Photo by Ilona D. Veresk

This past winter the current generation was introduced to the magical and often unbelievable and these days controversial P.T. Barnum. For those who still don’t know who Barnum was, he was an American showman, politician, and businessman remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, as well as P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome”, a traveling circus, menagerie, and museum of “freaks”. Many snowflakes take offense in the fact that Barnum employed freaks. According to the above-mentioned snowflakes – “enslaved”. What people tend to forget is that times were different, very different. People with birth defects or unusual talents were often viewed as an abomination and often smothered in their cribs or left behind on the street. Enter freak show. Freak Show is an exhibition of biological rarities, referred to in popular culture as “freaks of nature”. Typical features would be physically unusual humans, such as those uncommonly large or small, those with both male and female secondary sexual characteristics, people with other extraordinary diseases and conditions, and performances that are expected to be shocking to the viewers. Heavily tattooed or pierced people have sometimes been seen in freak shows, as have attention-getting physical performers such as fire-eating and sword-swallowing acts. By 19th century, freak shows reached maturity as successful commercially run enterprises that were beneficial for people with disabilities, giving them jobs and a steady income, rather than being institutionalized for their disabilities. Although freak shows were viewed as a place for entertainment, they were also a place of employment for those who could advertise, manage, and perform in its attractions. In an era before there was welfare or worker’s compensation, severely disabled people often found that placing themselves on exhibition was their only choice and opportunity for making a living. Despite current values of the wrongness of exploitation of those with disabilities, during the nineteenth century performing in an organized freak show was a relatively respectable way to earn a living. Many freak show performers were lucky and gifted enough to earn a livelihood and have a good life through exhibitions, some becoming celebrities, commanding high salaries and earning far more than acrobats, novelty performers, and actors. The salaries of dime museum freaks usually varied from twenty-five to five hundred dollars a week, making a lot more money than lecture-room variety performers. Freak shows provided more independence to some disabled people than today’s affirmative action programs.Freaks were seen to have profitable traits, with an opportunity to become celebrities obtaining fame and fortune. Bottom line – educate yourself before you stomp your little foot and yell something unintelligible.

Story by Astrid Buck.