A Brief History of the Freak Shows
In mid-16th Century England people with disabilities and deformities began to be treated as objects of interest and entertainment. Freak Shows were set up to exploit these people and crowds flocked to see them exhibited.
These freak shows were often held in fairgrounds and popular taverns as well as in special travelling exhibits. To improve the popularity and entertainment value many of these were incorporated with talent displays. singing, juggling, feats of strength etc.
During the 19th Century, freak shows became very successful commercial enterprises and the two most successful promoters of these were P.T. Barnum in the United States and Tom Norman in England.
Barnum actually concocted a number of hoaxes to draw in the public such as in 1842 with the “Feejee” mermaid, a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish. Perhaps his most famous exhibition, however, was a dwarf named Charles Stratton who he called “General Tom Thumb.” Charles was first put on show at four years of age (but was stated to be 11). He had stopped growing at six months old at which time he was 25 inches tall and weighed just 15 lb.The boy had natural talent and was trained to imitate famous figures such as Napoleon and Hercules.
Tom Norman’s most famous travelling exhibits were Eliza Jenkins, the “Skeleton Woman”, and in 1884 Joseph Merrick, known as “The Elephant Man”. However, by this time public opinion was starting to change in regard to freak shows and it was beginning to be seen as distasteful. Norman only had “The Elephant Man” on display for a few weeks before the exhibition was shut down by police.
This change in attitudes led to the decline of the freak show as a form of entertainment by the end of the 19th Century. Deformities were now being scientifically explained as genetic mutations or diseases and not mysterious anomalies. The disabled were now seen as objects of sympathy rather than freaks to be feared and exhibited. However, even today small freak shows can be found in some fairgrounds and with travelling shows.
As well as this we now have television and with it shows like “Most Embarrassing Bodies”, “Australia, America, and Britain’s Got Talent” etc.
Trapped in a Freak Show
“Step up, step up, and feast your eyes,
Be astounded and surprised.
Human oddities on show,
A buck to enter, very low.
Gents and ladies, boys and girls,
See the strangest things unfurled.
What you’ll see is no illusion,
You will stare in wild confusion.
Follow me into the tent,
Guaranteed worth every cent.
Inside you’ll see the weirdest sights,
That may give you restless nights.”
“Look to your left, within the cage,
The ‘Wild Wolf Boy’ is in a rage.
On the right’s the ‘Bearded Lady’,
And ‘Jessica the Four-armed Baby’.
Up ahead, beneath the light,
Look upon a wondrous sight.
A real live ‘Mermaid’ in a tank,
I guarantee it is no prank.
‘Most Tattooed Lady’ on this Earth,
‘Siamese Twins conjoined from birth.
The ‘Tallest Man’s’ a living giant,
On your donations, these freaks are reliant.
See the ‘Pin Head’ couple, Mary and Jake,
The ‘Reptile Lady’ with skin like a snake.
And most amazing ‘freak’ of all,
Is ‘Tiny Tim’, just two feet tall.”
People crowd to view the strange,
Parting with their loose spare change.
Some show compassion, but few respect,
Though that’s more than ‘the freaks’ expect.
Accepting life of exploitation
To humour the fickle population.
The only employment they can acquire
Is with these shows as ‘Freaks for Hire’.
Now, fortunately, these shows have ceased,
In the Western world at least.
Though people that we once called ‘freaks’,
Now forced to beg within our streets.
Discrimination still exists,
And fear of difference persists,
Of the disabled and deformed.
Our attitudes must be reformed.
Today’s society is based on looks,
But we need to throw away those books.
We must respect our fellow man,
Embrace our differences if we can.
No one’s perfect, all have flaws,
Sometimes we all just need to pause.
Look at strangeness as unique,
Make it the ‘Holy Grail’ we seek.
This guy is my hero.
by John Hansen © 2016