Friday, 2 July 2010

THE VICTORIANS DID LOVE A GOOD FREAK SHOW...


The trade in human disability has been around for centuries with physical curiosities displayed in circuses or travelling fairs. But in the nineteenth century such shows were enormously popular with permanent venues being formed such as those at London's Eygptian 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 entertainment as sordid and exploitative, some perfomers were happy to be involved finding that the protection of the ‘stage’ enabled them to live, work and thrive in a world that could otherwise prove to be hostile. Indeed, in the late 1890’s some of the most successful exhibits were earning up to £20 a week – the equivalent of over £1000 today.



Any production depended on the skill of the showman whose job it was to pull in the crowds and who would have had the gift of the gab, raising the audience's expectations with his titillating introductions - and ensuring they paid the entrance fee. Printed advertisements also played an important part in the process, luring in any interested parties, though more often than not such curious souls would be  faced with an anti-climax.


The poster of a  mermaid, 'half beautiful woman, half fish' might translate to the taxidermist's art of the ugly stuffed head of a monkey fixed onto the body of a fish. A good example is the Feejee Mermaid which you can see in a previous post.

But there were some acts so famous, they needed little promotion. Chang and Eng were the Siamese twins linked at the chest by a thick band of skin and, unlike some more severe cases of co-joining, the VV wonders if, today, the twins could have been surgically parted with little danger of loss of life.


Midgets were always a draw, sometimes  appearing in ‘troops’, dancing or performing as acrobats. One of the best known was the American, General Tom Thumb, who travelled with P T Barnum’s show and even met Queen Victoria.




Miss Rosina was another favourite, appearing all over Europe and often welcomed into royal circles. Despite having no arms, she managed to crotchet by using her feet and produced some very fine paintings indeed by holding a brush in her mouth.

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





14 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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