In the early 20th century, people who were born with deformities would join (or be forced to join) circus sideshows – attractions that were popular all over Europe and the US. For most of them, this was the only way they could earn money.
The golden age of American and European freak shows – traveling exhibitions and carnival attractions, often of disabled or disfigured entertainers – spanned about a century, from roughly 1840 to 1940.
The Elastic-Skin Man (Felix Wehrle)
Felix Wehrle was affected by “Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome”, a genetic fault that makes your skin incredibly elastic and flexible. He could stretch and tug on any part of his skin as if were made of rubber – warping and twisting it out of shape. If that wasn”t enough he could also bend his fingers backwards without any pain.
The Leopard Girl (Louise)
“Vitiligo” which is harmless skin disorder that effects the pigmentation of the skin, was something that Louise “The Leopard Girl” was born with. She was often referred to as the “White Negro” on account of her mixed skin and billed as “The Leopard Girl” on account of her supposed spotty African cat like appearance.
The Frog Boy (Otis Jordan)
Otis Joran essentially had the body of a 4 year old but the head of an adult. His gimmick (aside from his peculiar appearance) was his ability to roll, light and then smoke a cigarette using nothing more than his lips. Something most of us would struggled to do, regardless of whether we had the body of a child.
The Living Skeleton (Isaac W. Sprague)
Known as the “Living Skeleton”, Isaac Sprague who was born in 1841 was a relatively healthy child up unto the age of 12. It was from that point on that he started to waste away, he did however live until 44 (weighing a wafer thin 43lbs at the time of his death) marrying two women and becoming a father to three children. None of which were impacted by his diseases and grew up to be perfectly healthy.
The Penguin Girl (Ruth Davis)
Ruth Davis was born with phocomelia, a rare condition that causes the growth of her limbs to be stunted. The disease is also known as “seal limbs” . Davis became known as “The Penguin Girl” because of her flipper like extremities.
The Two Headed Nightingale (Millie and Christine McCoy)
Both into slavery and as conjoined twins, Millie and Christine McCoy (1851-1912) were the “property” of showman Joseph Smith. Despite making a small fortune out of them, he also educated and cared for the girls and their mother. Under his supervision, they were able to dance, play music, sing and even speak 5 different languages – entertaining audiences and strangers alike.
Lionel the Lion-Faced Man (Stephan Bibrowski)
A very famous “freakshow” performer was Stephan Bibrowski (1891-1932). He suffered from a condition known as “hypertrichosi” which caused him to grow hair all over his body. Arms, back, feet and face – you name it, it was covered. Due to his appearance, he was often thought of as a human Lion, a moniker he adopted as he was billed as The Lion-Faced Man
ELLA HARPER, THE CAMEL GIRL
Ella Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee in 1870, and she had a trait that made her just ripe for the sideshow – Ella”s knees could bend forward, allowing her to drop down onto her hands and walk on all fours. Nowadays, this is a known condition called genu recurvatum, but in Ella”s day, she was simply referred to as “The Camel Girl”
She eventually made her way into W. H. Harris” Nickel Plate Circus, where she was the star of the show. In 1886, when Ella was 16, her “pitch card” (the biographical information cards that circuses would pass out about their performers) stated that, as of that year, she intended to quit the circus and go to school. Sure enough, the Camel Girl disappeared, and no references to her act appear after that year.
SCHLITZIE, THE LAST OF THE AZTECS
Schlitze “Schlitzie” Surtees (birth name unknown, possibly Simon Metz) is one of the most famous “pinhead” sideshow performers in history, primarily due to his role in Tod Browning”s 1932 film Freaks (and although Schlitzie”s persona in the film, as well as on stage, was female, he was male off-stage).
Schlitzie was born with a condition known as microcephaly, a developmental disorder which causes the skull and brain to be undersized. (Microcephalics are also typically of short stature-Schlitzie was only four feet tall.) Schlitzie”s condition also left him severely mentally disabled, which made him unable to perform many basic tasks and only capable of speaking short words or phrases.
JOSEPH MERRICK, THE ELEPHANT MAN
Joseph “John” Merrick, also known as The Elephant Man, is one of the most famous sideshow performers to have ever lived. Born in 1862 with a still-unconfirmed series of genetic defects, Merrick”s skin and bones were eventually covered with numerous growths, protrusions, and tumors.
Merrick”s condition didn”t begin to display itself until the age of five, and his parents came to believe that it was the result of his mother being frightened by an elephant while she was pregnant with him (hence the “Elephant Man” moniker). He had trouble securing work throughout his life and eventually agreed to join the sideshow as a means of supporting himself, which also led to him being introduced to Dr. Frederick Treves of the London Hospital.
Although he later stated that he didn”t mind his time as a performer, he also didn”t make much of a living at it, and was robbed of all of his savings by one of his managers in Brussels. Making his way back to London, he became a permanent resident of the London Hospital after police found Dr. Treves” card in Merrick”s possession. During his time there, he became famous among London”s elite and received many visitors, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.
He died April 11, 1890 of asphyxiation in his sleep. Dr. Treves, who had befriended Merrick in the years since he had initially met him, believed that Merrick may have tried to lay his head down when he slept (he usually slept sitting upright), which dislocated his neck and suffocated him.
The sideshow performers of yesteryear were icons of the circus culture. Some became legends.