Although “freak shows,” or side shows, which they were actually known as, are often viewed in contemporary times as exploitative and morally reprehensible, they actually gave many people with disabilities an opportunity to make a good living. In fact, these five “freaks,” retired in the 1800s with a higher net worth than Lindsay Lohan.
This blog covers some controversial topics. It’s important to understand that what I’m writing about primarily occurred 200 years ago, and things that are unacceptable now were appropriate back then. It’s wrong to gawk at people with disabilities, but you have to understand that this was entertainment back in the 1800s and was pretty much the only way for anyone with a disability to make a living.
In this blog I’m going to give a brief overview of the history of sideshows and PT Barnum. I’m mostly focused on Barnum's most successful performers. If you would like to learn more about PT Barnum's early years and how he invented the sideshow business check out our latest episode of the Misfits and Mysteries Podcast, on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform.
Anyway, onto the history of the sideshow!
Origins of the Freakshow
Although it didn’t grow in popularity until the 19th Century, the first freak shows date back to 16th Century Europe. In the 1500s, people born with physical deformities and abnormalities were no longer seen as bad omens or believed to be possessed by demons. As a result, Europeans became enamored by these oddities and entrepreneurial businessmen went around Europe recruiting “freaks” to go on tour. These early freak shows we’re not super popular, but they gave these “freaks” an opportunity to make a little bit of money.
One of the earliest written accounts of a “freak show” performer was Lazarus Colloredo. Lazarus was described as a very striking man and seemed like he would have been a ten in today's standards. However, underneath his cloak, his “parasitic” twin brother was growing out of his chest. We cannot be too sure how accurate these reports are because they date back to the 16th century, but allegedly Lazarus's brother was able to move his hands, ears, and lips. The two were so popular that they even performed for King Charles I in the 1640s.
While “freakshows” may have originated in the 16th Century, they weren’t super popular or profitable until PT Barnum invented the sideshow in the 19th Century.
PT Barnum and the Sideshow
So an important distinction to make is that PT Barnum invented the sideshow not the freakshow. Although the term “freakshow” dates back to the 19th Century it wasn't used to describe side shows until after Barnum's death. This is actually not all that important but I felt like it was important to share that Barnum wasn’t necessarily calling these people freaks.
PT Barnum's Origin Story
Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in 1810 in Bethel Connecticut. By age 19, Barnum was working as an early lottery-ticket seller and was earning around $500 a week in 1829 (or roughly $10,700 a week in today's money). No Matter what you think of Barnum beyond this point you have to acknowledge that he was an expert marketer. Unfortunately for Barnum, by 1835 the US passed an anti-lottery law and he was out of work.
His First Act
Ever the entrepreneur, Barnum invented his own industry to dominate. Barnum was inspired by stories of the English “freakshows” of the 16th Century and saw an opportunity to bring them to America. Barnum purchased a 79 year old paralized slave woman and fabricated a fantastical backstory that she was George Washington's 160 year old nurse and charged viewers to see her. He purchased her for $1,000 and proceeded to make $1,000 a week off of her. When she died, Barnum’s story was exposed, but no one seemed to care because they were so enamored with Barnum's story telling.
Barnum's Big Break
After the major success of his first “act,” Barnum doubled down on his success and pulled off one of his most successful hoaxes in sideshow history and magnified his career.
The Fiji Mermaid, which was actually just the torso of a baby monkey sewn together with the lower half of a fish, was originally sold to an Englishman by Japanese Sailors in 1822 for $6,000 (or $103,500 today). The Fiji Mermaid was on display in London for a number of years and eventually found its way to New York, where Barnum saw an opportunity to make a lot of money.
After obtaining the mermaid for his museum, Barnum went on a media blitz to legitimize the Fiji Mermaid and convince crowds it was real and worth paying to see. Barnum went about forging various news stories to help legitimize his tale and even managed to weasel his way into the Natural History Museum. Following the success of the Fiji Mermaid, Barnum decided to take his act on the road and recruit some living talent.
The Amazing General Tom Thumb
General Thumb, real name Charles Stratton, was Barnum's distant cousin. Stratton was born a regular boy and was growing at normal rate until he reached six months old when he stopped growing. Stratton measured 25 inches tall, or two foot one inch and weighed a hefty 15 pounds. By age five, Stratton hadn’t grown an inch and Barnum partnered with his father and taught Charles how to sing, dance, and impersonate famous people.
In 1844 Barnum rebranded Charles Stratton as “General Tom Thumb, the smallest person who ever walked alone.” After the incredible success of Barnum and Thumbs first American tour, the two toured Europe. Barnum and Thumb were so successful that they were even invited to meet Queen Victoria and General Thumb achieved international stardom.
By the late 1860s, Charles Stratton was a very rich man. He was paid upwards of $150 a week (or $4,100 today) for the duration of his 15 year career. Doing some quick math I calculated that at a minimum he earned $3,198,000 in today's money. When Stratton eventually retired he married another little person and lived a life of luxury with her in one of Manhattan's most luxurious neighborhoods. He even owned his very own steam powered yacht. I love how even back in the 19th Century rich people still acted like rich people today and purchased yachts. I was also surprised that steam powered yachts were a thing.
Fun fact before we move onto the next sideshow performer, General Tom Thumb was buddies with Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln actually held a wedding reception for him at the Whitehouse.
Zip, the Missing Link
William Henry Johnson, was born in New Jersey in 1842 as an impoverished newly freed slave. Johnson was born with a subtle physical deformity, which gave him a microcephalic, or cone shaped head. Because of this physical deformity he didn’t have much choice other than getting into the sideshow business. Johnson was working as a sideshow performer for a local New Jersey showman until 1860, when Barnum discovered him and signed him.
