Ever Seen A Real Freak Show?

When I was about 9, we went to a State Fair and I was roaming around and paid to go see a real freak show - they still had them back then at larger carnivals.

The person who remains most vivid in my memory was Popeye - and you will see from these photos he really could pop those eyes out! (As a kid, I was most certainly “freaked out” as I stood about three feet away from him when he did this!)

But I got to wondering about other “freaks” of the day back then…sadly, what they considered the “Fat Lady” would not even get a glance today at my local Walmart compared to others in most towns and cities, and neither would the “Tattoo Man” get even a second look at any rock concert.

I have heard they have “new” freak shows now - extreme feats of idiocy using needles and piercings and other lovely talents.

Just wondered if you have ever gone to a “Freak Show” live - and no, I am not talking about having to sit though Thanksgiving dinner with your relatives…

I saw a carnival show like that in the 70s. Pretty lame. A couple of geek acts like the nail in the nose, a fat lady, a midget (as they called it), a fire eater, and the most horrifying, disgusting, emotionally scarring act I’ve ever seen a ventriloquist

I once paid .50$ to see the world’s smallest horse. I think they just dressed up a potbellied pig.

At the fairs around here they have booths where you can pay a dollar to go in and see (for example) a lady who’s half human/half snake. They’re scattered all over the fair. About three years ago I let my curiosity get the better of me and I paid my dollar and went in. Now, in fairness to me, this was a larger booth that boasted several attractions-- a snake lady, a spider lady, and various preserved weirdnesses in jars.

So I went in the creepy tent, and in the front section there were a bunch of jars of weird animals in formaldehyde; just snakes and big bugs and things. There was also a dead chupacabra which was so dried out it was impossible to imagine what it once was (or even what it was supposed to be). They had a taxidermied two-headed calf in a stall. Overall it was creepy and interesting.

Then you walked behind a curtain into the back section of the tent, where the live oddities were. On opposite sides of the back of the tent was the spider woman and the snake woman. Both were in “cages” which were actually fairly elaborate costume set-ups that allowed various women to put their heads through the top so it appeared a human head was growing out of a giant spider or snake. It was far from convincing, but they had done a pretty good job. Most adults let out a laugh when they saw the women, but a few small kids seemed nervous. The place had a super creepy vibe, like I said, so I didn’t blame them. I mean, yes, these ladies weren’t half-snake or half-spider, but they were carnies, so it was still spooky.

After that you left through the back. Considering it cost a dollar, it was worth it, considering I’d been wondering about what was in those tents for years. So, that was my visit to the freak show. :slight_smile:

American and European Sideshow history has been a hobby of mine for about thirty years. It all began at the State Fair in the fifties when my mother, perhaps out of her own curiosity, took me to Dick Best’s sideshow on the midway of the Royal American Shows.

I’ve been privileged to be in correspondence with a few of the last of the last and other afficcionados and for a few years followed them on the web. My library is fairly extensive and I have twice traveled to Baraboo WI to research at the Circus World Archives.

The last traveling ten-in-one, belonging to Ward Hall, was at our State Fair a couple of years ago. I’m not sure that they’re still traveling. All the acts were performing acts and museum pieces. But the old spirit was there, short a few spangles and a bit tattered. I was delighted to have a short word with Poo-bah, the fire-eating dwarf. And yes, he has a formal name but prefers his working name and his life living with other sideshow families in Gibsonton, Florida

Political correctness has all but killed the sideshow. Some of it was well-meaning and a healthy reform. The rest of it robbed people of a chosen way of life.

I doubt you’ll get much comment here. I think people find it an unpleasant subject.

Oddly, the initial experience and my subsequent interest, led me into a career where I ended up working with a large number of people with unusual body variations. And I seem well suited for that, having lost pretty much all of my normal “shockability” along the way.

A big city ER on a weekend night would certainly qualify.

It wasn’t me, but in the summer of 1993, some of us at work were talking about concerts we’d attended, and one guy, who had lived in Austin, TX for a while, sheepishly said, “I saw GG Allin.” I replied, “All I know about GG Allin is that every time he performs, he always gets arrested. What does he do onstage, or do I want to know?”

"Oh, he shits onstage - "

Other co-workers: “You are lying!”

" - he sticks his microphone up his butt - "

OCW: “You are making this up!”

He also said, “He’s this big fat guy, and he walks out onstage wearing nothing but a jockstrap.” I found out later that he often didn’t even wear that. :eek:

When asked why he went to an event like that, he replied, “I just wanted to find out if the guy was for real.” And he did. :stuck_out_tongue:

He got another job, and the day after he quit, I read in Rolling Stone that Allin was dead. Too bad - I would have loved to have been the one to tell him, just to see his reaction.

