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Circus Sideshows in the 1900s


    • Since as early as the 16th century, people with unusual physical deformities would be exhibited for the amusement of the public. This was the underlying theme behind traveling circus sideshows, which began appearing in the U.S. during the mid-1800s. Although the circus itself would feature clowns, acrobats and animals, the sideshow was an adjunct that charged customers to see people whose physical defects made them "freaks," such as conjoined twins or so-called "pinheads" suffering from microcephaly. Visitors to a circus would often be assailed by a barker, whose job consisted of luring visitors into the sideshow with promises of bizarre creatures and world-famous oddities that were typically not as impressive as he would imply. In some cases they could be outright frauds, such as the hoaxes for which showman P.T. Barnum became notorious. Other sideshow acts could include sword-swallowers, fire-walkers and fortune-tellers.

    Famous Performers

    • At the phenomenon's peak in the early 1900s, there were more than 100 sideshows traveling throughout the U.S. Some of the performers in these shows became famous. Although P.T. Barnum died in 1891, his "Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome" continued to operate well into the 20th century. Among the performers Barnum popularized were Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, conjoined twins Eng and Chang, legless Johnny Eck and Prince Randian, who was born with no limbs and was known as the Human Caterpillar.


    • Despite the popularity of these sideshows, very little filmed footage exists of these performers. For this reason, director Tod Browning's 1932 horror film "Freaks" is an important cinematic document of what these sideshows were actually like, featuring many of the genre's most famous performers as characters in the film. The plot centers around a beautiful trapeze artist who pretends to fall in love with one of the sideshow performers, a little person named Hans, who agrees to marry her. When his fellow performers discover she plans to steal all his money and leave him, they exact their gruesome revenge by making her "one of us."

    Modern Sideshows

    • The growing popularity of movies and, subsequently, television led to a decline in the popularity of sideshows. By the 1960s and 1970s, concurrent advances in both medicine and human rights led to a change in public opinion regarding sideshows' so-called "freaks," who were now seen as sympathetic figures, not oddities on display for public amusement. As a result, most traveling circuses and carnivals abandoned their sideshows by the 1970s. In the 1990s, however, Seattle performer Jim Rose launched the Jim Rose Circus, a sort-of grunge-rock version of the sideshow geared to the Lollapalooza generation. The show featured an array of bizarre acts such as contortionists and sword-swallowers but without the "freak show" element.

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