The Sideshow Lexicon

AB (Amusement Business) – The magazine of the trade. In the old days, before its name change, it was The Billboard. Many, if not the majority, of traveling showmen would have Billboard as their address; that is, they could be contacted while on the road care of the forwarding services offered to the showmen by the trade journal.

AGENT – Any carnival game operator.

ALBINO ACT – The person in this show suffered from “Albinism”, which is the absence of epidermal pigmentation,causing white skin, white hair, white eyelashes, white eyebrows. and pink irises of the eyes.

ALIBI STORE – A carnival game with very little chance to win, but usually not mechanically “gaffed”[see “gaffed”] Instead, the “agent” gives you an explanation of why you lost, and offers you a “better” chance to win.

ALLIGATOR MAN/WOMAN/ETC. – Sideshow human oddity afflicted with skin condition, commonly ictheosis, that gives the skin a scaly, reptile-like appearance.

ANATOMICAL WONDER – A sideshow performer, usually perceived by the public as a human oddity, but more a working act. The performer would do stunts such as ‘the man without a stomach’ (pulling the gut in until the backbone shows), pulling themselves through a coat hanger or tennis racket, and other Indian Rubber Man stunts.

ANNEX – In the case of a sideshow, another name for the area where the blowoff is located.

BABY SHOW – Also known as ‘unborn,’ ‘life,’ ‘bottle,’ ‘freak baby’ and ‘pickled punk show,’ though these last terms are strictly carnival insider lingo and were not used around the general public. (See McKennon’s definition for PICKLED PUNK.)

BACK END -Inside the big top at opposite end of tent from the front door or the ‘connection’ between the menagerie and the big top. The ‘back end’ of a carnival consists of the shows and riding devices. Concessions, no matter where located, are part of the ‘front end.’

– The official in the city or county where the carnival is set upto whom protection is paid to “overlook” violations”

BALLY, BALLYHOO – A free show given outside a side show to attract a crowd (a ‘tip’) of potential patrons. Word came into being at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fakirs, gun spinners and dancing girls from the Middle East spoke no English, only Arabic. The interpreters used the expression “Dehalla Hoon” to call performers outside to the show fronts. The Western ears of the talkers translated it as ‘ballyhoo’ and so used it when the interpreters were away for lunch.

BANNER – Side Show. Pictorials on canvas hung in front of circus side shows and carnival midway shows depicting the wonders to be found inside.

BEARDED LADY – Woman with a beard appearing in a show. They were most often genuine, though there were the occasional gaffs.

– A complaint from a patron, a law officer or others concerning anything about the show.

– See AB.

Act where performer (usually a woman) lies in box while steel blades are pushed through it, the impression given the crowd that the performer is contorting herself like she’s made of rubber or can twist like a snake.

– lose money

BLOWOFF – Crowds leaving a big top after a performance. Extra pay, extra added attractions in back end of both circus and carnival side shows were also called blowoffs. Also blow off, blow-off or the blow.

BLOW DOWN – When one or more tents or riding devices is leveled to the ground by a wind storm.

BLOCKHEAD – An exhibit where a man would drive a spikeor[or spike,drill,ice pick, etc]into his nasal passage[also known as “human blockhead”]…Melvin Burkhart is widely credited for inventing this act.

BOSS CANVASMAN – Literally, what it says. He’s the man in charge of making sure the canvas goes up properly and doesn’t come down on the show short of a major blow down.

BUILD UP – Verbal set-up in a game’s pitch to imply bigger winnings.

BOUNCER – A rubber or vinyl reproduction of a pickled punk. [see “pickled punk”] There were any number of reasons for using reproductions instead of genuine punks including local legal restrictions, loss of the genuine article, or easier accessibility to one than the other.

CARNIVAL – A cooperative business arrangement between independent showmen, ride owners and concessioners to present outdoor amusement for the public.

CARNY – Someone who works in a carnival. The term is also applied to the carnival itself. It’s a term used by some in the business and disliked by others.

COP – to cheat or manipulate a sucker at some point in a carnival game.

COUNT STORE /ADD-UP JOINT – A carnival game which requires counting to a certain number to win prizes.The agent uses mis-counting or bad percentages to “enhance his profit.

