I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
What Were Carnival Sideshows?
Alongside the circus or the carnival midway, entrepreneurs set up sideshows (freak show is such an ugly phrase) aimed at persuading simple country folk to part with their money. Every conceivable human and animal deformity was put on display, and if new and even grosser exhibits could not be found, there was always fakery to fall back on.
“Roll up, Roll up, Step Right Inside”
The carnival barker’s job was to herd the rubes into the sideshow, although in the world of the carnies he was always known as the “outside talker.”
“Hurry, hurry, hurry. There are mysteries inside you could not dream of.”
Of course, no sideshow was complete without the bearded lady, but there were plenty of other marvels to behold.
There would be sword swallowers, snake handlers, fire eaters, knife throwers, and the sadly misshapen results of birth defects.
Some of the exhibits were truly bizarre. Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and Lionel the Lion-Faced boy suffered from a condition called hypertrichosis. This causes an abnormal growth of hair, and made the star sufferers look somewhat like their hyped-up names.
Lobster Boy came from a family many of whose members suffered from a condition called ectrodactyly. His name was Grady Stiles, and his fingers and toes were fused together so his hands and feet looked like lobster claws.
For a nickel, you could see the more family-friendly “Mouse Circus,” as a couple of dozen tiny critters scampered around with miniature toys, Ferris wheels, and merry-go-rounds.
“The Sensation of the Century”
Festivals and carnivals of one sort or another have been around since before recorded history. There were likely to be hangers-on, probably of an unsavoury nature―pickpockets, prostitutes, the sellers of magical elixirs, and the like―but also jugglers, tumblers, and other entertainers.
There are paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) depicting villagers having a wild old time at the fair.
The carnival in a form we can recognize today hit its stride in America in the 19th century. It started in New York City with variety theatre, dime museums, and such extraordinary exhibits as Professor Heckler’s Trained Flea Circus. From these sprang vaudeville, burlesque, and, of course, the sideshow.
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The sideshow came in several forms:
- The “Museum Show” was a collection of any oddities the exhibitors could get their hands on or, ahem, create out of Plasticine, glue, and odds and ends that might be lying around;
- The “Ten-for-one” was a sort of vaudeville show with ten acts, such as acrobats and magicians, mixed in with “human oddities;”
- The “Single-O” was just one exhibit; the three-headed sheep, the South Sea Islands mermaid, a rat the size of a pony, or monkeys in racing cars;
- The “Geek Act” predates by many years the eight-year-old who can fix your computer when it crashes. The tradition was that the geek chased live chickens and when he caught one he would bite its head off and swallow it;
- The “Grind Show” was a continuous performance of various acts with the aim of grinding the spectators through the tent as fast as possible; and,
- The last form was the “Girl Show;” the higher the price of admission, the fewer the clothes involved.
“Come See What Your Friends Are Talking About”
Of course, people got all sophisticated and the attraction of the sideshow started to lose its appeal. First, came the moving pictures. Then, the Great Depression emptied peoples’ pockets of loose change so they could not afford to pay to see “The Viking Giant” or “The Tattooed Dwarf.”
Some communities passed bylaws banning the “freak” shows. Most performers objected to this because it cost them the only source of income they had. For example, Myrtle Corbin made enough money by the time she was 18 to retire. She was born with four legs, a more or less regular pair and two inner, smaller legs.
Television was pretty much the death knell for many carnival sideshows, but some hung on, and a few reinvented sideshows still exist today.
“The Show That Surpasses All Understanding”
The sideshows went out of business and there was no longer a demand for the three-legged man, or the preserved unborn oddities known as “Pickled Punks.” However, Captain Harvey Lee Boswell stepped up and started to acquire the discarded artefacts of defunct shows. In the best tradition of the carny, the military rank appears to have been self-awarded.
In 1954, he opened his Palace of Wonders to display his collection. He had sideshows in permanent amusement parks and toured his exhibits with major carnival operators throughout the eastern United States and Canada. He also had a zoo in North Carolina.
And then, there’s Ward Hall, known by the modest title of King of the Sideshows. Capt. Boswell has his Palace of Wonders; Ward Hall went bigger with his World of Wonders.
His is the classic story of a teenager who ran away to join the circus. So says Tim O’Brien’s biography of the man, and who are we to argue with a story from a carny man? The World of Wonders continues to entertain, amaze, amuse, and send chiiillls down the spine of audiences.
- The Elephant Face Girl, “The newest, strangest, and most sensational freak of all time alive.” “The only human on earth with a nose like an elephant’s trunk.”
- There was a lot of hoodwinking going on in the sideshows. A garish banner would say “You must see the giant bat. 600 lbs. 12-1/2 feet long. Big enough to kill a horse. Awesome.” Inside, the hayseeds would find a huge wooden baseball bat. No lies were told. The sideshow man couldn’t help it if his customers lept to the conclusion they were going to see a gigantic flying rodent.
- Gibsonton, Florida, 12 miles south of Tampa, calls itself “Carny Town.” It was where sideshow acts gathered when they retired or just wanted some downtime in the sun. As The Guardian reports, at one time “The post office catered to little people with extra-low counters, and the beer hall had custom-built chairs for the Fat Ladies and the Tallest Man. Special zoning regulations allowed residents to keep and train exotic animals in their gardens. Siamese-twin sisters ran a fruit stand. Three factories manufactured Ferris wheels and carousels.”
- “Family Entertainment on The Midway With The Mickey Mouse Circus.” Doc’s Midway Cookhouse, March 5, 2015
- “Capt. Harvey Lee Boswell My Friend!” Brian Ezzelle, Sideshow World, undated.
- “Welcome to Gibtown, the Last “Freakshow” Town in America.” Kim Wall and Caterina Clerici, The Guardian, February 26, 2015.
- “Traveling Sideshow: Shocked and Amazed!” Jeff Krulik, director, 2003.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on February 28, 2018:
Rupert, wonderful information about side shows, there is a fascinating history about it.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 27, 2018:
I'm interested in the history of side shows. We think it's awful today, but as you said, it was the only source of income for many. I enjoyed the video with Ward Hall.
Suzie from Carson City on January 26, 2018:
Rupert.....I recall from many years ago, seeing these "side/freak" shows at the County Fairs. I believe I saw only a couple of these because they actually would upset me so I chose not to be one of the curious gawkers.
I would be shocked to see that these particular forms of alleged entertainment are still being presented today. Hopefully people have come to their senses and realize that exposing the flaws and/or physical abnormalities of human beings is simply wrong.