The Controversial Victorian Freak Shows
Let us be honest here.
In one way or another, everyone's a “freak”. No two bodies are the same; we all have unpleasant, wonderful, shocking and extraordinary features; we are all unique. But for centuries the word 'freak' has been used cruelly to describe people born with 'abnormal' features, or those able to perform extraordinary physical acts by contorting or misshaping their bodies.
Exhibitions of live human curiosities had appeared in traveling fairs, circuses and taverns in England since the 1600s. These included so-called giants, dwarves, fat people, the very thin, conjoined twins and even people from exotic tribes. Freak shows were a particularly popular form of entertainment during the Victorian period, when people from all classes flocked to gawp at these unusual examples of human life.
A variety of factors fueled this fascination with all that the world had to offer—from the rise of photography to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Little wonder, then, that touring attractions of the exotic and sideshows that displayed the human form in all its variety and deviation flourished during the Victorian Era.
The maestros behind these touring attractions were well aware of what their spectators wanted, and set out to prove that their particular sideshow was the biggest, strangest, and freakiest of the bunch. Perhaps the best-known barker of the era was P.T. Barnum, a man who spun elaborate—and often entirely fabricated—backstories for his freaks in order to draw an audience.
But the impresarios weren’t the only ones making money. Victorians were so taken with the stars of the shows that freak show paraphernalia became a hot commodity. Freak trading cards were wildly successful and some performers – such as Isaac “The American Human Skeleton” Sprague – even composed biographies to be printed in pamphlets along with their pictures and sold at each performance. While profit was split between showmen and performers, the entertainers often fared better than their management.
The “Demons” of London
The physical display of people considered to look different or unusual has a long history. In the medieval and early modern periods, people who looked different – with, for example, birth defects – were considered ‘monstrous’ and attracted lots of attention. Much of it was unkind; they would be mocked and ridiculed at best, considered possessed or demonic at worst.
For a long time disabled people had been used as entertainment: the ‘court jester’ of short stature being a prime example. During the 18th and 19th centuries people who were considered different, particularly those with a physical disability, tended to be displayed more systematically in both Britain and the US.
From the 1840s, the word ‘freak’ came into popular usage. From then on, these displays or performances were openly discussed and advertised as ‘freak shows’.
It is difficult to emphasize how popular these shows were. Because they were often touring shows visiting large cities and small villages alike, they attracted thousands of people each year. This was helped by the low entry fee, with some charging only a penny for admittance. They were also accessible; you did not need to be highly educated to enjoy the freak show. They appealed to every class, and to adults as well as children.
Add a Bit of Science and Stir
Although freak shows were primarily for entertainment, in the Victorian period they also became bound up with ideas about science. People who were considered different could also be displayed for apparently ‘scientific’ purposes. They could be poked and prodded, asked questions and otherwise interrogated physically and verbally. This was the case with Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’.
Originally, Merrick was displayed in a small and, by all reports, seedy sideshow in Whitechapel. Among the visitors to this freak show was Frederick Treves, a doctor at the nearby Royal London Hospital, who wanted to see Merrick as part of his medical curiosity. It was Treves who eventually ‘saved’ Merrick from display after his escape and abandonment at a fairground in France. Nonetheless, the alternative life he provided for him, as a semi-permanent resident in the hospital, still involved being examined by multiple people.
The Hairy “Monsters”
In the early 1880s a young girl called ‘Krao’ was taken from her home in Laos, then a vassal state of Siam, to the cold metropolis of Victorian London by William Leonard Hunt, a showman known as ‘the Great Farini’. The girl, probably about four at the time of her capture, was of unusual appearance. She was covered in thick dark hair and rumour had it that she had ‘a double row of teeth’, ‘pouches in the cheek’ and ‘double-jointed knuckles’.
Krao was exhibited by Farini at the London Aquarium in a display that labelled her as ‘The Missing Link’ between animals and humanity. She drew large crowds and attracted huge attention in the press and periodicals.
In the period when Krao was being exhibited, Britain had been gripped by a controversy surrounding Charles Darwin’s claim that human beings had evolved from other species. Many were shocked by his findings and refused to believe in the theory of evolution.
Furthermore, Darwin’s inability to pinpoint an exact evolutionary stage between the human and the orangutan led to much skepticism about the whole of evolutionary theory and generated much public interest as to where that so-called missing link might lie. That Farini was able to tap into this topical concern in the way he marketed Krao says much about his skills as a showman.
There have always been people with bodily difference, including, for example, that of not being able to walk or work, or the visible difference sometimes discussed as ‘deformity’. But in the Victorian period these differences were concentrated on and commented upon more and more.
The reign of the freak show waned at the dawn of the 20th century; by the 1950s, it had all but disappeared. A number of factors led to its decline – including shifts in public interest, charges of exploitation by journalists like Henry Mayhew, and the rise of television.
Between popular murder scenes and freak shows, those Victorians surely knew how to chose their entertainment, didn’t they?!
Written by Patricia Haverton