A gaffed freak, usually constructed to appear mummified or otherwise preserved, often displayed in a tiny coffin. The name is pretty much self explanatory, and they often had horns, fangs, hoofed feet, claws, etc.

DIME MUSEUM – A collection of specimens, exotic objects and live acts and performances, usually set up in its own building though just as often set up in an old store front. They were most popular primarily in the 19th and early 20th Century. The present day road-side museums are their descendants.

A rest room or toilet wherever it is.

An act where the performer supposedly has been driven “insane”, become deformed , or perhaps given birth to a hideous baby because of drug abuse.The pitch or banner would usually be something to the effect of “See the shocking and heartbreaking victims of drug abuse!”

ELEPHANT SKIN GIRL/BOY/ETC. – Human oddity whose skin texture resembled an elephant’s and/or whose skin was baggy and loose.

ELECTRIC CHAIR ACT – An act where the performer [usually named “Elektra or “Elektro”, depending on the gender], would sit in an “electric chair” and the illusion that they were being electrocuted would be created with smoke, lights, and various other gimmicks.Could be a dangerous stunt, if done wrong.

FAIRBANK – When the agent “cheats” himself to get the player to bet higher and higher sums.

FIX/ICE – A payoff to operate an illegal gaming device.

FLAT STORE or FLAT JOINT– A gaming concession that really has no winning numbers, or combination of numbers. The “gentlemanly agents” sell “conversation” to their “marks.”

FLATTY – The operator of any less than legal game.

FRAME A SHOW – To build a new show.

FREAK – A human oddity on exhibition in a museum or in a circus or carnival side show. Early day circuses also displayed some featured freaks in their menageries.


FREAK SHOW – A show where human oddities and freakish working acts performed. The term applies to both circus and carnival. In practice, these shows were often ten-in-one shows and usually had a high percentage of working acts like sword swallowers and fire eaters or ‘made freaks’ like tattooed people.

FLASH – expensive [or expensive-looking] prizes to “dress a joint”

FLASHER – A game using electronics or lights and/or sounds to bypass local laws against mechanical wheels or other devices.

FROG MAN/GIRL/ETC. – Human oddity whose legs and arms could be contorted so they could squat in a frog-like position. This ability was often the result of the Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an affliction which can result in hyper-extensible joints, skin laxity (such as that of Rubber Skin people), and other anomalies. Otis Jordan, on the other hand, often billed as Frog Boy, was so called as his locomotion was by hopping, necessitated by his shriveled limbs.

FRONT – (show front, 200′ front, talking the front, ‘I got your money on the front,’ etc.) Generally, the front of a show, though its meaning can change depending on usage. A 200′ front pretty clearly means the show takes up 200′ of the midway and ‘I got your money on the front’ obviously means the patron paid to get into the show. On the other hand, the front end consists of only the concessions in a carnival but, on a circus, consists of the midway including concessions and the sideshows. The term ‘front’ can also apply to how someone looks, as in ‘putting up a front.’

FUZZ – Police, law enforcement

GAFF/GIMMICK -. In the broadest sense, anything controlled or ‘faked’. A gaffed game, for example, would be one where it would be nearly impossible for the patron to win unless the operator let him. In the case of freak animals (and human oddities as well on occasion), for example, a gaff wouldn’t be a genuine freak of nature, regardless how convincing it looked, but a specimen manufactured to look freakish

GEEK – a person who bit the head of a live animal,[usually a chicken], or a person who would sit in a bed of snakes.Considered the “the lowest of the low” in the carnival.[See the 1949 movie “Nightmare Alley”, for a good geek story.] Sorry,Ozzy didn’t invent it, kids.

GIANT/GIANTESS – a condition called “acromegaly”[Abe Lincoln actual suffered from it, giving his body a “gangly” appearance], causes the person to grow abnormally large.It is a disease affecting the pituatary gland.Not all “giants” had this ailment, some were just really tall men that were displayed next to midgets, making them appear taller.The giant Robert Wadlow, who worked with Ringling Brothers Circus, asked to be buried in a concrete coffin to avoid ending up in some “freak” museum after his death!

