Victorian freak shows

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Everyone's a freak. No two bodies are the same; we all have unpleasant, wonderful, shocking and extraordinary features; we are all unique. But for centuries the word 'freak' has been used cruelly to describe people born with 'abnormal' features, or those able perform extraordinary physical acts by contorting or misshaping their bodies.

 

Exhibitions of live human curiosities had appeared in travelling fairs, circuses and taverns in England since the 1600s. These included so-called giants, dwarves, fat people, the very thin, conjoined twins and even people from exotic climes. Freak shows were a particularly popular form of entertainment during the Victorian period, when people from all classes flocked to gawp at these unusual examples of human life.

 

Novelty acts relied a great deal on shock, therefore performers were not revealed in the flesh to audiences until money had changed hands. Titillating publicity was crucial, as the people described in these adverts often bore little resemblance to what lay behind the curtain or turnstile. Exaggerated and stylised illustrations lent age to dwarf acts, stature to giants, and plausibility to mermaids and bear boys. The advertisers of these shows aroused the curiosity of the audience by overplaying, often entirely inventing, 'true life' stories. The public thirst for stories of adventure, struggle and hardship was quenched by the story of how each 'anomaly' came to be. The new and different had strong appeal; and difference was often judged according to popular fantasies of racial and imperial hierarchies, adventurous exploration, and scientific discovery. A boy from Central America or the South Pacific would be considered as enthralling a spectacle as a 'human cannonball' or 'frogman'.

Explore more in the Freak show gallery