The 16th century was when travelling freak shows first became popular. So over the centuries they have produced many dark and interesting stories of freaks and their lives on the road. It might sound harsh to call them freaks but we live in a different era now and there is really no other word for them. So from the pig-faced lady to the elephant man, these are the 10 most shocking old freak acts.
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10) Minnie Woolsey:
Born in 1880, Minnie Woolsey was billed under the name “KooKoo the bird girl”. Suffering from a very rare skeletal disorder, she had a small head and a narrow face. She also had no teeth or hair and is thought to have been completely blind. When performing, she would wear a native-American costume and speak in a made up language. She didn’t seem to do much other than dance around covered in feathers. But she was so well respected that she featured in the film Freaks, a film that was banned from showing for 30 years.
Like most travelling freaks her background is very mysterious. The only thing we know about her early life is that she was rescued from a mental asylum. We also don’t know when she died. But she was still performing in 1960, aged 80. Maybe she’s still alive today and travelling the world with the circus aged 135.
9) Ella Harper:
Born in 1870, Ella Harper Was an icon of Freak culture. People travelled from all over the word to see the deformed woman known as “Camel Girl”. Her knees were bent backwards, which forced her to walk on all fours. She earned 200 dollars a week, which was a hell of a lot for the 19th century.
In 1886 she stated that she aims to leave the freak show business and pursue education. She disappeared from the business soon after. Records of her later life are hard to find. But according to the 1920 census, she was living in Nashville, where she died a year later.
8) Schlitzie The Pinhead:
Born in 1901, Schlitzie the Pinhead became world famous for his role in the film freaks. Having spent his life as a sideshow performer, he was known for his tiny head and lack of height. He was just 4 feet tall. He was short-sighted, and suffered from mental retardation.
He was said to be as intelligent as a 3 year old and could only form basic sentences. He was usually billed as “the last of the Aztecs”, “The missing link”, or something even more offensive.His birth name was possibly Simon Metz, but that’s been disputed as no one knows for sure who he was or where he came from.
7) Julia Pastrana:
Born in 1834, Julia Pastrana was known as the Ape woman. Or sometimes known as the bear woman. She had abnormally large ears and lips, and her face was covered in thick black hair. Which once caused Charles Darwin to say her face had a gorilla-like appearance.
She made a name for herself travelling across North-America and Europe with the freakshow. Despite the respected medical doctor,Alexander Mott, describing her as the result of a human mating with an orang-utan – she found love and was married in 1857. She was 23 at the time. So for anyone reading this who happens to be both single and other the age of 23, just remember that you are less romantically successful than someone they used to call the apewoman.
Her marriage didn’t last long though as she died 3 years later. Her husband went on to mummify her body and marry someone else who looked just like she did. He was later committed to a Russian insane asylum.
6) Frank Lentini:
Born in 1881, Frank Lentini suffered from severe deformity, which was the result of a partially absorbed conjoined twin. I don’t know what a partially absorbed conjoined twin is… but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to. Lentini had a full sized third leg. Attached to the knee of his extra leg was a small foot, bringing his toe count up to 16.
When he was 8 years old his family moved from Italy to America where he joined the circus. Billed as “the Great Lentini” he would kick a football across the stage with his extra leg. Which I guess passed for entertainment back then. He led a relatively boring life for a freak show performer before ultimately passing away aged 85. As all of his legs were different lengths, he used to joke that even with 3 legs, he still didn’t have a pair.
5) Pig-Faced Women:
A common story from freak shows all across Europe is the Pig-Faced Woman. The tales all describe the same thing, an upper-class woman with the body of a human but with the head of a pig. In 1815 rumour spread that a pig-faced woman was living in London, which led to mass panic. Shortly after, freak shows started taking advantage of it.
Some shows moulded a pig-faced woman out of wax. But some shows gave alcohol to a bear until it was drunk, shaved it’s hair off, put it in a dress and gave it a wig. Apparently shaved bears in dresses kinda look like pig women. This was such a problem that Charles Dickens once said “no fair is complete without one”.
The original story of the pig faced woman goes back to the early 17th century. It is that a witch once cursed a man wife. But she gave him the choice of whether his spouse would look like a pig to him but normal to everyone else, or look normal to him and like a pig to everyone else. I guess he made the selfish decision.
4) General Tom Thumb:
Born in 1838, Charles Stratton became world famous under the stage name General Tom Thumb. With the help of the legendary circus pioneer, P.T. Barnum, he travelled the world and won over many fans. He was basically just a dwarf, standing just over 3 feet.
But people loved to see him, especially when he was dressed like an old soldier. The best thing about him is that he married someone of a similar height and lived a happy life with her. They eventually retired to a large mansion. Which must have seemed really damn big to them. When he eventually died aged 45, over 20,000 people attended his funeral.
3) Chang The Chinese Giant:
Born in 1841, Chang ‘The Chinese Giant’ was nearly 8 feet tall. Standing 7 foot 9, he made a name for himself in China by entertaining the Emperor. It is unknown why he left China but he moved to England in 1865. In England he was met by such a huge reception that what was meant to be a short visit ended up being a 2 year tour of the country. Thousands of people would pay money just to see his huge frame and to hear his Chinese accent, which was also quite rare at the time.
He went on to tour Europe and North-America where people went to see him for the same reasons. At freak shows a dwarf would often stand next to him – making him look even taller than normal. He earned 500 dollars a months. Which was good money for someone who just stood around all day doing nothing.
When Chang died he was buried in an 8 foot 6 coffin.
Assumed to have been born in 1909, Susi the Elephant girl suffered from a rare skin condition. Shortly after her birth, her skin turned grey and became very thick and rough. As she grew older her skin started to resemble that of an elephant. In 1927 she visited America as part of a freak act a long with a bearded lady and a giant woman. She eventually moved permanently to escape the Nazis.
As she was quite shy she rarely performed outside of New York. But her last known show was in Pennsylvania where she was billed as the ‘Swamp Girl’.
1) The Elephant Man:
Joseph Merrick was immortalized in the movie “The Elephant Man”. He was born in England in 1862. In his early life his skin developed thick and lumpy, and it only got worse as he grew older. One of his feet, arms and his head also became grossly enlarged, and he even damaged his hip when he was a child. Rejected by his parents, he left home young. At age 22 he was given a deal with a freak show where he was given the name “Elephant Man”.
He was taken on a tour of Europe. While in Belgium his manager robbed and abandoned him there. But he eventually found his way back to London where he was allowed to live in a hospital for the rest of his life. He died in 1890 at the age of 27. The cause of death was a dislocated neck. Due to the weight of his head he was forced to sleep sitting upright. It is believed that his neck injury resulted from him sleeping lying down so that he could be more like other people. Joseph Merrick’s story is both shocking and sad.