During the 1800s, Phineas Taylor Barnum – better known as “P.T. Barnum” – became famous as “The Great American Showman.” Barnum specialized in displaying odd and intriguing attractions to audiences who were eager to pay to see something out of the ordinary.
One of the main ways Barnum drew crowds was to exploit abnormalities in human beings. The display became known as his “Freak Show,” which traveled around the world and inspired many other circuses to follow suit with their own versions. It should be noted that “freak” is an outdated, and rather offensive term, since these people were simply that: people. They just so happened to be born with disabilities. However, many of these performers were blessed with the chance to become rich and famous, which is more than many able-bodied people could say at the time.
10. Joice Heth
The very first human attraction that began P.T. Barnum’s career was a woman named Joice Heth, who he claimed was 161-years-old. Barnum received a letter about Joice from a fellow circus owner named R.W. Lindsay in Kentucky, so he paid her a visit. She was blind, and her eyes looked sunken into her head, which gave her the appearance of being very old. She also went on and on about the time she spent being the wet nurse of George Washington. Barnum wrote in his biography that he paid $1,000 for her, and became her new owner. Keep in mind that this was during the 1830s, so slavery was still legal in the United States.
Barnum took Heth on a tour, starting in New York City and traveling along the East Coast. He would show off her “act” in hotels, inns, museums, and concert halls. If you’re wondering why people would pay so much just to see an old woman sitting in a chair, Joice did look so old, in fact, that one newspaper actually thought she was a robotic puppet, or “automaton.” During this time, Barnum began to pick up more human attractions for his show.
Joice died in 1836, and when doctors performed an autopsy, they concluded that she was only 80-years-old when she died. In fact, there was so much debate and speculation as to Joice’s true age that 1,500 people actually paid to be present during the autopsy. Despite the fact that the public knew they had been duped, and essentially paid just to see a pretty average old lady, they still wanted to come back for more, proving that they were eager to see whatever spectacle Barnum decided to come up with.
9. General Tom Thumb
When Charles Stratton was just 4-years-old, his parents took him to meet P.T. Barnum. He was only 25 inches high and weighed 15 pounds. His parent said that he stopped growing when he was only 6-months-old. Barnum taught him to sing, dance, and impersonate historic figures like Napoleon Bonaparte. He also coupled up with other performers in comedy acts. Barnum gave him the stage name of Tom Thumb, after an English fairy tale character. He told everyone that he was actually 11-years-old, and dressed him in hand-made suits.
Audiences absolutely adored this tiny gentleman, and he toured all through the United States and Europe. Stratton was able to enjoy a life of wealth and luxury from his performances. He became the world’s first international superstar. He bought a beautiful home, and even owned a yacht. By the 1850s, Barnum was one of the wealthiest men in New York, and it was all thanks to the popularity of Tom Thumb.
8. The Warren Sisters
After the success of General Tom Thumb, Barnum decided to gather more “proportionate dwarfs” for his traveling circus. This means that the bodies of these dwarves needed to be the same proportions as an average adult, only miniaturized. Lavinia and Minnie Warren were sisters born 7 years apart, and they both suffered from a pituitary disorder, while the rest of their siblings grew to an average size. Lavinia was an actress, and she even played in a silent film called The Lilliputians Courtship.
She went on to marry Tom Thumb, and of course, Barnum exploited the ceremony to the fullest extent. Minnie Warren (pictured above) married Commodore Nutt, who was yet another dwarf performer. Sadly, Minnie died during childbirth. Abraham Lincoln was a huge fan of these little people, and met with them personally.
7. Myrtle Corbin, The Four-Legged Girl
Myrtle Corbin had a “dipygus twin” growing from her body that had never fully formed in the womb. She had two sets of a fully formed lower body from the belly button down, and one torso, head, and arms. Myrtle joined the P.T. Barnum Ringling Circus Freak Show as “The Four-Legged Woman” when she was 13-years-old. She earned more than $450 a week. With inflation, that’s more like earning $11,000 a week by today’s standards.
During her travels, Myrtle met a man named James Clinton Bickell in Kentucky, and they were married when she was 19-years-old. When she got pregnant, she was studied in medical journals across the country. Not only did she have two legs, but she also had two sets of internal and external sexual organs. She experienced giving birth out of both sets of legs, having a total of 5 children.
6. Zip, The Pinhead
William Henry Johnson grew up in a family of former slaves. He had a medical condition known as “Microcephaly,” which is when the brain does not develop properly, and someone has an abnormally small head. Since the brain is underdeveloped, people with microcephaly are also mentally challenged. Barnum added William Johnson to his show, calling him “Zip the Pinhead.” Barnum claimed that he was the “missing link” of evolution between man and ape, so he put him inside a large cage, and when the curtain was pulled back, William would screech and shake the bars.
