Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit / Edition 2

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From 1840 until 1940, freak shows by the hundreds crisscrossed the United States, from the smallest towns to the largest cities, exhibiting their casts of dwarfs, giants, Siamese twins, bearded ladies, savages, snake charmers, fire eaters, and other oddities. By today's standards such displays would be considered cruel and exploitative—the pornography of disability. Yet for one hundred years the freak show was widely accepted as one of America's most popular forms of entertainment.

Robert Bogdan's fascinating social history brings to life the world of the freak show and explores the culture that nurtured and, later, abandoned it. In uncovering this neglected chapter of show business, he describes in detail the flimflam artistry behind the shows, the promoters and the audiences, and the gradual evolution of public opinion from awe to embarrassment. Freaks were not born, Bogdan reveals; they were manufactured by the amusement world, usually with the active participation of the freaks themselves. Many of the "human curiosities" found fame and fortune, becoming the celebrities of their time, until the ascent of professional medicine transformed them from marvels into pathological specimans.

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Editorial Reviews

Cullen Murphy
[Freak Show is] a fine example of what has emerged as a major genre in the field of social history: the study of phenomena on the margins of society in order to illuminate developments at the core. The history of the freak show, as Bogdan shows, is intimately bound up with matters as diverse as the scramble for Africa, the theory of evolution, and the invention of mass—market advertising….In the end the story that Freak Show tells is an edifying one—the story of some extraordinary people who, against heavy odds, approached the ordinary.
Laurie Block
This is a cool and careful look at an inflammatory subject.
Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226063126
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/1990
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 813,215
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Bogdan is professor of special education, cultural foundations of education, and sociology at Syracuse University.

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Read an Excerpt

Freak Show

Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit

By Robert Bogdan

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1988 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-22743-6



In Search of Freaks

OTIS JORDAN, a man with poorly functioning and underformed limbs who is better known in the carnival world as "Otis the Frog Man," was banned in 1984 from appearing as part of the Sutton Sideshow at the New York State Fair. A vocal citizen had objected, calling the exhibition of people with deformities an "intolerable anachronism." The protester contended that handicapped people were being exploited and that the state's fair funds could be put to better use by helping people with disabilities instead of making them freaks.

As a result of the complaint, and in spite of Jordan's objections, Sutton's "Incredible Wonders of the World" was moved from the heart of the midway, where business and visibility were best, to the back of the fair. The showmen were asked not to use the term freak or allow performances of people like Otis Jordan, people the public would consider disabled (Kaleina 1984).

On September 8, 1984, the Associated Press released a story ("City to Cite" 1984) about a committee formed in Alton, Illinois, to erect a statue in honor of Robert Wadlow, a local boy who had reached the height of eight feet eleven inches before his death in 1940 at the age of twenty-two. Wadlow had appeared in the circus in the 1930s and, using the novelty of his height, had gotten a job promoting shoes at stores throughout the United States (Fadner 1944). But a committee spokesperson wanted to clarify: "He was not a circus freak as a lot of people might think. He was an intelligent, caring man."

During the past twenty years numerous intellectuals and artists have confronted us with freaks. Yet the frequent mention and coffee-table display of art-photography books, which include pictures taken at freak shows, are no indication that freak shows are now accepted. Rather, as the work of Diane Arbus personifies, "freak" has become a metaphor for estrangement, alienation, marginality, the dark side of the human experience (Arbus 1972; Sontag 1977). Indeed, Arbus's biographer suggests that her flirtation with freaks was but one dimension of her odyssey through the bowels of society—her suicide being the last stop on the trip (Bosworth 1984).

Otis Jordan and the spokesperson for Robert Wadlow's statue committee remind us of what we all sense when we hear the word freak and think of "freak shows." Seen by many as crude, rude, and exploitive, the freak show is despicable, a practice on the margin, limited to a class with poor taste, representing, as one disability rights activist put it, the "pornography of disability."

