheek eight inches and pull his chest skin to the crown of his head. Morris was only one of many who were styled “The Elastic Skin Man” (or Woman).
Others who had the same harmless condition, known as cutis hyperelastica, were billed as “The India Rubber Man” or similar designation although that term probably more often referred to a contortionist.
Other anatomical wonders would include “Popeye, the Man with the Elastic Eyeballs,” who could cause one or both of his eyes to protrude to an incredible degree. Charles Tripp, “The Armless Wonder,” teamed up with Eli Bowen, “the Legless Wonder,” to perform amusing stunts like riding a bicycle built for two.
The second main category of oddities-what Gresham termed “’made’ freaks”-are typified by tattooed people. That sideshow genre was popularized after a Russian explorer’s visit to the Marquesas Islands in 1804. He discovered a French deserter named Jean Baptiste Cabri who had married a native woman and been extensively tattooed. Cabri returned with the explorer to Moscow where he launched a theatrical career, then toured Europe, regaling audiences with exaggerated tales.
Probably the most unique of the Tattooed Men and Women (both eventually appeared on sideshow banners) was Horace Ridler, a British prep-school-educated ex-army officer who was down on his luck and decided to transform himself into a circus star. His idea was to become tattooed all over with zebra-like stripes-a process that took a year beginning in 1927. Claiming he had been forcibly tattooed by New Guinea savages, “The Great Omi, The Zebra Man,” eventually became “one of the highest paid circus performers in the world”.
Other “made” freaks include a “crucified man,” Mortado, who had his hands and feet pierced surgically. In the holes he concealed capsules of “blood” that spouted forth when spikes were pounded through them. Later, utilizing a specially designed chair with plumbing fixtures, he became Coney Island’s “Mortado the Human Fountain”.
Then there were the “gaffed”-or faked-freaks. Such manufactured oddities included phony Siamese twins like Adolph and Rudolph. A circa 1899 photo reveals that they lacked the close resemblance of identical twins (which conjoined persons always are). In fact, a harness concealed under their specially devised suit held Rudolph so that he seemed to grow from Adolph’s waist.
Fake Alligator Girls and Boys were created by painting their bodies with a weak solution of glue and, after allowing it to dry, having them twist and flex to create the cracking effect that simulated ichthyosis.
Sometimes gaffing was done to enhance an oddity. A good example was William Durks whose deformity led him to be billed as “The Man with Two Faces” among other appellations. Durks had an eye and nostril on either side of a growth in the center of his face. He later enhanced the effect by using makeup to add an extra central “eye” and two “nostrils,” becoming “The Man with Three Eyes.” Actually Durks was one-eyed, his other being vestigial.
In packaging their exhibits showmen typically exaggerated claims and fabricated backgrounds. For example, dwarfs and midgets had inches subtracted from their height, and giants often wore lifts and tall hats to enhance theirs, which was inflated by as much as twelve inches.
After human oddities, the second major category of sideshow performers consists of those who exhibit a special skill. They include sword swallowers, who must learn to conquer the gag reflex in order to swallow, not only swords-like Edith Clifford born in 1884, “Champion Sword Swallower of the World”-but also umbrellas and lit neon tubes.
Other performers in this class are the Fire Eaters and Fire Breathers (who sip flammable liquid and spew it across a torch to produce great fireballs).
Then there are performers of any of various “torture” acts.
These include the Human Pincushion (who sticks needles through the flesh), the Human Blockhead (who hammers spikes up the nose), and others, including “fakirs” who lie on beds of nails.
Other wonder-workers are Snake Charmers (whose act might consist of little more than wrapping a large snake about the body.
Contortionists (like “Huey the Pretzel Man”) and numerous Strong Men and Women, including Louis Cyr, whom Houdini (1920, 221) suggested was “the strongest man in the known world at all-around straight lifting”; William Le Roy (b. 1873), “The Human Claw-Hammer,” who could extract a nail driven through a two-inch plank using only his teeth; and Madame Rice, “The Most Diminutive Lady Samson in the World” (Taylor 1997, 91-96; Johnson, Secreto, and Varndell 1996, 78; Houdini 1920, 223-224; Bogdan 1990, 265).
A third major class of sideshow features is represented by what is known as an “illusion show.” An example-as old as it is effective-is a transformation effect such as girl-to-gorilla, skeletal-corpse-to-living-vampire, etc. (Taylor 1997, 93, 94). In 1969, on a break from my stint as a carnival pitchman, I joined spectators in a sideshow tent to see “Atasha the Gorilla Girl” standing, apparently, at the rear of a cage. As a voice chanted, “Goreelyagoreelyagoreelya, ATASHA, goreelya!” Atasha’s features were slowly transformed into those of a large gorilla. Suddenly, it rushed from the unlocked (!) cage, and lunged toward the crowd, sending some spectators screaming from the exit-an occurrence that helped draw the next “tip” (Nickell 1970; Teller 1997).
Of course, the effect was a magician’s trick. Often the bally talker slyly noted that the “Gorilla Girl”-or the “victim” in another illusion termed “The Headless Woman”-was in “a legerdemain condition.” Other illusions commonly featured in sideshows were “The Girl in the Fish Bowl” (wherein a living “mermaid” appears in apparent miniature in a goldfish bowl) and “Spidora, the Spider Girl” (which consists of a living human head atop an arachnid’s body) (Taylor 1997, 21, 93, 94).
