While circus freaks are no longer part of the show, performers from the past are as interesting today as in past eras. The real people rather than the performers the world sees are often just as interesting. Many of the freaks that used to be part of the sideshows had medical conditions that account for their unusual features.
In those days many of the birth defects and other medical conditions that caused people to have strange appearances were thought to be from maternal imprinting. Maternal imprinting would cause birth defects to occur from environmental causes of fear such as being frightened by a wild animal or witnessing an animal attacking. This was a common explanation that has since been found to be false.
Schlitzie, The Last of the Aztecs
It’s believed Schlitze “Schlitzie” Surtees was born named Simon Metz, however no one seems to be sure. This pinhead performer was the most famous of them in history from his role in “Freaks”, a 1932 Tod Browning film. In both film and his act onstage he performed as a female though he lived as a male in his everyday life.
The same condition that made him famous also prevented him from speaking more that short phrases and words. The condition also prevented him from being able to accomplish many normal basic tasks. The condition Schlitzie was born with is called hydrocephaly. Which is a developmental disorder resulting in an abnormally small brain and skull. Individuals affected with this disorder are often quite short. Schlitzie had severe mental disabilities and was barely four feet tall.
General Tom Thumb
This little person was one of the most famous circus side show performers in history. General Tom Thumb’s real name was Charles Sherwood Stratton. At the age of 4 years a relative of Stratton’s, P.T. Barnum discovered the boy who had stopped growing once he reached two foot tall. However, later in life Stratton reached his full adult height of barely three feet tall.
Once Stratton was discovered he began working as a sideshow performer and went on to perform for Barnum’s circus for the next 40 years. During that time, he saved Barnum’s circus once with a financial bailout. He was able to accomplish this with the fortune he made as a performer, his fortune would be equal to over a million dollars in current times.
During his life he married a woman named Lavinia Warren. Their wedding reception was held at the White House during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Charles Stratton passed away in 1883. Even in death doctors were unable to figure out the exact cause of his dwarfism.
Chang and Eng Bunker, The Siamese Twins
These conjoined twins, born in 1811 in modern day Thailand, were the world’s original Siamese twins. They were referred to as the Siamese twins, due to being born and living their entire lives chest to chest, in what was then known as Siam.
While everyone may not know Chang and Eng’s names, they contributed to sideshow history by conjoined twins often being called Siamese twins to this day. With today’s medicine, the twins that were born at the sternum, would have been easily separated. The surgery to separate them would not have been difficult since there was only a slight fusion of their livers and it was the only major organ shared in any way.
Eventually, the twins settled in North Carolina and adopted the last name of Bunker. They bought a plantation, owned slaves, and married sisters that were not conjoined. The two couples had a bed custom built so all four of them could share one bed. It has been reported that the sisters were unable to get along and moved to separate houses. The twins then spent 3 nights each week with each of the sisters and over the course of their lives fathered a combined total of 21 children.
Cheng died sometime during the night of January 17, 1874 of a stroke caused by pneumonia. Eng woke up the next morning and discovered his brother had died and called for an emergency separation. Unfortunately, by time help had arrived Eng had already passed away as well.
Frank Lentini, The Three-Legged Man
The three-legged man, Frank Lentini, was born in 1881 in Sicily with several unique birth defects. He had a fourth foot on his almost entirely formed third leg’s knee. He also had a full second set of genitals that reportedly were also fully functional.
These defects were due to a partially formed conjoined twin that was fused at the pelvis. Frank Lentini lived his entire life as the three-legged man, because his twin was also connected to his spine removal was not advised. Until attending a school for disabled children and seeing some of the disabilities that the other children had, Lentini had been deeply depressed about his condition.
Once he was no longer depressed about his condition, he started to become more accepting of it and himself. That acceptance led him to a circus sideshow career. As part of his act he would jump rope or kicking a soccer ball with his third leg. Throughout his career he worked with all the major circuses and became well respected in the sideshow performer community.
Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man
Born in 1862 Joseph Merrick reportedly had several genetic defects which remain unconfirmed. Known as the Elephant Man, he was also one of the most famous sideshow performers ever. Merrick’s condition didn’t begin to show itself until he was five years old. His skin and bones became covered with numerous growths, protrusions, and tumors.
