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A Brief History of the American Freak Show

The exhibition of human oddities dates back so far that it really has no traceable beginning. Records clearly indicate that early Renaissance English fairs offered glimpses of "human variations" for a small fee. These exhibitions became the basis upon which the American "displays" were modeled. During seasons when there were no fairs, managers or showmen would continue to tour, exhibiting one-person "curiosities" in rented tavern rooms.
It is not surprising that people did not know what to make of these strange exhibits. The elephant was not shown in America until 1796, the first giraffe in 1837. The "scientific" age was dawning and people were interested in how all these new species fit into God's great order of creatures, for the "human curiosities" were naively believed to be just that: new species of humans -- or in some cases -- creatures from the moon.
In the final decades of the eighteenth century, a few enterprising scientists began to open private museums in major American cities. Human curiosities were usually the most popular displays.
Due to the amazing interest people had in the unusual, promoters soon began to embellish their exhibits with presentations that were, in some cases, half-truths if not out right deceptions. Although fraudulence and exaggeration have always been a part of the presentations, American shows of the mid-nineteenth century institutionalized them as fundamental and lasting conventions of the freak show.
By 1840, most American cities had at least one "science" museum, and major cities had multiple institutions in close competition. This was the year that P. T. Barnum, a man of great promotion and public relations skills, purchased a museum in New York opposite the Astor House, the city's most prestigious hotel. Quickly it was transformed into a fashionable and legitimate entertainment center: The American Museum. He accomplished this by introducing an amazingly diverse crop of human oddities and by fabricating outlandish stories of their origins and histories.
Within a decade, The American Museum had become the premier attraction of New York City. The lavishly decorated lecture hall seated three thousand patrons eager to be amused and educated by "scientific demonstrations" and other entertainment. Its reign was short as the museum was destroyed by fire in 1868, but this freed Barnum to take his show on the road. Though many large and popular "museums" still operated in all the major cities of America, by the 1870's, the circus had become the dominant exhibitor of human oddities. Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus still had a traveling freak show in 1956.
In the first decades of this century, public opinion of the freak show began to shift. People were beginning to view "freaks" as unfortunate and diseased beings rather than as interesting curiosities. The press declared that the oddities were to be pitied, and that the public exhibition of these people was morbid and unwholesome.
Whereas the freak show was previously the main attraction of of the midway, by 1940 respectable people were turning their backs on the shows. Once seen as the entertainment of the intellectual, it was now viewed as the playground of the morally corrupt.
Usually overlooked was the fact that while numerous freak roles did require congenital malformations, hormonal dysfunctions or chronic disorders, the great majority of the freak show characters were enterprising troupers. These career performers took pride (and often wealth and fame) from their uniqueness and actively molded their presentations. They viewed the outsider you and me -- in contempt for our naivete and ordinary drabness. They may have been the "freaks," but we were the "suckers," and that was much worse.
Today, with the exception of a few small well-worn freak shows, the domain of the freaks has been overtaken by daytime television talk shows and the pop music entertainer's quest for attention. We can safely assume that as long as voyeurism and exhibitionism continue to march hand-in-hand there will always be a freak show... and suckers to buy tickets.