GIRL-TO-GORILLA/GORILLA GIRL/APE GIRL SHOW – An elaborate illusion show that gives the patrons the impression that a beautiful girl is being changed into a gorilla. These shows have also appeared as variations on the transformation theme; for example, skeletal corpse to a living vampire. The girl-to-gorilla show is still the all-time money maker though.

GIRL SHOW – In its generic sense, a show in which dancing women are the primary attraction. These could range from the reviews (the Broadway reviews with dancing girls or the more exotic ‘foreign’ reviews such as the Hawaiian reviews) to the racier hootchie kootchie (also houchie kouchie, hoochie koochie, hootchy kootchy, etc.) shows.

GOING OUT HORIZONTAL – Continuing to perform until the grim reaper takes you away, rather than retire.

GRAB JOINT – An eating concession (with circuses a hamburger stand). The customer is served directly over the counter from the griddle, juice bowl, etc. Circus grab joints had no seating of any kind for the townspeople. Only seating for them was in the big top. Some carnival grab joints do have seating all around stand.

GRIFT – The crooked games, short change artist, cloths line robbers, merchandise boosters, pickpockets and all other types of skullduggery carried by some of the “fireball shows.” The term was used collectively to cover any and all such activities.

GRIFTER – A crooked operator of any kind.

GRIND – In the spiel from a show front, the rhythmic verbal conclusion that’s meant to move the patrons into the show. It differs from the opening bally, which is meant to get the attention of midway strollers and sell them on the show they’ll see.

GRIND SHOW – A show or attraction that never has a “bally.” Front men and ticket sellers just “grind away” all day. Most of the shows on carnival midways today are grind shows, the grind blaring over the midway from an audiotape loop and sound system.

GRIND STORE – Usually a small game that needs a lot of action to make a profit, generally one that operates on pennies, nickels, or dimes.

GRINDER – Usually the ticket seller, who would fill in by pitching the show between ballies.

GYPSY [dual meaning] – Can mean an illegitamate operator or someone, usually a female, who follows a carnival to work.

HALF AND HALF – Side show attractions who claimed to be hermaphrodites. Some of them were. One of the most famous was Freida-Fred, born in NY in 1908 and appeared in the movie “Freaks”.

HALF GIRL/BOY – A human oddity born without lower limbs.

HANKY-PANKY – Usually a small, cheap game run illegally.

HEADLESS/HEADLESS ILLUSION – Illusion show where a ‘headless’ person is displayed. They’re usually pitched as ‘medical miracles’ following tragic accidents.

HEAT – Problems, arguments or battles between the show, or its people, and town’s people. Most heat was caused by illegal activities of a show, but not always by the show involved. A “burn em up” outfit in ahead of a real “Sunday Schooler” could and did leave a lot of heat for the latter.

HOT SNAKE – A snake show term for a poisonous snake.

HUMAN PINCUSION – An act in which the performer sticks sharp objects such as pins, needles,meat-skewers,etc, into their flesh [Also known as “Fakirs”…from the Indian term…or “Pain-proof men”

HUMAN SKELETON – An act where the the performer was extremely emaciated from a disease or muscular disorder in which they could not gain weight.One example was “The Shadow Man”,whose height was 5’7″, weighing only 71 lbs.[Worked with Ringling Circus when well enough]

HUMAN TORSO – Human oddity born without arms or legs.There were many of these ‘human oddities”, but perhaps the most famous was Prince Randian, a star attraction at Coney Island & also starred in the movie “Freaks”.He was introduced as the ‘human catapillar who crawls on his belly like a reptile’.Randian could roll a cigarette and light it just using his lips!

HYPNOTIST – the “Dreamland Circus of Coney Island” featured a bizarre hypnotist named Chief Pantugal [who had the appearance of a “wild man”] In his act he “hypnotized” chickens and roosters!

INDEPENDENT MIDWAY – The midway concessions booked in separate from those with the carnival. In a fair, for example, the independent midway could consist of booths for local businesses, food stands raising money for fraternal organizations, even shows such as might appear on the carnival midway such as reptile shows, motordromes, etc.

INSIDE – (money, lecturer, etc.) “Inside the show.”

JACKPOTS – Trouper’s stories of their former escapades, often exaggerated. ‘Cuttin’ up jackpots’ is the expression given to swapping these stories.