His parents felt his condition was due to maternal imprinting, which would have occurred when his mother was scared by an elephant while she was pregnant with him. Due to his condition he had a very difficult time securing employment throughout his life. He eventually joined the circus as a sideshow performer to support himself. He did not mind the work, but he also didn’t make much as a performer. While in Brussels, one of his managers robbed him of his entire savings.
However, working with the sideshow led him to meet a London Doctor by the name of Fredrick Treves. When police found Joseph Merrick, he was in possession of one of Dr. Treves cards, which led to him to becoming a permanent fixture of the London hospital. Becoming famous with the London elite while there he began receiving visitors such as Alexandria, the princess of Wales. Joseph Merrick passed away of asphyxiation while sleeping. Dr. Treves believed Merrick had dislocated his neck causing him to suffocate. Dr. Treves believed this occurred while trying to rest his head during sleep instead of laying in the customary upright position in which he always slept.
Ella Harper, The Camel Girl
The camel girl, Ella Harper, was born in 1870 in Hendersonville, Tennessee with a condition they called camel girl in the 1800s. The condition is now known as gene recurvatum which allows the knees to bend opposite of normal. Being able to do this allows those afflicted with it the ability to walk on all fours with ease. Ella eventually made her way the W.H. Harris Nickel Plate Circus where she soon became the star of the circus.
When the pitch card, which gives biographical information on performers, which was distributed in 1886 Ella was 16. The card stated that she in planned to return to school and quit the circus after that year. After 1886 there is no mention of her act and she had disappeared.
Stephan Bibrowski, Lionel the Lion-Faced Man
In 1891 in the country now known as Poland Stephan Bibrowski was born a normal child other than the thick hair that grew over his entire body. The pattern the hair created resembled that of a lion. His mother felt that it was maternal impression from seeing Stephan’s father attacked by a lion while she was pregnant with him. His mother felt that he was a monster and gave him away to a German entertainer.
The condition that caused the excessive hair density and grown is called hypertrichosis. This is the same condition from which were wolf syndrome comes from. Stephan was known for his gentleness, kindness, and intelligence. He was able to speak five different languages and a portion of his act was him simply speaking to the audience. He decided to return to Europe after he retired from the sideshow at the age of 30. By 41 he had passed away of a heart attack.
Annie Jones, The Bearded Lady
While Annie Jones is not the first bearded lady, she is the most famous and likely the youngest. Her year of birth is unknown for certain, but it is believed to be in the 1860s. At the age of 5 Annie was already the circus’s prized act as she had grown a full mustache by that time. She began touring with the P.T. Barnum circus at only nine months old. She was usually called the beaded girl until she was no longer able to be considered a girl and became the bearded lady. As she grew older and her popularity grew, she used her position to have the word “freaks” removed from the reference to circus side show performers. Unfortunately, she died at the young age of 37 from tuberculosis and today is still mostly known for her role in the circus.
Isaac W. Sprague, The Human Skeleton
Isaac Sprague was born in 1841, a normal boy in Massachusetts. Once he turned 12 years old is when the condition presented itself. Isaac became a human skeleton due to rapid weight loss even had doctors stumped. One doctor offered up the suggestion of extreme progressive muscular atrophy, but even that doctor wasn’t sure about the problem or its causes.
At the age of 24 Isaac joined the sideshow in order to support himself because of his inability to work any other types of jobs. Sprague’s entire career was on again off again with P.T. Barnum. Either at Barnum’s American Museum or when in need of money he would tour and perform with the circus.
Sprague’s being low on cash was common due to a gambling habit and caring for three sons. The living skeleton act is now common as a sideshow act, due to Isaac’s popularity with it. At the age of 44 years he weighed 43 pounds and was five feet six inches tall. Sadly, Isaac Sprague died two years later from asphyxiation, with his condition likely playing a role.
Prince Randian, The Living Torso
Born in what is now the independent nation of Guyana, in 1871but in the 1800’s British Guiana was its name. Prince Randian’s actual birth name is unknown. He was born but in the 1800s it was the British Guiana. Prince Randian suffered from a condition that causes affected individuals to be born without any limbs. The condition called Tetra-Amelia syndrome has been known to cause other deformities as well. However, Randian did not have any of the other deformities only his limbs were missing.
