- General Tom Thumb
Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, is one of the most famous little person sideshow performers in history. Young Charles stopped growing at approximately two feet tall.
At the age of four, he was discovered by P.T. Barnum himself (actually a relative of the Strattons) and quickly became a member of Barnum’s circus. For the next 40 years, until his death in 1883, Charles had wild successes as General Tom Thumb (earning a fortune that would make him a millionaire today—he even bailed out Barnum’s circus at one point), and married another little person, Lavinia Warren (a.k.a. “Mrs. Tom Thumb”), which earned him a reception at the White House care of President Abraham Lincoln.
Although he started growing again later in life, he was only just barely over three feet tall. Even after his death, Stratton’s doctors were never able to pinpoint the exact cause of his dwarfism.
- 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.
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.
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.
- Stephan Bibrowski, Lionel the Lion-Faced Man
Born in 1891 in modern-day Poland, Stephan Bibrowski was an ordinary boy who just happened to have thick hair that grew all over his body. His mother was convinced (not unlike Joseph Merrick’s mother) that the affliction had resulted from her witnessing Stephan’s father being attacked by a lion while she was pregnant. (This explanation for birth defects, known as maternal impression, was popular at the turn of the century, but has long since been debunked.)
His mother thought him a monster and gave him away to a German entertainer. In truth, young Stephan suffered from hypertrichosis, the same disorder that gives us so-called “werewolf syndrome,” a trait found in contemporary circus performer Jesús Aceves, the “Wolf Boy.” Stephan’s hair pattern just happened to more closely resemble a lion’s.
Stephan was well-known for being kind, gentle, and intelligent, however. He is reported to have spoken five languages and spent a portion of his act simply talking to his audience. Stephan was able to retire in his 30s and returned to Europe. He died of a heart attack at the age of 41.
- Annie Jones, The Bearded Lady
Annie Jones may not be the original bearded woman, but she was certainly one of the most famous (and possibly the youngest). Born at an indeterminate time in the 1860s, she started touring with P.T. Barnum when she was only nine months old.
She quickly became one of Barnum’s prized acts and had even grown a full mustache by the time she was five. She was usually simply referred to as the “Bearded Girl” (until she was too old to be called a girl anymore, that is), although she was also called “Monkey Girl."
Later in life, Jones was one of the most popular bearded women in the business, and used her fame and position in Barnum’s circus as a platform for discouraging the use of the word “freaks” to refer to sideshow performers.
- Isaac W. Sprague, The Human Skeleton
Isaac Sprague, born in Massachusetts in 1841, was by all accounts a normal boy—at least until he got to the age of 12, when he began rapidly losing weight. Before long, his muscle mass had essentially dropped to nil, with his doctors being unable to explain exactly why (his condition was listed by at least one as “extreme progressive muscular atrophy”). At the age of 24, incapable of working any other jobs, he joined the sideshow.
Sprague worked with P.T. Barnum on and off throughout his career, working at Barnum’s American Museum and sometimes going on tour with him when he found himself low on money, which was apparently quite frequently. (He had three sons and was rumored to have a gambling problem as well.)
At the age of 44, Sprague was officially measured by a doctor and found to be five feet six inches tall while weighing a mere 43 pounds. He died two years later of asphyxiation, probably as a result of his condition. As a result of Sprague’s popularity, “living skeleton” acts became common at many sideshows.
- Grace McDaniels, The mule faced woman
Grace McDaniels (1888–1958) was a freak show star known as the "Mule-Faced Woman" due to a severe facial deformity known as Sturge-Weber syndrome. She joined Harry Lewiston's Traveling Circus, where she was paid $175 per week.
McDaniels' son Elmer served as her business manager and traveled with her until her death.
- Julia Pastrana, The bear woman
Julia Pastrana was known by many monikers during her life and perhaps just as many names in death.Both her life and her death are rather sad tales, but they hold a very special place in sideshow history because, for a time, she was not considered a member of the human race.
