Victorian Freak Shows: People Abnormal in the Eyes of Polite Society

Victorian freak show advertisement with an ape in a dress

Victorian Freak Shows: People Abnormal in the Eyes of Polite Society

Freak Show. Today the mere mention of the words makes us cringe. To the Victorians, however, a freak show was a great way to seek entertainment for an afternoon.

Freak shows featured individuals who were considered abnormal in the eyes of polite society and included little people, the obese, people suffering from gigantism, the deformed, conjoined twins, and those with rare medical conditions. They also featured performers such as sword swallowers and fire eaters.

Popularity Grows

Victorian freak show poster for world's heaviest woman
Lucy Moore, the world’s heaviest woman

Freak shows began during the Renaissance, but were at their peak of popularity during the mid-Victorian era. The traveling shows attracted audiences who were curious and looking for diversions from their own lives.

These shows had horrible and outlandish names; one in London was called the Hall of Ugliness.

A showman introduced each act to the crowd.

Sadly, these shows probably were the only means of employment for “freaks” and prevented a life of homelessness.

As science came to explain most of the freaks’ physical peculiarities, the attitude toward freak shows changed, and by the 20th century, they were no longer a beloved form of entertainment. Instead, they were viewed as a means of exploitation, although the shows didn’t disappear altogether.  That didn’t happen until laws were passed, stopping them.

New shows developed. People paid to view mechanical figures or other oddities under glass. Performers were jugglers and magicians. Wax figures were displayed.

Charlatans and Tricksters

A woman sitting on a stage with no legs and arms ending at the elbow
Miss Rosina was a freak show act

With the popularity of freak shows, came hoaxes. Conjoined twins, for example, were often two individuals wearing a costumes that made them look joined.

American P.T. Barnum, famous for the circus that bears his name, was king of the hoaxers, exhibiting several during the late 19th century.

Some of Barnum’s hoaxes include:

  • Feejee Mermaid: An orangutan and a salmon were combined to form a mermaid supposedly captured off the shores of Fiji.
  • Dwarf General Tom Thumb was advertised as being older than his biological age. He was drinking and smoking by age seven, impersonating famous people.
  • Joice Heth was advertised as being 161 years old and George Washington’s nurse.

In the UK, Tom Norman was the most famous showman. Norman is the man who displayed Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, at his shop across from the hospital that changed Merrick’s life.

Norman’s hoaxes include:

  • A woman whose body was composed of electricity
  • A baby with a balloon for a head
  • White men painted black and passed off as African tribesmen

It makes you wonder whether freak-show viewers knew they were seeing special tricks or whether actually they believed what they saw.  Or could it be both — suspension of disbelief.

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Updated: 22 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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