Freak shows – a topic even I’m reluctant to joke about. It’s taken 4 years of making content but we’ve finally found one. It’s hard to see a genuine freak show today They survive mainly in third world countries where governments are too busy to deal with them. In the west they have largely been phased out and replaced by coverage of American politics.
But there was a time when freak shows were among the dominant forms of entertainment. A time when centuries of warfare had made society less empathetic, and abnormality was little more than a thing of interest. The freak show was born from that world, and outlived it, lasting well into the 1900s. It provided sanctuary to those rejected by society. Although this wasn’t a life they would otherwise have chosen.
It’s unclear how far back the history of freak shows goes. But by the late 15 hundreds they were well known in Europe, travelling from town to town. Dark rumor would follow – telling of half human monsters, mythical creatures and magic. But those attracted by such rumors would usually only find deformed people. People born unusually small or with extra limbs were especially popular. Yet as time went on it wasn’t enough. Showmen were forced to search far and wide for new specimen. For some freak shows the answer lay in Pickled Punks – human fetuses preserved in glass jars.
Acquiring the fetus alone could be difficult, and knowledge of preservation was a closely guarded secret, known only to a handful of specialists. This made pickled punks an unlikely prized possession of freak shows and private collectors alike. Many showmen created their own fake specimen out of rubber or wax, but genuine specimen were always more valuable. The Danish king Frederick II was an avid collector of pickled punks. The collection continued after his death, being passed down from king to king. It eventually contained several thousand. Deformed or abnormal pickled punks were often put on display alongside living freak acts for added horror. It’s thought many collections of pickled punks still exist today. But due to laws prohibiting the transportation of human remains, they are hidden away.
The biggest attractions were always living performers. Freak acts could rise high in the world, achieving fame and fortune – or at least, notoriety. One act to achieve all of the above was Matthias Buchinger. Born in 1674 without legs or arms below his elbows, he was just 29 inches tall as an adult. For many years his parents kept the boy locked up, fearing how the outside world would treat him. They were right to fear for him. At this time, abnormality was seen as a sign of evil. Some would hunt down and kill the disabled, believing it would please god. Life as a freak act gave Buchinger protection and a place in society.
Somehow he dazzled crowds with magic tricks, fired a bow and threw knives accurately. He could play multiple instruments, some of which he invented himself. He was also a notorious womanizer, with 4 wives and over 30 children, if rumor is to be believed. For years he traveled Europe, entertaining kings and commoners alike. But then he died because that’s what happens to humans.
Golden Age of Freak Shows
19th century industrialization saw a new class of people born in Europe and North America. With money to waste and time to spare they were looking for new kinds of entertainment. It was the start of a golden age of freak shows, where vast wealth could be made by successful operations. In the united states, venues of lowbrow entertainment known as dime museums began to spring up. Here patrons would see exotic animals, mysterious objects from around the world and freak acts, all for a dime.
The most successful dime museum was run by PT Barnum. Barnum gained massive profit by exhibiting some of history’s most interesting acts. Among them was Chang the Chinese giant, standing over 8 feet tall. There was prince Randian the limbless torso, who could roll cigarettes with his lips. There was Zip the pinhead, said to be from an African tribe of missing links.
Inventing backstories was a talent of P.T. Barnum. On meeting two American brothers with dwarfism he knew exactly what to do. In time they were billed as “The Wild Men of Borneo” – natives of Borneo island. When their tribe attacked a merchant ship, sailors captured and took them to America. They were clearly white, which you’d think would complicate things, but no. Most people in those days knew virtually nothing about anything. People had no idea Borneo was even in Asia. So the wild men gained massive wealth over a two and a half decade career. Interestingly they were abnormally strong. Despite weighing just 45 pounds themselves they could each lift 300 pounds. So they were basically Gimli.
This was the genius of PT Barnum. He knew that marketing is all about story telling and was never happy to unveil an act or exhibit without a sensational backstory. Such stories were often completely untrue, as was the case for the Fiji Mermaid.
The Fiji Mermaid
The Fiji mermaid, a strange creature unknown to science, captured in the waters near Fiji. Even before being put on display rumor that Barnum had a real mermaid in his possession caused wild speculation. Massive crowds came and believed what they were looking at was genuine. But when a biologist came to view it he knew it was some kind of fake. As a biologist he refused to accept the existence of mermaids. Yet he could not think of any way the Fiji mermaid could have been created. It was created long ago when the lower half of a dead fish was sown to the upper half of a dead monkey. An American sailor bought it from Japanese fishermen in 1822 and brought it to America.
At the time Japanese fishermen often created hybrid specimen from multiple animal corpses, but word of this seldom reached outside the orient. One night the museum of P.T. Barnum caught fire, destroying a number of items. Among the lost exhibits was the Fiji Mermaid. But showmen have since built their own Fiji mermaid replicas. Barnum went on to found a circus and became the mayor of Bridgeport Connecticut, campaigning fir the abolition of slavery. Freak shows were always Taboo but it was during this generation they became most normalized.
Not all freak shows were equal. In some areas freak acts didn’t consist of people who were deformed or abnormal… they were just ethnic minorities. That’s not even a joke There were people who had their minds blown by the sight of someone from Asia. So at freak shows you could expect to see exotic artifacts, genetic abnormality, ethnic minorities from every corner of the world, and even people with supernatural abilities.
Mirin Dajo is an Esperanto term for the word “wonder”. This was the stage name of one of history’s most mysterious performers. Dajo was said to be indestructible. At shows he would allow people to pierce his flesh with a blade, without even flinching. Dajo often had swords pushed through his abdomen. He would then walk around the stage casually as if perfectly fine. On one occasion he went for a run with a sword through his stomach. When doctors tested this ability X-ray scans showed that the sword genuinely passed through his body.
Modern experts agree that the objects really were piercing his body. It seemed that Mirin Dajo really was super human, rather than just an illusionist. He was also able to swallow shards pf glass and razor blades. On top of that he claimed to have been shot in the head twice. It’s unknown how much of that is true. Mirin Dajo’s real name is Arnold Henskes. He was born in the Netherlands in 1912 – and according to the story he told, had multiple paranormal experiences as a child.
As an adult he realized that god had made him invulnerable and decided to spread the word of god by performing. But of course he wasn’t invulnerable. In 1948 he swallowed a metal needle, apparently on the advice of an angel and needed it surgically removed. The operation went smoothly. But days later he fell dead with no clear cause, leaving one last mystery of Mirin Dajo.
By this time freak shows were in rapid decline. Advancements in medical science were explaining abnormality after abnormality. With scientific explanations for their differences, freak acts lost the element of mystery that was so vital to the business. It was the beginning of the end.