Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 24

Freak Show: Denizens of the Dark Carnivals

Although carnivals and circuses can be sources of innocent amusement for children of all ages, there is a dark side behind the ferris wheels and a penny arcades. For well over a century, many fairgrounds have exhibited unsavory sideshows full of human oddities ranging from midgets to siamese twins to men and women without arms or legs. These sideshows not only demonstrated the cruelty of nature but also the callousness of man, as these exhibits were some of the most lucrative shows along the midway.

Perhaps the most famous sideshow freak was Joseph Carey Merrick, also known as John Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man. In the 1880s, Merrick gained notoriety as an exhibit in an English sideshow run by Tom Norman, who was the P.T. Barnum of the British Isles. Merrick, who is believed to have been afflicted with either neurofibromatosis or the even rarer Proteus Syndrome, had massive tumors over most of his body. His head was particularly affected, and his thick, rough skin resembled an elephant's hide, thus inspiring his unflattering nickname. Tom Norman even contributed to the Elephant Man's mystique by claiming that Merrick's mother had been nearly trampled by an elephant while pregnant, somehow contributing to Merrick's disfigurement.

Eventually Merrick's case caught the attention of Dr. Frederick Treves, a London physician who rescued the Elephant Man from his sideshow existence. Treves allowed him to live out the rest of his life with some measure of dignity in a private room in Whitechapel Hospital. Merrick died in 1890 of asphyxiation after presumably attempting to sleep lying down, a position that dislocated his neck and cut off his air supply due to the massive size of his head. Pop star Michael Jackson reportedly tried to purchase Merrick's skeleton (shown at right) in 1987 for $1 million, but his attempt was rebuffed by the English hospital where the bones are now housed.


While John Merrick's case was unfortunately unique in the history of sideshows, the carnival landscape has often been populated with conjoined twins. Defined as two distinct persons physically joined together, conjoined twins are more commonly known as Siamese twins thanks to Chang and Eng, two famously conjoined brothers born in Siam in 1811. The brothers were joined at the midsection but were otherwise normal. Chang and Eng married two English sisters, and between them the brothers fathered 22 children. The brothers and their families toured the US in various exhibits until their deaths in 1874.

Another famous pair of conjoined twins were Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were born in England in 1908. The girls were joined at the lower spine, and their mother Kate Skinner, a poor barmaid, sold them to Mary Hilton, the young woman's midwife and landlady, when they were only a few weeks old. Mary Hilton exploited them, making them join the circus as sideshow attractions and then taking their earnings. The girls learned to sing and dance and even appeared in Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks, a controversial melodrama set in a carnival sideshow. The girls reportedly married, though the romance was short- lived. They eventually retired from the carnival scene and were working at a North Carolina grocery store in the late 1960s, when they died during a bout with the flu.


One of the most outrageous and potentially dangerous acts was that of the sword swallower. After first demonstrating to the crowd that the swords used in his act were solid and very sharp, the performer would then proceed to slide the length of the blade into his mouth and down his throat, often swallowing several swords at once. For an equally disturbing effect, similar performers would make audiences gasp by driving long nails and spikes through their nostrils and into their nasal passages.

Perhaps the most disgusting of all sideshow attractions were the acts known as geeks. The geeks would bite the heads off of live chickens, rats and snakes, to the shrieks of horrified onlookers. They would often eat live worms, spiders and and crickets. Some geeks had discriminating tastes for glass and sharpened scraps of metal, often chewing and swallowing light bulbs, needles, and even razor blades.


Midgets were a popular staple of freakshows from their inception. One of the most famous of these diminutive people was Charles Stratton, dubbed "Tom Thumb" by P.T. Barnum, the famous circus showman. Barnum turned Tom Thumb into a successful sideshow exhibit in the mid-1800s, even presenting him to Queen Victoria on several occasions. Another famous midget was Lucia Zarate, reportedly the smallest woman in history. Born in Mexico in 1864, Lucia grew to less than two feet in height and became a highly paid sideshow attraction, earning about twenty dollars an hour.

The popularity of little people in carnivals and other exhibits inspired many showmen to create miniature villages in which to display their prized human exhibits, and publicity stunts involving midgets, such as Tom Thumb's wedding to a fellow midget, became lucrative events for Barnum and others. Tom Thumb's wedding, for example, drew more than 2,000 guests.

