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Circus And Museum Freaks -- Curiosities Of Pathology

Creator: n/a
Date: March 28, 1908
Publication: Scientific American
Source: Available at selected libraries


This 1908 article from The New York Medical Journal, reprinted in Scientific American, attacks the popular entertainment known as the freak show. Originating in P.T. Barnum's American Museum in the 1840s and with roots in older practices such as country fairs, the freak show peaked as a profitable practice in the late nineteenth century. People like Charles Stratton, Lavinia Warren, Charles Tripp, and William Henry Johnson were celebrities in an entertainment world that sold bodily difference to large paying audiences, often playing with hierarchies of race and culture. During the twentieth century, the freak show came to be marginalized as "low," and the practices associated with the freak show became disreputable as disability was increasing medicalized. This article represents an early step in the long decline of the freak show. Once their conditions were medicalized, the most common response to people who had been formally exhibited was pity.

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The announcement from Ansonia, Conn., of the recent death of "the only living skeleton," directs attention to the entire class of freaks, or human prodigies, as they themselves prefer to be called. They have for the medical man a more than ordinary and passing interest. Most of these humble and unfortunate individuals whose sole means of livelihood is the exhibition of their physical infirmities to a gaping and unsympathetic crowd, are pathological rarities worthy of more serious study than they usually receive. Their mortality rate is high, and many of those recently most famous are already dead or have been retired from public view by chronic invalidism. A few days ago there died in Chicago Maggie Minott, one of the most extraordinary of the nanosomes, or true dwarfs. She was twenty-seven inches high and weighed but twenty-five pounds. Most of these pygmies are types of infantilism. An exception was the comparatively robust and virile "Tom Thumb," who had a vigorous and manly beard. Bass, the "ossified man," also died several years ago. He was a man of unusual intelligence, and his condition was caused by an extreme degree of polyarthritis deformans. He was injured by a careless museum attendant, who let him fall as he was being removed from a carriage, and he never fully recovered. The elastic skin man a few years ago contracted tuberculous disease of the lungs from exposure of his scantily clad body on the drafty stage of dime museums. His was a case of generalized dermatolysis, and he had an amusing trick of drawing the skin of his forehead down over his face like a veil. Closely allied to him was the Russian dog-faced man, with features marvellously resembling those of a Scotch terrier. He and the bearded lady, who was wont to convince the most sceptical by a liberal but chaste display of the matronly charms of her rounded and well-developed figure, were unusual examples of hypertrichosis. The blonde loveliness of the Circassian beauty, who delighted our unsophisticated younger days, was, of course, a case of albinoism, and the "wild men of Borneo" and Barnum's "what is it" we now recognize, in the maturer years of professional experience, as cases of microcephalous idiocy, gathered for the most part from the negro population of our southern plantations.


Most examples of gigantism are cases of acromegaly -- as was notably Chang, the Chinese giant, who had the gentle, emotional temperament and, in his last days, the excessive muscular debility so characteristic of this disease. The various "human pin cushions" who have been on exhibition would doubtless present for the neurologist curious areas of anaesthesia and analgesia, which he would properly refer to definite lesions in the spinal cord. Many students of the late Dr. E. C. Seguin's will remember the "blue man" whom he often showed in his clinic at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He owed his peculiar cerulean gray hue, approachlng the color of a maltese cat, to the argyria of his tissues produced by the prolonged administration of silver nirate -- a melancholy victim of credulity as to the efficacy of this drug in locomotor ataxia.


In parts of southern Europe there was formerly plied a nefarious trade in maiming and mutilating young children for the purpose of producing distressing deformities to excite pity and thus induce alms. An instance of such mutilation is made romantic use of by Victor Hugo in his story L'Homme qui rit. In most civilized countries there are now enacted laws forbidding the public exhibition of monsters and revolting deformities. A more refined and a more humane popular taste now frowns upon such exhibitions, and they are less profitable to their promoters. The profession of museum freak is passing. The genuine lusus naturae is, however, always a valuable subject of study for the scientific physician, which may add to our knowledge of development of normal types and I may possibly illuminate many difficult and obscure problems in pathology. --New York Medical Journal.