Saturday, 20 September 2014

Victorian Freak Shows

With fall and the harvest well under way, many areas are holding local fairs. While the history of fairs goes back into Roman times, Victorian times were when England and North America saw a growth in the larger agricultural based fairs we know today. One aspect of these fairs we no longer have is the sideshow or "freak" show as it has been called.

Prior to the Victorian era small travelling fairs showing oddities came to towns every now and then. With the industrial revolution, people began to move into larger towns. Train travel meant that goods and people could be moved around more quickly and from farther away. This lead to larger more centralized fairs with a wider variety of "freaks" for their sideshows.

In 1942 PT Barnum in the US exhibited his first hoax a Fiji Mermaid, which was actually the head of a monkey sewn on a fish. It was not uncommon to exhibit these kinds of hoaxes. In addition to these cryptozoological frauds, sideshows exhibited, giants, dwarves, the deformed and conjoined twins, along with people from exotic locals, labelling them as "freaks" to be feared and gawked at.

General Tom Thumb was a little person who was presented to the public by PT Barnum in the 1840s as an 11 year old when he was actually 4 to make him seem even smaller. He even had him drinking wine at age 5 and smoking cigars to make him seem more adult like. When the show came to England, he was twice presented to Queen Victoria, who was indeed amused, as she was a fan of sideshows.

Tom Norman was a famous sideshow businessman in England who picked up where PT Barnum left off. His shows started off by renting shops from poor tradesman and using them as a stage. He would have different shows each night featuring different types of oddities. Some were considered family friendly like "dwarves" while others were considered to be too gruesome for women and children.
His shows were so popular, he became very wealthy and acquired the two most famous "freaks" at the time Mary Ann Bevan, "the worlds ugliest woman" and John Merrick "the elephant man".
By the 1890s sideshows were a fixture in the West End. They became popular in England and the U.S. as an escape for the working class from drudgery. In the US during the 1860s they jumped in popularity as well, as a distraction from the war.

Despite the public's General disdain for the people in the shows, evidence seems to show that most of the showman did not mistreat their acts. The performers received a cut from the ticket sales and sales of trading cards, and unlike the showman, did not have to pay for overhead. The showmen did discourage doctors visiting though as they did not want them diagnosed with a disorder, as they wanted to maintain their mystique.

Sideshows began to decline at the start of the 20th century. It began to be seen as a form of lower entertainment, and the performers started to be seen with more sympathy and as human beings. Medical diagnosis also made people more aware of the conditions these people suffered from. Also with world travel, those from other parts of the globe were seen less and less as exotic "others". Another factor was after the fist world war there was more emphasis on glorifying heroes and less on novelty acts.

Personally I'm glad we don't treat others this way anymore. Though it could be argued that shows on channels like TLC are just a new form of this. What are your thoughts?

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