At the other end of the height spectrum, giants were also popular freakshow attractions. One of the most famous human giants was Jacob Ehrlich, more commonly known as Jack Earle. Born in Denver, Colorado in 1906 and raised in Texas, Jack experienced a monumental growth spurt after age seven. He grew to well over six feet tall before he was ten, and by adulthood he stood at eight feet six inches in height. His large stature soon attracted the attention of the silent film industry, and Jack subsequently appeared in many movies in the 1920s before a serious injury suffered after a fall from a scaffolding ended his film career. In the mid-1920s, Jack's friends convinced him to visit Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus, which was passing through Texas at the time. The circus claimed to be exhibiting the tallest man in the world, 7'5" Jim Tarver, but Jack Earle, at 8'6", proved the circus wrong. Jack toured with Ringling Brothers until the 1940s, and he died in 1952.


Carnival and circus lore is filled with many other examples of physically unique people, many of whom were tragically born with severe disabilities. One such person was Johnny Eck, who was born in 1911 without legs. In his teens, Eck and his twin brother Rob, who did have legs, appeared in many traveling shows, often performing a trick in which Rob's legs were apparently sawn off (Rob would be switched with Johnny in order to accomplish the feat). Like Violet and Daisy Hilton and other sideshow denizens, Johnny appeared in the movie Freaks.

Another cast member from that film was Prince Randian, the Human Caterpillar. Born in British Guiana without any limbs, Prince Randian was a fixture of P.T. Barnum's circus beginning in the 1890s. He moved about by crawling on his belly like a caterpillar or snake. Remarkably, Prince Randian was married and the father of five children.

Freakshows were filled with other physically cursed people as well, including bearded ladies and "wolf boys" whose faces were completely covered by hair; and so-called "leopard" people, who suffered from vitilego, a skin condition that afflicts dark-skinned people and often appears as a mosaic of white spots over the body.

Other attractions that were billed as "Rubber Men" would demonstrate their amazing flexibility and elasticity, by contorting their bodies into unnatural positions and stretching their skin several inches away from the underlying tissue and bone.


While many human sideshow attractions were born with their various idiosyncrasies, some freaks actually manufactured their physical oddities. For example, carnivals often featured elaborately tattooed men and women, such as Horace Ridler, a former English army officer who tattooed his entire body with zebra-like stripes in the 1920s. He claimed savages from New Guinea had given him the tattoos, and he eventually became an extremely popular circus performer called The Great Omi throughout the 1930s. He was even included in Ripley's 1938 Broadway show.

The Human Enigma, whose entire body is tattooed with the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, made a name for himself in the 1990s as a member of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. In addition to his full-body artwork, Enigma is renowned for performing various horrifying stunts such as sword swallowing, fire-eating, pushing a moving power drill up his nose and swallowing live slugs. He has also entertained and appalled audiences by drinking various different-colored liquids, pumping them out of his stomach and swallowing them again. His appearance on an episode of the X-Files even spawned his own action figure. As a founding member of the Human Marvels, Enigma performs rock music with his feline companion Katzen the Tiger Lady.

Erik Sprague, also known as the Lizardman, has spent years modifying his physical appearance to look like a reptile. These procedures include having his tongue split, sharpening his front teeth into fangs and surgically implanting a ridge of teflon horns above his eyes. Erik has also undergone hundreds of hours of tattoo work to replicate reptilian scales on his body.

Dennis Avner, has spent more than 20 years transforming himself into a persona known as Stalking Cat. Influenced by Native American beliefs, he began his metamorphosis to exhibit the physical characteristics of a tiger, which he believes to be his totem animal and spirit guide. Stalking Cat's face and body are covered with tattoos that simulate tiger stripes and he has undergone numerous surgeries to create a cleft upper lip, a flat, feline nose, and elongated ears. In addition to growing long claw-like fingernails, he has also attached whiskers to several piercings embedded in his face.

This concludes our tour of the circus of the bizarre and the fantastic, and the sideshow of the mystifying and the grotesque. Although carnivals and circuses are generally thought of as innocent playgrounds for the young and young at heart, these fairgrounds often cruelly exhibited and exploited the horribly deformed and tragically handicapped. These freakshows turned physical oddness into a moneymaking spectacle, and they represent a dark, taboo chapter in entertainment history, capitalizing upon the shadows of human nature that is repulsed, yet intrigued by the strange and horrific.