ILLUSION SHOW – Show consisting of illusions, for example, headless, Spidora, Snake Girl, etc.

LAND OFFICE BUSINESS – Doing so much business you almost have to turn people away.

LAYDOWN – Usually the place on the counter where the “mark” puts his money to bet, but can also include charts that show odds, payouts, etc. For example, on a roll-down game.

LECTURER – Individual who talks inside the show, lecturing on the various acts. Often, acts lecture on themselves, especially the human oddities.

LOBSTER-MAN/BOY – a person with a birth defect giving their arms and/or legs the appearence of a lobster or crab’s “pinchers”.Grady Stiles of Pittsburgh was a 5th generation “lobster-man”,who had a daughter with the same birth defect.

LOT – The show grounds.

MARK – A carnival term for townspeople. Particularly, the ones who ‘go up against the games.’

MENTALIST – Performer, usually working with an assistant, whose act consists of ‘reading the minds’ of the patrons.

MIDWAY – In its broadest sense, the location where all the concessions, rides and shows are located in a circus, fair or carnival. Of course, a carnival is basically nothing but midway; in a circus, the midway is just that: the midway between the ‘front door’ to the circus lot itself and the ‘big top’ where the circus performers do their acts; and in a fair, the midway will probably be a combination of the carnival and the ‘independent midway,’ amusements booked in separate from the carnival by the fair committee itself.

MISSING LINK – A person[usually ape-like in appearance, either faked or real], who was supposedly the long-sought-after evolutionary “missing-link” between prehistoric and modern man.One such performer was Krao Farini, a young woman found in the Laotian jungle in 1885.She had some simian characteristics, such as a prehensile foot used to pick up objects and her family had hirsute features.She worked for Barnum & Bailey til her death in 1926.

MITT CAMP – A fortune telling booth on a carnival.

MONEY STORE – A game that pays off with cash instead of prizes.

MONKEY GIRL/BOY/ETC. – Human oddity afflicted with hirsutism. Such individuals might also be called Wolf Boys, Dog Boys, etc. Their hairiness is more extreme than, say, a bearded lady’s.

MOSS-HAIRED GIRL – A gaffed human oddity, generally caucasian, who would bush her hair, much in the style of the 1960s – 1970s ‘Afro’ worn by African-Americans. The pitch which usually accompanied the act involved kidnaping by ‘Arabs’ and being forced into harem life, followed by a harrowing escape culminating in refuge there in the show.

MOTORDROME – A daredevil show involving motorcycles and sometimes four-wheeled vehicles, such as go-carts, which race around inside small, circular wooden enclosures (‘wall of death’) or spherical wire mesh steel enclosures (‘globe of death’).

MUSEUM SHOW – Virtually any show the exhibits for which are not alive. The show might contain specimens that are preserved, such as taxidermied or mummified freak animals, or other exotic items of interest, such as the weapons used by famous murderers. Also called a still show.

NUT – The operating expenses of a show (daily, weekly or yearly). The story is that the word came into usage after a creditor came onto a circus grounds and took the nuts off the wagon wheels. “I will keep them until I get my money,” he announced. He was paid. The nuts went back on the wheels and the show moved that night. “So a show always sought to ‘make the nut’ and start making money above its expenses. A show that hadn’t yet ‘made the nut’ was said to be ‘on the nut’ and one that had was said to be ‘off the nut’.”

OBESITY ACTS – Obviously a pre-“junk food” phenomenon.Though grossly overweight people are common today, they were a source of great amusement to carnival goers.Usually portrayed stereotypically as “a jolly fat woman”.

OFFICE – The carnival office wagon or trailer.

OSSIFIED GIRL/BOY/ETC. – Human oddity afflicted with a condition which effectively freezes them in position, withering their limbs, etc.An example of “ossification” was “Mr. Maurice”, who was normal until the age of 10, when his body started turning to stone from the bone outward.He could not move, except to open his lips slightly to sip liquid food.

OUTSIDE MAN – A shill used to promote a game by making bets to raise the payoff.

PADDLES – Slips with numbers to show pay-offs. Often gaffed.

“Paid off in the Dark” – When a show goes off without paying the help.

