From 1840 until 1940, freak shows by the hundreds crisscrossed the United States, from the smallest towns to the largest cities, exhibiting their casts of dwarfs, giants, Siamese twins, bearded ladies, savages, snake charmers, fire eaters, and other oddities. By today's standards such displays would be considered cruel and exploitative--the pornography of disability. Yet for one hundred years the freak show was widely accepted as one of America's most popular forms of entertainment.
Robert Bogdan's fascinating social history brings to life the world of the freak show and explores the culture that nurtured and, later, abandoned it. In uncovering this neglected chapter of show business, he describes in detail the flimflam artistry behind the shows, the promoters and the audiences, and the gradual evolution of public opinion from awe to embarrassment. Freaks were not born, Bogdan reveals; they were manufactured by the amusement world, usually with the active participation of the freaks themselves. Many of the "human curiosities" found fame and fortune, becoming the celebrities of their time, until the ascent of professional medicine transformed them from marvels into pathological specimans.
Sturdy scholarly study of a fringe topic long taboo in polite society. At first, Bogdan admits, he felt shame when asked about his study (a shame related to the revulsion many readers will feel), but he adds that "I feel quite comfortable with my subject now." He also points out that for the "exhibits" themselves, being a freak meant fame and fortune as well as degradation. His absorbing study covers novelty acts (sword-swallowers and the like); "made freaks" (such as the tattooed lady); "gaffed freaks" (fakes, such as "Siamese twins" who disjoined every night); and born freaks - the authentic legless and armless "wonders," microcephalics, Siamese twins, dwarves, and giants who populated American carnivals from 1840 to 1940. Who can we thank for this bizarre bit of American showmanship? None other than P.T. Barnum, whose finest hour was staging the triumphal wedding of "General" Tom Thumb and the equally diminutive Lavinia Bump at Manhattan's Grace Church during the Civil War. Other freaks discussed in depth include the Hilton Sisters, celebrities in the 20's who ended up as checkout girls at a Charlotte supermarket; William Henry Johnson, also known as "Zip" or "What Is It?" and the model for the Zippy the Pinhead comic strip; and dwarf brothers from New York paraded around as "The Wild Men of Borneo." Bogdan also unearths rare information about Serpent Queens, Bearded Ladies, Circassian Beauties, South Pacific Cannibals, and a number of other curiosities filling the "Odditoriums" of an American hungry for novelty and naive enough to swallow what hucksters happily delivered. Seventy-nine incredible halftone photographs enrich the scholarship here. Unpleasant but impressive. (Kirkus Reviews)
Number Of Pages: 336
Published: 1st January 1988
Publisher: The University of Chicago Press
Country of Publication: US
Dimensions (cm): 22.9 x 15.9
Weight (kg): 0.44
Edition Number: 2
Edition Type: New edition