02/07/2010

THE VICTORIANS DID LOVE A GOOD FREAK SHOW...



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.



Midgets were always a draw, sometimes appearing in groups or ‘troops’, when they would dance and sing, or perhaps perform as acrobats. One of the most famous little men was the American General Tom Thumb who travelled with P T Barnum’s show and was so very popular that he was even invited to meet with Queen Victoria.




Barnum and Tom Thumb



Miss Rosina was a great favourite, appearing all over Europe and also often welcomed into aristocratic and royal homes. Despite having no hands or fingers, she managed to crotchet by using her feet and produced some very fine paintings indeed by holding a brush between her lips.




Below are more posters for freak shows which form part of a collection now held at the British Library.






















19 comments:

  1. Reminds me of that brilliant TV show on at the moment - "Beauty and the Beast" - the disfigured people the "beasts" of the title alludes to would doubtless have been put in Freak Shows like these years ago.... we've come a long way but did it take waaaaay too long?

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  2. I agree Debs - though you only have to flick through a lot of the free channels on tv these days to find modern day equivalents.

    Thanks for the comment, as always!

    Essie

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  3. It is amazing how quickly social conscious has changed regarding the disabled (here in the U.S. it is only in the 1980's when the disabled were given special parking and other public accomodations), who had, for most of history been deemed "freakish." Imagine taking our fellow hoi polloi from days past who visited such affairs, and plopping them into our world today ~ boy, what a transition that would be.

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  4. There is some great Freak Show ephemera down the road from the British Library at the Wellcome Library too!

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  5. I really must go there again, very soon.

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  6. I don't agree with freak shows

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  7. hate freak shows!

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  8. This is so twisted! It's wonderful in macabre way. We're currently putting together a piece in which we re-enact the Victorian Freakshow's of old with a slight twist as we are injecting Frankenstein's Monster into the mix. This has been a wonderful read and will add to our already flowing ideas!

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  9. This is really uncomfortable. Except for the camp tattooed Greek, who seems to have no genitals. He's just peculiar.

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  10. it is a bit weird but they are just the same as us no different on the inside

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  11. As a child in the 70s I had a book called "Very Special People" it was I think American and was bought from a jumble sale for me by my grandad. I mislaid it a long time ago and have been desperate to find another copy to no avail. It recounted the lives of many famous "freaks" such as Chang and Eng,the Tocci Twins,Robert Wadlow, Raddica and Doodica(I could go on ) and since then I have continued to be fascinated by the subject.

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    1. You should have just checked amazon:
      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Very-Special-People-Struggles-Triumphs/dp/0907934005/ref=cm_cmu_pg__header

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  12. This is just AWFUL. how dare they try to make fun of these poor people. SHAME ON THEM.

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    1. I've always been fascinated by that culture. For a lot of those people it was the only place for them to make a living on their own. It was also the safest place for them; they were someone else's pay check and safety in numbers. The more famous ones made a killing. And then for the most part they were treated ok because whoever was in charge didn't want the money makers to leave for another show. I'm not saying it wasn't flawed, but at the time and in that situation I think there were probably worse things the "freaks" could have been subjected to.

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    2. I've always been fascinated by that culture. For a lot of those people it was the only place for them to make a living on their own. It was also the safest place for them; they were someone else's pay check and safety in numbers. The more famous ones made a killing. And then for the most part they were treated ok because whoever was in charge didn't want the money makers to leave for another show. I'm not saying it wasn't flawed, but at the time and in that situation I think there were probably worse things the "freaks" could have been subjected to.

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    3. I've always been fascinated by that culture. For a lot of those people it was the only place for them to make a living on their own. It was also the safest place for them; they were someone else's pay check and safety in numbers. The more famous ones made a killing. And then for the most part they were treated ok because whoever was in charge didn't want the money makers to leave for another show. I'm not saying it wasn't flawed, but at the time and in that situation I think there were probably worse things the "freaks" could have been subjected to.

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  13. I like the idea of them living together, safely surrounded by the theatre. Outsiders, sticking together. Great post Essie.

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