Although freak shows are now on the contemptible fringe, from approximately 1840 through 1940 the formally organized exhibition for amusement and profit of people with physical, mental, or behavioral anomalies, both alleged and real, was an accepted part of American life. Hundreds of freak shows traversed America in the last quarter of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries. Yet only five exist today, and their continued existence is precarious. Personnel, plagued by low-priced admissions, poor attendance, and attacks from indignant activitists, cannot tell from week to week whether they can last the season. Barely alive, the freak show is approaching its finale.

Given the tradition of the study of deviance and abnormality, one would expect a large body of social scientific literature on freak shows. There is none. The low status of the convention, combined with the decline in the number of such businesses, may explain this lack in part. In addition, until the relatively recent interest in the natural history of social problems (Conrad and Schneider 1980; Spector and Kitsuse 1977), social scientists interested in deviance seldom turned to the past for their data (see Erikson 1966 and Mizruchi 1983 for exceptions). Thus freak shows have remained in the hands of circus buffs and a few nonconformists in the humanities. I believe, however, that these displays of human beings present an exciting opportunity to develop understanding of past practices and changing conceptions of abnormality, as well as the beginnings of a grounded theory in the management of human differences.

The Social Construction of Freaks

In the mid 1920s, Jack Earle, a very tall University of Texas student, visited the Ringling Brothers circus sideshow. Clyde Ingalls, the show's famous manager, spotted Earle in the audience; after the show he approached the young man to ask, "How would you like to be a giant?" (Fig. 1).

While it is uncertain how much of this story changed on becoming incorporated into circus lore, it clarifies a point that freak show personnel understood but outside observers neglect: being extremely tall is a matter of physiology—being a giant involves something more. Similarly, being a freak is not a personal matter, a physical condition that some people have (Goffman 1963; Becker 1963). The onstage freak is something else off stage. "Freak" is a frame of mind, a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people. It is the enactment of a tradition, the performance of a stylized presentation.

While people called "freaks" will be included in this discussion, the people themselves are not of primary concern. Rather, the focus is on the social arrangements in which they found themselves, the place and meaning of the freak show in the world of which they were a part, and the way the resulting exhibits were presented to the public. The social construction—the manufacture of freaks—is the main attraction.

But don't leave! There will be exhibits (and it will be okay to look!). For we need examples—flesh on the bones of institutional analysis. We need to understand what it was like to participate in the freak show and what meanings emerged to make the enterprise coherent to the exhibits, the promoters, and the audience alike.


Many terms have been used to refer to the practice of exhibiting people for money and to the various forms that such exhibits took. "Raree Show" and "Hall of Human Curiosities" were early-nineteenth-century terms. "Sideshow," "Ten in One," "Kid Show," "Pitshow," "Odditorium," "Congress of Oddities," "Congress of Human Wonders," "Museum of Nature's Mistakes," "Freak Show," and a host of variations on these titles were late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century designations.

A broad range of terms were applied to the people exhibited, the freaks. Because natural scientists and physicians were interested in many exhibits, and because showmen exploited scientific interest in constructing freaks, the lexicon is a complex hodgepodge of medical terminology and show-world hype. The more recent proliferation of euphemisms generated by the freak show's decline in popularity and the moral indignation surrounding the exhibition of human anomalies creates a long list of imprecise terms. "Curiosities," "lusus naturae," "freaks of nature," "rarities," "oddities," "eccentrics," "wonders," "marvels," "nature's mistakes," "strange people," "prodigies," "monsters," "very special people," and "freaks" form a partial list. The exact use and definition of these words varies from user to user and from time to time. They do not, however, all mean the same thing; indeed, some have very exact meanings when used by particular people. The terminology will be clarified as this discussion proceeds.


What were the various kinds of human freaks? In discussions of human oddities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there developed an important and revealing, albeit blurry and noninclusive, distinction between two types of exhibits. The distinction is revealing because it illustrates the connection between science and freak shows, a connection that showmen profited by and tried to maintain well into the twentieth century. The distinction was between so-called examples of new and unknown "races" and "lusus naturae" or nature's jokes or mistakes.