As time went on, Barnum claimed that he had “tamed” this missing link, and Zip the Pinhead stood alongside other “freaks” on display. The shape of the skulls of people with microcephaly were soon nicknamed “pinheads.” In the 1932 movie Freaks, several “pinheads” were featured among the circus sideshow acts.
5. Prince Randian, The Living Torso
Prince Randian was born in the South American country of Guyana, and his true name was never known. He had Tetra-amelia syndrome, which meant that he was born without arm or legs. At the age of 18, he moved to the United States to perform for Barnum. His speciality was rolling and lighting his own cigarettes with his lips. He could also write with his mouth.
Sometimes, they would dress him up like a snake, caterpillar, or potato. In 1932, he appeared in the movie Freaks, where he demonstrated his cigarette trick. Prince Randian had a great sense of humor, and it helped his popularity with the ladies. He was married, and had 5 children. He died at 63-years-old from a heart attack right after giving a performance in New York City.
4. The Wild Men of Borneo
Barnum continued to bring on dwarves to his Freak Show, but with a twist. He met brothers Hiram and Barney Davis. They were mentally disabled, and despite the fact that they both only weighed 45 pounds, they both possessed incredible strength, and could lift up to 300 pounds. One of their main acts would be picking up members of the audience. Barnum decided to call them “Waino and Plutanor,” presenting them as the “Wild Men of Borneo.” He also invented a backstory that they were natives who were captured from the island of Borneo. The audience was made to believe that everyone from Borneo were “savages” who looked and acted just like these brothers.
During the course of their time performing at Barnum’s New American Museum in New York City, they earned over $200,000, which was a tremendous amount of money back in the 1800s, and was more like making them millionaires today. As they grew older, both twins began going blind. They were taken care of well into their old age, which was into their 90s. However, the lie about their true identities continued in the public eye. Even when the newspapers wrote of the obituary for “Plutanor” they wrote as if he truly a wild man from Borneo.
3. Josephine Clofullia, The Bearded Lady
Josephine Boisdechêne was born in Switzerland in 1827, and she suffered from a condition known as hypertrichosis. By the time she was 8-years-old, she already had a beard on her face that was 2 inches long. Barnum hired Josephine, but decided to change her last name to “Clofullia.” Barnum believed that when audiences saw her, they would debate over whether she was truly a bearded lady, or just a man wearing a dress. Much to his disappointment, guests tended to accept Josephine’s gender.
In order to spark his own debate and attention, in 1853 Barnum hired a man named William Charr to sue him for fraud. After the case appeared in court, both Josephine’s father and husband gave their testimony to the court, and three different doctors confirmed that she was, in fact, a woman. This publicity stunt worked. The case was reported all over the press, and it led to thousands of New Yorkers pouring into his American Museum to see her.
2. Chang Yu Sing, The Chinese Giant
Chang Yu Sing was over 8-feet tall, and he weighed 364 pounds. P.T. Barnum loved to dress him in long Chinese robes, because he believed that long clothing gives the illusion of height. Barnum advertised that Chang was actually 9-feet tall.
When Chang became part of the Freak Show, he was sure to highlight what made him different, poking fun at the stereotype that Chinese people were typically “short,” so of course, a Chinese Giant was considered to be very much out of the ordinary, and drew an interested crowd for at least a short time (er, no pun intended). There are not too many records of Chang Yu Sing’s time spent in the PT Barnum Freak Show, so it’s likely that he got his payment for a short-term contract, only to return to his normal life.
1. Isaac W. Sprague, “The Human Skeleton”
Isaac W. Sprague started out just like any normal boy born in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. He was a happy child who particularly loved to swim, and everything was going great until he turned 12-years-old. Isaac began losing weight very quickly, even though he still had a very healthy appetite. At the time, doctors could not figure out what was wrong with him, but doctors eventually diagnosed him with progressive muscular atrophy. He worked his father’s business of being a cobbler, until his parents passed away when he was in his 20s. He was physically too weak to do the hard labor of shoemaking on his own, so he auditioned for a role in Barnum’s American Museum.
He landed the very lucrative gig as “The Human Skeleton,” making $80 per week, or $2,000 with modern inflation. He simply had to stand there on display, but he still carried around a can of milk, as to ensure he was always trying to keep up his strength. He continued working for Barnum for several years, even meeting his wife and fathering children. By the time he was 44-years-old, he still weighed only 43 pounds. He died at the age of 46, which is actually much longer than the average life expectancy of someone with his disease.