A Freak Show is a show where human oddities and freakish working acts are performed. The term applies to both circus and carnival. In practice, these shows were often ten-in-one shows and usually had on top of the usual human prodigies a high percentage of working acts like sword swallowers and fire eaters or ‘made freaks’ like tattooed people.
The freaks of nature displayed here appealed to peoples’ prejudice, their unquenchable curiosity for the outlandish and the unknown, and the paradoxical human attraction and repulsion for the diseased and deformed.
The showman was an essential component and it was the relationship between the presenter and the exhibit that produced the freak show. The exhibit of course, could not be seen before a show and therefore needed the showman to market their particular attractions to the curiosity seeking public. An essential part of the telling of the tale consisted of wonderfully and medically impossible reasons to explain to the audience the history of the person they were going to see.
The most popular attractions were oddities with extraordinary talents, who could do supposedly normal things despite their disabilities. A famous example of this type of act and sort were Siamese twins, so called because of Chang and Eng, the original twins were born in Siam in 1811 and brought to America in 1829. Midgets were frequently advertised as being much older than they actually were. Hirsute or bearded attractions would range from Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy and the famous fake show Hairy Mary from Borneo, which was in reality a monkey.
All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here–Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dulness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters. Tents and Booths
Meanwhile, as if the whole were one vast mill,
Are vomiting, receiving on all sides,
Men, Women, three-years’ Children, Babes in arms.
Wordsworth’s description of Bartholomew Fair (from The Prelude, Book 7. 1805, lines 706 – 721)