The first type is related to the exploration of the non-Western world then in progress. As explorers and natural scientists traversed the world, they brought back not only tales of unfamiliar cultures but also specimens of the distant wonders. Tribal people, brought to the United States with all the accoutrements of their culture out of context, stimulated the popular imagination and kindled belief in races of tailed people, dwarfs, giants, and even people with double heads (Clair 1968) that paralleled creatures of ancient mythology (Thompson 1968). The interest thus spawned was an opportunity, a platform, and a backdrop for showmen's creations. Promoters quickly began to exhibit what they claimed were examples of previously undiscovered types of humans: not only non-Western people but also, fraudulently, as a promotional strategy, Americans with physical anomalies.

The second major category of exhibit consisted of "monsters," the medical term for people born with a demonstrable difference. Lusus naturae, or "freaks of nature," were of interest to physicians for whom the field of teratology, the study of these so-called monsters, had become a fad. To the joy (and often at the instigation) of showmen, debates raged among scientists and laypersons alike as to whether a particular exhibit actually represented a new species or was simply a lusus naturae.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the blurred distinction between species and freaks of nature became moot; all human exhibits, including tribal people of normal stature and body configuration, as well as people who performed unusual feats such as swallowing swords, fell under the generic term freak.

Those twentieth-century authors who have written about the sideshow, mainly popular historians and humanities scholars, address the question "What were the various kinds of human freaks?" by concentrating on the physical characteristics of exhibits with anomalies (Drimmer 1973; Durant and Durant 1957; Fiedler 1978; Howard 1977). Their books and articles are organized like medical or special education textbooks, with headings covering such topics as little people (dwarfs and midgets), giants, hairy people, human skeletons, armless and legless wonders, wild men, fat people, albinos, Siamese twins, people with extra limbs, half men/half women, people with skin disorders, and anatomical wonders. They are eager to provide readers a quick course in genetics, endocrinology, and embryology. One of the most widely read, Drimmer's Very Special People, romanticizes exhibits by casting them as courageous warriors battling the disadvantage they received at birth. These writings, however, ignore exhibits without blatant physical anomalies, not to mention the social construction of freaks.

The humanities scholar Leslie Fiedler, in his popular book Freaks (1978), still concentrates on exhibits with physical anomalies, but he breaks the mold of writers who focus on "freak" as a physiological condition. Rather, his mythological, psychoanalytic approach posits that human beings have a deep, psychic fear of people with specific abnormalities. Dwarfs, for example, confront us with our phobia that we will never grow up. Yet although Fiedler's study of "human curiosities" shifts the focus from "them" to "us," it also reifies "freak" by taking "it" as a constant and inevitable outpouring of basic human nature. Moreover, in his writing he slips back to treating the person exhibited as the subject of the study. His typology of human oddities does not stray from the traditional view of "freak" as a physiological condition, and it excludes exhibits with no physical anomalies. Thus, rather than penetrating the socially constructed dimension of the freak show, he merely mystifies it.

In answer to the question "What were the various kinds of freaks?" people who have been inside the exhibiting business use the physiological categories as well, but they also use the distinctions born freaks, made freaks, and novelty acts (Gresham 1948; Kelly 1950). According to this classification, "born freaks" are people with real physical anomalies who came by their condition naturally. While this category includes people who developed their uniqueness later in life, central are people who had an abnormality at birth: Siamese twins and armless and legless people are examples. "Made freaks" do something to themselves that make them unusual enough for exhibit, such as getting adorned with tattoos or growing their beards or hair exceptionally long. The "novelty act" (or "working act") does not rely on any physical characteristic but rather boasts an unusual performance or ability such as sword swallowing (the more contemporary versions used neon tubes) or snake charming.

In addition to these three main "types," sideshow people refer to "gaffed freaks": the fakes, the phonies—the armless wonder whose arms are tucked under a tight fitting shirt, the four-legged woman whose extra legs really belong to a person hidden from the audience, or the Siamese twins who were in fact two (Fig. 2). When in public freak show personnel showed disdain for the gaff; their competitors might try to get away with it, but they would not. The "born freak" was publicly acknowledged as having esteem.

