I recently wrote an article about circus sidehow freaks for Z Tattoo Magazine out of Denmark. Since most of you probably don’t speak Danish I’ve posted the article in English for you here…
Myrtle Corbin sits in a chair to have her photograph taken. It’s the early 1880’s so she has to sit very still for about a minute or so, otherwise the exposure will blur and the photograph will be useless. Behind the camera is Charles Eisenmann, a German born photographer now working out of the Bowery in New York City.
It turns out to be a pretty normal portrait for the time period. In fact the only thing that stands out is the fact that the girl in the picture has a second set of legs dangling in between her other two giving her a second body from the waist down.
When Myrtle was just a month old her father would charge curious neighbors a dime to take a peek at his rather unusual daughter. He began placing newspaper ads which attracted more paying customers. This little four legged girl was providing for her entire family. Eventually all of the publicity reached PT Barnum who immediately employed Myrtle as one of his famous freaks.
At the time It wasn’t uncommon for people with strange disabilities to exhibit themselves for money. Circuses and sideshows were the entertainment of the day and the people who exhibited were often rewarded handsomely for it. During her heyday Myrtle earned as much as $450 a week, which back in the late 1800’s was a sizeable amount of money.
Betty Lou Williams who was born in 1932 with a parasitic twin growing from the left side of her body is said to be the highest paid human oddity of all time. It’s believed that she made as much as $1000 per week and was able to buy her parents a farmhouse and put her eleven siblings through college.
Stefan Bibrowski (aka Lionel the Lion Faced Man) was born in 1890 covered in hair from head to toe. In fact the only part of Stefan that wasn’t covered in hair were the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. He was an extremely intelligent man who was an accomplished watercolor painter and spoke five different languages. He had wanted to be a dentist but figured he’d earn more as a freak.
As in the case of Bibrowski some of these people had incredible talents despite their handicaps. Prince Randian; “The Human Torso” who was born without arms or legs was able to not only roll his own cigarette, but he was also able to strike a match and light it all by himself. “The Living Venus Demilo“; Frances O’Connor who was born without arms personally signed all of the pitchcards that she sold with a pen placed between her toes. She was also able to aim a rifle and pull the trigger. Others like Millie-Christine a pair of siamese twins born into slavery in 1851 were said to put on quite an amazing show. They danced the waltz and the polka and were able to play the piano and guitar. They also sang beautifully, which is why they were referred to as The Two Headed Nightingale.
Of course you didn’t have to be born with a genetic condition or deformity to become a circus freak. Some people had incredible talents. There were working acts like the sword swallowers, the geeks, and blockheads. Art Hubell “The Human Bellows” would put an air pump down his esophagus and fill his stomach with air causing it to expand. If being an anatomical wonder wasn’t your thing there was always body modification.
Tattooed people were an integral part of sideshows at the time. Many tattooed exhibitors from Norah Hildebrandt to Frank and Annie Howard claimed to have been captured by savages and forcibly tattooed. Captain Costentenus had tattoos on just about every inch of his body. The only parts left blank were his nose, ears, and the soles of his feet. He had over 388 designs done in cinnabar and indigo. The story told to audiences was that Costentenus was a Greek Prince captured on a military expedition by the Khan of Kashgar . He was given the choice of death by wasp stings, tiger mauling, flogging, impalement, burning or tattooing. Yet they said if he survived the tattooing he’d be set free.
Many times when the freaks were presented on stage the audience would be given a story. Sometimes it was true, but more often than not it was sensationalized fiction used to sell more tickets. JoJo the Russian Dog Faced Boy was said to have been captured in the woods of Kostroma Russia where his father “fought with all the fury of an enraged mastiff but in the end the boy was captured only after a desperate conflict” In reality his father had the same condition and exhibited alongside his son but was often drunk and miserable and eventually died when JoJo was only sixteen.
The Aztec Children were billed as the last remnants of an ancient civilization. The brother and sister were said to have been found squatting on an alter being worshipped. In truth the pair were microcephalics which meant that they had abnormally small and pointed heads. This condition usually resulted in retardation.
When looking at the facts it’s hard to tell what was true and what was fake. I suppose it goes along with the territory. People who visited these sideshows were paying to be shocked and amazed, and that’s what they got. Sometimes though the truth was even stranger than the fiction as in the case of Victorian Ape Lady Julia Pastrana. She was one of the greatest living curiosities of her time and made a fortune for it. She eventually fell in love with her manager Theodore Lent who seemed to love Julia’s money more than her. In 1860 Pastrana gave birth to a baby boy who shared his mother’s ape-like visage, but unfortunately died a day and a half later. Julia followed five days after.
One would think that surely death would be the end to one’s sideshow career, but that wasn’t the case for Julia. Lent had the bodies of his wife and son stuffed and then sent them back on tour. The bodies were passed around from sideshow to sideshow and exhibited for over a hundred years. As of 1990 Pastrana was kept in storage at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo. Not until 2013 was her body returned and buried in her native Mexico. Julia finally found peace.
There’s also Chang and Eng Bunker who are probably the world’s most renowned circus freaks of all time. It is because of them why today conjoined twins are referred to as siamese twins. They were connected by a four inch ligament at the chest. It’s said that Eng had a good personality where as Chang was more cranky. They often fought, not just verbally but physically. They married a pair of sisters and had twenty two children between the two of them. In 1870 Chang suffered a stroke which rendered his right leg useless. Eng was thus forced to drag his brother along for another four years when in 1874 Chang passed away. Eng lay next to his deceased brother for four hours until he too died.
Over the years scientific breakthroughs and advances in medicine along with political correctness have all but ended freakshows. They’re still out there but they remain a mere shadow of what once was. The freaks have been all but replaced by working acts.
I think back to Myrtle Corbin sitting for what will turn out to be one of the most iconic photographs of the genre. A simple portrait of a four legged girl. Despite her deformity Myrtle would go on to lead a normal life. She fell in love and got married to a doctor. But like most stories from the sideshow there was a small and unusual twist. Together with her husband she had five children, three from one body and two from the other.