Starting from their humble beginnings as novelty acts at educational establishments, the sideshow quickly expanded in scope and pure showmanship. The public just couldn’t satiate their strange appetite for amusements.
Pretty soon, all the cool traveling circus and amusement parks just had to have a sideshow, and each member came complete with a ridiculous tale that usually included some kind of exotic cave escape. Here are true backstories of some of the most famous, controversial, and exotic acts to grace the sideshow stage, so step right up folks…
The Stories and Science of 12 Amazing Sideshow Wonders Full text:
JoJo The Dog-Faced Boy
REAL NAME: Fedor Jeftichew
MEDICAL CONDITION: Hypertrichosis
Born in Russia, Fedor performed in French circuses with his dad, who had the same condition, until he was recruited by P.T. Barnum and brought to the U.S. when he was 16. Barnum’s story was that he was captured in a Russian cave.
Nearly all the skin on his body, except his palms and the soles of his feet, was covered with hairs or hair follicles. Fedor barked and growled during his show, and allowed the crowd to tug on his fur to confirm its authenticity.
REAL NAME: Grady Franklin Stiles, Jr.
MEDICAL CONDITION: Ectrodactyly
Grady Stiles, Jr. was the 6th generation of his family to be born with a congenital disorder that makes hands and feet look like claws.
He was born into the traveling carnival life, and became an attraction at a young age. He was an alcoholic and had a nasty temper. Stiles shot – and openly confessed to killing – his oldest daughter’s fiancée on the eve of their wedding. Karma stopped by, and he was murdered in 1992. He was so hated that no one would be his pallbearer.
AKA: The Bearded Lady
BORN: Est. 1860’s
MEDICAL CONDITION: Hirsutism
Annie Jones started touring with P.T. Barnum when she was only 9 months old. She quickly became one of Barnum’s prized acts and had a full mustache by the time she was 5.
Later in life, Jones was one of the most popular bearded women in the business, and used her notoriety in Barnum’s circus as a platform for discouraging the use of the word “freaks” to refer to sideshow performers.
The Elastic-Skin Man
REAL NAME: Felix Wehrle
MEDICAL CONDITION: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
Felix Wehrle had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic issue that made his skin incredibly elastic and flexible. He could stretch and tug excessively on any part of his skin as if it were made of rubber – warping and twisting it out of shape. The syndrome also affected his joints and connective tissue which made bending his fingers backwards easy.
The Transparent Man
REAL NAME: Ivannow Wladislaus von Dziarski-Orloff
MEDICAL CONDITION: Unknown
Ivannow, also known as Count Orloff and The Human Window Pane, was born in Hungary. He was normal until he his muscles began wasting away at age 14. Soon afterwards, he experienced constant pain, and couldn’t stand or walk.
His bones had such a low density that they could bend and twist. His skin became so thin that his the coursing blood in his blood vessels became visible. He later he went into business for himself, owning his own sideshow.
The Alligator Person
MEDICAL CONDITION: icthyosis / Glue
No self-respecting sideshow was complete without their alligator-skinned member. Genuine performers usually had a genetically recessive condition that led to extremely dry and scaly skin. Some variations of icthyosis are so severe that it’s fatal at birth.
Fake acts created alligator girls and boys by painting their bodies with a glue solution and having them twist after it dried, creating the cracked effect.
REAL NAME: Stanislaus Berent
MEDICAL CONDITION: Phocomelia
Stanley’s rare congenital condition gave him stunted arms. Of Polish descent, he sold newspapers before he was discovered by freak scouters.
His career lasted for 35 years, during which he toured with every major act in the US, performing all sorts of tasks like sawing a crate in half, shaving with a straight razor, and molding animal figurines out of clay. He also enjoyed drinking and playing cards.
AKA: The Living Torso, Snake Man
MEDICAL CONDITION: Tetra-Amelia Syndrome
Prince Randian was born in British Guiana with a disorder causing him to be born without limbs. He was well known for his snake man act, in which he put on a wool sleeve and crawled around on stage. He was also able to roll cigarettes, write and draw, and shave himself with a fixed blade.
He had 4 children with his wife, known as Princess Sarah. He spoke 4 languages, and was reportedly a pretty witty, intelligent, and all-around good guy.
REAL NAME: Simon Metz
AKA: Pinhead/What Is It?
MEDICAL CONDITION: microcephaly
Simon Metz, aka Schlitzie the Pinhead, was considered one of the greatest circus sideshow performers of all time. He was born with microcephaly, a neurological disorder that left him with the mental capacity of a 3 year old.
Schlitzie’s trademark muumuu allowed him to be presented as either male or female. It also made it easier to change his diapers. He was featured in many films including 1928’s Sideshow and the 1932 cult classic, Freaks.
General Tom Thumb
REAL NAME: Charles Sherwood Stratton
MEDICAL CONDITION: Dwarfism
Charles Sherwood Stratton was 4 years old and less than 2 ft. tall when PT Barnum recruited him. Tom Thumb became one of the biggest celebrities of the 19th century.
His 1863 marriage to the thirty-two-inch-tall Lavinia Warren Bump was a media sensation. President and Mrs. Lincoln couldn’t be there, but 10,000 other guests were. He later embarked on a 3-year world tour, and lived a wealthy life in his lavish Manhattan digs.
Chang and Eng
REAL NAME: Chang and Eng bunker
MEDICAL CONDITION: Conjoined Twins
Chang and Eng, the original “Siamese Twins”, were the first conjoined twins put on display. Brought to America from Siam (Thailand), Cheng and Eng performed for several decades before retiring to North Carolina as wealthy plantation owners.
They bought slaves and married separate women, having 21 children (in a reinforced bed) between the 4 of them. They have 1500+ descendants, many who still gather for reunions at Mt. Airy.
The Living Skeleton
REAL NAME: Isaac W. Sprague
MEDICAL CONDITION: progressive muscular dystrophy
Born in Massachusetts, Isaac actually had a normal healthy body until he started losing weight after feeling ill from swimming at the age of 12. Even with a large appetite, his muscle mass dropped to almost zero, and soon he was incapable of any other sort of work, so he joined the sideshow.
His weight varied during his life, but at the age of 44, he weighed in at 43 lbs, while still standing at 5’ 6”. He was married and had 3 strong and healthy sons.
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