This is the standard typology as those in the business present it, and it has not changed over the last hundred and twenty years. More inclusive than other schemes, it is a good starting point for approaching the subject of freaks. Yet even though the "insiders'" way of categorizing differentiates freak show exhibits in the abstract, even they had difficulty applying the distinctions. Non-Western people, for example, were exhibited in freak shows on the basis of their cultural differences. Although showmen called them "freaks" and displayed them on the same platform as people with physiological and mental disabilities, their place in the commonsense typology is unclear. The categories did not, moreover, acknowledge the pervasive hype, fraud, and deception that was characteristic of the whole freak show enterprise. If taken at face value, the insiders' typology veils more than it reveals. It interests us not because it clarifies the freak show or the exhibits, but because it enlarges the subject and grounds us in the commonsense notions of the amusement world.

Exhibiting people, although often treated as an educational and scientific pursuit, was always first and foremost a for-profit activity. Presentors learned from the medicine shows that packaging of the product was as important as what was inside. Thus, using information from science, exploration, medicine, and current events, and appealing to popular images and symbols, promoters created a public conception of the exhibit that would have the widest appeal, attract the most people, and collect the most dimes. Every exhibit was, in the strict use of the word, a fraud. This is not to say that many freaks did not have profound physical, mental, and behavioral differences, for as we will see, many did; but, with very few exceptions, every person exhibited was misrepresented to the public. The gaff was only the extreme of this misrepresentation.

The major lesson to be learned from a study of the exhibition of people as freaks is not about the cruelty of the exhibitors or the naïveté of the audience. How we view people who are different has less to do with what they are physiologically than with who we are culturally (Sarason and Doris 1979). As with the tall Jack Earle, having a disability or another difference did not make the people discussed in this book freaks. "Freak" is a way of thinking, of presenting, a set of practices, an institution—not a characteristic of an individual. Freak shows can teach us not to confuse the role a person plays with who that person really is.

Why 1840?

By "freak show" I mean the formally organized exhibition of people with alleged and real physical, mental, or behavioral anomalies for amusement and profit. The "formally organized" part of the definition is important, for it distinguishes freak shows from early exhibitions of single attractions that were not attached to organizations such as circuses and carnivals.

In the nineteenth century the United States was moving from an agrarian, family- and community-based society to one in which formal organizations like schools, factories, businesses, hospitals, and government agencies would dominate. During this time the organizations that would eventually house freak shows developed. It would be a distortion to state that in 1840 human exhibits changed all at once from unattached attractions to freak shows, for the process was slow and had been under way for half a century. But 1840 is significant because by that time the transition had progressed significantly and because, close to that date, P. T. Barnum became the proprietor of an organization in New York City, the American Museum, that looms large in the history of the American freak show. It was this establishment that brought the freak show to prominence as a central part of what would soon constitute the popular amusement industry.

Significantly, once human exhibits became attached to organizations, distinct patterns of constructing and presenting freaks could be institutionalized, conventions that endure to this day. The freak show thus joined the burgeoning popular amusement industry, and the organizations that made up that industry, housing as they did an occupation with a special approach to the world, developed a particular way of life. That culture is crucial to an understanding of the manufacture of freaks.


Excerpted from Freak Show by Robert Bogdan. Copyright © 1988 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: In Search of Freaks
I. Freak Show: The Institution
2. From Tavern to Madison Square Garden: A Chronicle of the Freak Show in America
3. Step Right Up: The World of Popular Amusement
4. Exotic and Aggrandized: Modes of Presenting Freaks
II. Profiles of Presentation
5. The Exhibition of People We Now Call Mentally Retarded
6. Illusions of Grandeur
7. Cannibals and Savages
8. Respectable Freaks
9. Self-Made Freaks
10. Conclusion: Freak Encounter
List of Abbreviations

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