An illusion of early vintage that was especially popular around the end of the nineteenth century was an effect known to magicians and carnys as a “blade box.” A young woman would lie in a box that was then intersected with a number of blades (figure 3). The secret? For that one paid an extra charge (another form of “aftercatch” called a “ding”) to come up on the platform and peer inside. To provide extra incentive to the male spectators, the magician might reach in and pull out his assistant’s costume! The spectators were thus fooled twice, since the costume was an extra one.
Still another major type of sideshow exhibit features animals. While the premier acts are shown under the circus Big Top, midways and carnivals often have animal presentations.
You might see a three-legged sheep, touted as “Nature’s Living Tripod,” and various alleged hybrids (zebra/donkey, turkey/chicken, dog/raccoon), a ram with four horns, a sheep and cow with five legs each, and other oddities like the “World’s Smallest Horse” and the “World’s Largest Horse” was photographic form.
To distinguish the living exhibits from such “curios” banners still typically feature the screaming word “ALIVE.”
With the decline of the ten-in-one in the 1980s-due to their high overhead and the fact that the exhibition of human oddities could provoke complaints-individual animal and illusion exhibits became the mainstay. One was the “Giant Rat” show. In such exhibits the giant creature were either of two types of South American aquatic rodents, usually the capybara.; Encyclopædia Britannica 1960).
A fifth and last category of sideshow exhibits is reserved for any inanimate object, including preserved human or animal specimens. Barnum’s “Feejee mermaid” is one example. Another would be any of various sideshow mummies, such as one alleged to be of John Wilkes Booth exhibited throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
Curios include the bullet-riddled car of outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, a sasquatch safely frozen in ice and a concrete copy of the famous hoaxed petrified man which was billed as “the Cardiff Giant, ten feet four inches.” Although the fine print on the bottom of the banners say: “This is a facsimile,” the talker promised, “He’s a big son of a gun!”
Exit This Way
Most ten-in-ones featured an extra attraction . For an extra fee, one might see a five-legged horse or an illusion like the Headless Woman.
Often a spectator would ask of an exhibit, “Is it real?” Showman Ward Hall responds for carnys everywhere: “Oh, it’s all real. Some of it’s really real, some of it’s really fake, but it’s all really good” (Taylor 1997, 81).
Echoing the sentiment is legendary showman Bobby Reynolds, whose traveling “International Circus Sideshow Museum & Gallery” features a huge banner ballyhooing “The Really Real Frog Band! Real Frogs!” Outfitted with miniature clarinets, drums, and other instruments are a band of stuffed amphibians. Has Reynolds gotten any complaints from the tip? “No. They’d look at it, they’d say, ‘Do these frogs play?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, they used to.’ ‘Are they real frogs?’ ‘They’re real frogs.’ ‘Why don’t they play?’ ‘They’re dead’”.
Imagine meeting “El Hoppo the Living Frog Boy” and witnessing “Atasha the Gorilla Girl,” who was transformed from beauty to beast before the eyes of frightened spectators, Houdini, Mentalis Hilliar, Johnny Meah th sword swallower, Ward Hall who has been in the sideshow business for over 70 years – boy could he share some stories, and the most beautiful snake charmer in the world.
- Barta, Hilary. 1996. “Mortado,” in Wilson 1996, 159-161.
- Bogdan, Robert. 1990. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Drimmer, Frederick. 1991. Very Special People. New York: Citadel Press.
- Encyclopædia Britannica. 1960, s.v. “capybara.”
- Fiedler, Leslie. 1993. Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. New York: Doubleday.
- Gilbert, Steve. 1996. “Totally Tattooed,” in Johnson, Secreto, and Varndell 1996, 101-105.
- Gresham, William Lindsay. 1953. Monster Midway. New York: Rinehart.
- Harris, Neil. 1973. Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Houdini, Harry. [1920.] Miracle Mongers and Their Methods; reprinted Toronto: Coles, n.d.
- Johnson, Randy, Jim Secreto, and Teddy Varndell. 1996. Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway. Honolulu: Hardy Marks Publications.
- Mannix, Dan. 1951. Step Right Up! New York: Harper & Brothers.
- Meah, Johnny. 1996. “Notes on Alligator Skinned People,” in Johnson, Secreto, and Varndell. 1996, 120-122 — 1998. “The Frog Prince,” in Taylor 1998, 54-61.
- Nickell, Joe. 1970. “Magic in the Carnival,”
- Performing Arts in Canada 7.2 (May), 41-42. — 1995. Entities. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- Parker, Mike. 1997. The World’s Most Fantastic Freaks. London: Hamlyn.
- Quigley, Christine. 1998. “Mummy Dearest,” in Taylor 1998, 65-69.
- Reese, Ralph. 1996. “The Art of Gaffing Freaks,” in Wilson 1996, 189-191.
- “Science of Magic.” 1997. Documentary on Discovery Channel, November 30.
- Taylor, James. 1997. James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed! On and Off the Midway, vol. 4. Baltimore: Dolphin-Moon Press/Atomic Books— 1998. Ibid., vol. 5.
- Teller (of Penn and Teller, magicians). 1997. “Gorilla Girl,” in Taylor 1997.
- Wilson, Gahan, et al. 1996. The Big Book of Freaks. New York: Paradox Press.