Barnum changed Johnson's name to Zip and invented an eccentric backstory about how Zip was a “different race of human found during a gorilla trekking expedition near the Gambia River in western Africa.” Because Charles Darwin had recently published his Origin of Species, Barnum saw an opportunity to capitalize on this and position Zip as the “missing link.” This is not relevant to this story but if you’re interested in learning about the misconception and hoaxes surrounding the “missing link” check out this awesome episode of PBS EONS.
When the two started, Barnum displayed Zip in a cage and paid him a dollar a day to stay in character and only grunt and make “primitive” noises. Zip would also play a violin so badly that guests would actually pay him money to stop. Zip quickly became a superstar and started making around $100 per performance and he performed about ten times a week. The act was so successful that Barnum purchased Zip a lavish house in Connecticut where he retired a multimillionaire.
Zip learned a lot about marketing from Barnum and kept performing well into his 80’s. In fact, during the 1925 Scopes Trial, Zip offered himself to the court as proof evolution was real, which garnered massive publicity for his act, earning him even more money. When Zip passed away he was a multimillionaire and reportedly told his sister “Well we fooled ‘em for a long time.”
Chang and Eng Bunker
Chang and Eng were born in 1811 in a small fishing village in Siam (modern day Thailand). The twin brothers were conjoined at the chest by a 4 inch ligament at the chest. A British merchant saw the two and hired them to travel across Europe and the United States to perform at sideshows. After working with the merchant for three years, the two split off into a solo act and became superstars across America. Fun fact the term “Siamese Twins” originated from a doctor who saw the two perform.
By 1838, the 29 year old twins retired with $60,000 (or $1.3 million today) and purchased a 100 acre plantation in South Carolina. The brothers took on the last name Bunker and became naturalized citizens and married a pair of sisters. Chang and Eng built two houses on their property (one for each wife) and would trade off three day times slots. Three days in one house with one wife, three days in the other house with the other wife. The two also fathered a combined 21 children.
Chang and Eng eventually ran out of money and had to get back into the sideshow game where they performed on and off for PT Barnum for the next 20 years. In 1879 the two passed away four hours apart. They left their two wives and 21 children a fortune.
Captain Costeneus the Tattooed Wonder
Captain George Costeneus was one of America's first tattooed sideshow acts and this mysterious man was one of the few people who chose to get into the sideshow profession. George was so committed to his character Captain Costeneus that actually very little is known about his real life. Captain Costeneus had nearly 338 ornate tattoos that depicted various Burmese species and symbols from Eastern Mythology.
According to Captain Costeneus’s origin story, he got his tattoos on a military expedition in Burma. According to his story, he and three other soldiers were captured by natives and offered a choice. They would either be chopped into little pieces or receive full body tattoos and gain their freedom if they could survive the excruciating pain. Naturally, the soldiers chose the option where they might survive and after three excruciating months only Captain Costeneus survived.
In 1870 he signed a contract with PT Barnum and became the American Museum's highest grossing act. Captain Costeneus was earning $1,000 a week ($37,000 a week today) and all he did was have some wild tattoos. To keep up the ruse and keep the money flowing, George published a 23 page book in 1881 that documented every detail of his alleged experience. This book paid off because he was a multimillionaire (in today's money) by the time he died. Upon his death, Contentious donated half of his money to the Greek Church and the other half to his fellow freak show performers who weren’t lucky enough to make it big.
Jo Jo the Dogface Boy
Fedor Jeftichew was born in 1873 in Russia with a face and body covered in long fur like hair. He was destined to get into the sideshow business, as his father was cursed with the same condition and was known throughout Europe as “the Siberian Dog Man.”
If you look at a photo of Fedor it makes you wonder if he was the inspiration for Chewbacca. It also looks exactly like Bigfoot and makes you think whether a seven foot man with the same condition could be the inspiration for Bigfoot. To hear more about my Bigfoot theory, check out our latest episode on your favorite podcast platform. Also check out next week's episode coming out Thursday April 15th with monster expert Dr. Emily Zarka to hear more about my theory and her opinion on Bigfoot.
Anyway back to Fedor’s story. Fedors father passed away when he was only 16 years old and he became a ward of the Russian government. A cruel English showman adopted Fedor and paraded him around England as the boy who was raised by Siberian wolves. In 1884, PT Barnum saw the act and purchased Fedors contract and moved him to the US.
Barnum rebranded Fedor as Jo-Jo The Dog Faced Boy and claimed he was a prehistoric man discovered deep in a cave in the Russian wilderness. According to his backstory, he was found feeding on berries and hunting with a club and after a long bloody battle was captured by hunters who taught him to walk upright, wear clothing, and speak like a dignified human. Fedor ended up being one of the highest paid sideshow performers and was earning $500 a week ($13,000 today) throughout the 1880’s and retired with $300,000 in his bank account (a cool $7.6 million today).
These were some of the most famous and successful sideshow performers under PT Barnum. It is important to note that I only covered the most famous performers. There were a lot who did not make millions but the sideshow gave people with disabilities an opportunity to make a good living at a time when they were treated as second class citizens.
If you enjoyed this blog you should check out our latest episode of Misfits and Mysteries on your favorite podcast platform to learn more about PT Barnum and the fall of the “freakshow.” If you enjoyed this blog, please consider sharing it with a friend or on social media. Check back every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week for new blogs. Stay Spooky Misfits!