I meant to tell you that I worked with a pair of rehab counselors, one who had lost his legs and the other, his arms. They were both well-adjusted men with great senses of humor. They were familiar with the Victorian circus sideshow act of Eli Bowen and Charles Tripp who were similar and rode a bicycle built for two.

One of my correspondents has probably the most extensive, up-to-date and well-organized sites on the web of sideshow performers and their more recent non-performing counterparts. She started this site as a teen and is also from Austin, TX.


The Jim Rose Circus is like that - by turns hilarious and horrifying (but mostly hilarious).

Yes, I ride the Central Avenue bus in Albuquerque all the time.

Oh, you meant like at the fair. Not really, but I did get a picture of the outside of the Headless Helga exhibit once. I think I put it on the Lexington KY section of Hometown USA. A few days later a tornado destroyed the fair and I commented in my diary “I wonder what Headless Helga thought about it.”

No, but that’s only because of a lack of opportunity. Closest I can get is Oddities on the Science Channel, which I adore.

I finally paid my 50 cents to enter the Freak Show tent at the Oklahoma State Fair around 1972 when I was 14. I saw:

[li]The World’s Fattest Man (probably weighed about 450 pounds)[/li][li]The Worlds Smallest Woman (she was seriously malformed)[/li][li]Popeye (yeah, he could really pop his eyes out, but not so they were hanging by the stalk or anything, which is what the poster promised)[/li][li]The Human Pin Cushion (guy banged 16 penny nails up his nose and swallowed swords)[/li][li]The Alligator Lady (she had some serious skin disease, perhaps psoriasis)[/li][/ul]
After each presentation, you were encouraged to throw change at the presenters’ feet. It felt pretty damned demeaning, even for a 14-year-old.

Needless to say, none resembled the posters outside the tent. The absolute worst was the “Deadly 60 Pound Sewer Rats from Paris!” which showed some guy dripping blood from multiple wounds while trying vainly to pull huge vicious rats from his face. The attraction actually showed:

Frickin’ gophers! (and they didn’t look particularly deadly)

I highly recommend checking out the Venice Beach Freakshow. The owner is very referential and respective and all the acts seem fairly happy and normal. It’s a great educational TV show.

Coney Island in New York still has a freak show. I went a few years ago. They had a sword swallower, a fire breather, a guy pounding nails into his nose(?), a girl who sat in some form of electric chair, and a…I’m not sure the term, but IIRC he was a midget whose hands and feet were like lobster claws.

It was a fun, weird throwback - much like Coney Island itself.

I have been to Coney Island USA on several occasions. Really cool.


My ex SIL was a fire eater at the Fair. That’s freaky enough for me.

At the Niagara Falls exhibit of Guiness Records in 1981, they had the world’s tallest woman (supposedly) just sitting on a chair in a corner of an exhibit. My wife noticed her but I didn’t even see her, but my wife didn’t really want to interact with her. Do the Ripley and Guiness “museums” count?

It’s sort of in the freak show category. As I recall she liked to interact with the visitors. The physical problems related to her height prevented her from most activities and the Ripley’s deal gave her an income and something to do.

I used to live up the street from the shop, and bought a deer skull from Evan. She’s just as nice as she seems from the show. Never spoke to Mike, for whatever reason, though I did see him in there from time to time.

As to freak shows–nope, though I’m fascinated by geek acts, and was trying to get my girlfriend at the time when I was in NY (who dances burlesque and such) to introduce me to some folks of that nature so I could learn a bit more.

I paid admission and went into one at a county fair in the late 80s or early 90s. It was at that time the most depressing thing I’d ever witnessed.

Prior to that I had read quite a lot about “freaks” and expected to see people like that, displaying some pride and showmanship. Maybe a “fat lady” (hardly novel, even then but a sideshow staple) or a “dog faced boy.” I even expected 2/3 of it to be a sham (The 2 headed chicken is a chicken with the head of a dead chicken glued to it’s neck or whatnot)

One of the acts advertised outside was “world’s smallest twins” with artwork that echoed traditional sideshow posters, showing tiny women dressed in 1910 shirtwaists and long skirts. The twins inside were women I’d estimate were in their late 40s. I don’t know how tall they were because they were both sitting down. They didn’t look up or engage anyone who’d paid a dollar for the privilege of shuffling by them. They had handwritten notes taped up around their area of the trailer discouraging questions and a tip jar asking for donations because they wanted to get a color television.

I could not get out of there fast enough. I felt super creepy. I’d built up this notion in my head of happy circus folks too grand to be stuck in the buttoned down 9-5 world, eager to entertain. That is NOT how it was.