Much of Randian’s early life is a mystery. It is said that P.T. Barnum brought, then 18 Prince Randian, and his wife Princess Sarah to the United States himself. The couple soon settled in America and began to have their five children.
Prince Randian earned his fame with the human snake routine in which he would scoot across the stage in a wool outfit. He would also perform tasks that seemed impossible for someone with no limbs. Some of the tasks were writing and rolling a cigarette and shaving with a razor attached to a piece of wood. He claimed he built his own props and the storage box he kept them in. According to the people who knew the living torso Prince Randian he was multi lingual, had a wonderful sense of humor, great wit, and was extremely intelligent.
Mirin Dajo, The Invulnerable Man
In Rotterdam, the Netherlands Arnold Gerrit Henskes was born in 1912. He adapted the word wonder from the Esperanto language to come up with the pseudonym Mirin Dajo. He earned his fame through being able to stick metal objects and swords right through his body without injuring himself. While the human pincushion act is a traditional sideshow act Mirin Dajo was the best at them. Mirin was not strictly a sideshow performer he also ran his own business as well.
He claims to have learned how to pierce his body without injury from the Hindu fakirs. Mirin Dajo elevated the practice another level. It was likely Dajo was using the story as a spiritual angle for his act considering that he had never been to India. Mirin also used his act and increasing popularity to preach about love, distain for materialism, and the unifying light force.
When doctors examined and performed x-rays on Mirin Dajo with the sword still sticking through his body they verified that it was indeed going through his body. They were puzzled trying to figure out how he was able to accomplish this without any injury. Today’s researchers say its likely scars that act like small tunnels called fistulas created over quite a few years by using the swords slowly to push into himself on a regular basis.
Compelling voices insisted that Mirin swallow a needle made of steel and then have surgery in order to retrieve the needle. Listening to the voices he swallowed the steel needle and proceeded to the hospital to have the surgery to remove it. A few days after the retrieval surgery Mirin Dajo was dead from an aortic rupture. Complications from the surgery, his performances, or possibly both contributed to the rupture that killed him.
Jesus Aceves, The Wolf Boy
Jesus Aceves or “Chuy” suffers from a rare condition known as hypertrichosis which is also known as were wolf syndrome. This contemporary circus performer was born in 1974 in Mexico. He is not the only member of the family to have this condition. Jesus and two of his cousins were offered high pay and housing in return for working as a circus act. Jesus was only thirteen when the offer was made but all three accepted the offer. At one point due to not being able to live a normal life Jesus turned to alcohol and was on the path to self-destruction.
Once he passed that phase, he continued to travel the world as a circus performer. Jesus has had difficulty in getting anyone to rent to him and his family so most of them live in the two side by side houses given to them when they joined the circus. Now he has three daughters which all have the same condition. He feels it is more difficult to be female with the condition because body hair is unacceptable for women to have in the eyes of society. Jesus has a mixture of pride and shame regarding his condition. For much of his life he struggled with self-esteem issues. Between facing discrimination and growing wiser with age his confidence has grown stronger.
James Morris, The Man with The Rubber Face
Born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome in 1859 in upstate Copenhagen New York James’s condition would allow him to pull his skin to astounding lengths. He had the ability to take skin from the back of his neck and cover his own eyes with it!
Once James discovered what his skin was able to do, he took advantage of it. He started touring as India Rubber Man or Elastic Skin Wonder. He was making $300 per week with his act while working as a performer for P.T. Barnum’s circus. What many people did not know was Morris was often in excruciating pain after stretching his skin during performances. The areas stretched would develop welts and scars that were extremely painful. Around the turn of the century near the year 1900 James Morris chose to leave show business behind and left his whereabouts unknown.
Grady Stiles, Lobster Boy
Grady Stiles is most known for the deformities in his hands and feet. This genetic disorder, known as ectrodactyly, which causes the digits of the extremities to spread and fuse together causing them to resemble lobster claws. This isn’t the first occurrence of this disorder for this family as it has run through several generations. Grady’s father, also a circus performer, added Grady to the act when he was just two years old. The condition has been passed on down the line with two of Grady’s four children inheriting the disorder.
