The trade in human disability has been around for centuries with physical curiosities often displayed in circuses or travelling fairs. But, in the nineteenth century, such exhibits were so popular that permanent venues were set up, such as those at London's Egyptian Hall, or P T Barnum's American Museum in New York.
The Victorians really did love to have a good gawp at a freak show act, and though we may now view such things as sordid and exploitative, some performers were more than happy to be involved in the industry, with the protection of the ‘stage’ enabling them to live in peace when the outside world could often be even crueller and more hostile.
Acts could make good money too. In the late 1890’s some of the most successful could earn up to £20 a week – and that is the equivalent of over £1000 today.
Any production would depend on the skill of the showman whose job it was to pull in the crowds to see the show ~ who would probably have the gift of the gab, thus raising expectations with titillating introductions, and also ensuring the audience were keen to pay the entrance fee. Printed advertisements often played their part in the process too, though more often than not any curious souls would be faced with an anti-climax.
The poster of a mermaid, 'half beautiful woman, half fish', might simply be a creation produced by the taxidermist's art. The ugly stuffed head of a monkey fixed onto the body of a fish led to the craze in Feejee Mermaids, more of which you can read about in a precious VV post ~ and also in the VV's novel called Elijah's Mermaid.
But there were some acts so famous they needed little promotion. Chang and Eng were Siamese twins linked at the chest by a thick band of skin and, unlike some other more severe cases of twins being co-joined, the VV wonders if today they could have been surgically parted, with little danger of loss of life.