Julia’s origins are shrouded in mystery.It is believed that she was born in 1834 to a tribe of ‘Root Digger’ Indians in the western slopes of Mexico. However, what is highly obvious is that Julia had appearance unlike any marvel before her on record. In addition to excessive hairiness over her body – predominately in the face – Julia also possessed a jutting jaw and swollen gums.In odd juxtaposition to her ape like features, Julia possessed great poise, and a well developed a buxom four and a half foot figure.
- John Doogs, Nicodemus the indescribable
Although titled a freak for his curtailed limbs, John Doogs was a talented and powerfully built acrobat. Doog gained fame in the late 1800s, performing into the early 1900s, with Barnum and Bailey and the Worth’s Museum. He was said to be indescribable due to his curious condition leaving him with an arm ending in a horn, a webbed right foot, and a left foot resembling that of a hog.
It was reported in 1894 that he drowned in Ohio River, but a later report in 1908 places him in Chicago. His inevitable fate is unknown.
- Sam Alexander, The man with two faces
Sam Alexander was born a normal man, by his early 20s he was pursuing a career in theatre and had been promoted at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago. One morning disaster struck his life. The details are a bit sketchy, but Sam was involved in a huge gasoline explosion. He was able to save his eyes by covering them with his hands, but he received severe burns to his lips and lower face. The situation was made much worse after his wounds festered and became severely infected. Doctors were forced to remove much of his
lower face and lips.
Sam began touring almost immediately and instantly caused a stir. Billed as “The Man with Two Faces,” Sam’s exhibition consisted primarily of a stage monologue detailing his story. Sam was a soft and well spoken man. He lured the crowd with his tail of heartbreak and then made the anticipated reveal of his face. Kortes made Sam the “Blow Off” attraction, which was an extra attraction that people had to pay a premium to see. He was labeled as “not for the weak of heart.” Sam Alexander passed away in 1997.
- Susi, The elephant skin girl
While accounts do vary Susi was likely born in 1909 as Charlotte in the western district of Berlin. In early childhood Susi’s ichthyosis manifested aggressively and her skin quickly thickened, turned grey and cracked to visually elephantine properties. Due to the severity of her condition, Susi endured daily physical pain. Her pain was further amplified by multiple infections and illnesses as bacteria invaded the major cracks formed in her skin from even her most subtle movements. During her early years, Susi couldn’t even blink her eyes without risking life-threatening cracks.
Susi first came to the United States in 1927 as part of a troupe consisting of a giantess and a bearded lady and she made multiple subsequent visits to the US. With her manager, she emigrated to the U.S. from Germany to escape the oncoming war and moved into an apartment on New York’s west side. While living in New York, Susi often exhibited herself at Hubert’s Museum on 42nd Street and Coney Island in the 1930’s. She even worked Madison Square Garden for the Ringling show in 1967.
By some accounts Susi retired to Germany, but most report that she passed away in New York City in 1975.
These people would be disabled by today's standards but from what I'm reading they turned their respecting disabilities into a fortune.
I'm about to go google modern day sideshows. Great thread.
Is that pay correct?? $175/week in 1900 would be almost 5grand a week today.
MrFluffyHippo - Is that pay correct?? $175/week in 1900 would be almost 5grand a week today.They made bank with their disabilities, in the first thread there was a lady who was reportedly making $450.00 a week in the late 1800's.
Very cool. Amazing pic of the skeleton dude.
professor_rob - Very cool. Amazing pic of the skeleton dude.Have your first green arrow!
IDOHARM -Cheers.professor_rob - Very cool. Amazing pic of the skeleton dude.Have your first green arrow!
Should find stuff on Cheng and Eng the original Siamese twins.
Imagine what it would of been like around 1850's. Without proper medical science to explain these 'Freaks'. Believing that being scared whilst pregnant was a probable cause. No wonder some of the performers got rich, people would of paid a heap for the morbid factor of witnessing them.
Later. I can't vote you up again Harm... Tomorrow then