PARADE or SPEC [Spectacle]- The procession which used to announce the arrival of the circus to town. Traditionally, circuses would make them as glorious and spectacular as possible and they’d wind through the middle of town all the way to the lot where the big show was to occur.

PEEKING – [peck joint] – Where at least part of the gaff depends on the operator miscalling a known score either with speed or sleight of hand.

PENGUIN BOY/GIRL/ETC. – Human oddity afflicted with foreshortened limbs, usually with hands and feet attached directly to the torso without arms or legs. See Seal Boy/Girl.

PERCENTAGE – That part of a showman’s gross receipts that must be paid (usually in addition to other costs too) to the carnival owner for the right to play the spot.

PICKLED PUNK – A carnival term for human fetuses. Two-headed human babies, joined together twins, etc., etc. (Also normal specimens from one to eight months). Not India rubber as many believed, these specimens were repulsive to some, but highly educational for millions of others. See BABY SHOW as well.

PINHEAD – Human oddity afflicted with microcephally, the head coming to a point, a fact which was often further emphasized by leaving a top knot of hair to emphasize the head shape.

PITCH – Selling merchandise by lecturing and demonstrating.

PLATFORM – The raised staging where acts perform. It can refer to those inside the show or the bally platform on the front of the show.

POSING SHOW – A show where the female ‘models’ pose as they might for artists or in imitation of poses from famous artworks.

PROFESSOR – Title often taken by any showman considered ‘expert’ in their chosen field. It was seldom a true indicator of academic pedigree, though it could well represent a wealth of knowledge about the public at large.

PUNK – A young person or animal. A child or an unusually immature young person. Also a type of sexual pervert.

RAILROAD SHOW – A show which travels by railroad on it’s own train of special built railroad cars.

RANGY – Worked up, often in a vulgar way. Typically, a show could be rangy (say, a kootch show; usually, though, this would be termed a ‘strong’ show) or a lot of rangy patrons (drunken, disorderly, disruptive) could be in a show. Pronounced like what you did to the bell.

ROUSTABOUTS – Circus working men on the lot, particularly the big top crew. Some uninformed writers just love to use “razor back” for these hands. Razor backs were always train crewmen not canvasmen, which really is the proper term to use for big top men. Men in each department had designations from the job they performed. Dog boys, pony punks, property men, skinners, bull men, cage hands, front door men, lead bar detective, honey bucket man, coffee boy, pastry cook, etc., etc.

ROUTE – List of towns and events played each week, month or year.

RUBBER-SKINNED MAN/WOMAN – a condition which gives the performer excessively baggy skin. Agnes C.Schmidt was afflicted with the epidermal malady called neurofibromatosis, which made her skin thick,hard,and hang down to her hips and knees. She was with the “Believe It Or Not” Fair in 1933.

RUBE – Hey Rube or a battle with the towners. Also, a not very affectionate term for the towner himself. Modern usage is “Clem”.

“SAWDUST IN THE BLOOD” – A compliment for a long-time carny.

SEAL BOY/GIRL/ETC. – Human oddity afflicted with phocomelia, or foreshortened ‘seal,’ limbs, usually with hands and feet attached directly to the torso without arms or legs. See Penguin Boy/Girl.

SHILL/SHILLABER – One who pretends to play a game, or to buy a ticket to an attraction, in order to entice others to join or follow him. Without a good “shill,” and entire “tip” may stay perfectly still after an “opening.” All with the cash in their hands, and not one of them will “break” for the ticket boxes, unless some brave soul leads the way. “Shills” fill the need for brave souls.

SIAMESE TWINS – Twins congenitally joined at a part of their body.Xiphopages were joined at the side or sternum, Pygopages at the pelvis, and Craniopages at the head.The most famous Siamese twins were Eng & Chang, twins born in 1811 & brought to the U.S. and performing for P.T. Barnum.At the age of 63, Chang developed pneumonia & died ,Eng following him in death within hours.[See the movie “Dead Ringers”]

SIDESHOW – Essentially, any show that plays the midway, though the now more common application is to the freak shows or ten-inone shows. Technically, however, even a menagerie on the midway of a circus is a sideshow. Also ‘side show’.