He became famous which lead to becoming an embittered, abusive, alcoholic. By 1978 on the eve of his daughter’s wedding he shot and killed his soon to be son in law. He received 15 years’ probation as his sentence when convicted of 3rd degree murder. He remarried his first wife after he stopped drinking, but soon he was an abusive alcoholic once more.
This led to his wife and her son by a previous relationship to hire a 17-year-old circus sideshow performer to kill him for $1500. In the end the hired murder got a 2nd degree murder conviction with 27 years in prison. The wife was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and received 12 years as a result while her son received a life sentence for being the mastermind in the plot.
Grace McDaniel’s, The Mule Faced Woman
Grace McDaniel’s was born in 1888 in Iowa. Billed as the world’s ugliest woman where she worked as a sideshow performer. This was due to a genetic defect that caused a large birth defect to thicken and severely distort her face, giving her face a mule like appearance. The condition was likely Sturge Weber syndrome. She performed in the sideshow only as a way to make a living. She hated the job and would cover her ears as she was announced to avoid hearing herself announced. Eventually she began to make a better wage and became more comfortable with her condition. She then went to her employers and asked that they change her billing to the mule faced woman.
Grace was a shy kind Christian woman. Eventually she became a mom to a son she named Elmer. Unfortunately, he grew up to be an abusive drug addict in addition to mismanaging his mother’s career. In 1958 Grace McDaniel’s died of natural causes. Elmer passed away not long after his mother from drinking himself to death.
Bill Durks, The Three Eyed Man
Bill Durks was born with a birth defect that caused a disfigured face with a sunken area in his face creating what resembled a third eye. It was then painted to look more like a third eye than it already did. He was socially awkward, rejected by his own family and community, and being unable to read he was often taking advantage of him.
Joining the sideshow in his early teens Bill Durks became a successful circus performer and later married another circus performer. The once rejected boy that nobody wanted found joy in people having to pay to see him who had cast him off in his younger years. He and his wife were billed at the worlds strangest couple. His wife Mildred died in 1968.
The “Ubangi Savages” arrived in the United States in 1930. There were eight of the “duck faced savages” with large disk-shaped plates in their mouths. This small tribe made up a late addition to the circus. Thought to be more exotic than the plain average girls. Soon they had joined P.T. Barnum and continued to tour the US with the circus. African girls begin the stretching process to increase beauty as early as age 6.
Rudolph Lucasie with His Albino Family
This family from Amsterdam billed as “white negroes” from Madagascar. They toured with the Barnum as part of his living oddities which quickly became one of the biggest attractions. Antiana and Rudolf Lucasie claimed to be your average black parents with one exception. The entire family appeared to be white, but their paleness was due to their albinism. In 1898 both parents of the family suddenly died along with several other performers that were currently working for the circus at that time as oddities.
Jennie Quigley, Smallest Lady in the World
Also known as the Scottish Queen, the smallest woman in the world, Jennie Quigley was 28” tall and weighed 32 pounds. She was less than two-foot-tall at the beginning of her career at 13 years old. She was of Scottish decent but performed with Barnum’s circus in the United States. A Shetland pony pulling a carriage would present her to the crowd. By the time of her retirement in 1917 following a 50-year career, Jennie had managed to reach a height of 41”. She died in 1936.
Myrtle Corbin, The four-legged woman
Being born a dipygus in 1868, meaning she had twice the normal number of different body parts and people were often fascinated by her feminine parts. Myrtle Corbin was born with this condition and had grown accustomed to being put on display by her father as an infant. As she grew older, they began to tour the country. By the age of 13 Myrtle had a contract signed with Barnum and Baily circus negotiated. She would be doing sideshows for $250 a week as well as touring around the country on display. The four-legged lady sideshow act was wildly popular with all ages and genders. Much of the reason for Myrtle’s show’s popularity is everyone was particularly interested in her sexual and reproductive abnormalities.
In 1886, she had decided to leave the circus lifestyle. She soon got married and had children. However, in 1909 she returned once again to the life of a circus sideshow performer. Upon returning she was no longer asked to display her female parts. Though the marketing material did elude to the possible reproductive and sexual anomalies hidden beneath her clothes. Myrtle passed away in 1928 at the age of 60 years old.