SIDEWALL – The canvas wall that hangs below a canvas ‘top,’ as in ‘big top.’ What most outside the business would call a ‘tent’ is, in reality, the canvas top with its sidewalls attached.

SINGLE O – A show consisting of a single attraction.

SLACK WIRE – A wire act, usually performed low as opposed to high wire, in which the wire is slack and bows under the wire artist, allowing for a periodically more comic (though just as difficult) act than usually seen on the high wire.

SLUM – Cheap prizes, bought in bulk, always worth less than the price of the game.

SNAKE WOMAN/MAN – a person who supposedly could wiggle like a snake due to a genetic deformity.One such performer was “Serpentina”,the so-called “serpent girl”.She had no bones, not even vertabra.[except her skull] She could bend her body parts in almost any direction, and became wealthy from her public appearances.

SPIDORA – Illusion show in which the head of a woman appears to grow from the body of a huge spider. The illusion is a reversal of the headless illusion.

SQUARE – To settle a dispute without use of the Law or the fists. Also used by the legal adjusters for the “fixing of a town” at City Hall, and the lavish use of passes on the lot to keep the Law happy.

SPIEL – The speech made on a show front by the talker to the gathering crowd.

STICK – A shill. See the definition above.

TABLEAU – A grouping of figures, the term most commonly used in wax museums and their midway counterparts, the wax shows. They were usually of historical scenes, but could be literary, mythical, horrific, etc.

TALKER – Never “barker.” The man who makes the “outside openings” and “talks” in front of an attraction. If he talks inside the attraction, he is a “lecturer.”

TATTOOED/MAN/WOMAN – this exhibit wouldn’t make even “one thin dime”today, but perhaps unknown to “Generation X”, there was a time when a person with tattoos covering their entire body was considered “bizarre”.

TAKE YOUR BEST HOLT – Do anything to get the money. Also “work strong.”

TEN IN ONE – A carnival midway show with ten attractions inside. It is usually an “illusion” show or some other “string show.” Can be either a “pit” or a “platform” show. Most of them worked on ground level though. “Also ’10-in-1,’ etc.”

TIP – The crowd gathered in front of an attraction by the “ballyhoo.” They listen to the talker, watch the free exhibition on the bally platform, and if the talker is convincing enough, they buy tickets and go in to see the promised show. When entire tip has been “turned” by a talker’s “opening,” it is said that he has “cleaned the midway.”

TOP – See definition for SIDEWALL above.

TORTURE SHOW – A horrific museum show displaying implements of torture, often shown in use on mannequins.

TROUPER – A person who has spent at least one full season on some type traveling amusement organization. By then, they are usually hooked.

TRUCK SHOW – A show which travels by truck, the situation of most carnivals today.

TURN THE TIP – The would be patrons in front of a bally platform who have been convinced that the “talker” is truthful and his attraction must be seen are “turned” when they crowd up to the ticket boxes and purchase tickets.

TURTLE WOMAN/MAN – a person who has the look of a turtle, due to abnormally short legs and arms, walking on all fours.Some were perhaps double-jointed, enhancing the effect.

WAX SHOW – A show featuring wax figures of famous people, in this case outlaws and such. These early “Law” and “Outlaw” shows later evolved into “Crime Does Not Pay” shows. Scott Younger, of the Younger Family, operated a great wax show for many years.

WIDE OPEN – A show or carnival where anything goes, where the shows can play as “strong” as they want, meaning raunchy in this case, and the games can take the marks for anything they can by any means possible. Such conditions never existed without the approval of the local authorities, usually after big pay offs from the carnival people.

WINTERQUARTERS – Location where a show stays during its off season, that is, the quarters in the winter. A show’s (or circus’ or carnival’s) winterquarters need not be in a temperate climate zone, though a number of them are in the South.

WITH IT – (as in, “with it and for it”) An expression by which one trouper may know another even though they have never met before. Warning: Do not attempt to use this word unless you have been properly instructed in the manner by which to deliver it.

X-RAY SHOW – A potentially lethal show that played at least one world’s fair (St. Louis Exposition in 1904.) Apparently, one could go into the show and look through objects, including yourself and others, by use of x-rays. Needless to say, at the turn of the century, no one was aware of the dangers inherent in such a show.